Marines with the 2nd Marine Air Wing extract the Marines after a simulation at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., on August 14, 2013.

Marines with the 2nd Marine Air Wing extract the Marines after a simulation at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., on August 14, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. James Mast

US Strategic Leaders Need to Think Bigger – Much Bigger

The entire international system is in flux. It’s time U.S. leaders figure out America’s core interests and start fresh. By Hanna Samir Kassab

Russian action against Ukraine, Israeli/Palestinian battles in Gaza, Islamic State in the Middle East, Chinese influence in East Asia -- the world is coming to an end. Once the world's dominant, hegemonic actor since 1991, the United States is now in a period of relative and absolute decline. The dual forces of emerging states like China and Russia coupled with the 2008 financial crisis continue to do serious damage to American influence in the world. Since the United States can no longer project power like it used to, the bad guys are taking the opportunity to run wild, grab territory and amass power to dominate the world. Given this dire situation, war is on the horizon. Competing powers tend to clash in these environments: the sky is falling and we are all going to die.

Or at least that's the argument.

A more reasoned position might sound like this: the international system is now in a period of transition. Yes, the United States is suffering in economic and political terms and there are competing powers running amuck in areas they want special privileges. But, does this necessarily mean that American decline is irreversible? Certainly not. This period of transition is an opportunity for the U.S. to consolidate its power in realms of interest and recalibrate its foreign policy goals and processes in terms of two important needs: state security and economic prosperity.

Historically, the U.S. has been able to pursue these interests more efficiently and effectively than today. George Washington warns us to “steer clear of permanent alliances” especially with European nations. It was not in the newly formed country’s interests to do so, he argued, because the nation had little to gain from such gross entanglements. Alexander Hamilton lobbied government to enhance and protect domestic business and international trade by creating a navy. What followed was economic progress that made America attractive to those seeking a better life. This is fundamentally missing in American foreign policy discussions today.

The problem with the United States foreign policy today is that it does not know what lies at the center of its core interests, and hasn’t since the Cold War. After World War II, it was in the interest of the U.S. to prevent the expansion of communism and the Soviet Union and ensure international political stability. The challenges of today are certainly different. The United States no longer needs to defend the entire world against that ideology or Moscow’s designs. Today, there are calls the U.S. needs an equally robust plan, and arsenal, to defend and defeat Islamic extremism. Such endeavors may lead to overstretch; some argue that the U.S. is indeed overstretched. It is now time for the country to do more with less.  

The problem with the United States foreign policy today is that it does not know what lies at the center of its core interests, and hasn’t since the Cold War.

The U.S. must maintain its security and continually expand economically. In terms of security, moments that once called for unilateral action now demand diplomacy, finesse, buck-passing and the use of soft power. This calls for foreign policy overhaul.

To recalibrate U.S. foreign policy priorities, a good start is to redefine the importance of each region in terms of security and economic prosperity; in other words, the long-term core interests which serve United States’ security and survival. Here are some suggestions for where to begin.

The first matter of interest is in Europe where Russia is playing a very dangerous game. President Vladimir Putin wants to reclaim past prestige for Russia and demands recognition in past areas of influence. The states of Eastern Europe, especially those with large Russian minorities, are his mark. The United States must respect Russian claim in these areas to avoid any further conflict. If the United States stands in the way of Russian prestige, Russia will consider itself threatened. This will exacerbate the problem, and it has. Before, the conflict was limited between Russia and Ukraine; now, with American and European sanctions and growing animosity, the conflict has taken new meaning. A new course must be taken: Cold War containment will counter Russian expansion. This means allowing Russia to achieve its goal in a clearly marked area: non-NATO Eastern Europe. By doing so, Russia will gain international recognition, the goal of any 19th century statesman. However, within these actions are the seeds of destruction. The reputation of Russia, especially with regard to economic and soft power, will be hurt by these actions, so much so that Putin would be voted out of office. Therefore, I argue that the Russian issue will solve itself if a policy of containment be adopted.

East Asia is another region which demands serious attention. China is a country that, like Russia, is searching for its own sphere of influence from which to defend itself. Japan, a long-time foe of China, is an ally to the United States. Japan, along with many smaller East Asian countries like Vietnam, are feeling threatened by Chinese action and the United States is pivoting to their aid. While these strategies are potent, it creates growing uncertainty for the region and the world. It is here that diplomacy can be used to create a sense of respect for Chinese expansion while continuing to strengthen ties and capabilities in the region. However, more important than this is the paying off of the debt to China. China holds a large sum of American debt. While there is complex interdependence in these matters (China needs United States prosperity to benefit from holding the debt), the United States must pay down this debt. This is for two reasons. First, as a responsible debtor country, the United States must preserve and safeguard its economic reputation; second, in case the creditor decides to diversify its foreign debt holdings (for Euros for example). Further, currency diversification (not to mention dumping dollars) may weaken the US dollar relative to other currencies as well as its purchasing power parity. This is an essential part of creating security in this new world order.

Other parts of the world are of great interest to the United States and new thinking must be considered. In the Middle East, it is becoming apparent that the Islamic State is growing out of control. The United States is building alliances with neighboring countries and they plan to share the burden of rooting out this cancer. However, the cancer will only grow back if a certain issue remains unsolved: the now 66+ year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel must be encourage (and when I mean encouraged, I mean forced) to make peace with the Palestinians through the two-state solution. The United States cannot be dictated to by Israel; Israel is the weaker ally and must follow the United States. The Palestinians must also be encouraged (and I mean forced) to accept this peace. And, it must be a just peace meaning the right to return, a shared Jerusalem and a fair and equal agreement over water and airspace. This issue has dragged on long enough and it has only hurt the United States culminating in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Israelis lack foresight; they must understand that without such a solution, there will never be peace for them and for the world.

The global south (the countries of Africa and Latin America) and its importance must also be redefined. African countries must continue developing and the United States must try to be part of this process. Through mutual free trade agreements and aid projects, the United States can promote itself, its soft power and improve its economic position given the great natural resource wealth of the region. This is important to curb the expanding influence of China in Africa as well. Hence, there is much to gain from increasing relations with the countries of Africa and African states will benefit greatly. Latin American policy should be discussed in this same light. Increasing diplomatic exchange, especially in anti-American countries, will only serve to create a better reputation for the United States in its traditional area of influence.

Above all: the United States must recognize the spheres of immediate influence of emerging, competing powers, even if it means giving those countries leeway to freely operate in these areas. While tragic, this is the way of the international system and the wisdom of containment will not fail.

Above all: the United States must recognize the spheres of immediate influence of emerging, competing powers, even if it means giving those countries leeway to freely operate in these areas.

Economically, the U.S. must adopt strategies to enhance the position of the middle class. Traditionally, this segment forms the backbone entrepreneurship and invention. This would serve economic growth and development. The American dream must be maintained which means that growing income inequality must be solved using the free market.

Simply put, the U.S. cannot afford to be the world’s policeman. Smarter foreign policy given specific, current threats to the national security and economic performance must be adopted now. Given emerging powers and continuing economic instability, the U.S. must be able to coherently understand itself, its interests and the threats which may potentially harm those interests.  

Like any transition, there will be an expected degree of uncertainty. It’s time for the United States to figure out what its core interests are in terms of security and prosperity given its declining force in creating a stable international environment. Do not confuse the acorns for doom, as the Chicken Little story goes. Calm down and engage in clear, blue-sky, unorthodox thinking. And do it with a degree of optimism.