Sorry, Mitt: It Won’t Be an American Century

American politicians should stop pretending the United States runs the world.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

"This century must be an American century," Mitt Romney insisted in a recent speech on foreign policy. "In an American century," the former Massachusetts governor continued, "America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world." Adhering to his party’s traditional playbook, the likely Republican nominee went on to reaffirm that the United States is "an exceptional country with a unique destiny."

In an election season, such talk rolls easily off the tongue. But Romney’s hackneyed rhetoric is woefully out of step — both with an American electorate hungry for a less costly brand of foreign policy and with a world in the midst of tectonic change. A sharp economic downturn and expensive, inconclusive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left Americans ready for a focus on the home front. Abroad, the charge for the next U.S. president can hardly be to stick his head in the sand and deny that the global distribution of power is fast changing. On the contrary, it is to react soberly and steadily to the implications of such change and ensure that the United States remains secure and prosperous even as economic and military strength spreads to new quarters.

President Barack Obama is on the correct path. Leaving Iraq and overseeing a paced withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring U.S. commitments back into line with U.S. interests. Special operations and drone strikes have proved far more effective in fighting al Qaeda than has occupying countries in the Middle East and South Asia, and an offshore posture in the Persian Gulf is the best way to deal with Iran. Amid China’s rise and the economic dynamism building in its neighborhood, Obama is right to downsize the U.S. presence in Europe and orchestrate a strategic "pivot" to East Asia. The move constitutes a necessary hedge against Chinese ambition and ensures that American workers will benefit from expanding markets in the Pacific Rim. These policies will enable the United States to simultaneously adjust to a shifting global landscape, husband its resources, and grow its economy — facilitating the president’s pledge to focus on "nation-building here at home."

Romney has already denigrated Obama’s pragmatism, charging that "our president thinks America is in decline." Obama shot back in his State of the Union address on Jan. 24 that "anyone who tells you that America is in decline … doesn’t know what they’re talking about." Obama decidedly has the upper hand in this back-and-forth. He recognizes that, the country’s strengths notwithstanding, U.S. strategy must adjust to a world in which power will be more broadly distributed. And his focus on rebuilding the American economy speaks directly to an electorate yearning for more equity and prosperity at home.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of Americans want the United States to "mind its own business," and 76 percent think the country should "concentrate more on our own national problems" than on foreign challenges. These are high numbers by historical standards — a clear indication that the electorate is hurting economically and wary of strategic overreach. Romney should take note. His chest-thumping talk of a new American century still plays well in some quarters. But Obama’s commitment to nation-building at home will play even better.

Even if Romney’s rhetoric were to get more domestic traction, it would still bear no resemblance to the new global landscape that is fast emerging. The United States is indeed an exceptional nation — in its prized geographic location, commitment to freedom and democracy, and brand of international leadership. But the country’s exceptionalism should not be used as an excuse to hide from global realities.

China’s GDP will catch up with America’s over the course of the next decade. The World Bank predicts that the dollar, euro, and China’s renminbi will become co-equals in a "multi-currency" monetary system by 2025. Goldman Sachs expects the collective GDP of the top four developing countries — Brazil, China, India, and Russia — to match that of the G-7 countries by 2032. The United States will no doubt exit the current slump and bounce back economically in the years ahead. Nonetheless, a more level global playing field is inevitable.

To be sure, America’s military superiority will remain second to none for decades to come. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made amply clear, though, military primacy hardly ensures effective influence. And with the U.S. defense budget poised to shrink in the service of restoring the country’s fiscal health, the United States will have to pick its fights carefully. Shrewd and judicious statecraft will be at least as important as raw power in ensuring the country’s security.

To acknowledge the need for the United States to adjust to prospective shifts in the global distribution of power is not, as Duke University professor Bruce Jentleson recently pointed out in Democracy, to be a declinist or a pessimist. It is to be a realist. And safely guiding the United States through this coming transition requires seeing the world as it is rather than retreating toward the illusory comfort of denial.

Adjusting to the rise of the rest requires, for starters, making more room at the table for newcomers. That process is already well under way. The G-20 has supplanted the G-8, widening the circle for global consultations. In the aftermath of reforms adopted in 2010, developing countries now have enhanced weight at the World Bank and IMF. The enlargement of the U.N. Security Council, though currently bogged down in wrangling, is also in the offing.

But making international institutions more representative is the easy part. More challenging will be managing the ideological diversity that will accompany the coming realignment in global power. Precisely because the United States is an exceptional nation, its version of liberal democracy may well prove to be the exception, not the rule.

In China, Russia, and the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, state-led brands of capitalism are holding their own — and may well do so for the foreseeable future. The Arab Spring could finally bring democratic rule to at least some countries in the Middle East, but it is also breeding political Islam; democratization should not be mistaken for Westernization. Even emerging powers that are already democracies, such as India, Brazil, and Turkey, are charting their own paths. They regularly break with the United States and Europe on trade, Middle East diplomacy, military intervention, the environment, and other issues, preferring to side with other ascending states, whether democratic or not. Romney’s paeans to American power are no excuse for his silence on how he plans to manage these complexities.

Promoting international stability will grow more demanding as rising powers bring to the table their differing conceptions of order and governance. The United States has a key role to play in managing such diversity and channeling it toward cooperative ends. Overheated proclamations of American preeminence, however, will do more harm than good. If a new, consensual international order is to emerge, rising powers must be treated as stakeholders in that order, not merely as objects of American power.

Shepherding the transition to this more pluralistic world is arguably the defining challenge facing U.S. statecraft in the years ahead. Romney appears ready to pave over this challenge by denying that such change is afoot and attempting to portray Obama’s policies as "an eloquently justified surrender of world leadership."

Obama should welcome this debate and refuse to let his opponents hide behind the veil of American exceptionalism. Democrats no longer need to feel vulnerable on national security; Obama has demonstrated smarts and strength on many issues, including the degradation of al Qaeda, the pivot to Asia, and the isolation of Iran. He understands that agile, firm diplomacy backed by American power will do much more for the United States than congratulatory talk of American primacy.

A smarter, more selective, and less costly U.S. role in the world would not only help the United States get its own house in order, but also give rising powers the wider berth they seek. And good policy would also be good politics; Americans are keen to share with others the burdens and responsibilities of international engagement. The world desperately needs a brand of U.S. leadership that focuses not on ruling the roost, but on guiding a more diverse and unwieldy globe to consensus and cooperation.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017.

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