Escape from Iraq and American Decline

A recent article put forward the idea that “U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq Marks the End of American Supremacy.” Leaving Iraq does nothing of the kind. If anything, it offers an opportunity to mend American power. What America will make of this opportunity is another matter.

Supremacy is an odd notion, more easily admired than exercised. Russia and China, reflecting their Leninist heritage, call it “hegemony.” If supremacy means unchallenged American authority to direct the international community, the passing of those days have been long predicted. The many errors of the previous administration, including the misadventure in Iraq, only accelerated the move to a world with many new contenders for influence and power. These new powers, not beholden to the United States for its long defense of the West, not part of the transatlantic community, and suspicious of American motives, seek to gain influence and redefine international relations in their favor.

We can measure influence by the ability to secure a desired outcome. By this measure, America’s global influence reached bottom in 2008, weaker than at any time since its defeat in Vietnam. There are several contributing factors: the missteps in Iraq and Afghanistan, the international community’s belief that U.S. policy was largely responsible for the global recession, and the dysfunctional drama of American politics.

But if supremacy means most powerful, “primus inter pares,” the long-term effect of Iraq is uncertain. Iraq was immensely damaging—nine years of inconclusive conflict at a cost of more than a trillion dollars and, most importantly, the loss of more than 4,000 American lives. The world’s finest army was frittered away in misadventure and American competence called into question by the startling failure and mismanagement of the Coalition Provisional Authority. But even with this misfortune, the fundamentals of American power remain unchanged. The most basic measures of power show this.

The United States remains the wealthiest nation on earth—its share of global income has remained relatively consistent since the late 1950s. It remains, despite gloomy predictions, one of the top three exporting nations and one of the top three manufacturing nations. This also has been true for decades. While U.S. economic policies seem designed to undercut economic strength, the damage may take years to play out. Despite Iraq and even with budget cuts, we have an unmatched military and immense experience in building coalitions and partnerships—things no emerging power can match.

The United States is third-largest nation in geographic size and the third most populous. Unlike the aging populations of Europe or Japan, the precipitously declining Russian population, or the self-inflicted problems found in China, the population of the United States continues to grow and remains (relatively) young, largely because of immigration. Immigration has been since colonial times a source of strength for America—something conservative commentators seem to forget—and the ability of the United States to absorb a multiethnic population remains a strength unmatched by any emerging power other than Brazil. These fundamentals suggest that under moderately competent political leadership, the United States will remain one of the most powerful nations on earth.

Other sources of American power are at risk. The United States has depended since the 1940s on technological leadership for both military and economic strength. The U.S. technological base is still strong, but it faces serious challenges, some of which are of our own making. Research and development and the creation of new technology has been diffused around the world, in part because of the desire of U.S. companies to gain market access and, more importantly, to capture the best foreign brains for their businesses. This is understandable and makes both the United States and the world richer, but it erodes a unique American capability. Other nations see the United States and want to copy it—look at how many countries announce they will build their own “silicon valleys.”

Most of the top universities in the world are in the United States. This major source of strength and influence is undercut by U.S. policies. We have managed to price many Americans out of a college education. We have not made a serious effort, as Dwight Eisenhower did with the National Defense Education Act, to encourage the study of engineering and science. Other countries once complained about the “brain drain,” but these complaints have largely stopped. We attract the brightest students in the world, but as soon as they graduate, we throw them out so they can work for competitors.

The U.S. space program is a good example of strengths and weaknesses. The unmanned space program is the most advanced in the world, routinely performing feats that no other nation can match, from launching the world’s fastest spacecraft to landing robotic explorers on Mars. The unmanned program is U.S. technology and skill at its best. The manned program is the opposite. It symbolizes the worst of America—indecision, bloated budgets, and a preference for intricate processes instead of results. The manned space program is as much a jobs program as an exploratory effort. In the last 10 years, the United States spent more on its manned program than most other nations combined spent on space. During these days of largesse, the United States somehow forgot that it would eventually need to replace the 1970s shuttle technology. The current NASA administrator has inherited a legacy of failure that dates back to the 1990s.

The space program points to the real question for the future of American power. Will we be like the unmanned program, unmatched in our technological prowess and ability to deliver, or like the manned program, more concerned with processes than with results? The biggest risk to American “supremacy” is not failure in Iraq but a political process that cannot generate solutions.

This drift comes at a time of intense global competition. The Cold War’s end did not mark the end of international rivalry. The Unites States’ allies are less powerful and its alliances less cohesive. The last decade has seen the rise of powerful new economies—China, India, Brazil, Turkey, perhaps South Africa—that are displacing Europe and challenging the United States for influence. Bipolar and unipolar orders have been replaced by a multipolar environment. But it is not like the nineteenth century, where Metternichs or Bismarcks needed to balance competing alliances to ensure the national interest. The terms and tools of great power competition are different now. Power will not be determined by the size of armies or the number of colonies. Instead, nations will seek influence and control over the structures and rules global finance and business. The new powers believe in varying degrees that the international order set up after World War II gives the United States economic and military advantage. They are dissatisfied with the global institutions assembled in the postwar period, such as the UN Security Council and the IMF, with their transatlantic focus and deference to Europe. They want to reduce U.S. influence over these structures in order to gain advantage for themselves. This is how nations will compete in the future.

There is yet no coherent alternative to the framework for international order created by the United States and its allies after World War II. No one has an alternative concept as to how the world should work; only a belief that what is now in place is inadequate because the new powers were not involved in its creation, and it does not reflect their new status and power. Some predict that China may develop this conceptual challenge, but China’s communist theology and ethnic proclivities make it an unlikely source of a new vision for global society.

The challenge to American power is also a reaction to it. Being first among equals creates powerful “antibodies.” If the United States is for something, other influential nations are often automatically against it, or at least suspicious. A nimble foreign policy could circumvent and exploit these antibodies, but the United States lacks a strategy tailored to take advantage of the new circumstances. The goal should be to build cooperation with the new powers, similar to what exists between the United States and Europe. We do not have the advantage of facing the common threat that welded the transatlantic alliance, and the new powers are perhaps a little too mistrustful of U.S. intentions for this to happen easily. But continued technological leadership and unmatched international experience create the potential for a new kind of American leadership.

How the United States uses this strength will determine if the future is one of decline or resurgence. One path would make America like the Ottoman or Russian empires at the end of the nineteenth century, societies that knew the problems they faced, knew the solutions, but were politically unable to implement them. The other path repeats the experience after Vietnam, where economic stagnation and political crisis ended once America could “reconceptualize” its politics and policies. The biggest challenges to American power are internal, and the question is whether these challenges are temporary or the symptom of some larger and permanent malaise. Iraq accelerated unfavorable trends; the old politics will not adequately meet them. Will we be able to move to something new?

James A. Lewis is a senior fellow and director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program