A year ago Leslie Gelb, twice a senior U.S. government official and current President emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, made an astute observation that remains utterly ignored by the squabbling politicians in Washington, to the long-term peril of all Americans:
For all the novel characteristics of the present era, there is one stunning constant: the national security strategy of the United States. Whereas other countries have adjusted to the new economics-based order, Washington has been tardy. [“GDP Now Matters More Than Force,” Foreign Affairs, Nov-Dec 2010, 38.]
The world is passing the U.S. by. Put theoretically, the complex-adaptive system that is the global political order is currently adapting, or more precisely its components (states, corporations, private militias, sub-national political structures like Hezbollah and the Haqqani fiefdom and al Qua’ida in Yemen) are co-evolving very quickly in our on-demand information age. The U.S. ruling elite, however, sits apart, like the kings of medieval Europe, refusing to recognize the swirling dynamics of the surrounding world. Gelb wrote the above words just before the Arab Spring, which exposed even more clearly the rapid evolution of the world and the lessening relevance of the U.S.
As Gelb’s title suggests, he got it half right in asserting that we are moving into an “economic-centric world ,” where U.S. national security is weakened by Washington’s outdated love affair with military force as the solution to all problems. Let’s face it: Washington holds firmly in its grip one very big hammer, which it therefore wants to use. Unfortunately for Washington—not to mention everyone else—the world’s socio-political challenges are constructed of fine glass.
Thus, the U.S., its military power notwithstanding, is slowly being marginalized because the world is finding the U.S. increasingly unable to contribute to the resolution of global problems. Albeit possessing the world’s leading economy, the U.S. not only refused to lead the world’s response to our environmental challenge, its governing representatives even deny that one exists. Similarly, Washington squeezes its eyes shut in order to avoid seeing the blindingly obvious discontent of world Muslims about their condition and their treatment by the West.
The U.S. was first rejected separately by both al Qua’ida and Iran, with the Sunni and Shi’i activists each demanding a restructuring of the U.S.-centric global political order and, taking a page from Washington’s playbook, backing up their demands with force. Washington responded with flat rejection, redoubling its reliance on force. Next, the U.S. was passed by a Turkey frustrated with Washington’s rising incompetence. Then Washington was ignored by the rising generation of Arabs, who generated the Arab Spring revolt both without the anti-Americanism of al-Qua’ida and Iran but also without paying any attention to U.S. attitudes. What can an American make of a region-wide Arab revolt against domestic repression that asserts all the values of American democracy while ignoring the U.S.? A superpower can understand and deal with an enemy that hates it, but what does a superpower do with a friend that ignores it? “Superpower” and “marginalized” are mutually exclusive concepts. Washington needs to wake up.
If Gelb was half right in pointing to the rise of an “economic-centric world” in which Washington’s focus on brute force is increasingly out-of-touch with reality, what he missed was ideology. Whether it is the fundamentalist ideology of the U.S. Protestant radical right, the expansionist ideology of the Israeli right, the fundamentalist ideologies of al Qua’ida and Iran, the prickly defensive Islamic nationalism of Pakistan, the fight-to-the-death demand for independence of Afghans, the democratic ideology of the Arab Spring proponents, or the cautious nationalism of China, the Twentieth Century is also the age of rising ideology.
If the outright use (as opposed to the possession) of military force is inappropriate for problem-solution in an economic-centric world, it is equally inappropriate in a world of competing ideologies that are all demanding, at the very least, a modicum of respect. Military force destroys economies and exacerbates ideologies. Both outcomes represent defeats for the U.S.
And again, note that in a complex-adaptive world, we are all co-evolving. Therefore, crude military force not only harms the economies of target societies but also the economy of the attacker. A decade of war against activist Islam has not only wrecked Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Palestine, it has also caused a degree of damage to the U.S. economy that may take a generation to overcome. Economic chaos may be good for al Qua’ida since it will bring the powerful West down to its own level, but it is very bad for the sophisticated high-tech society of the modern world.
Similarly, crude military force exacerbates ideologies, and, again, this applies not only to adversaries but to ourselves. The al Qua’ida that aspired to defeat a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—and was effectively allied with the U.S.–evolved during two decades of fighting into the al Qua’ida that destroyed the Twin Towers. As the U.S. responded with military force against one Muslim society after another in a crude effort to stop a tiny hostile minority that provoked far more resistance than it destroyed, the ideological stance of American society was also warped, with American ideals increasingly usurped by short-sighted and self-defeating extremism expressed as a love-affair with brute force.
The ironic result is that as the two extremist forces—al Qua’ida and Washington—fought a seemingly endless military battle, each became marginalized. The world adapted and moved on, striving for solutions to the obvious array of problems. The world recognized that neither al Qua’ida’s fundamentalist call for a Caliphate to be achieved by slaughtering innocents not only in the West but also in Muslim societies nor the U.S. insistence on maintaining a rigid U.S.-centric global order that would reject not just Islamic terrorism but any serious Islamic call for socio-political reform constituted an appropriate or acceptable response to global political challenges.
These broad observations imply the need for real changes in U.S. foreign policy. Yemen is a case in point. Aiding Saleh’s dictatorial regime as it massacres the population and morphs into a hereditary criminal gang only serves to justify the revival of al Qua’ida. Extremism begets extremism.
The solution for the U.S. lies in a profound reassessment of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. needs to define its security so as to encompass space for rising powers, including those with reformist goals. Skillful U.S. leadership could enable it to blend compromises on the redesign of the global political system to meet some goals of, for example, Iran with incentives that would be hard for Iran to turn away from. More precisely, the U.S. could benefit significantly by offering two major troublemakers (from the U.S. perspective)–Iran and Israel–deals based on a common principle: a package of benefits and responsibilities instead of the current blank check to Israel and solid wall of denial to Iran. Such a package would have to offer both Iran and Israel security guarantees in return for agreement by each to stay peacefully within territorial boundaries.
The U.S. also would benefit from encouraging innovative leadership by “promoting” ambitious lieutenants to positions of greater authority from which they could be challenged to shoulder real responsibility rather than just carping from the sidelines. Turkey and Brazil are not challengers but friends who see a problem-resolution vacuum that needs to be filled. Making use of their energy and creativeness could greatly benefit an overextended and confused U.S. that needs time to recharge its domestic socio-economic batteries.
To remain relevant as the world evolves, Washington needs to recognize the rising importance of both economic strength and ideology. Possessing more ability to destroy that all the rest of the world’s militaries combined is not enabling Washington to solve problems. The disasters of Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia make that obvious. The steady rise of China, coolly profiting from America’s aimless thrashing, and the cold refusal of Iran to kowtow only underscore the declining value of America’s military superiority. The more that Washington allows the U.S. economy, infrastructure, and educational system to decline, the less the Chinese, the Iranians, or anyone else sees reason to take the U.S. seriously. The longer Washington refuses to address ideological concerns being voiced by the rest of the world, the greater the impetus for the rest of the world to reject Washington as a lost cause.