Managing American Hegemony

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Kori N. Schake’s new book, Managing American Hegemony: Essays on Power in a Time of Dominance, has just been released. To her credit, Schake is too modest to use her essays in the Foreign Policy blog Shadow Government to plug her own book. I, dear reader, cannot be accused of the same. The book is an insightful, thoughtful series of essays on a very relevant topic: the future of the U.S. global leadership. Or, as Schake wrote in the book’s intro- duction:

This is a book about American power: why it’s so predominant in the international order, whether it’s likely to remain so, and how current practices can be revised to reduce the cost to the United States of managing the system. Despite clarion calls about the end of the unipolar moment and the demise of American moral, financial, military, and diplomatic power, the United States remains the defining state in the international system and is likely to be so for at least several more decades. If there were a market for state power, now would be a great time to buy futures in American power.

Schake builds her book around six questions. Recently I caught up with her for an interview and posed these questions to her.

Brose: How does the United States end up so successful in this round of globalization?

Schake: The resilience with which Americans have found new professions as manufacturing migrated to cheaper labor markets contrasts favorably with revanchist efforts by other wealthy states to artificially preserve the eroding economic order rather than encourage and shape change. It helps that the U.S. economy is an engine of job creation, but that is a result of explicit choices about labor market flexibility. The signature advantage of the U.S. economy is the risk tolerance of its workforce: the economy sheds and create jobs, and people mostly accept that the nature of economic activity is uncertain.

The adaptability of American workers mirrors the general malleability of the country. In a globalizing order in which many societies are attempting to shield their traditions from external influence, American culture voraciously seeks out and incorporates new elements that further broaden its appeal. Americans are so accepting of change and risk that we have come to exemplify what others fear: globalization is often equated with Americanization.

Brose: Why is there such concern about U.S. power, especially from our friends and allies?

Schake: The tumult of rapid capital flows, labor priced out of its own domestic market, and overwhelming cascades of information are all being unleashed on societies with stampeding force, and states are struggling to keep pace. Governments have numerous incentives to blame the marauding forces of global capitalism and U.S. influence rather than take responsibility for poorly managing the changing rules of the international order and their domestic effects. Societies that consider themselves better than the United States, but are less popular, feel affronted that the accessibility of American society and culture give it such broad appeal. The equation that makes the United States so successful is not difficult to discern, but it is difficult to put into practice, especially if societies clamor for the economic enrichment, innovation, and durable social peace of American society without wanting to endure its fractiousness, economic insecurity, and permeability.

Moreover, the problems threatening the United States as hegemon—especially terrorism—are not principal concerns for most states. Compared with the ravages of HIV/AIDS on the labor force, managing food scarcity caused by environmental change, or establishing basic governance and education, America’s preoccupation with terrorism appears a luxury. It is therefore in our interest to devote more attention to solving the problems we are not afflicted with; this is essential to securing the assistance of states whose help we need.

“Americans are so accepting of change and risk that we have come to exemplify what others fear: globalization is often equated with Americanization.”

Brose: How much does military power still matter?

Schake: The United States remains an outlier among friends in its insistence that force is a central element of state power, essential in protecting and advancing national interests. Although soft power is currently in vogue, it is also largely outside a government’s control and therefore cannot be marshaled for a specific purpose on the time line the government needs to act; it may help create the rules of the international order and reduce the cost of upholding them, but it cannot enforce them.

The military might to coerce behavior or punish states that will not be coerced has failed to achieve its intended effect in both Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to questions about whether military force is still determinative. The main reason for the difficulty is that our government has established complicated political and economic objectives that military force cannot achieve, and we have failed to build and carry out integrated politico-economic-military strategies. The tasks we’ve set—regime change in Iraq, constructing a modern state and economy in Afghanistan—are inherently extremely challenging. The Bush administration made it even more demanding by badly translating the president’s political objectives into military plans.

That we have not yet succeeded does not mean all wars of the modern age are unwinnable or that military power is less valuable in shaping the international order. It does, however, give reason to review the magnitude of defense spending relative both to the threats the United States is facing and the competing needs to make other U.S. government agencies as capable as the Defense Department. If countries believe we cannot apply our military power effectively to protect and advance our interests, confidence in us as a guarantor will decline, challenges to our interests will rise, and maintaining the international order will grow costlier.

and the competing needs to make other U.S. government agencies as capable as the Defense Department. If countries believe we cannot apply our military power effectively to protect and advance our interests, confidence in us as a guarantor will decline, challenges to our interests will rise, and maintaining the international order will grow costlier.

Brose: Are U.S. advantages transitory or sustainable?

Schake: There are three basic kinds of prospective challenges to U.S. hegemony: failure to prevent or match the rise of a more powerful state or collective; domestic corrosion or ossification based on our domestic weakness; and the burden of our international obligations diverting effort from domestic priorities.

The genius of the U.S.-dominated international order has been in establishing and enforcing rules that not only benefit American interests but provide others with paths to enrichment and influence. We have built an international order that permits the peaceful rise of dynamic countries—in fact, rising powers are our natural allies. And we have yet to see an alternative: states do not grow rich or powerful outside the U.S. order. As a result, most opt in, to mutual advantage.

Of course, other states could conceivably find new paths to power: melding authoritarian societies with market economies, discovering essential resources, banding together to damage American interests. Azar Gat has argued in his work on authoritarian capitalism that Russia and China are doing so, but I’m not yet persuaded. Russia is trending in very dangerous directions, but they are unsuccessful directions, as international reaction to their invasion of Georgia last summer demonstrates. China looks to me to be trending more positively. And a prosperous, confident China does not necessarily diminish American power, as the postwar success of Germany and Japan illustrates.

Several choices of the past decade have raised the question of whether the United States isn’t well along the way to destroying American hegemony itself. An international order that was relatively inexpensive to maintain feels to be growing costlier. But the international order is midstream in a realignment of historic proportions because of globalization and the ways in which states deal with those changes. America is different after September 11, lonelier and more aware of its power and uniqueness, which may cause us to allow greater upheaval in the international order.

Domestic corrosion could be the second means of dethronement for American power, and our many failings give heft to this school of thought. The scale of government is scandalous, as is personal indebtedness, but these seem no impediment to further profligacy. The political system seems to grow more polarized and focused on trivialities. And yet venality is not a new development in American democracy. Individuals and their parents manage surprisingly often to overcome educational limitations, and local or private efforts frequently compensate for federal incapacity.

It is at least unproven that the American system that produced this peace and prosperity is incapable of correcting itself. Thanks to the founding fathers, who tied accountability tightly into the structure of the political system, it is more likely that criticism will stimulate correction rather than be a harbinger of decline.

“If countries believe we cannot apply our military power effectively to protect and advance our interests, confidence in us as a guarantor will decline, challenges to our interests will rise, and maintaining the international order will grow costlier.”

Brose: Are alliances and institutions constraints or enablers?

Schake: Participation in international institutions is unquestionably frustrating for the United States: representativeness often diminishes effectiveness; the compromises needed to build international consensus reduce the consistency and bite of policies; we are locked into rules that tax us substantially more than other participants; and states often justify inaction by stymieing institutions. It is not in America’s interests to perpetuate alliances and institutions as they now exist. We are overinvested in some relationships that were created for earlier threats, and we are underinvested in relationships that have the potential to pull rising powers into positive activity and encourage friendly middle powers to take leadership roles.

European allies were eagerly anticipating the change of U.S. administrations, mistakenly believing that we would return chastened, pliable, and multilateral-minded to take the lead in solving common security problems in ways more comfortable to European sensibilities. It will be interesting to see whether the Obama administration considers Europe a winnable constituency or worth the effort of trying to win it. Coalitions of the willing are unpopular among America’s “permanent allies,” but unless the established institutions become dramatically more effective at producing political consensus and hard-power contributions, they will most likely be supplanted by temporary partnerships focused on solving specific problems.

“America is different after September 11, lonelier and more aware of its power and uniqueness.”

Too often in foreign policy, the United States plays to our weaknesses instead of our strengths. An approach to alliances and institutions that encourages other states to take responsibility for solving problems and leading institutional reforms; that accepts variance from our preferred outcome as the price of not solving the problem ourselves; that influences attitudes in allied countries by participating in their domestic debates; and that assists in the resourcing and effort—all this would lower the risk of an international order in which states are unwilling to share the burden.

Brose: On what should the new president focus to build an even stronger foundation for U.S. power?

Schake: America is in the enviable position of having the means of sustaining its power largely in its own hands. What the president chooses to do, or neglects to address, on four important issues will in large measure set the trajectory of American power:

The national debt. Reducing debt is the most difficult challenge facing the country. Before the bailouts of the banking industry, car makers, and the Obama administration’s spending bill, the U.S. government had incurred debts of $30,000 for every citizen. That will probably triple by the time bailouts end, with debt servicing crowding out other government spending. There is no investment the U.S. government could make, or capability it could acquire, that would add as much to American power and to a stable, prosperous international order as paying down our national debt.

Whether America needs to change the world. Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States created an enormous systemic perturbation, diverting resources and effort in epic proportions from other priorities. Has promoting democracy reduced terrorism; does the magnitude of the threat merit the magnitude of effort the United States has expended; could a more consciously defensive strategy better serve American interests? The record is at best mixed. There is little question American must keep fighting Al-Qaeda and its virulent associates; what is less clear is whether the United States needs to lead a global effort against all terrorism. However, narrowing the scope of activity in this way would probably lead to a more chaotic and violent international order. Terrorism tends to migrate to poorly governed areas, further burdening the order’s least capable states. A promising approach is to improve the quality of governance by engaging in localized political disputes while attacking the roots of terrorist activity.

How we leave Iraq. This will also be a defining choice for the international order. If poorly managed, it will embolden challengers and be used as a justification by them for decades. Gradually reducing U.S. troops as the Iraqi military forces gain competence and confidence continues to be the least costly approach. The political track is also important: identifying and further strengthening effective local leaders and cajoling positive engagement from regional powers.

Restructuring national security institutions. The structure of American government is a huge impediment to conducting policy. It requires management by individuals with virtuoso skills to inspire effort from independent departments that have vastly different abilities to carry out their statutory responsibilities. Despite the many studies that advocate radical interagency restructuring, we will probably continue to operate with institutions that are cautiously designed to prevent the concentration of power rather than to provide efficiency in policy making and execution. Such restructuring would probably consume an administration. The quickest way to create change would be budgetary: realign spending to build capacity in the non-Defense agencies and hold departmental leaders accountable for producing collective outcomes.

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