Cool It With the ‘America In Decline’ Talk
Clear-eyed assessment, not reductive defeatism, is required to develop a foreign policy that meets U.S. interests.
With more than 40 million Americans out of work, demonstrations rocking cities coast-to-coast, and projections for a dire economic picture this summer, you can be forgiven for believing the United States is on a rapid decline.
The conventional wisdom now emerging is one of a distracted, bumbling, and fumbling America ceding the international playing field to strategic competitors and outright adversaries. In the words of a featured June 2 report in the New York Times: "with the United States looking inward, preoccupied by the fear of more viral waves, unemployment soaring over 20 percent and nationwide protests ignited by deadly police brutality, its competitors are moving to fill the vacuum, and quickly.”
While this “U.S. is in decline” narrative is exceedingly popular today, it also happens to be inaccurate — and dangerous. If it becomes widely accepted as fact that Washington is “retreating” and leaving adversaries to “fill the vacuum,” then U.S. policymakers responsible for formulating and executing foreign policy will be increasingly susceptible to making bad policy.
We need to clear the record: discussions about the United States losing its luster, or on its way to meeting the same fate as the Roman Empire, are vastly overblown. To continue making these arguments is to wipe away all context and ignore recent history.
Much has already been written about China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, perhaps the world’s most important shipping lane and an area where multiple countries have set out competing sovereignty claims. This year alone, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy has sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel in disputed waters off the Paracel Islands and engaged in a month-long standoff with a Malaysian oil exploration ship in waters claimed by China, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Beijing has become noticeably more confrontational with Taiwan, dropping the word “peaceful” from its reunification plans and reportedly preparing a military drill simulating the seizure of Taiwanese-held Pratas Island. And as Beijing´s move on Hong Kong last week shows, the Chinese Communist Party is getting bolder and asserting itself on issues it has long considered as vitally important to its national security, despite universal international condemnation.
We are led to believe that China’s recent activity in the South China Sea is some direct product of a U.S. seemingly incapable of maintaining a global leadership role. This, however, discounts the fact that Beijing has long viewed the waterway as its exclusive domain and has in fact spent the last 25 years coercing, cajoling, and otherwise chipping away at its neighbors’ competing claims through various military maneuvers. To chalk up China’s activity in the Pacific to a lack of U.S. resolve or leadership is to overstate Washington’s ability to deter Chinese behavior in this domain. If this mistaken premise is accepted outright, it will almost certainly convince Washington that a more intensive U.S. military response would be deter future Chinese assertiveness.
It’s important to note that China has continued to improve its posture in the South and East China Seas despite an uptick in U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations and B-1 bomber flights in international airspace.
Nor does the present narrative explain the recent spate of Russian interceptions of U.S. aircraft in international airspace, which are not exactly a new phenomenon either. On May 26, Russian Su-35 aircraft challenged a U.S. Navy P-8A flying in the eastern Mediterranean in what the U.S. Navy called an “unsafe and unprofessional” operation. Five weeks earlier, a similar Russian aircraft intercepted another U.S. surveillance plane in the same area. The U.S. Air Force has reciprocated; on April 9, U.S. F-22s escorted two Russian maritime surveillance aircraft after they entered the Alaskan Air Identification Zone. Such encounters are likely to continuee, which is precisely why it is urgent for U.S. and Russian officials to establish far more durable channels of communication in order to deescalate the situation and ensure these types of relatively regular incidents don´t result in a miscalculation or mid-air collision.
Over the previous week, U.S. officials have suggested Russia is making a power-play in North Africa and establishing its own strategic base in Libya. According to U.S. Africa Command, more than a dozen Russian warplanes recently flew to Eastern Libya purportedly to assist its partner in the civil war, renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, after a series of humiliating setbacks on the battlefield. Russian investment in Libya´s conflict, however, hasn´t exactly panned out the way the Kremlin anticipated.
Haftar has turned out to be an unreliable, mercurial, stubborn wannabe strongman whose with other armed, tribal factions is fueled by little more than contempt for the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli. Russian President Vladimir Putin was publicly embarrassed last December, when Haftar walked out of a Kremlin-orchestrated peace conference. Negotiations remain practically nonexistent, which suggests Russia will soon face an unenviable choice between doubling down on a war that shows no signs of abating or disengaging and looking feckless.
As for Russia´s presence in Syria, this too has become an albatross around Moscow´s neck. While Russian air support in 2015 turned the war around and saved Bashar al-Assad from death or exile, Moscow´s investment in Syria since the conflict erupted more than nine years ago has yet to translate into concrete security benefits for the Kremlin. Notwithstanding the establishment of a few Russian airbases and friendly lease terms for the warm-port in Tartus, Moscow´s so-called victory in Syria consists of nothing more than a broken country led by a government that is corrupt, largely isolated from the West, and woefully incompetent in delivering basic services. Syria´s economy is in utter shambles as a result of the war, a rash of international economic sanctions, and outright mismanagement. Assad, the man the Kremlin has backed despite significant harm to its reputation, remains intransigent on even the slightest compromise with his opponents—leading Russia itself to question whether its support of the Syrian dictator was worth the cost.
The bottom line: the notion that the United States is shrinking to a shell of its former glory or somehow withering in the face of challenges from its strategic competitors leaves out all nuance and simplifies a highly complicated world into clickbait.
Developing a foreign policy that meets U.S. interests requires working from accurate assessments and the world as it really is. Relying on a black-and-white view of international affairs is risky business and could very well produce policies that will truly weaken the United States.