Gordon Adams

Rebalancing the World Stage

Why America can no longer be both an actor and director.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

There’s a well-known movement exercise for actors in the theater designed to allow actors to "feel" the balance among the players on the stage. Imagine a platform poised and level on top of a single pointed pyramid. At a signal from the director, each actor on stage moves on his or her own to a new position and it is the duty of each to react to the movement of the others by moving in such a way that the platform remains level, overall. The surface "rebalances" in the mind of each actor as they move in response to the movements of the others. None of them know what the others will do, so they must adjust as the movement takes place. A new ensemble emerges.

This exercise is a compelling metaphor for where we are on the world stage today. At one time, the United States was the heaviest actor on the platform and, as a result saw itself as both actor and director. Today, the other actors are moving, some of them (China, India, Brazil) have gained heft, and it behooves the United States to recognize that movement and adjust accordingly. It is no longer a question of the United States playing both the director and the heftiest actor,  shaping the world, and forcing all the others to move — a fantasy that too many in Congress and in the administration still hold dear. It is a question of being on the stage, dealing with new patterns, new weight on the stage —  finding a new balance which neither Washington, nor anyone else, can yet define.

The signs of this rebalancing are accumulating rapidly. Some of them, in fact, are a direct response to U.S. efforts to play director, to shape the system, to control the movement. The Iraqis rejected a long-term U.S. military presence in their country, one whose stability was undermined by the American invasion. The Afghans are not certain they want us around, whatever happens after we leave. Edward Snowden has peeled back another layer concealing U.S. efforts to shape and control the rebalancing surface and it has led to another set of movements. The issue is not about Snowden, safely hidden in his Russian redoubt. It is about what his documents reveal — a global U.S. surveillance operation that exceeds anyone’s knowledge or expectations. Acting as would-be directors, American probes reach directly into the communications of the people and state leaders of France, Brazil, Germany, and Mexico.

The national leaders of each of these countries have reacted with anger. What is it, they ask, that makes the United States think it can order the actors about on the platform? And they have begun to push back, rather than bury the disagreement. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled a planned state visit to Washington. After he was publicly scolded, Obama was forced to call President Francois Hollande to apologize and reassure him that policies will be adjusted, following Le Monde‘s revelations on the range of U.S. espionage in France. Now Germany has joined in,  with angry reactions from Chancellor Angela Merkel about U.S. intrusion on her cell phone. Likewise, the Mexican Foreign Ministry has condemned reports that the United States has been up to the same. Each is calling into question the existing balance, as directed by the United States, and proposing a renegotiation of the standing rules. They are surely not alone; there is more to come.

These reactions might be dismissed as cynical (like Captain Renault in Casablanca, who was "shocked, shocked" to find there was gambling going on in a gaming room). Indeed, every nation spies. But none seem to do it with  sense of righteousness of the United States, and most likely none with the funding, technology, and reach of the NSA octopus, with its $15 billion annual budget (larger than the defense budgets of all but 16 countries in the world).

I can remember, working in the White House in the 1990s when the National Security Council argued that it would dominate the global encryption market through a device called the Clipper Chip. Everyone would buy it; everyone would use it, and it would allow NSA a back door into everyone’s communications. The Clipper Chip died an ignominious death, and deservedly so. But it was an early indication of the ambition of the U.S. intelligence community to intrude globally and, by doing so, shape the world’s security system.

The strong reactions from friends and allies about U.S. surveillance, however, are not the only indication that the actors are moving on the global platform. There are other signs that Washington is losing its capacity to keep the stage level by directing the movements of the players. The United States has been able to do little to affect events in Syria. Regime change in Libya has produced chaos, not democracy. The Egyptian semi-autocrat, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, basically ignores U.S. efforts to control Egyptian events through the suspension of some of its military assistance. Meanwhile, the Saudis pull away from the United States, unhappy about America’s failure to bomb Syria and renewed conversations between the United States and Iran. Then, America’s NATO ally, Turkey, decides it will buy its new air defense system from (shock, gasp!) China. And how about this for a kicker: Vladimir Putin, of all people, is the one who pulls the U.S. chestnuts out of the fire over Syrian chemical weapons.

Make no mistake: the other players are moving about the world stage without U.S. direction. A rebalancing of the international system is underway — independent of any U.S. efforts to shape it, unresponsive to U.S. direction, and often in reaction to some of those very efforts.

The most disconcerting part of this accelerating movement on the world stage is that we cannot predict at this point where or how the new balance will emerge. What we do know is this: for all the American ambition to "police the global commons," we can no longer assume that a global U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence net will be able to direct the action. It is no longer possible to play both director and be the biggest weight on stage, assuming the others will scramble as America, and America alone, moves.

It is critically important to recognize that this rebalancing cannot be corrected by vocal assertions of American power. Some politicians, especially the traditional national security Republicans, are leaping in to say the changes reflect White House weakness and ineptitude. They call for even more demonstrations of power, more "directing" to right the balance, more assertion of a weight America no longer has. Sen. John McCain, for example, says "the only American policy I can think of that President Obama is practicing, is one, he’s not Bush, and second, the United States is withdrawing. And when you do that and say that, things get a lot worse and they continue to get worse. And without that strong policy, we are in trouble." He and Sen. Lindsey Graham attack the Syria agreement as an "act of provocative weakness." Others, like Sen. Rand Paul, essentially ask America to leave the stage, the balance no longer being important to America.

The movements on the global stage are not the result of policy failures in Washington that can be corrected by more directing or more foot-stamping on the platform. And the activity on stage will not mean the United States simply withdraws.  In fact, the assertion of American power — orders from offstage — have accelerated the movements we see happening today. George W. Bush and his neo-conservatives lashed out in Iraq, only to move the other actors away from the United States and further limit U.S. capacity to shape that region.

The reality is other nations are becoming more important, asserting their right to move without U.S. action, and moving away from American direction. It is natural for those who think they have held the balance for decades to lash out when the other players start to move on their own. In this case, though, since the United States is also still on stage, this reaction will only accelerate the rate of change.

The bottom line is the global platform is rebalancing in ways that are not predictable not under U.S. control. The platform is no longer level nor stable. And today, the United States is increasingly just another actor on the playing surface, not the director of the show. 

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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