Strategies can have unintended consequences, sometimes causing the very effects they hope to ameliorate. The current grand strategy of the US — which Professor Barry Posen in his recent book Restraint calls Liberal Hegemony — is a strategy that has given rise to such problematic consequences.
Liberal Hegemony is not only expensive, it is counterproductive, causing allies to leech off America’s free security, encourages rivals to balance against the US more strongly than they otherwise would and even provides incentive for some states to behave recklessly, knowing that America is there to back them up.
Liberal Hegemony has also caused other problems. America has antagonized Russia by needlessly expanding NATO, frightened China with its Asian pivot and mobilized terrorist groups with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. As a project of spreading US ideals and institutions, Liberal Hegemony also conflicts with identity politics, which will only grow in the future as a political force as globalization and urbanization elicit stronger identity politics of resistance against US narratives. Finally, the strategy has another troubling aspect: it periodically pushes the US into armed conflict, often a costly, asymmetric kind of conflict which the US is not good at waging or winning.
Despite these problems and costs, Liberal Hegemony has delivered very little as far as increasing US power is concerned. It’s benefits, Posen argues persuasively, have been overstated. Nation building efforts, for example, have been a complete failure. And US presence, rather than assure regional security, can actually create regional conflicts, especially when the US supports a “reckless driver”, an ally who uses the alliance with the US as a shield for aggressive policies in the region.
The current grand strategy cannot be sustained without causing damage to America’s fundamental strengths and sources of power by forcing the US to maintain forces and spending levels it does not need to assure its own security needs. Enforcing Liberal Hegemony is not only costly, it is also beyond US capacity. The US, for example, cannot impose democracy on peoples unwilling to accept it. Nor can it destroy its enemies completely or prevent even very weak states from acquiring nuclear weapons. It cannot, in other words, even if it tried, which it has since the end of the Cold War at the cost of lives and treasure, accomplish the essential tenets of Liberal Hegemony: eliminating rogue states and preventing proliferation. But the US does not need to do these things in order to assure its power and security.
The US is a very capable and powerful country, Posen argues, and its geographic location provides an unparalleled level of security against invasion. Even a nuclear attack by a strategic competitor is complicated by the distances involved and the sure and devastating retaliation that would follow. This means that there are few credible military powers who can actually threaten the US. In fact, there are no credible challengers in Eurasia that could threaten the US.
Though they make the headlines, for example, countries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have no military capacity to take on the US. Of these, China is alone in the potential to grow economically to the point where it could pay for a military that could equal that of the US. But this may not happen for another two decades or more. It may also never happen — China may get old before it becomes an economy equal to that of the US. But if it does happen, the US would need more capable allies rather than dependents. Liberal Hegemonic project, however, encourages the reverse, weak, dependent allies who only subtract from US power. Recognizing this is essential to a more rational grand strategy.
In proposing a new grand strategy, Posen takes a realist approach, focusing on plausible and imminent military threats to US power that the US faces and will likely face in the future and rejects the ideological project that underlies activism that has characterized US strategy thus far.
Posen identifies three core US national security interests: maintenance of a balance of power in Eurasia, management of nuclear proliferation and suppression of terrorist groups who plan attacks on the US, proposing the military strategy of command of the commons as a remedy at a far smaller cost of only 2.5 percent of GDP.
Changing course will not be easy, however, as the current grand strategy has deep roots in the American ideology. The notion that America should spread its values in order to make the world a better place is as old as the Wilson presidency, if not older. It was certainly present in some form in the writings of Tomas Paine and was echoed by Abraham Lincoln, when he spoke of America as the world’s last, best hope.
Beyond ideological affinity, there is the issues of special interests. Liberal Hegemony has may supporters who benefit from advocating for activism: powerful foreign and domestic lobby groups have a great deal riding on the continuation of the current strategic status quo.
Finally, and this is the biggest problem with the strategy of Restraint, middle powers themselves may interpret the problem of absence of US security guarantees in the wrong way — rather than see it as a challenge to become better and more capable powers, they may do what is easiest and requires the least effort and give up.
Choice of grand strategy is ultimately dependent on one’s estimation of US power in the future. While today the US is very strong and China has some distance to go before it can compete with the US, America’s power now and in the near future also undercuts the need for restraint: if the US is so powerful, it can afford continued largesse, advocates of strategic status quo may argue. Change is needed only if the US is not as powerful as it seems and costs do matter because the US is on a relative decline. The argument for restraint, then, is a tacit acknowledgement that the US will decline in relative power in the coming years and some may find this ideologically impossible to accept.
But the decline could be far more precipitous than most pundits can imagine and any strategy can deal with. For example, according to PwC projections, US GDP in PPP terms will be 38 trillion dollars in 2050 while China’s will be 57 trillion. In 2030, the two economies will pass one another, each with a 20 trillion GDP PPP, with China rising steadily upward. Other estimates put China in the 70 trillion range by 2050 and the US at 40 trillion.
To these estimates, however, one also needs to add the fact that the US federal debt will rise by 2030 to about 180 percent of GDP and as much as 290 percent of GDP by 2050 (US debt in 2030 will be about 40 trillion, with debt maintenance payments eating up nearly all of the federal budget; by 2050 it would be almost 100 trillion or more than 3 times the GDP of 38 trillion, with the debt payments forcing cuts into defense spending and other programs) to see the true US position: China’s immense economy, at least twice the size of that of the US by 2050, will actually be much larger in its political impact as the US will be functionally bankrupt and dependent on China’s good will to avoid an apocalyptic economic breakdown. By 2050, then, it will not be Washington politicians who decide America’s fate, but those in Beijing, rendering US grand strategy moot.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0801452589]