America in an era of enemy deprivation syndrome

In a speech in Washington DC yesterday, Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.), said: The United States remains the world’s only superpower but the diffusion of wealth and power to regions beyond the North Atlantic has greatly reduced our military’s ability to shape trends and events around the world. China, in particular, is emerging as an immovable military object, if not yet an irresistible military force. Our political influence, economic clout, and self-confidence are not what they used to be. The “sequester” and the political dysfunction that led us to it promise to weaken us still more. Major adjustments in U.S. policies and diplomacy are overdue.

Global governance was once mainly a vector of the struggle between the two superpowers and the blocs they led. After Moscow defaulted on the Cold War and dropped out of the contest for worldwide dominance, Americans briefly imagined that our matchless economic strength and unchallengeable military supremacy would enable us unilaterally to shape the world to our advantage. In the first decade of this century, however, the wizards of Wall Street brought down the global economy even as they discredited the so-called “Washington consensus” and emasculated the once-robust image of American capitalism.

Meanwhile, much of the world was disappointed by the lack of U.S. leadership on other issues ranging from climate change to peace in the Middle East. People everywhere looked hopefully to worldwide institutions, like the United Nations, the G-20, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. None of them proved up to the job. Responsibility for the regulation of the planetary political economy began to devolve to its regions, if only by default.

The globally coherent worldwide order that American power configured itself to enforce after the Cold War is clearly morphing into something new. We can see the outlines of the new order even if we cannot yet make out its details and don’t know what to call it. The “post-Cold War era” is long past. The “American Century” ended eleven years ago, on 9/11. We are exiting the “age of antiterrorism.” We are uncertain against whom we should deploy our incomparable military might or to what international purposes we should bend ourselves.

Call it what you will. This is an era of enemy deprivation syndrome. There is no overarching contest to define our worldview. The international system is once again governed by multiple contentions and shifting strategic geometries. In such a world, diplomatic agility is as important as constancy of commitment – or more so.

Before the Cold War, the United States twice fought in coalition with Britain, France, Australia, Canada, and a few other countries, but we had no permanent alliances. The Soviet threat and the need to deal with the instabilities that attended the end of European empires in Asia and Africa led Americans to reverse our traditional aversion to foreign entanglements and to embrace them with a vengeance. The United States ultimately extended formal protection to about a fourth of the world’s countries and informal protection to nearly another fourth. In our usage, the word “ally” lost its original sense of “accomplice” and came to mean “protectorate,” not partner.

There have been huge changes in the global security environment since the collapse of our Soviet enemy. But, there have been no adjustments at all in our alliance and defense commitments to foreign nations – other than their enlargement. The alliance structure we built in the Cold War has long outlived the foe it was created to counter. Remarkably, however, the preservation of our prestige at the head of that alliance structure seems to have become the principal objective of our foreign policy. Carrying on with approaches that address long-disappeared realities rather than adjusting to new circumstances is patently dysfunctional behavior. It represents the triumph of complacency and inertia over reason, statesmanship, and strategy. [Continue reading…]

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