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January 28, 2012

Running the World … Differently

by Mike M

So New Gingrich is calling for a much more muscular, activist American role in Latin America, proposing US support for a “Cuban spring,” and declaring Hugo Chavez a “mortal enemy” of the United States.


It becomes increasingly unclear what world much of the National Security Establishment is living in.  Onrushing tides of entitlement programs and escalating debt interest will crush domestic discretionary programs into a telephone booth.  Repeated polls since 2008 show Americans determined to restrain their global impulses; one 2011 survey found 58 percent of Republicans, for Reagan’s sake, when forced to choose, picking “pay less attention to problems overseas” over “be active in world affairs.”  Abroad, multiplying centers of power will leave less room for Yankee say-so.  And the degree of actual threat loose in the world is minimal by historical standards; everything is either microscopic and non-state, or “potential.”

Yet politicians like Gingrich, and academics and think-tankers across the spectrum, continue to insist on thrusting American Power and Influence around into remote corners of the globe and issues of secondary import, precisely as we have been doing.  So we’re talking to the Philippines, for example, about boosting the US military presence, when the prospect of a Chinese amphibious landing force looming on Manila’s horizon is almost precisely nil.

Something’s gotta give.  So let’s posit:  A leading strategic challenge over the coming decade is to design a global strategic posture that still underwrites stability, but at a much reduced profile.

(Why not, BTW, just jump on the Ron Paul bandwagon and go isolationist?  Two reasons.  One, in a world of diffusing power, forces of entropic disorder grow.  Zbigniew Brzezinski may be blowing a little smoke when he refers to the “chaos” that will appear without an American hand on the global tiller, but he makes a point.  And second, perceptions:  There is a lag time between the rise of alternative power centers and their confidence in their ability to run the world; hence one broad global attitude trend 2008-2011 has been a shift from “we resent the American unipolar meathead” to “we’re getting a little worried about the hollowing out of this largely benign global crossing guard.”  Too wanton a desertion of existing missions might cause dysfunctional reactions we could avoid with a measured transition.)

So we need to recalibrate to a more modest but still effective role.  What might it look like?

One model might be to surrender the on-the-ground power, the unipolar muscle-bound bouncer, the first responder of choice, for a role as coordinator and catalyst of necessary responses to challenges and threats.  (Note the word “necessary,” which gets to choice, prioritization and triage.)

We start with a two-part message.  We will continue to provide global leadership and remain engaged everywhere (including Europe, everyone’s favorite relic—even Newt took time to piss on it, in favor of Latin America, in his speech).  And we approach the emerging era with the same confidence we expressed at the outset of the Cold War:  Trends favor us; our system, and those of our friends and associates, will prevail over contrarian approaches.  Democracy, transparency, openness, norms constraining egregious violations of common standards—history bears witness to their gradual victory.  Our grand strategic task, therefore, is to stand watch as history does its job, and perform some clean-up work here and there.  We don’t need to rush to the ramparts.  They are not, at the moment, under siege.  Specific elements of a revised posture could then include:

  • Invest in long-range analysis, to understand issues and guide responsesDon’t laugh.  Everyone loves to joke about the weakness of “thinking” in favor of “acting.”  But if the US can devote more resources to being the world’s anticipator-of-first-resort and guide people artfully toward necessary preventive actions, it will be a huge service.  Indeed anticipation and prevention, to avoid the expensive, messy, controversial post-facto responses to which we have typically resorted, should be a major hallmark of a recalibrated approach.
  • Promote the self-sufficiency of others.  We accelerate the transition to the point where “we” don’t fight a Korean War—South Korea does, with crucial but highly targeted assistance from us (C4I, long-range strike, naval assets, whatever).  We respond to state fragility by training local forces.  We answer militancy with expanded intelligence or law enforcement collaboration and capacity development.  We do all this already, but the idea would be to make empowering others, rather than doing the job ourselves, the centerpiece of US global strategy.
  • Plan to add key pieces to necessary puzzles.  Military planning then shifts from “How many brigades do we need to send to X to prevail” to “what are the X number of specific capabilities that we need to bring to X contingency to ensure success, given our assumption that local partners A, B and C will be bearing the brunt of the effort.”  The US role would be to coordinate, plug key caps, offer capabilities local friends don’t have, not to surge war-winning force levels.  This planning approach would apply to peacekeeping, Libya-style peace enforcement ops, everything up to regional conflict.
  • Catalyze and underwrite regional solutions.  From promoting regional collaboration to generate deterrence vis-à-vis a local hegemon to regional peacekeeping or economic coalitions, the US can encourage, fund, train and otherwise help sponsor regional arrangements of various stripes.
  • Get serious about employing wide-scale networks of power.  When we want to achieve something, we shouldn’t just send our “diplomats” out to talk to “states”:  We should have officials and offices capable of marshaling the power of a hundred different varieties of agents, from non-state to quasi-state to business to individuals, both at home and abroad.
  • Use norms to substitute for US power.  In a few cases we may be able to collectivize the response.  One good example is the “freedom of navigation”:  One sees constant references to threats to sea lanes, but it’s difficult to imagine any major state wanting to live without trade.  So generate new UN mandates guaranteeing safe passage, and if a malcontent made trouble the US would have 190 allies in responding.

The idea in all of this is to build a thicket of obstacles confronting possible adventurers, on the one hand; and on the other, construct a powerful clan of like-minded agents ready to work together—sometimes with us, sometimes independent of us—to solve problems.  This is approach (1) helps the world conceive, define, anticipate and act preventively against the threat/problem; (2) thickens norms, agreements and networks to guarantee a response; (3) bolsters the capabilities of many agents to respond; and (4) in a few key cases, provides necessary capabilities to ensure success.  It’s a role that is often standing behind the world community, energizing and empowering it—“leading from behind?”—rather than rushing around, dictating and enforcing.  But it’s still leading.

And it’s a damn sight more sensible than running around calling two-bit autocrats, who have already utterly discredited themselves in the eyes of their region and the international community, “mortal” threats.  That just makes us look petty, foolish, and completely disconnected from the world.  Which would be funny, except that the security of Americans is riding on the choice; and for once, the character of the strategic context demands nuance over a routine belligerency.

The strategic challenge is clear enough.  All that’s left is the political response.

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