Superpower No More?

July 1, 2010

Most Americans don’t know it, but the US has a new national security strategy. It is set down in a 52-page White House paper, dated May 27, which lists US interests and ways to protect them. Unfortunately, the thing instantly calls to mind Dr. Samuel Johnson’s words about the epic Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer than it is.”

The paper has a leaden style, composed, according to one critic, of “platitudes, wishful thinking, and self-delusion.” What Mark Twain once said of a certain religious book—”It is chloroform in print”—applies here, too.

The bromides and clichés, however, do not totally obscure the paper’s worrisome substance, which sums up the basic worldview of President Obama and his Administration. The principal theme—possibly unintended—appears clear enough: America is no longer a superpower, exactly.

The strategy paper is at pains to note—over and over—that American power is circumscribed, that any international US action requires lots of helpers, that we are stretched thin, that we must focus on internal problems. In short, we will just have to learn to live within our limits.

“The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone,” Obama writes in the paper’s introduction.

In place of reliance on military might, the Administration’s strategy emphasizes stronger global cooperation, more and deeper security “partnerships,” and helping other nations provide for their own defense as best they can.

The new watchword seems to be soft power—the use of economic levers, diplomacy, international law, cultural relationships, and so on—to help protect and preserve vital US interests.

The concept of national security itself has been broadened to include “threats” such as climate change, pandemic disease, world hunger, and even lack of health care or quality education. The transformation has brought with it a set of fundamental beliefs about the nation’s security.

One such fundamental is the primacy of US economic conditions. The strategy views economic renewal as paramount. Obama made this point in a recent West Point speech. “At no time in human history,” he said, “has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy.”

Another basic belief concerns the value of talk and treaties in containing the world nuclear threat. By seeking nuclear arms cuts with Russia, Obama has gotten back on a well-worn liberal track, as he has also done by pushing nonproliferation schemes.

The strategy puts great store in talking to rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran. It says Washington “will pursue engagement with hostile nations to test their intentions, give their governments the opportunity to change course, reach out to their people, and mobilize international coalitions.”

Another emphasis is on multilateralism. America must construct “a new international architecture,” it claims, so as to “modernize the infrastructure for international cooperation.”

None of these principles is really objectionable; some are even laudable. The problem is what is missing from Obama’s manifesto.

The biggest departure concerns the utility of military force. In his national security papers, President George W. Bush argued the case for “preventive war” to pre-empt threats. The new strategy emphasizes that use of force is, at best, a last resort and even then should have lots of international support.

The White House disavows any intent to lessen the stress on military power. It says it reserves the right to act unilaterally, if necessary. Even so, the de-emphasis of some traditional security matters is striking.

For instance, one searches in vain for any expression of real concern about aggression from nation-states or the steady rise of Chinese or Russian military power. More space is given to what is called the “real, urgent, and severe” danger of climate change.

Only on p. 41, buried under the subhead “Ensure Strong Alliances,” does one find a pledge “to ensure that we can prevail against a wide range of potential adversaries—to include hostile states” and to retain “capabilities” needed to “decisively defeat the forces of hostile regional powers.”

When it comes to terrorism, the strategy builds on the past but departs from it in important ways. There is a pledge to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates.” However, the terrorist role played by Iran is barely mentioned. Terms such as “jihadism” or “radical Islam” do not appear.

At this stage in the Obama Administration, there really shouldn’t be any major surprises. The paper, in fact, mostly rehashes policies that the President has advocated since before his election campaign.

It isn’t wholly an academic exercise. Presidents use their strategy papers to set broad goals and priorities. This one could affect future defense spending and deployments. It will be the foundation for a new national military strategy, too.

Perhaps we should not make too much of it. The normal puts and takes of government are sure to wear down certain features and generate new ones. It is possible the Administration will redeem its repeated promises to preserve our military might, and not forfeit it in favor of softer tools of influence. What matters is not what the Administration says, but what it actually does.

Yet it is also true that the Administration’s strategic choices and preferences have formed a distinct pattern, indicating beliefs shared by many of those responsible for national security policy.

The strategy paper tells us how the President and his senior leaders view the world. It reflects what they really believe. It appears that they have concluded that America’s days as a superpower are numbered, and that its ability to lead in the world just isn’t what it used to be.

Other nations are certain to have noticed. It is that, more than any specific claim or policy, that is the real cause for concern.