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The Great Superpower Meltdown

Welcome to 2025: American preeminence is disappearing fifteen years early.

| Mon Oct. 26, 2009 12:11 PM EDT

On Being an Ordinary Country

These are only a few examples of recent developments which indicate, to this author, that the day of America's global preeminence has already come to an end, years before the American intelligence community expected. It's increasingly clear that other powers—even our closest allies—are increasingly pursuing independent foreign policies, no matter what pressure Washington tries to bring to bear.

Of course, none of this means that, for some time to come, the U.S. won't retain the world's largest economy and, in terms of sheer destructiveness, its most potent military force. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the strategic environment in which American leaders must make critical decisions, when it comes to the nation's vital national interests, has changed dramatically since the onset of the global economic crisis.

Even more important, President Obama and his senior advisers are, it seems, reluctantly beginning to reshape U.S. foreign policy with the new global reality in mind. This appears evident, for example, in the administration's decision to revisit U.S. strategy on Afghanistan.

It was only in March, after all, that the president embraced a new counterinsurgency-oriented strategy in that country, involving a buildup of U.S. boots on the ground and a commitment to protracted efforts to win hearts and minds in Afghan villages where the Taliban was resurgent. It was on this basis that he fired the incumbent Afghan War commander, General David D. McKiernan, replacing him with General Stanley A. McChrystal, considered a more vigorous proponent of counterinsurgency. When, however, McChrystal presented Obama with the price tag for the implementation of this strategy—40,000 to 80,000 additional troops (over and above the 20,000-odd extra troops only recently committed to the fight)—many in the president's inner circle evidently blanched.

Not only will such a large deployment cost the U.S. treasury hundreds of billions of dollars it can ill afford, but the strains it is likely to place on the Army and Marine Corps are likely to be little short of unbearable after years of multiple tours and stress in Iraq. This price would be more tolerable, of course, if America's allies would take up more of the burden, but they are ever less willing to do so.

Undoubtedly, the leaders of Russia and China are not entirely unhappy to see the United States exhaust its financial and military resources in Afghanistan. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Vice President Joe Biden, among others, is calling for a new turn in U.S. policy, foregoing a counterinsurgency approach and opting instead for a less costly "counter-terrorism" strategy aimed, in part, at crushing Al Qaeda in Pakistan—using drone aircraft and Special Forces, rather than large numbers of U.S. troops (while leaving troop levels in Afghanistan relatively unchanged).

It is too early to predict how the president's review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan will play out, but the fact that he did not immediately embrace the McChrystal plan and has allowed Biden such free rein to argue his case suggests that he may be coming to recognize the folly of expanding America's military commitments abroad at a time when its global preeminence is waning.

One senses Obama's caution in other recent moves. Although he continues to insist that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran is impermissible and that the use of force to prevent this remains an option, he has clearly moved to minimize the likelihood that this option—which would also be plagued by recalcitrant "allies"—will ever be employed.

On the other side of the coin, he has given fresh life to American diplomacy, seeking improved ties with Moscow and approving renewed diplomatic contact with such previously pariah states as Burma, Sudan, and Syria. This, too, reflects a reality of our changing world: that the holier-than-thou, bullying stance adopted by the Bush administration toward these and other countries for almost eight years rarely achieved anything. Think of it as an implicit acknowledgement that the U.S. is now descending from its status as the globe's "sole superpower" to that of an ordinary country. This, after all, is what ordinary countries do; they engage other countries in diplomatic discourse, whether they like their current governments or not.

So, welcome to the world of 2025. It doesn't look like the world of our recent past, when the United States stood head and shoulders above all other nations in stature, and it doesn't comport well with Washington's fantasies of global power since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. But it is reality.

For many Americans, the loss of that preeminence may be a source of discomfort, or even despair. On the other hand, don't forget the advantages to being an ordinary country like any other country: Nobody expects Canada, or France, or Italy to send another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 68,000 already there and the 120,000 still in Iraq. Nor does anyone expect those countries to spend $925 billion in taxpayer money to do so—the current estimated cost of both wars, according to the National Priorities Project.

The question remains: How much longer will Washington feel that Americans can afford to subsidize a global role that includes garrisoning much of the planet and fighting distant wars in the name of global security, when the American economy is losing so much ground to its competitors? This is the dilemma President Obama and his advisers must confront in the altered world of 2025.

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