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Is America really indispensable?

In one decade the U.S. moved from the era of almost unrestrained interventionism, to the era of almost retrenchment

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The world has been radically transformed in ways that were unimaginable 25 years ago. And the changes that will occur in the next 25 years are impossible to fathom beyond saying that they will alter fundamentally the way we think, interact, communicate, govern and fight. The diffusion of political and economic power among and within nations, the historic power shift from West to the East, the emergence of mega-cities, climate change, cyber-attacks, powerful and dangerous non-state actors like ISIS and Hezbollah, the growing role of civil society organizations, multinational corporations, and transnational threats from terrorism to pandemics such as Ebola, have caused seismic changes in our social and economic lives not seen since the Industrial Revolution.

The eve of a new Renaissance?

More importantly, the easy access to sophisticated information, the availability of the internet, the proliferation of affordable advanced technology such as smart phones and other powerful empowering tools of connectivity, and mega data, all of these megatrends will empower individuals, institutions and states in both creative and disruptive ways.

As David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine framed the impact of these technologies in a brilliant presentation at the Atlantic Council’s Global Strategy Forum this week ‘this is the day before the beginning of the renaissance. This is the day before the beginning of a massive change in human history that we have not begun to grapple with.’ Rothkopf contends that the fundamentals of our lives will change in the wake of this revolution which will alter our very human identity. ‘Who am I? Do I associate with the people who are close to me? Or do I associate with people who are like me on the internet? Geography no longer becomes the primary identifier of who I am as a human being, affinity does’. According to Rothkopf, the change will transform the meaning of community, the nature of governance, society, how do we connect to one another, and even the nature of human rights.

In this new, potentially brave world, the nature of the international system is undergoing structural changes in ways that are difficult to predict. The end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union gave the United States a brief, fleeting and some would say glorious unipolar moment which collapsed with a bang with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the emergence of the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), particularly the rise of China, and the diminishing stature of Europe, which contributed also to the slow unraveling of the scaffolding of the post-war world that the U.S. built and dominated for almost a half century characterized by unprecedented security (among European states) and economic prosperity.

The state of the nation-states

In recent years American scholars, historians and policy makers have been struggling to fashion a strategic framework for a world in flux, where allies and adversaries alike have been redefining their views and relations with an America that is no longer capable of shaping global affairs alone. Many bemoaned the dearth of strategic thinking, lamenting the absence of senior officials with ‘strategic heft’ from both Democratic and Republican administrations. Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft was correct in his recent assessment that ‘without question, among the challenges facing the United States today in regard to its foreign and security policy is an inadequate amount of strategic thinking. For a variety of reasons, not least because the world appears to be spinning faster, actionable strategic thinking appears to be in short supply’.

The diffusion of power and the proliferation of new technologies are changing the nature of an international order where the state was traditionally the most important component. Transnational threats, non-state actors and connectivity are diminishing the traditional definition of state sovereignty. State systems in the Middle East and Africa are fraying and imploding. In ancient Mesopotamia and Afghanistan the U.S. discovered the limits of its military might. These new trends are calling into question the role of the United States which was very eager under President Obama to end the two longest wars in the nation’s history, that were waged by his predecessor President Bush who sought disastrously to transform two fragmented and tortured societies into Jeffersonian democracies. In one decade the U.S. moved from the era of almost unrestrained interventionism, to the era of almost retrenchment.

Leading reluctantly

In its recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the Obama administration stressed the need to mobilize ‘dynamic partnership to confront new interconnected challenges, from climate change and extreme poverty to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the failure of state institutions’. The Review pointed to the ‘broad coalitions necessary to defeat ISIL in the Middle East and counter Russian aggression against Ukraine’. The Review correctly observes that ‘aspects of that post-World War II system are fraying.’ It notes that the established orders in Europe, the Asia-Pacific, and the Middle East are being challenged by Russian aggression, tensions in the East China seas, and the destabilizing actions of al Qaeda and ISIL in the Middle East. The Review does not address the destabilizing regional role of Iran and its responsibility for prolonging the tragic war in Syria, its heavy handed military and political involvement in Iraq’s conflict and Yemen’s war. Hezbollah’s brazen military support to the Assad regime is glossed over. In fighting the Islamic State, the U.S. does not seem to be mobilizing enough resources to achieve its declared objective that is to degrade and destroy ISIS. The air campaign in Iraq, where Iran and its allied Shiite militias are providing the land component, is designed to contain rather than destroy ISIS. The same can be said about containing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but not necessarily arming Ukraine to roll back the Russian onslaught. The Quadrennial Review sees that ‘in an interconnected world, few problems can be solved without the United States- and few can be solved by the United States alone’.

The future of the past

In recent years, particularly during presidential election cycles a fever pitch hits the candidates, in which mostly Republican candidates invoke the concept of ‘American exceptionalism’ which is the most explicit – and for most outsiders- and jarring variation of the old vision of America as a beacon of liberty symbolized by the New Testament of ‘a city upon a hill’. Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the best interpreters of young America wrote that the position of Americans is ‘quite exceptional’. Ironically, it was one of the most violent men of the twentieth century, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin who coined the term when he condemned what he saw as the ‘heresy of American exceptionalism’, a fact that is probably lost on most of those who brag about the slogan, which is seen by some Americans and many non-Americans as smacking of imperial hubris. Historically, ‘exceptionalism’ was touted by many ancient cultures and religions, where each entity would proclaim sanctimoniously that it is privileged, or purer; The Greeks did it, so did the Indians, the Jews and the Muslims just to name a few.

In one decade the U.S. moved from the era of almost unrestrained interventionism, to the era of almost retrenchment

Hisham Melhem

However, the history of America as the ‘indispensable nation’ is a short one, and is usually invoked by Democrats, since two of them coined it. Most people think that former Secretary of State Madeline Albright was the one who coined the expression. And although she used it with abandon during the Balkan wars, she borrowed it from an aide to President Clinton, Sidney Blumenthal who developed it in collaboration with historian James Chase. In explaining the reasons for NATO’s military intervention in Bosnia in 1996, Clinton said ‘the fact is America remains the indispensable nation…’

Is America really indispensable?

Most of the issues raised here, were at the core of a two day forum organized by the Atlantic Council earlier this week. I was asked to moderate a debate (Oxford format) about America’s role in the world, and conduct a vote on the following resolution; ‘the United States is the indispensable nation: Global stability and growth depends on an assertive U.S. foreign policy and a strong, active U.S. military presence around the world’.

Defending the resolution was Xenia Wickett, a former U.S. official and currently with Chatham House who listed the global challenges that cannot be conceivably resolved without the ‘indispensable’ United States: Terrorism, pandemics, climate change, cyber-attacks as well as ‘traditional’ threats from Russia to cite a few. The U.S. is the only nation that is truly global and responsible for 16.1% of global GDP, 8.4% of global trade and 25% of global outflow investment. Ms. Wicket stressed however, that ‘assertive’ does not mean aggressive. She defended the need for a U.S. strong and active military presence around the world to maintain sea lanes, provide humanitarian relief and global security. She asked ‘just consider the scenarios in which this is not the case- look at what would happen in the Middle East, in Asia and even, with Russia on Europe’s doorsteps’.

But, being indispensable does not mean acting alone, or that the only instrument of power should be the military. Then, Wickett asked ‘if not the U.S. then who? The EU, China, India, Brazil, Russia and Japan are all powerful actors. But none have the scope to take on the mantle of the stability America provides globally..’

Arguing in the negative, was Christopher Preble, Vice President for Defense and foreign Policy Studies, who rejected the claim that a ‘single country with 5% of the world’s population and generating less than 22% of the world’s economic output—is indispensable to that world’s well-being- -both its physical security and its economic prosperity- -is simply hard to belief’. Preble, in the process criticized the American luminaries of the right particularly the historian Robert Kagan who claimed that if the U.S. withdrew to its pre-Cold War posture, anarchy would rein. He said that these claims see the world as more fragile and simpler that it actually is, and pretend that the world end up in flames and only the U.S. has the capability to extinguish the fires. Preble, rejected the claim that the proper U.S. role in the world as ‘benevolent global hegemony’. Preble was quick to reject the ‘conceit’ that America’s military is a necessary precondition for all good things that follows. Preble noted that the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had chaos unleashed.

It is true that the U.S’s military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and before that in Korea and Vietnam has caused undue pain and was born out of ‘conceit’, in some cases, but if the U.S. did not intervene militarily in Kuwait in 1991, or in Bosnia in the middle of the1990’s, not to mention its tremendous role in defeating fascism and Nazism during WWII who would have intervened to save the day? I tried to point out that the U.S. did act in the past as a ‘benevolent’ power, like its intervention in Bosnia to save innocent civilians in a region where the U.S. had no discernable economic or strategic interests. I raised the importance of America’s ‘soft power’, its incredible cultural and artistic contributions to the world, which reflected its vibrancy and dynamism and left an indelible influence on the rest of the world for more than a century.

Since the world is not full of liberal democracies, and conflicts based on state interests will remain with us for the foreseeable future, the question becomes; if the world is to be dominated by one political culture, would you rather have the United States, warts and all or Russia, or China or any other rising power?

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.