Reimagining Great Power Relations: Reimagining the International Environment: Part 1.

Author:Freeman, Chas W., Jr.
Position:Commentary and Analysis

March/April 2017

This is the first of three lectures on the changing international political, economic, and military environment after the Pax Americana. The second will consider the impact of China's rise on relationships in Asia. The third will address the changes underway in the Middle East.

International reactions to the election of Donald Trump have catalyzed a far swifter collapse of the American-led world order than anyone could have imagined. Interactions between great and middle-ranking powers are undergoing rapid evolution. The political, economic, and military interests and influence of the United States still span the globe, as does American popular culture. Nations and non-state actors in every region continue to worry about American policies, activism, or passivity on matters of concern to them. In short, the United States is still the planet's only all-around world power. But the clout that status confers is not what it used to be.

The only other polity with the potential to rival America's worldwide influence at present is the European Union (EU). It has the money but lacks the ambition or political and military cohesion to exert decisive influence beyond its periphery. Until "Brexit," the EU included two former world powers, Britain and France. Now only France--which retains a sphere of influence in Africa and overseas territories in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and Polynesia--can bring a global perspective to EU councils.

China and Japan have great worldwide economic influence but little political appeal and negligible ability to project conventional military power to regions remote from them. Russia has a nuclear arsenal that can devastate every corner of the globe. It has again become a major actor in the Middle East, but otherwise lacks economic, political, or cultural reach much beyond the confines of the former Soviet Union. Brazil and India dream of global roles but exercise little influence beyond their immediate regions and the parts of Africa that are closest to them.

The Trump administration's rejection of multilateralism marks a major step back from international leadership by the United States. It signals that America no longer seeks to make and interpret the rules that govern the world's political, economic, and military interactions. Instead, Washington will seek unilateral advantage through piecemeal bilateral deals. This pivot away from preeminence has created a geopolitical and geoeconomic power vacuum into which other great powers are being drawn. Responsibility for the maintenance of global political, economic, and military order is everywhere devolving to the regional level.

Meanwhile, the United States is increasingly isolated on transnational issues. Official American antipathy to science on climate change and similar issues has discredited the United States as a participant in setting polices that address them. And Washington's escalating disdain for the United Nations and international law has delegitimized its role as the "world policeman." The uncertainties inherent in this situation are everywhere accelerating the formation of regional groupings. But, despite some stirring by China, there is as yet no credible successor to the United States as a global order-setter.

The U.S. armed forces remain the only military establishment with global power projection capabilities and experience in managing multinational coalitions. Generals and admirals bestride the highly militarized foreign policy apparatus of the United States government. This caps a longstanding trend. Americans so thoroughly identify "power" as exclusively military in nature that it has been necessary to invent an academic concept of "soft power" to embrace measures short of war like diplomacy.

But global military primacy no longer translates into political leadership at either the global or regional levels. It doesn't even guarantee dominance in the world's regions.

Recent American military interventions abroad have consistently evoked resistance that has frustrated the achievement of their goals. Unless tied to clearly attainable political objectives, the use of force can accomplish little other than the slaughter of foreigners and the destruction of their artifacts. This generates more blowback than security.

As American influence has receded, regional great powers like China, India, Iran, and Russia have begun to consolidate regional state systems centered on themselves. This process was underway even before "America first" impaired U.S. leadership by making American indifference to the interests and concerns of other countries officially explicit. America has now chosen publicly to redefine itself internationally as the foreign relations equivalent of a sociopath (1)--a country indifferent to the rules, the consequences for others of its ignoring them, and the reliability of its word. No nation can now comfortably entrust its prosperity or security to Washington, no matter how militarily powerful it perceives America to be.

In the United States, there has been a clear drift toward the view that outcomes, not due process, are the sole criteria of justice. Procedures--that is, judicial decisions, elections, or actions by legislatures--no longer confer legitimacy. The growing American impatience with institutions and processes is reflected in the economic nationalism and transactionalism that now guide U.S. policy. Washington now reserves the right to pick and choose which decisions by international tribunals like the World Trade Organization (WTO) it will follow or ignore.

The idea that previously agreed arrangements can be abandoned or renegotiated at will has succeeded the principle of "pacta sunt servanda" ("agreements must be kept"). The result is greatly reduced confidence not only in the reliability of American commitments but also in the durability of the international understandings that have constituted the status quo. In the security arena, this trend is especially pronounced with respect to arms control arrangements. As an example,, Russia has cited American scofflaw behavior to justify its own delinquencies...

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