Argument

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Democrats and Republicans Agree That America Is Always Right

Washington can no longer afford its self-defeating “with us or against us” attitude.

By , the author of Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power.
The U.S Capitol Building is prepared for the inaugural ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden as American flags are placed in the ground on the National Mall on January 18, 2021 in Washington.
The U.S Capitol Building is prepared for the inaugural ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden as American flags are placed in the ground on the National Mall on January 18, 2021 in Washington.
The U.S Capitol Building is prepared for the inaugural ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden as American flags are placed in the ground on the National Mall on January 18, 2021 in Washington. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.S. midterm elections demonstrated that domestically, Americans are sharply divided, with the balance of power nationally almost exactly split between Democrats and Republicans and each believing that the other party is too extreme and a threat to democracy. Yet when it comes to foreign policy, Americans and their political parties are much more aligned. In theory, that should be a good thing. In reality, it is not.

That’s because alignment is based on a continued fantasy of American preeminence globally that may have been true in the middle of the 20th century but has long since passed its expiration date. This la-la-land syndrome has sharp consequences. In not grasping the changing balance of power globally, U.S. foreign policy undermines what remains of U.S. power, not just internationally but domestically.

Nowhere is that fantasy more evident than in how the Biden administration and leading Democrats reacted to the decision of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cutting his country’s oil output. In response to the Saudi-OPEC+ move to reduce production by as much as 2 million barrels a day, senior congressional Democrats exploded with indignation. Rightly seeing the move as both a deliberate rebuff of the United States and a means to bolster the oil dependent regime of Russian President Vladmir Putin (who will benefit from continued elevated oil prices), Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said on CNN: “Let’s be very candid about this. … It’s Putin and Saudi Arabia against the United States.” U.S. President Joe Biden vowed that his administration would undertake a thorough review of the entire U.S.-Saudi security and economic relationship, and he stated that in light of the crown prince’s actions, “there’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done.”

The U.S. midterm elections demonstrated that domestically, Americans are sharply divided, with the balance of power nationally almost exactly split between Democrats and Republicans and each believing that the other party is too extreme and a threat to democracy. Yet when it comes to foreign policy, Americans and their political parties are much more aligned. In theory, that should be a good thing. In reality, it is not.

That’s because alignment is based on a continued fantasy of American preeminence globally that may have been true in the middle of the 20th century but has long since passed its expiration date. This la-la-land syndrome has sharp consequences. In not grasping the changing balance of power globally, U.S. foreign policy undermines what remains of U.S. power, not just internationally but domestically.

Nowhere is that fantasy more evident than in how the Biden administration and leading Democrats reacted to the decision of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cutting his country’s oil output. In response to the Saudi-OPEC+ move to reduce production by as much as 2 million barrels a day, senior congressional Democrats exploded with indignation. Rightly seeing the move as both a deliberate rebuff of the United States and a means to bolster the oil dependent regime of Russian President Vladmir Putin (who will benefit from continued elevated oil prices), Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said on CNN: “Let’s be very candid about this. … It’s Putin and Saudi Arabia against the United States.” U.S. President Joe Biden vowed that his administration would undertake a thorough review of the entire U.S.-Saudi security and economic relationship, and he stated that in light of the crown prince’s actions, “there’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done.”

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey went even further rhetorically, saying: “I also must speak out against the government of Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to help underwrite Putin’s war through the OPEC+ cartel. There simply is no room to play both sides of this conflict. Either you support the rest of the free world in trying to stop a war criminal from violently wiping off an entire country off of the map or you support him. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia chose the latter in a terrible decision driven by economic self-interest. The United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia.”

The language of unilateral high dudgeon speaks to a worldview that puts the United States at the center of whatever is good, just, stable, and orderly and that any who depart from the wishes of the United States are opposed to whatever is good, just, stable, and orderly. Last month, it was Democrats who seized the rhetorical mantle, but Republicans are just as prone. In April 2020, again challenging Mohammed bin Salman, a group of Republican congressional representatives sent a letter threatening punishment if Saudi Arabia did not cut production in the face of crashing oil prices sparked by COVID-19 shutdowns. “Failure to address this energy crisis will jeopardize the joint efforts between our nations to collaborate economically and militarily,” the letter said. “The U.S. military presence in the Middle East region has maintained the stability that provides for the economic prosperity and ensures the security of our two nations.” In that reading, the only thing standing in the way of war and chaos in the region was U.S. military and economic guarantees, a lens that conveniently overlooked the chaos unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2009 and the complete irrelevance of the United States to the chaos unleashed by the Syrian or Yemeni civil wars.

Of course, the most glaring example of this fun house view of American power was articulated by then-U.S. President George W. Bush on Sept. 20, 2001, addressing a joint session of Congress and the nation to set the course for America’s response to the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Vowing an aggressive retaliation, Bush declared to the world, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Gray zones be gone.

All of this is just words, but these words reflect a worldview that is then translated into policy. It is a worldview shared by an American foreign-policy cohort that is less divided between Democrats and Republicans and animated by a long-standing belief in the indispensability of the United States to secure global peace and prosperity, as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright so clearly articulated. It is a view articulated by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and invoked by many others—down to Mike Pompeo, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s secretary of state—that the United States is “the last stand [of freedom] on Earth” and that if freedom falters in the United States, it will be lost globally. It is a view that the United States, having been a global bulwark in the decades after World War II and well into the late 20th century, will always be the bulwark.

You might ask what’s wrong with a bit of self-aggrandizement from a country that still has the world’s largest economy and most potent military? What’s wrong is that it leads to a misreading of the nature of power heading into the heart of the 21st century. A large military cannot easily be used, though it can repel threats. When it is used, as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has led to a weakening of American power because its force was not sufficient to achieve its political ends in those countries and regions. American military equipment has been vital to the defense of Ukraine but so too have far less costly drones supplied by Turkey—and by drones on the other side supplied by Iran. The U.S. military advantage is huge, but when it comes to drones, you don’t have to be huge to make a huge difference.

A worse problem is the mismeasure of U.S. economic and soft power. The former remains massive but also relatively less than at any point since the end of World War II. That is a product not of American failure per se but of the resounding rise of the rest of the non-Western world and the emergence of billions of people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa into—for lack of a better word—the middle class. More evenly distributed global prosperity and a narrowing wealth gap among nations (as former physician Hans Rosling so brilliantly pointed out) has been accompanied by less conflict, longer lives, and caloric abundance. It is undoubtedly a good thing, but it also means that the relative economic power of the United States has decreased.

That has also been accompanied by a decrease in American soft power, of what Harvard professor and longtime security official Joseph Nye described as the American capacity to shape other societies by example. Soft power is difficult to measure, but as other parts of the world have succeeded with their own unique formulas—India and China especially (whether one likes those formulas or not)—the lure of the United States has decreased. That has only been accelerated by an America that is less welcoming to immigrants, workers, and students from abroad, which had been a quiet but potent part of American soft power and global influence.

Again, relative power decline is not a negative for the United States nor the world, but the failure to recognize that and act as if it is still in the 20th century is a negative for U.S. power. One of the crucial tools of coercion that remains available to the United States is that the dollar is the global reserve currency. That allows American governments to threaten countries with eviction from the dollar system or U.S. banks if they do not cooperate with American foreign-policy aims, hence giving teeth to the “you are with us or against us” idea. But coercion backed by relative power declines is leading multiple countries to seek to move away not just from the dollar regime but from continued economic entwinement with the United States. And with multiple alternative centers of affluence globally, that is now more easily done and with less pain than would have been the case when George W. Bush demanded allegiance in the war on terrorism.

There will be no sudden collapse here, but the stance of Americans in the face of a changing world is having the effect of reducing influence and spurring countries to seek alternate relationships and economic systems that do not flow through Washington. Like a death by a thousand cuts, harm will accrete slowly but inexorably until one day, in the face of American saber-rattling, economic or military, other countries will just shrug and ignore it.

Given the vast economic resources that the United States still commands and soft-power reserves that have been depleted but not wholly drained, one can still imagine a more sober recognition of the nature of power in the world today and a more realistic approach to the world’s problems. That wouldn’t change the inexorable move to a world of many centers and dispersed power, nor should it, but it would allow the United States to pursue its interests more effectively and to continue to be a constructive and stabilizing force. One can imagine that, but just now, it requires more imagination in the face of not much evidence. There’s time to shift course, but that time is running short.

Zachary Karabell is the author of Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power. He is the founder of the Progress Network at New America and president of River Twice Research and River Twice Capital.

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