The Future of U.S. Primacy: Power to Lead, But No Longer to Command
By Leslie H. Gelb
U.S. policy makers have to adjust from the power to command to the power to lead—from mostly coercive power to mostly strategic planning and maneuvering. America simply lacks the relative military and economic power it enjoyed in the twentieth century. Equally critical to understand, most international conflicts and problems now occur within nations more than between nations. Terrorists and civil wars are much more elusive military targets than troops fighting in battalions. Dealing with internal economic and political situations is far more baffling than simply telling governments what to do.
Our political and foreign-policy communities have not done well in explaining these new circumstances or what Washington needs do to manage them. Instead, too many have simply blown diplomatic or military hot air. Most have not done a serious and persuasive job of presenting precisely what they would do and how their plans would succeed. Sadly, our leaders have increasingly abandoned the common sense that made America great for the blue smoke that pleasures only television interviewers, irresponsible partisans and ideologues. If this sounds like dyspepsia, it is just that. The stakes are sky-high, yet our responses do little justice to ourselves or our nation.
The fact remains that the United States is still the number-one power in the world, and if we can’t figure out ways to manage and solve international problems, these problems won’t get managed or solved. They’ll only get worse. We need leaders who know how to lead and to make strategy.
Of course, in making strategy we can and should argue about the relative utility of coercion in various situations today. It’s silly to think that such pressure no longer counts. But in almost every imaginable circumstance, it’s hard to see the U.S. acting alone. We will need allies, which means having a strategy that accounts for their interests as well as ours. Which again calls for strategy. Here are some shorthand examples:
Russia is not going to be driven from Ukraine by economic or military pressures. Moscow was in bad economic shape before the Western sanctions and somewhat worse thereafter. More such sanctions, however, are highly unlikely to be agreed upon by European leaders. If anything, they will move soon to weaken those penalties. As for enhancing Western military pressures, that is worth doing as part of an overall new strategy, but will not compel Moscow to pull back. The sad and overwhelming fact, recognized in spades by NATO military leaders, is that Russia has military advantage in Ukraine and the Baltic area, and also possesses escalatory superiority. Add Moscow’s new nuclear weapons to the mix, and aggressive NATO military moves are virtually certain to backfire.
Which leads to a course of action beyond the natural thinking of liberals and neoconservatives; that is, to use American power to form a new overall relationship with Russia. This strategy would give Vladimir Putin what he badly desires—recognition of Russia as a great power, and would give Washington the path to achieving its aims—Moscow’s pulling back its threats to Ukraine and the Baltic states and gaining Putin’s cooperation elsewhere, as in Syria and Iraq. It’s also the route for Putin eventually to restore decent economic ties to the West. In effect, we would treat Russia as a great power in return for tangible Russian cooperation in the Middle East and in combating nuclear proliferation and terrorism.
Similarly, it pays to contemplate the possibilities of a strategic approach to defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Alas, the usual policy suspects call for President Assad of Syria to step down, and for the U.S. to arm the freedom-loving rebels. Even after several years of failure, it isn’t obvious to advocates of this course that it has no chance of succeeding. Assad won’t step down for nothing. And it pays to remember that when the U.S. last armed the freedom-loving rebels, they gave or sold most of those arms to the non-freedom loving terrorists.
The day may come when the Washington crowd of experts concludes that the bigger threat to Western interests comes from ISIS rather than from Assad. He’s a monster, and a good policy must reckon how to remove him from power after the ISIS threat is gone. But no president of the United States and no Congress will dispatch U.S. forces sufficient to either defeat the terrorists or remove Assad. That’s about as close to a hard fact as foreign policy allows. It will take some kind of cooperative arrangement with Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Assad’s regime, for starters, to ensure ISIS’s defeat. And that can be concocted because it is clearly in the common interests of all those countries to behead the terrorist dragon. In doing this, Moscow and Tehran can also arranged Assad’s departure—so long as the Alawites can retain key power points. Only Washington can compose such strategic music.
China presents an even more complicated task for U.S. power because Beijing’s overall power in the Asia region is equal to or stronger than America’s. China’s strength is based on its leading role in trade and investment in the area. And on its borders, Beijing holds military superiority over its neighbors and the United States. Thus, rollback is impossible and dangerous and containment won’t be easy. The trick is to prevent Beijing from intimidating its neighbors, and no one has yet devised a good formula for doing so.
The sad and underlying truth to employing American power effectively on tough problems in today’s world is that, in all probability, we won’t use it well. The underlying necessities for strategic power simply run against our country’s nature and grain. In the first place, strategic power means accepting the reality that even most bad guys, even very bad guys, aren’t all bad. It means accepting the reality that even most adversaries are composed of bad guys, some good guys, and in-betweeners. It calls for trying to work with and build up the good guys and fence-sitters to realize benefits of better ties to Washington. It means understanding that even nations run by bad guys have interests that may coincide or run parallel to America’s. See, for example, Russia’s interest in fighting terrorists in Syria to blunt terrorism inside Russia. Americans are extremely uneasy about dealing with such realities. Things are either good or bad.
Strategic power also requires Americans to see that the days of being able to smash foes militarily or intimidate them economically have largely vanished, yet our political leadership persists in its bombast. Those who do understand don’t do a good job of explaining new realities to Americans. The vacuousness of cable news networks, our principle means of communication, also undermines serious debate. Alas, Americans seem to have forgotten how to read, and experts appear seldom to read even each other with any care.
Even in the days of mostly command power, there were those in the Truman administration who fully grasped strategic leadership, the yin and yang qualities of most opponents, complexities, and common-sense use of power. So did President Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker. It's hard to find their descendants.
This is the first in a series of essays on the future of American primacy.
Leslie H. Gelb is a former columnist for the New York Times, a former senior official at the State and Defense Department, and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a board member of this magazine and the Center on the National Interest.