America’s Anxiety of Influence
The power of the United States is declining—and that's nothing to worry about.
Earlier this week, David Ignatius at the Washington Post published an interesting column ruing the decline of U.S. “influence” in the Middle East. His central theme is that U.S. “disengagement” from the region is allowing local actors to chart their own courses, and that many of them are now making bad decisions. In his view, the prospects for positive change in the region are receding and that we will all be worse off as a result.
It’s a thoughtful column and worth reading. It’s also a revealing one, because it rests on one of those unspoken assumptions that are articles of faith in the U.S. foreign-policy community. Specifically, it suggests that U.S. influence is always a good thing and that its diminution (whether by accident or by design) is something to mourn. But if you’ve been paying attention to the results of U.S. policy over the past quarter-century—especially in the Middle East but also in some other places—that position may not be the hill you want to die defending.
Look, it’s easy to understand why American foreign-policy elites like having lots of “influence.” To some degree it’s unavoidable. The United States is still the 800-pound gorilla in the international system and other global actors will inevitably pay close attention to whatever Uncle Sam is doing. For foreign-policy practitioners, having lots of influence and being fully engaged is also a heady experience; it means foreign governments will take your calls, treat you with deference and respect when you visit, and sometimes they follow your advice (or at least pretend to). If you’re in the foreign-policy business, it’s a helluva a lot more gratifying to represent the United States than to be out there pitching on behalf of a small or weak country whose voice does not carry.
But “influence” (a notoriously nebulous term) is merely a means to some end; it is not an end itself. Having lots of influence is not necessarily a good thing if you have no idea what to do with it, or if what you choose to do is wrong-headed, or if you end up shouldering burdens and bearing responsibility for mishaps and miscues that you lacked the wisdom or foresight to avoid.
Which brings me, naturally, to the Middle East, where American influence is now supposedly waning. What’s the track record of U.S. influence over the recent past?
One could argue that U.S. influence was a net positive for much of the Cold War. The U.S. role in the Middle East was fairly limited: Washington backed a number of allies for some combination of economic, strategic, and domestic political reasons, and it worked hard to limit the Soviet role in the region and to make sure that oil and gas kept flowing to markets around the world. And until the first Gulf War in 1991, Washington did all this without having to send its own ground or air forces to the region for any length of time and without having to fight any costly wars. Instead, the United States relied on diplomacy, intelligence cooperation, and foreign assistance and generally acted like an “offshore balancer,” relying on local allies and keeping its own forces over the horizon. It even switched sides once or twice when strategic circumstances dictated. U.S. policy wasn’t a perfect success, perhaps, but on the whole this approach worked pretty well.
But U.S. influence in the region—though considerable—had been almost entirely negative ever since. For starters, despite having enormous potential leverage at their disposal, successive Democratic and Republican administrations mishandled the Oslo peace process, fueling extremism and helping make the two-state solution that the United States favored a dead letter by 2018. Unconditional U.S. support for its various Middle East clients also helped inspire groups like al Qaeda, and the policy of “dual containment” adopted by the Clinton administration in 1993 helped turn Osama bin Laden’s attention away from his local enemies (i.e., the House of Saud) and toward the “far enemy,” with the results we all saw on Sept. 11, 2001.
After 9/11, the Bush administration decided the United States needed more influence in the region, and it tried to kick-start a democratic transition by toppling Saddam Hussein and establishing a pro-American democracy in Iraq. That misguided exercise of “influence” led to heightened Iranian influence and the rise of the Islamic State, squandered several trillion dollars and thousands of lives, distracted two successive administrations, and struck a severe blow to U.S. prestige. Remarkably, the Obama administration repeated this error on a smaller scale in Libya, helping topple Muammar al-Qaddafi even though it had no idea what would come after him.
The “global war on terror” dragged the United States into Somalia and Yemen too, with baleful effects in both places, and the United States is now using its remaining “influence” to support a brutal Saudi military campaign in Yemen, thereby bearing indirect responsibility for the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis. And let’s not forget how U.S. “influence” first pressed Egypt to democratize after President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power, and then tacitly embraced the military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi, and now turns a blind eye to the repression and corruption that continues to afflict Egypt.
I could go on, but the point should be clear. The United States had plenty of influence during this period, but it’s hard to argue that it exercised that influence with much wisdom or success. Both Democrats and Republicans bear responsibility for these repeated debacles; their common failures are one of the few examples of bipartisanship left in our polarized polity.
To be clear: I understand why our foreign-policy elites worry (constantly!) about declining U.S. influence, and I can even see how that might be a bad thing in some circumstances. But we ought to recognize that “influence” is insufficient by itself and in some cases is counterproductive. Excessive U.S. influence leaves us performing missions we don’t know how to do (such as creating workable political institutions in radically different societies), allows local actors to blame us for their own failings, fuels conspiracy theories at home and abroad, and distracts U.S. officials from other problems that they might actually know how to solve. In some regions—and the Middle East would be high on my list—less U.S. influence might be more. Given all the success we’ve had trying to manage that region, maybe we’d be better off letting somebody else try. They could hardly do worse.
Moving in that direction will require a major change in the mindset of the U.S. foreign-policy elite. For too long, its members believed the United States was in fact the “indispensable nation,” and that the solution to all (or at least most) global problems had to be made in Washington. Students of management are often taught that effective leadership also requires learning how to delegate responsibility, because no single person has the power, knowledge, and wisdom to do everything. What is true for individual leaders is true for leading nations: learning how to offload problems onto others is in fact a consummate strategic skill. As long as Americans view influence as an inherent end, and as a resource to be hoarded like gold, we’re going to find ourselves overcommitted and be much less effective than we could be. As President Harry Truman supposedly said, “it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets credit.”
Henceforth, Americans should worry rather less about the level of influence their country enjoys—and, relax, it will continue to dwarf that of most other countries—and worry a lot more about how that influence is being used. And guess what? If U.S. officials did a better job of selecting the right goals and actually achieving them, they would quickly find their influence growing; then, the number of problems they would then have deal with might shrink, instead of growing like kudzu or crabgrass in the warm summer sun.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.