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Today, many analysts see an America in relative decline. The study of the rise and fall of great powers goes back to Edward Gibbon’s classical study of the Roman Empire. A few decades ago, in his The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Paul Kennedy emphasised the importance of economic strength as the foundation of great powers. The analysis of rising and declining great powers was renewed by Graham Allison, in his much debated Thucydides Trap. Other scholars including Joseph Nye and Michael Beckley have explored the intersection between a rising China and the relative decline of the US with a more positive outlook.
A new consensus and narrative about the US’s role in the world is sorely needed
The incoming Joe Biden administration has to address this perception of US decline and reduced interest in global leadership. Biden has many choices facing him, particularly due to the Donald Trump administration’s ‘America First’ policies. A good starting point for considering how Biden should proceed can be found in Chris Imbrie’s Power on the Precipice which offers guidance on the key strategic choices facing Washington’s new leadership team. The Biden administration must engage with these choices as it seeks to renew US leadership and redefine its place in an evolving international order.
Core or Periphery?
The first choice involves the scope of US interests. Should the US narrow its interests and its protective umbrella to those allies and partners that represent its core friends? Or should it expand its commitments globally to include places like Africa and the Arctic that lie beyond Washington’s vital or immediate interests? Does the US commit to its past role as a global guarantor of a liberal order and counter aggression and disorder wherever it erupts? Should US leaders tend to their own unruly garden at home, or trim back what Robert Kagan called the ‘jungle’? Should it retrench and wait for the swarm of foreign rivals to gather, and risk being made to walk the plank? Some, like Patrick Porter, find that the liberal order was always something of an illusion and more illiberal in reality. Certainly, US execution of its role was often poorly conceived or imperfect. However, an order shaped by the Chinese Communist Party or Russia would be far less gentle and far more corrosive to the West.
Guns or Butter?
Should the US invest further in its military capabilities or retrench and refocus on universal medical access, environmental challenges and education? The more critical question is not just guns but how the population thinks about broader national security challenges including cyber security, climate change, health security and pandemic preparations. Instead of butter, it could be about secure networks or adequate numbers of hospital beds, staff and vaccine stockpiles.
Persuasion or Coercion?
The Biden team must also determine whether the US should lead by being persuasive or applying its economic and military might coercively. Can pre-emptive diplomatic engagement and development displace the need for hard power? Another way to frame the challenge is to ask whether the US will seek to inspire others with its ideals and open engagement or intimidate them with military muscle. Nye rejected the false choice of hard versus soft power years ago, and argued for ‘Smart Power’. Biden is building an experienced team that should be able to apply Washington’s not insignificant residual strengths in a smart way.
Allies or Autonomy?
Should the US return to its traditional approach with allies and partners, or unburden itself from the costs of guaranteeing their security? The Trump administration wanted freedom of action, not multilateral institutions or entangling burdens. But a strong case can be made that allies amplify US power. Biden appears committed to restoring traditional relationships as a priority, which will require more repair than he may imagine.
Closed or Open?
‘Should America disengage from today’s liberal international order’, Imbrie asks, ‘and allow it to be replaced with a loose global arrangement of competing spheres of control by regional hegemons, authoritarian governance, mercantilist trade practices, and state-controlled economic activity?’. Other new voices also argue for promoting an open order. However, none of these arguments account for how China exploits openness or offer ways to create the leverage needed to ensure reciprocity in the economic or information domains.
Exemplar or Enforcer?
One choice overlooked is the role of American values at home and the world it can and must engage with. Should America be merely an exemplar or exporting enforcer of its basic ideals? How active should the US be in shaping a liberal order beyond its own shores, to extend a liberal hegemony? Should the US actively oppose closed and repressive societies as suggested in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy or merely set an example, a shining beacon and City on a Hill? Should it push back on the rising autocracies like China and Russia, and the rising tide of illiberalism? A Biden administration appears prepared to rally around democracy and human rights, and is prepared to call for a summit of democracies to advance traditional US ideals, to push back against authoritarianism as well promote ‘human rights in their own countries and abroad’.
Lead or Follow?
The free world does not organise itself, so who will take up its leadership? In promulgating his vision for foreign policy, Biden has stressed that the US must lead again and that he would ‘rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilize our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges’. During the current pandemic, observers felt that US leadership in a global crisis has been markedly absent. Biden recognised that the US must repair itself as well as lead: ‘first and foremost, we must repair and reinvigorate our own democracy even as we strengthen the coalition of democracies that stand with us around the world’. To lead, it must also seek renewal of the domestic foundations of US power.
These choices are central to a new president’s approach to the world, and must be reflected in the next year with a formal published strategy, a major task confronting the incoming administration. It will have to adapt and reshape the role of the US but with less international influence, stronger rivals, more division at home and fewer resources. It will need a disciplined strategy that prioritises core interests and allocates resources to preserve US strategic and fiscal solvency. Some observers feel US strategy fails because it is far too promiscuous with its definition of vital interests and the use of force. A solvent strategy provides clear priorities, and serves as an appetite suppressant against misguided crusades.
A new consensus and narrative about the US’s role in the world is sorely needed. The new administration must wrestle with these key choices and frame a coherent strategy that satisfies US interests and collaborates with like-minded democracies.
While US decline has been a staple of academic debate, this time may be different. Competition from ambitious or revisionist powers is growing. There are many internal challenges to focus on, including getting the US economy in order, climate change, inequality and security reforms for future wars. Illiberalism is growing, at home and abroad. This may well be the last chance for today’s hegemon to reframe a sustainable order conducive to the prosperity and relative peace the West has enjoyed the last 70 years.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Gage Skidmore.