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Should America Power Down?

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Ian Bremmer argues that America should tender its resignation as the world’s superpower. But becoming Clark Kent, permanently, is not sound strategy.

In 1912, many people predicted that the United States would be one of the most powerful states in the 20th century. Its economy was strong and its potential seemingly limitless. But it would have been ludicrous to suggest that within a half-century it would be the dominant resident power in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East or that in less than a century it would be a unipolar power. After all, on the eve of World War I, German power was ascendant, Britain bestrode the world wearily but still as a Titan, and the United States had little appetite to venture outside its hemisphere.

Of course, the inconceivable happened. The United States became the world’s only superpower because it made better strategic decisions, and far fewer mistakes, than its competitors. Germany destroyed itself twice. Russia imploded and rose again under an ideology that contained the seeds of its future destruction. Britain was pulled into two world wars that sapped its power and forced it into retirement.

The lesson of the 20th century is that strategic choice matters. It is what great powers do geopolitically that makes history, not how much or how fast their economies grow. The contemporary debate on American power has mostly lost sight of this fact. Relying on a couple of crude metrics, like GDP and military spending, experts say with certainty whether this century will be Chinese, American, European, or run by no one at all. It is a little like declaring baseball season over before it begins and awarding the World Series to the team with the largest payroll or highest batting average.

The importance of strategic choice is the starting point for Ian Bremmer’s new book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. Bremmer, a political scientist and the founder and CEO of the Eurasia Group, argues that the United States will remain a superpower for many years to come. The only question that matters is how it will use its power. Bremmer lays out three options for the United States and makes the best case he can for each. Only at the end does he tell us his preference. The book is written as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” with a gimmicky quiz to boot. But it is actually a manifesto in disguise.

Bremmer’s favored strategy is what he calls “Independent America,” whereby the United States would dramatically reduce its international commitments and pivot to the home front. Defense spending would be slashed and directed to homeland security, and Russia and China would each be allowed a sphere of influence. The United States would stop being the security guarantor of last resort for NATO and Japan, and would withdraw from the Middle East entirely.

Bremmer writes, “It’s time for a new declaration of independence—a proclamation of emancipation from the responsibility to solve everyone else’s problems.” He is exhausted by alliance commitments to defend those who won’t look out for themselves: “Why should Americans lead a fight to defend Latvia or Estonia if Germany, now one of the world’s wealthiest nations, won’t share more of the cost?” “America will be better off,” he says, “if we mind our own business and let other countries get along the best they can.” The United States should not get involved in wars or crises, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, and Ukraine, where the others “care more about the outcome than you do.” The superpower must explicitly tender its resignation: “Only a crystal clear signal from Washington that America will now lead mainly by example will force our traditional partners to stand on their own.”

Above all, Bremmer longs for what the United States could do without its heavy burden. “Imagine what might become possible,” he writes, “if we redirected the attention, energy, and resources that we now squander on a failed superhero foreign policy toward building the America we imagine, one that empowers all its people to realize their human potential.” He would slash military spending and shift what’s left away from aircraft carriers and toward intelligence, homeland security, and cybersecurity. With the money saved, he would increase spending on infrastructure, education, veterans’ benefits, and tax cuts. The only time he breaks with the pure version of Independent America, as detailed in an early chapter, is in his support for free trade.

The two strategies that Bremmer rejects, after laying them out in full, are Moneyball America and Indispensable America. The former is, of course, an allusion to Michael Lewis’s best-selling book Moneyball, about Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. Beane succeeded by jettisoning common baseball practice and using data and statistics to invest in players undervalued by the market. Under this option, Bremmer says, the President should invest in the value of America by making several calculated bets designed to deliver a significant return. However, he believes this will not work; America is not a corporation and cannot behave as if it is one. The U.S. government is simply too big and too complicated to achieve the nimbleness required for moneyball. And corporations make bad bets all the time. In the economy, failure is part of the process of creative destruction. But we can afford less risk when it comes to the nuclear codes.

Indispensable America is the latest iteration of traditional U.S. grand strategy dating back to the late 1940s. Here, the United States will continue to underwrite the liberal international order through alliances, military intervention, the provision of public goods, and an outsized leadership role. But Bremmer believes the U.S. doesn’t have the influence it needs to play this role any more. Even more importantly, he says, the American public is not prepared to play that role, especially if it means going to war with China over some rocks in the South China Sea or fighting Russia over the Baltics. “Indispensable America,” he writes, “was the right strategy at the end of World War II…But we can’t ignore the ways the world has changed.”

Bremmer’s choice, an Independent America, is not isolationist. Indeed, even the isolationism of the 1930s was not truly isolationist, since it allowed for commercial, political, and cultural engagement with the rest of the world. Independent America is, however, strictly non-interventionist. It is the product of what my colleague Robert Kagan has termed a desire to return to normalcy—that notion that the United States does too much as a superpower and should become a normal nation with normal interests.

The idea that the United States must retrench and reduce its international commitments has been percolating in academic circles over the past decade. The most advanced and sophisticated case is Restraint, a 2014 book by Barry Posen, a professor at MIT and perhaps America’s top academic defense expert. Restraint explains in detail why and how the United States should divest itself of its international security commitments and give up the liberal international order. Posen is not an outlier. Retrenchment is the preferred strategy of the majority of security studies scholars, especially in the younger generation of professors. It is the internationalists—William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks of MIT and John Ikenberry of Princeton University—who are in the minority.

Despite its success in academic circles, retrenchment has failed to gain much traction in the policy community, except at the Cato Institute. Others, including Richard Haass in his book Foreign Policy Begins at Home, have flirted around the edges of a greater domestic focus but none have called for an unwinding of the alliance system or a dramatic change in America’s global role. Bremmer makes the argument that U.S. strategy is terribly wrongheaded and has been for some time (for instance, he sees the expansion of NATO as a historic error). The entire global order is unsound and the United States needs to act unilaterally and pull the entire edifice down.

It is for this reason that Bremmer’s work is important. It marks the crossover point between academic critiques of U.S. grand strategy and the policy mainstream. It may be the beginning of a debate that the United States has not had since the mid-1940s—should it look out for itself or should it underwrite a liberal international order?

The first big question that retrenchers have to answer is this: what problem does retrenchment solve? For better or worse, American leadership is the status quo. For over sixty years, Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East have been organized around U.S. security guarantees. The abandonment of that leadership, especially in security, will radically change world politics and the international order. To make a case for such a change, one must first convincingly argue that the status quo is untenable. You wouldn’t blow the existing order up and replace it with something else just on a whim or to save some money. There must be a pressing need.

Bremmer suggested in an earlier book, G-Zero, that America’s economic problems were such that it would be unable to continue to play the role of world leader. But in Superpower, he is more optimistic about U.S. capacity. America can be a leader if it wants to, but it should choose not to, he says.

Instead, the problem is that the United States is currently adrift, and the uncertainty about its future role is destabilizing the international system. No one knows what the United States will do next. It is clear, he says, that the public wants to do less. America’s influence is also decreasing as other powers rise. Allies know all this and can’t trust the President. Adversaries know it too and do not fear U.S. power. America’s indecision is contributing to a heightened sense of geopolitical risk. Exhibit A is the red line debacle in Syria when President Obama reversed himself on airstrikes while the planes were fueling up on the runway.

But Syria is only a symptom of a much greater problem—America’s inability to make good on its commitments. The epicenter of this coming earthquake is America’s alliance system—those commitments that the United States is treaty-bound to uphold and where reneging on a red line is impossible without incurring a terribly high cost. Bremmer wants to effectively disband these alliances so the United States is no longer on the hook to protect others. He believes that the American public no longer supports the U.S. commitment to its allies, the allies themselves are not doing enough, and there is a risk that the United States will get dragged into conflicts that are not in its interests.

Take NATO, for example—one of Bremmer’s favorite targets. NATO, he says, made a historic error by expanding to include new members after the Cold War. The expansion aggravated Russia and bound America to protect states that are not strategically important. Now that the Russia threat is back, this is a big problem. The United States is not ready or willing to defend its new member states. The American public can’t locate Latvia or Estonia on a map and the Obama Administration has been ambiguous about its commitment, all of which makes it more likely Russia will do something to test its resolve. Bremmer writes,

“If Russian troops one day cross the border into Latvia, whatever the pretext, will the president of the United States declare war on Russia? President Obama has suggested that he would be he hasn’t said it. Europe needs to know. America’s men and women in uniform, their families, and America’s taxpayers need to know. Leave it ambiguous and Moscow might one day decide to find out what it can get away with.”

It’s a powerful charge, if true. But here his specific claim and broader case about a crisis begins to fall part. The footnote reveals that Bremmer is referring to President Obama’s speech in Estonia in September 2014. Yet in that speech the President said this:

“We will defend our NATO allies, and that means every ally. In this alliance, there are no old members or new members, no junior partners or senior partners—there are just allies, pure and simple. And we will defend the territorial integrity of every single ally. Today, more NATO aircraft patrol the skies of the Baltics. More American forces are on the ground training and rotating through each of the Baltic states. More NATO ships patrol the Black Sea. Tonight, I depart for the NATO Summit in Wales, and I believe our Alliance should extend these defensive measures for as long as necessary. Because the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.”

Now, one can believe that more must be done to protect the Baltics, but it’s hard to see how this speech supports the notion that the United States is unclear on whether it will fight Russia to defend them. Certainly, the United States has been leading the charge to bolster Article V in the face of the Russian threat. There is also no reason to believe that Russia doubts America’s assurances about Article V because of Syria or anything else.

Indeed, there is a cottage industry in political science on the topic of credibility. Its primary finding is that credibility of commitments depends on the interests of the countries in each case and not on what they do elsewhere. In other words, the Syria red line debacle is unlikely to have any impact on Russian assessments of U.S. credibility in the Baltics or in Asia. Bremmer actually acknowledges this when he praises Ronald Reagan for having the courage to renege on his own red line—when he withdrew U.S. forces from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut which killed 241 Americans.

There is also no evidence to suggest that America’s alliances make war more likely. In fact, the opposite is true. Michael Beckley, an assistant professor at Tufts University, conducted a study of all of America’s alliance commitments since 1945 and found that entanglement almost never happens. It is much more common for alliances to restrain the United States or for the United States to restrain its allies.

Yet what of public opinion? Is Bremmer right that even if the political leadership wants to continue to play the role of the indispensable power, the public does not? He cites opinion polls that show only 56 percent of the American people would come to the aid of Britain if attacked. However, the political science literature finds that public opinion exerts little influence on U.S. foreign policy. There is no reason to think that the answer to a very general question about minding your own business is any indicator as to what the United States would or would not do if a sovereign allied state were invaded. In fact, the United States has previously gone to war to defend non-allied states that it had indicated it would not help (South Korea and Kuwait).

The question Bremmer can’t answer is if the American public is so dissatisfied with foreign policy activism, why does it keep voting for candidates who support it? Why is Rand Paul reversing his previous pro-retrenchment positions as he runs for president?

There is an alternative explanation for where the United States is right now. America’s default strategy is Indispensable America. President Obama has, in a very disciplined way, been trying to shift to a Moneyball America strategy. In fact, the chapter on Moneyball reads remarkably like the Administration’s current approach. The next president is likely to move back to a more ambitious foreign policy. But under either approach, America’s alliances are sound. There are foreign policy challenges, but the foundation of world order—America’s system of alliances—is not falling apart and much of the world relies on it.

Even if there is no pressing need to change strategies, what would happen if we gave retrenchment a try? Isn’t it possible that it would improve America’s position by reducing foreign commitments and freeing up resources at home? No, not even close. The reason is simple: it will inject unprecedented risk and uncertainty into world politics.

Retrenchment is a revolutionary strategy. The day after the President of the United States gives the Independent America speech will be the day that every defense planner and diplomat the world over scrambles to understand how to survive in the post-American world. Alliances will be worthless. The glue that held everything together will no longer stick. The United States would have created the mother of all vacuums.

Japan would likely rearm, and may even go nuclear, to defend itself against China. China would see a window of opportunity to establish its dominance over East Asia. In Europe, Russia would likely move on the Baltics to put the final nail in NATO’s coffin and would establish full control over Ukraine. Some western European countries would rearm, but the overwhelming impulse would be to seek a balance of power. It is unlikely that globalization would survive the return to full-throated rivalry.

This is not some far-fetched scenario. Bremmer himself writes:

“A drive to refocus Washington on domestic priorities will inflict significant damage on relations with allies like Japan, Israel, and Britain. We will forfeit some of the already limited influence we have with China’s leaders as they make critical decisions.”

Other advocates of retrenchment like Barry Posen recognize that the world will become a much more dangerous place. They just believe that these regional conflicts will not affect the United States. America can protect itself behind its oceans and nuclear deterrent. The United States only has to worry about other regions if one rival power is poised to dominate East Asia, Europe, or the Middle East. The sheer physics of balancing mean this is very unlikely to happen but if it did there would be enough time to intervene and tip the balance against the rival. They even argue that the United States could manipulate regional tensions to its benefit.

This belief could not be further from the U.S. post-war tradition. For over seven decades, the United States has sought to quell and reduce regional security competition in Western Europe and East Asia. Yes, the alliances were intended to contain the Soviet Union. But they were also intended to create a community of nations that did not fear each other. And they were designed so that the United States could influence its allies to exercise restraint. Thus, the United States provides for much of Japan’s security so it will not build capabilities that worry South Korea or others. It is also the reason why, even after the Soviet threat disappeared, the United States has gone to extraordinary lengths to promote regional integration and cooperation in Asia and Europe. EU and NATO expansion helped to consolidate democracy in Eastern Europe and reduce the potential for rivalries and territorial disputes.

It is worth pondering how much more dangerous Eastern Europe would be if Bremmer had his wish and NATO expansion never happened. It’s possible that in such a world Russia would not be revisionist because it would not be insecure, but Russian history suggests otherwise. More likely is the possibility that Russia would try to move on the Baltics and parts of Eastern Europe. NATO expansion took those countries of the chessboard.

The United States has also intervened militarily to prevent regional rivalries from rising. U.S. military actions in the first Gulf War, Bosnia, and Kosovo were not in response to a direct threat to a U.S. vital interest. Instead, they were wrapped up in broader notions of what constitutes security. This is not to say that all interventions are good—the Iraq War being the obvious example. In that war, however, the U.S. did not intervene to preserve regional stability but rather to attempt to impose it. It was a break from tradition, not a continuation of it.

Bremmer will no doubt argue that retrenchment must be done in a sensible and prudent way. The United States should not abandon its alliances overnight but rather give fair warning and a timetable—Posen has suggested a decade—after which those alliances would no longer be operative. The American president should deepen diplomacy with Russia and China to dissuade them from destabilizing actions that would hurt everyone involved. Additionally, the United States should redouble its efforts to increase cooperation and burden-sharing to tackle common threats and challenges.

It sounds lovely, but it is awfully hubristic to believe that a president or strategist is capable of undertaking such an awesome task and preventing it from getting out of control. A superpower retreat of this magnitude would be without parallel. And there are too many actors to manage. But surely, some might say, the difficulty of retrenchment is more manageable that being the world’s policeman? Perhaps, yet that is a comparison between the known and the unknown. America is an imperfect leader, but its track record over seventy-odd years is well known. Iraq may be a mess, but Western and Eastern Europe are in pretty good shape, as are U.S. alliances in East Asia.

By voluntarily liquidating its own order, the United States would be placing the mother of all bets that it would be significantly safer in a much more dangerous world. This is the reason why any president, even Rand Paul, would be reluctant to run the experiment. Ultimately, America’s expansive security commitments are not a favor to the allies, even though they work to their benefit. They were created and supported because the United States believes that reducing rivalry through forward-deployed forces is in America’s long-term interest. There is little reason to think anything has changed. Indeed, if the big bet on retrenchment does not work out and a combination of nuclear weapons and two oceans is not enough, the United States will find itself having to deal with severe threats without its alliances and forward-deployed forces. These could prove impossible to put back together.

One is left puzzled that an expert on geopolitical risk, like Bremmer, would opt for the strategy that seems most likely to turn the world upside down. In an earlier book, Bremmer coined the term “G-Zero world” to describe the lack of international leadership after the financial crisis. At the time, this seemed like a call for more leadership to fill the vacuum and reduce geopolitical risk. But Superpower does the opposite. The inescapable reality is there is no way to reverse the G-Zero dynamic unless America does more in the world. Yes, others should step up to the plate, but no one expects that they will. Thus, G-Zero has gone from a diagnosis to a recommendation.

Bremmer doesn’t clearly state why he changed his mind, but he does hint at it. He says that greater uncertainty is increasing volatility in world politics. The outcome of that volatility will depend on whether China becomes revisionist or not, whether Japan pushes back or not, whether Russia keeps Putinism or not, and so on. The United States will have very little influence over these decisions, so the better course of action is to stand aloof from them and find another purpose for American energy and values. He has come to terms with what he feared.

One gets the impression, however, that Americans, and America’s allies, still believe in the notion of an international order, even if they disagree about how to sustain it. If the United States has a conversation about strategic choice at the next election, one hopes that it will dwell, at least for a few moments, on the rationale behind underwriting an order that transcends narrow national interests and dollars-and-cents accounting. Some may also recall that the United States tried all three strategies in the 20th century. When World War I broke out, Wilson pursued an Indispensable America. In the 1920s, the United States switched to a Moneyball approach, but this fell apart after 1929 and led to an Independent America, despite Roosevelt’s best efforts. After that collapsed in ruins, Roosevelt put together the post-war Indispensable America grand strategy that has been largely with us since.

Ultimately, choice is relative. By reminding people of the alternatives, Bremmer may have done more to help Indispensable America than he intended.

Thomas Wright is a fellow and director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution.


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