The Economist this week stepped into the widening debate about US credibility, provoked by Obama's caution in the Middle East and (less so) in East Asia. Unfortunately, like so many neoconservatives and liberal internationalists, it seems unwilling to learn what should now, post-Iraq, be fairly obvious lessons about hegemonic over-extension and the fetishisation of US 'credibility': Obama's restraint and caution are not 'weakness'; he is not 'abandoning' US allies; constantly analogising US intervention decisions to Munich or appeasement is pretty facile; and constant US intervention erodes the public's medium term support for military action, breaks the US fiscus, and ignites local nationalist blowback.
1. The US is indeed in decline, but the decline is relative, not absolute
America's relative decline is cushioned by its favourable geography (ie. America can stay off-shore from a lot of Eurasia's conflicts unless absolutely necessary, so the US military need not be that large). Decline from the unipolar heights on the 1990s was almost certainly inevitable. It would be extraordinary if the US were to maintain, say, a 30% share of global GDP. To do so would require levels of GDP expansion almost impossible for mature economies to achieve, or the continuing poverty of vast parts of the world. Next time you worry about China's growth, remember that hundreds of millions of people are now better off there: healthier, wealthier, better educated, and so on. Beijing's maritime claims are indeed capacious and should be resisted, but to lament China's growth because of American relative decline would be astonishingly selfish and cruel to the hundreds of millions of people pulled from grinding poverty over the last 40 years.
2. US relative decline is fairly slow, so America's allies have a lot of time to adjust
US power is not collapsing overnight, and Obama's 'weakness' does not alter the material balance of power that strongly favours the democratic world. The world is also fairly peaceful by historical standards. And where the US is in real trouble (infrastructure, gilded-age inequality, lost moral legitimacy due to torture and the hubristic Iraq invasion, for example) those wounds are often self inflicted.
3. Allied free riding is now a genuine problem
The US and its allies have been arguing over burden sharing for decades, but if the allies now believe the US lacks credibility or is in decline, then the obvious response is not to encourage, pace the Economist, more American truculence (didn't the allies complain about that under George W Bush?), but more allied help. Does it really need to be noted yet again how only three or four NATO member states meet their defence spending obligation (2% of GDP)? Does it not strike anyone else as supremely bizarre that Japan spends less than 1% of GDP on defence, despite Abe's tough talk on China? Or that South Korea spends less than 3% despite bordering the most frightening country since Nazi Germany? How about a little help for the weary titan, instead of pushing Obama into Syria or Crimea?
Similarly, the hang up with US credibility creates space for US allies to hijack the alliance for other purposes. Straight forward, unambiguous commitments can encourage allied recklessness. The most obvious example of this is Israel, which has manipulated the US shield to pursue a far tougher line with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors than would otherwise be possible. In Asia, one can see this in the endless Korea-Japan spats, where the US alliance ensures maximalists and zealots on both sides suffer little or no consequences for their outbursts.
So if Obama fudges a bit with the Asian allies, that's actually not so bad. They need to take their own defence and cooperation far more seriously, but the hub-and-spoke system does not incentivise that.
4. Deterrence is not about credibility and 'red lines'
This is a common error, and a popular Fox News cudgel against Obama, but the social science on this is now pretty clear (nice layperson summaries here and here). Deterrence, and more generally, the ability of hegemons like the US to arm twist others into following its wishes, is more about national interests and the power to back them than presidential rhetoric. Not everything that happens in the world has a direct bearing on the US. The US, in fact, is extraordinarily secure behind its wide oceans and powerful military. So when interventionists say 'we are all Georgians now' or 'Obama's presidency will be wrecked if he does not intervene in Syria,' others know this is bunk.
Is war with Russia over Crimea really in the US interest? Would American public opinion support the hawk position on Crimea? Probably not. When Bush proclaimed a global campaign for democracy in his second inaugural address, no one actually believed he would follow through with wars everywhere against non-democracies. Foreign opponents can see these obvious tensions and take calculated risks, as Putin correctly judged over Crimea.
That interventionist logic of credibility — that the US must fight everywhere so as to bolster deterrence everywhere — was famously Robert McNamara's rationale for Vietnam, where it failed spectacularly. More recently, decades of US intervention in the Middle East have not deterred Islamists, Iran, Israel, or even Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki from going their own way. The driver behind the Chinese challenge to Japan over Senkaku, or the Russian intervention in its 'near abroad,' is not US rhetoric, or Obama being a wimp. To think that is to succumb the imperial mindset of hegemonic Washington: that all foreigners' geopolitical choices revolve around the US presidency.
A more nuanced explanation would be the obvious national interest Chinese and Russian elites have in these places. This is not to legitimate their bullying, but rather to explain it and why 'red lines' that diverge wildly from a reasonable measure of US interests do not work. If George W Bush's belligerent foreign policy drew effective red lines, why did Putin invade Georgia and why did North Korea build nuclear weapons during his presidency? If geopolitics were this simple — based on whether the US president 'tough' or not — then we could draw red lines all over the place to stop conflicts. This vastly overrates the local power of the US in places far from its core interests. US hegemony, unipolarity, informal empire or whatever you want to call it, does not equal omnipotence.
So let's ease up a bit on Obama. Democratic states' electorates do not want large wars over small places unless absolutely necessary. It is not always 1938, and not every opponent is Hitler. Neocons and others may find this a 'betrayal of freedom,' and the partisan utility of this line insures that it will remain a media chestnut of the US right, but ultimately US foreign policy must broadly align with US voters' preferences. Americans sense the US got over-extended in the last two decades, that caution in foreign policy and greater allied participation would be helpful, that marching into places like Syria, Libya and Crimea could ignite large conflicts or unwinnable quagmires. Reasoned judgments like that are what leadership is all about. Does anyone really want to go back to Bush-era recklessness? Obama has done a reasonable job reconciling tough US domestic problems with global leadership.
Disclosure: I write for the Economist Intelligence Unit. No part of the Economist Group had editorial influence on this essay.
Photo by Flickr user Matthew Paulson.