Thursday, May 21, 2015

Quo Vadis, America?

President Obama hosts a Gulf security summit, and most Arab leaders decide not to attend.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu comes to Washington to address Congress on Iran over protests from the president.  Britain ignores pleas from the United States and becomes a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a potential competitor for the World Bank.  The Obama administration gripes that the Brits are pandering to the Chinese. Russia’s Putin, like Syria’s Assad, strides across American redlines with little consequence.  Beijing and Moscow announce joint military exercises…in the Mediterranean. NATO ally Turkey turns to China for new defense equipment.  The Dutch go to Huawei for internet security.

These are not random events. What’s going on?

-        Ian Bremmer

We have lived through a few meaningful inflection points in the last couple of decades: September 11, for reasons that need not be listed; the financial calamity that came to full force in 2008, making open to the world the festering wound that remained from Bretton Woods. 

Regarding military and foreign policy matters (which, for the US, has typically been the same thing), perhaps the most overt sign was regarding Syria two years ago, providing what could be determined as a real inflection point in the role of the US on the world stage.

Bremmer has written a book addressing the future possible paths that can be taken – or are possible – regarding the role of the United States government on the world stage.  The excerpt above is from the introduction.  (I have not read the book.)

…the lack of a coherent US foreign policy strategy didn’t begin with Barack Obama—though his second term struggles have made the problem more painfully obvious.  From the fall of the Wall and Soviet collapse, US presidents of both parties have defined America’s mission in terms of tactics.  US foreign policy has been reactive and improvisational for 25 years.  And we can no longer identify a Democratic or Republican approach to foreign policy.

Flailing might be an appropriate term.  Of course, the US used September 11 to galvanize the population against a new enemy – terrorism.  Convenient, as it – unlike a mortal enemy – would never pass from this earth.  Potentially a truly perpetual enemy.

Bremmer offers three possible paths for this American future.  He calls them “choices”; however, the term “choices” suggests that the individual or entity actually has a choice.  I am not so sure.

Indispensable America: This one will be the most familiar to readers. We live in a profoundly interconnected world.  No, America shouldn’t play the global cop, but if America doesn’t lead, nobody else will either.  International wildfires will burn out of control.  More Middle East states will fail, and terrorism will metastasize.  Russian revisionism will threaten Europe and beyond.  China will use its growing economic influence to expand its political leverage, undermining structures and standards created by advanced industrial democracies to strengthen individual liberty and free market capitalism.

To describe this as “the most familiar” would be an understatement.  This view is given glowing support virtually 24 / 7 – through public education, mainstream media, and politically acceptable dialogue.

Moneyball America: I take the idea of Moneyball America from Michael Lewis’s groundbreaking book on Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who revolutionized the way in which winning baseball franchises are built.  Without sentiment, he swept away old rules and conventional wisdom to focus on relentlessly rational results-oriented management.  The A’s didn’t have the money of those damn Yankees, but by spending scarce capital only where it offered the most promising return, they found they didn’t need it.  A champion of Moneyball America is less interested in promoting America’s values than in enhancing America’s value.  Don’t waste money and lives to sell ideas that leaders in China, Russia, and the Middle East are easily able to ignore.

This path requires wisdom beyond the means of any individual or bureaucracy; it can only result in more flailing.  They might try, without meaningful success.

Independent America: American values matter only if Americans live up to them at home.  Washington can’t bribe, bully, or blackmail China (or other authoritarian states) into an embrace of liberal free-market democracy.  Americans don’t have that kind of power.  US allies and enemies know this, and both are banking on a more multipolar world—and a more balanced global economy.  Many Americans now accept that a stronger will, deeper insight, and deeper pockets will not help Washington reshape the world as it would like.  No nation, not even the sole superpower, can consistently get what it wants in a world where so many other governments can shrug off US pressure.

Events over the last several years make clear that America is on this third path, and to change it to the first (I discount the second, as I discount the possibility of effective central planning in any matter) will result in confrontations that no one on earth will survive.

Bremmer sees the 2016 election as important for a debate on these issues.  On the one side is candidate Clinton.  Bremmer describes her as a “moneyball” secretary of state, but an “indispensable America” candidate.  On the other, he offers Rand Paul – representing the “independent America” camp (although he clearly has moved his rhetoric toward the “indispensable America” camp as well).

In this excerpt, Bremmer doesn’t reveal the “choice” that comes closest to his view; it is to be found in the last chapter of the book, after presenting the case for each of the three.

I have hinted on my view: this is not a “choice.”  It seems to be an inevitability (Agent Smith: “You hear that Mr. Anderson?  That is the sound of inevitability.  It is the sound of your death....”  Except – unlike regarding Neo’s future – I believe the term “inevitability” is quite applicable here.). 

Financially, American military adventurism cannot be sustained.  Government promises cannot be kept: Medicare, Social Security, pensions of all types, etc.  There will not be enough productive capacity to support the promises made to those not (or no longer) productive.  When push comes to shove, will Americans demand drone strikes in Yemen or Medicare?

Geo-politically, we see this playing out in front of us every day – read again the opening paragraph from Bremmer.  Consider what was only a few short years ago un-considerable – the United States did not bomb a country that it threatened to bomb: Syria.  When has that happened in the last…ever?

Further, see Ukraine, or more precisely, further evidence that “choice” number one above is no longer a possibility:

Arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon, Kerry spent three hours with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s very competent foreign minister, and then four with Putin. After struggling with the math, these look to me like the most significant seven hours the former senator will spend as this nation’s face abroad.

The outcome of the meeting?  The United States government has given in to inevitability.  The author of this piece, Patrick Smith, offers five such inevitable outcomes:

My sources in Moscow tell me that 80 percent of the exchange concerned the pending deal governing Iran’s nuclear program.

Signifying a dose of reality in the relationship with both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Same in Syria: A nearby neighbor, longtime relations. Moscow has supported Damascus since the 1940s and signed a non-aggression pact in 1950.

Signifying another dose of reality in the relationship with both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Ukraine, like Syria, got 10 percent of Kerry’s time in Sochi. I would have thought more, but this is what I am advised by sound Moscow sources. Of all the questions Kerry raised in Sochi, indeed, the new stance on Ukraine amounts to capitulation as well as a request for cooperation.

Signifying a dose of reality in the relationship with the military-industrial complex.

European Union leaders are due to meet next month to consider whether to renew or drop sanctions against Russia that expire in July. What I get from sources in Europe is that six E.U. members are likely to oppose renewal and that Germany may make seven by the time of the E.U. talks. Since renewal requires a unanimous vote, the outcome seems to be clear.

Signifying the reality that certain European states see their future shifting to the east.

Last but maybe first, in the best outcome the Obama administration has learned the most important lesson available to it in its foreign relations. No need to do any other than quote Stephen F. Cohen, the Russianist interviewed here a few weeks ago.

“The road to American national security still runs through Moscow,” Cohen said with that conviction that comes of long experience.

This could be interesting.  Does Cohen’s conclusion lead to a multi-polar world or a continuation of the path toward one-world government, albeit one not led solely by the Anglo tribe?

I don’t know. 

I lean on the fact that “big” and “centralized” are failing everywhere, and will continue to do so.  I lean on the fact that information is no longer bottled up by gatekeepers.  I lean on the fact that an industrial economy cannot be centrally planned, and that developed economies will not accept going back to the farm.

For those reasons, I suspect we are headed toward a multi-polar world and further decentralization even within current national borders.

As to Quo Vadis, America?  I think it is inevitable that the US will pass through door number 3.


  1. Man, I hope you are right. As Ol' Ron Paul said "Sooner or later they'll run out of money and be FORCED to do the right thing" (paraphrased).

  2. It wasn't just Ol' Ron Paul, it's always been Ron Paul saying the same things, for many decades.

  3. My fear is that, when the proverbial chips are really down, the US government will simply start taking outright. This will likely be done under the guise of "WE'RE AT WAR!!!!11!!!!one!!!!!!!"