Friday, January 23, 2009

Tell the US, 'No We Can't'

Article from: The Australian
WE all hope Barack Obama can rebuild the US's place in the world. But will that hope be fulfilled? To answer that, we need to do more than admire the new President. We must go back and look at what's gone wrong during the past eight years, because then can we say whether Obama has what it takes to overcome them.

For me, alas, the answer is no. The challenges to America's global position are not those of mere mismanagement. They arise from a profound mismatch between America's global objectives on the one hand and its power on the other, now and increasingly in the future.

To reconcile that mismatch, Obama needs to define new, more modest and more realistic and achievable objectives for his foreign policy.

This is not the way most Americans, including the new President, see the problem. Instead they blame the previous president. That's understandable enough. George W. Bush used American power so badly it seems natural to blame the setbacks of the past eight years on his errors. But America's problems are much bigger than Bush. His administration was arrogant, cynical, negligent, brutal and incompetent. But even if it had been wise and skilful, the aims Bush set for US policy were simply beyond the scope of US power to deliver, no matter how prudently and persuasively it was applied.

Consider Bush's key objectives: he committed the US to transforming Iraq, to rebuilding Afghanistan, to containing Russia, to disarming North Korea and Iran, and to sustaining US primacy in Asia in the face of China's rise.

He has failed in all of them, but would anyone else have done better? Bush's incompetence created America's problems in Iraq, but none of these other challenges are his fault. And no one - certainly not the new President - has any persuasive ideas about what new things the US can do to fix them that differ much from Bush's plans, or have any better prospects for success.

So far as we can judge thus far, including from this week's inaugural speech, Obama's aims are just as ambitious as Bush's. Like Bush, Obama believes the US can defeat the Taliban and transform Afghanistan. Like Bush, he believes the US can stop Iran building nuclear weapons. Like Bush, he believes the US can pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Like Bush, he believes Russia can be denied a sphere of influence in its "near abroad".

Even on Iraq, Obama differs from Bush on matters of method, not purpose: like Bush, Obama believes the US can create in Iraq a stable, well-governed and broadly pro-Western counterbalance to Iranian power in the Persian Gulf.

Most importantly, like Bush, Obama believes the US can remain the dominant power in Asia, just as it has been for the past few decades, as China's economic and hence strategic weight grows to rival its own.

Of course Obama will bring to the conduct of foreign policy many advantages Bush lacked: charm, intelligence, sober judgement and a capacity for hard work, for a start. But not being Bush is not enough. He will find, as Bush did, that US power, great though it is, simply will not deliver the unrealistic agenda he has inherited from his predecessor.

And the reasons go deep; much deeper than today's economic problems or the threat of Islamist terrorism. They derive from a fundamental collision between Americans' expectations about their place in the world and the perplexing realities of global power. Having won the Cold War, Americans looked confidently forward to a new American century in which, unlike the conflict-riven 20th century, their primacy would be uncontested and their leadership would be absolute.

This expectation was founded on America's apparent pre-eminence in economics, in military force and in political ideas. But each has proved less potent than expected. Twenty years after the end of history, the US model of a modern society still faces spirited competition around the world. Its armed force turns out to be less omnipotent than we had thought.

The US economy - immense, dynamic and creative though it is - faces an unprecedented challenge from China. Within a few short decades China may have overtaken the US to become the most powerful economy in the world. That is the most consequential trend in the world today, and the most important for the US's future role in the world.

It cannot expect to exercise unchallenged political and strategic leadership in a world it no longer dominates economically.

This deep mismatch between ends and means, and not the failings of the 43rd president, is the real reason the past eight years have been so disappointing for Americans.

It turns out the US does not have the power to rebuild complex and fractured societies from the ground up. It turns out it cannot compel even quite weak states to forgo nuclear weapons. It turns out it cannot dictate to Russia what will happen on Russia's borders. And it appears the US cannot retain uncontested primacy in Asia as China's power grows. All that is just as true of Obama's America as of Bush's.

This is a pity. These grand aims are good in themselves, and the world would be a better place by far if they could be attained.

But it never does good to pursue noble aims with inadequate means. The essence of statecraft is to achieve the best outcomes possible with the means available.

The risk is Obama will never find that balance between means and ends. Instead, through muddled analysis, jingoism or political timidity Obama will fail to adjust his foreign policy objectives to the power available to achieve them. He will keep on saying to Americans, "Yes, we can" when the more honest, statesmanlike answer would be "No, we can't." Those are words that can take a lot of wisdom and courage to say. I'm not sure he's got it.

Hugh White is a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute and professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.


curlycue said...

This writer is a hasty conclusion. America is one of the strongest nations in the world. If we pull together as one nation and support the new president, we, as a nation, can do anything. Saying that we can't will crush the American spirit, but if we stay positive, we'll be able to overcome the problems facing the US.

charlie the unicorn said...

I actually thoroughly agree with this article. I think that the US is spending too much of it's time,power, and money on foreign affairs. I mean, we are powerful, but we are simply stretching ourselves thin! America needs to focus less on other nations and focus more on our own.