Perceptions of American Decline
The United States remains a critical force in the international order.
The new style of foreign policy practiced by the Trump administration has provoked a great amount of commentary on the waning of an international order created in America's image. But this style of commentary says more about the way experts debate trends in international affairs than about the substance of foreign policy itself. For a better perspective, let’s focus on America’s role and actions in the Middle East.
America historically has had two overriding interests in the Middle East: supporting the state of Israel and ensuring the free world's oil supply. It was generally believed that the United States did this by attempting to balance the interests of others in the region. The Suez Canal crisis of 1956 allowed Washington to supplant the British and French, while the emergence of Anwar Sadat allowed them to supplant the Russians in Egypt. The Americans now presented themselves as the region’s key arbiter. Despite severe challenges from Iran in 1979 and in Iraq in 2003, this was understood to be a region where the Americans called the shots, or at least prevented anyone else from doing so.
In most cases, American diplomacy led the way. When needed, American force backed it up.
Today, however, we see an America that seems to have lost its taste for military adventures in the Middle East. Thanks to fracking, it is an America that no longer sees the Gulf as the one key waterway through which most of the world's oil passes. We see an America that has moved from at least portraying itself as an honest broker in the region, to one that has openly taken sides. Israel is no longer alone with its U.S. protectors in the region -- it has sided with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan against Iran. The White House no longer supports a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. In the aftermath of Syria’s war, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have a very significant say about who holds power, the pace of postwar reconstruction, and the fate of so many refugees.
For these reasons, many seem to conclude, America has gone from being the decider to the bystander -- no longer the hegemon. But just because American power is different does not give us reason to think it has eroded and ended.
Those who have worked in the region know how commonplace was the theory that the United States is omnipotent. It was called the "man-on-the-moon" theory -- if you can put a man on the moon, you can do anything. And if you can in fact do anything, then nothing happens without your express permission. Indeed, when things weren’t going as America would like, some locals concluded that there must be an extraordinarily clever plan by the Americans to achieve their ends by means not discernible to anybody else.
With the end of this omnipotence, comes impotence. Now, according to this line of thought, there's nothing the Americans can do in the region. They have become the "pitiful, helpless giant" of Nixon's nightmare of yore.
Except that it isn't true.
America still has a far greater military capacity than anyone else, and it is not close. It has alliances and relationships of a sort that no other great power can match, even as the Russians take opportunistic advantage of the situation in Syria. America's economy remains the biggest in the world, and the business ties that have grown in the Middle East over recent decades are still active, even as the Chinese expand the reach of the Belt and Road Initiative to the region. American soft power still rules the airwaves, and the best students still seek out American universities.
Of course, influence wanes at various points in time and place, but American power is still evident.
We would be wise to remind our friends and adversaries, as well as ourselves, that we haven't left the world stage. Just as it was unrealistic, in the past, for people in the Middle East to think everything that happened there was by U.S. design, it's equally unrealistic to think that the United States has been pushed aside and other forces are calling all the shots.
America’s decline in the Middle East and elsewhere is more a matter of perception than reality. The real danger is that others will make their decisions based on these perceptions and misunderstand the role that America still plays there and around the globe.
Many have emphasized this administration’s foreign policy style tends to leave others uncertain and unknowing. That may be, and the inconsistency of American policy statements is something new and important to recognize. But it does not mean that an America that was here yesterday will be gone tomorrow. For other countries to formulate policy and economic decisions on that basis would be a grave mistake. It's a new style all right, and we all need to get used to it. But as for substance? America remains formidable.
Cameron Munter is CEO and President of the EastWest Institute in New York. As an American diplomat, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan (2010-2012) and as U.S. Ambassador to Serbia (2007-2010). The views expressed are the author's own.