Downsizing our dominance

Fred Kaplan is the national security columnist for Slate and the author of "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power," due out this week.

It should be no surprise that the presidential campaigns have barely touched on foreign policy. One reason is that no candidate of either party has a solution to the nation's most pressing foreign problem, the war in Iraq (perhaps because there are no good solutions).

A larger reason, however, may be that no ambitious politician is willing to mention the discomfiting reality about America's place in the world -- that we are weaker today than we were a decade or two ago, and that we need a new foreign policy that acknowledges and builds on that fact.

President Bush's follies have accelerated the decline of U.S. influence, but he can't be blamed for its onset. It started, ironically, at the moment of our late-century triumph, when the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War victory was ours. Some proclaimed that the United States was now "the sole superpower." But, in fact, the end of the Cold War left the very concept of a "superpower" in tatters.

Our leverage over half the world during the previous half-century had stemmed not just from American muscle but from the existence of a common enemy. Allies often acceded to U.S. interests, even to the detriment of their own national interests, because the looming Russian bear posed a greater menace still. But when the bear died, the alliance's threads loosened. Many of these nations would sometimes continue to follow our lead, but they also felt free to go their own way without so much concern about Washington's preferences.

As a result, wielding power in the post-Cold War world became a harder game. Alliances could no longer be taken for granted; they had to be crafted and nourished. American leadership might still be valued and necessary, but now it would have to be earned.

When Bush came to power, he and his top aides understood none of this. (In fairness, few did.) They believed, and acted, as if American power were not only undimmed but supreme and unchallengeable -- as if a president's grimace would still make tyrants tremble and the dispatch of light armies could remake the world.

So, for much of the last seven years, U.S. leaders stomped around the globe with wide-elbowed indifference to the consequences of their actions. Allies were alienated, enemies enraged and those in between -- especially those rich in key resources -- cut their own deals and created their own networks outside U.S. control.

Nations, including those whose leaders aren't so disposed to anti-Americanism, have learned, through experience or observation, that defying Washington carries no penalty. Germany joins France in opposing resolutions on Iraq in the U.N. Security Council -- and nothing happens to Germany. The Turkish parliament votes against letting U.S. troops invade Iraq from the north -- and nothing happens to Turkey. Bush warns Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not to trample on human rights; the trampling continues -- and not only does nothing happen to Egypt, but on his recent trip to the Middle East, Bush commends Mubarak for his commitment to democracy.

Meanwhile, the dollar is plunging. American debt is in the hands of Chinese central bankers. And the U.S. military, though by far the world's strongest, is stretched beyond its means in Iraq and Afghanistan -- conflicts that, in Cold War days, would have been labeled "small wars."

The next president can begin to rebuild U.S. influence, but he or she cannot do it alone. The task requires rebuilding alliances, and that is a harder task than before.

In the presidential debates, the Republican candidates have hardly mentioned allies at all. Most of them act as if they don't care what the rest of the world thinks about us. (In this respect, they're ignoring lessons that Bush himself has, too late, begun to learn.) All the Democratic candidates have called for improving relations with allies and engaging in more diplomacy. This is welcome. But whether out of political calculation or naivete, they understate the difficulties.

A Democratic president will almost certainly open direct talks with Iran. There are many reasons why this is a good idea. But there is often an unspoken assumption that talking, by itself, will clear the air and solve problems. In many situations, though, the vital interests of two countries are simply irreconcilable -- and neither has the power to make the other give in.

If the next president wants Iran, say, to give up enriching uranium, what enticements is he or she willing to offer in return? What lesser interests is he or she willing to compromise or sacrifice in exchange for fulfilling that larger interest? It may turn out that the most generous package that any American president could reasonably offer won't be generous enough for the Iranians to forgo their work on the nuclear project.

If that turns out to be the case, the next president might (like Bush) try to rally an anti-Iran coalition of Sunni leaders in the Middle East. But those leaders will need some enticements from the United States to take the necessary risks. What deal would the next president offer to, say, the Persian Gulf states near Iran to encourage them to join the enterprise? Bush's eleventh-hour realization that coalitions don't come cost-free is what, in large measure, led him to start talking about an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord -- a precondition, in the eyes of many Arab leaders, to open cooperation with the U.S.

The reality is that the United States can no longer take obeisance for granted. A new face in the White House will be cause for relief and rejoicing among our traditional allies, but it won't be enough. On Jan. 20, 2009, especially if the new president is a Democrat, many world leaders will exclaim, "Bush is gone!" But their next words will be, "Now what?" It will be impossible for anyone to pretend it's 2000 and that the alliances can resume where they left off.

It was always a wrongheaded notion that the West's victory in the Cold War marked "the end of history." In reality, history has returned and flowed forth with a vengeance.

The United States has emerged from the tectonic shift as something more like an ordinary country -- a world power but not a superpower. This is unfamiliar territory for Americans. For half a century, we had been a superpower in a world that was tightly structured. Now we're upper-middle management in a world without big bosses -- a world that's either becoming multipolar or teetering toward anarchy.

Bush must have felt some of this strangeness during his Middle East voyage. He cajoled and kowtowed but came away with nothing. Part of his failure was because of his lame-duck status (why should anyone start haggling with an unpopular president in his final year in office?). But the next president, and the one after that, will face similar frustrations if they continue to believe, as Bush apparently does deep down, that the U.S. controls the agenda. The next presidents will have to get down in the dirt, strike deals and trade favors.

It's no longer morning in America, but it's not quite twilight either. The next president's big challenge will be to revive America's influence and stature while facing up to the limits of its power in a newly fractured world. And one of the bigger political challenges of that task will be to acknowledge, openly, that our power does have limits.

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