The best books on America’s Increasingly Challenged Position in World Affairs
recommended by Ali Wyne
Reports of the death of the world's only superpower may have been exaggerated, but America's inward turn is threatening the world order it created after World War II. Foreign policy analyst Ali Wyne talks us through books to better understand America's current role in the world.
You’ve chosen books about ‘America’s increasingly challenged position in world affairs.’ Why does that topic interest you?
For a number of reasons. One is that America remains the world’s preeminent power, and so the decisions that it makes and actions that it takes are intrinsically relevant and of interest.
For me personally, I came of age in the immediate post-Cold War era and, at that time, a lot of the present concerns—about the potential for terminal American decline, about its conflicted position in the world—seemed remote. The Soviet Union had imploded. American power seemed, if not uncontestable, pretty far removed from any serious contenders. Also, the values that America promulgated—democracy, pluralism, capitalism—seemed almost inexorably ascendant.
When I was growing up, I was rather parochial in my outlook. I didn’t have much of an interest in US foreign policy or world affairs. Partly that was because my interests veered in other directions but I think that, in retrospect, being insular was almost a luxury. ‘Here’s America, it’s surrounded by two large moats. It has just come out of the Cold War. It’s the roaring 90s, the economy is doing well.’ To the extent that there were concerns of strife and war, they seemed distant. I felt rather safe in my insularity.
But then 9/11 happened. It was my junior year of high school and it prompted a recalibration. It has become a cliché to say it, but 9/11 was a wakeup call for Americans, that threats that seemed distant could nonetheless intrude on the homeland, that geographical distance, while still salient, was no longer as protective a force. And I remember saying to myself, in the aftermath of that event, that as an American and as a citizen, it behooves me to find out what’s going on and to learn more about America’s role in the world.
Then, as I was going through college, there was talk of a resurgent China. Now, of course, that talk has gained tremendous momentum. I started getting interested in this emerging competition between a preeminent superpower and its putative rival, perhaps even its putative successor.
But my interest in America’s conflicted role in the world really picked up in the aftermath of the 2016 elections. I hasten to note that there have always been debates about America’s role in the world, not just in the postwar era but throughout American history. But I think it’s fair to say that prior to the 2016 elections, there was some modicum of agreement across political lines that US participation in world affairs and engagement with broader currents of international activity were, on net, a strategic plus for the United States. So policy makers and scholars would debate the appropriate scope of that engagement and the criteria by which America should define its national interests. But there wasn’t a powerful constituency that said, ‘We need to fundamentally rethink our role.’
“What we’re seeing now is that the challenges to what we call loosely the ‘liberal world order’ or ‘the postwar order’ are coming predominantly from its principal architects, particularly the United States”
I think what we’ve seen in the aftermath of the 2016 election is that some of the populist undercurrents that had been bubbling in the American body politic have really surfaced. Donald Trump as candidate and now as president has been able to tap quite successfully into some of those feelings—whether concerns about getting left behind amid globalization, being dislocated by technology, losing one’s demographic identity, or, more generally, of losing control of the forces that shape one’s life.
What we’re seeing now is that the challenges to what we call loosely the ‘liberal world order’ or ‘the postwar order’ are coming predominantly from its principal architects, particularly the United States. There are a lot of populist undercurrents in western Europe right now, but the United States has long been seen as the underwriter of this system. If the United States is fundamentally interrogating its commitment to multilateralism and the presumption that US participation in world affairs is a net strategic plus, then that ambivalence raises serious questions about the resilience of the system.
So I think that the debate has shifted. It’s not to say that extant concerns about the Chinese challenge or the Russian challenge have disappeared. They remain. But I would say that they now coexist with, and in many cases are subordinate to, concerns about what America chooses to do or not to do. And so unless America—which is the principal architect of the system—is able to resolve its ongoing ambivalence about participating in international affairs in the way that it has for much of the past 70 years, I think that there are real questions about whether this system can endure.
As you were growing up, seeing America go first into Afghanistan and then Iraq: how did those wars make you feel about America’s position in the world?
The United States remains the world’s most formidable power on balance, particularly in the military dimension. For all the talk about American decline, it retains a singular capacity to project military power abroad in all corners of the world. I read recently that America is currently combating terrorist organizations in 14 countries and has special operations forces deployed in roughly three quarters of the world’s countries. Leaving aside the prudence of those deployments, the data demonstrate the reach of American military power.
I remember thinking, at the time, that intervening in Iraq would be a strategic distraction. What I didn’t anticipate was the grip that that strategic distraction would exert on American foreign policy. Roughly a decade-and-a-half later, we are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, seemingly unable to extricate ourselves from those theaters.
And the war in Iraq is increasingly seen as a self-inflicted strategic error which has created a number of headaches for US foreign policy. If you talk with Chinese officials, they have said on a number of occasions that America’s ongoing immersion in the Middle East, Middle Eastern conflicts and Middle Eastern dynamics has given China a strategic reprieve.
Monica Toft, a professor at Tufts, recently wrote an article lamenting the grip of ‘kinetic diplomacy’ on US foreign policy post-9/11. Afghanistan and Iraq both suggest the limits of military power in effecting geopolitical outcomes. In Afghanistan, for example, if you look at the amount of territory that the Taliban controls today versus the amount of territory it controlled pre-9/11, it’s roughly the same.
A sense of inertia seems to be driving U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The difficulty is that the longer you have troops stationed in a given theater—and I think that having boots on the ground really matters for public consciousness—the more difficult it is, politically, to be the one who advocates for their withdrawal, because that then taps into debates about credibility. A circular logic takes hold. So somebody asks, ‘What’s our vital national interest in Afghanistan?’ And people retort, ‘Well, look how many troops we have in Afghanistan. Clearly we must have vital national interests there.’ The longer we have a substantial troop presence there, the more force that dubious circular logic will hold.
But, as a number of commentators have pointed out, you get a sense of how vast America’s extant reservoir of power is and how relatively preeminent it is that the US has been able to absorb these strategic errors in Afghanistan and Iraq. They would have proved crippling to the position of many other countries in world affairs. These wars have cost trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, have really accrued no discernible strategic benefits and America has essentially been able to, if not brush them off, then carry on.
That realization is reassuring on the one hand, but it’s also concerning because it can sow a certain complacency. People say, ‘We have this much power and we were able to go into Afghanistan and we’re still there and we can go into Iraq and we’re still there, and those interventions—approaching 20 years in the case of Afghanistan—haven’t proved crippling.’ That judgment suggests a residual appetite for misguided adventurism.
Let’s go through the list of books that you’ve chosen to look at these issues in more detail. So the first one is by Joseph Nye, and it’s called Is the American Century Over? I like the way, at the beginning, he tries to define what the American century is because when you talk about American primacy or hegemony or whatever it is, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re measuring or talking about. Why did you choose this book?
This book taps into some of the current debates. Is America just in relative decline? Or is it in terminal decline? Is America turning inward? Is America’s seeming inward turn just part of normal oscillations in US foreign policy? Or is it a harbinger of things to come?
It’s also interesting because it predates the election. Certainly Trump’s election as president has caused many of us to recalibrate certain judgments about US foreign policy, but Joe Nye continues, even in his recent writings, to make the case that some of the concerns about American decline are overwrought.
But the reason I chose his book is that I don’t know of any discussion, not just of America’s role in the world, but of power in world affairs in general, that can avoid his writings. If you’re thinking about power and world affairs—how do we measure and conceptualize it, and how do countries convert power into influence—he is the preeminent figure. He coined the term ‘soft power.’ I feel that any discussion of power has to begin with the contributions he has made.
And, at this point, Joe Nye has been pushing back against the declinist narrative for almost 30 years. So in 1987 Paul Kennedy wrote his famous declinist tract. In 1990, Professor Nye wrote a book called Bound to Lead. I don’t know if the book was intended purely as a refutation, but it certainly had Professor Kennedy’s work in mind. In the 1980s, there were concerns about imperial overstretch, there were concerns about an ascendant Japan and there were concerns about America’s preoccupation with Soviet politics and its inability to think beyond that prism. And Nye said, ‘No. If you look at the broad base of American power and influence, America is more resilient than most observers believe, and it will have an enduring capacity to influence world affairs.’
And I would say he’s one of the few, part of a dying breed of scholars of international affairs who is able to take, and has a penchant for adopting, the 30,000-foot view. I’ve been studying his work more and more in light of China’s resurgence. Right now, in the United States, there is a very fundamental recalibration of attitudes towards China. There are a lot of scholars and policy makers who are debating, ‘Was our engagement strategy vis-à-vis China wrong? Is America sufficiently competitive? Does America know how to compete with China?’ And so on and so forth. Joe Nye takes stock of the China challenge. He doesn’t dismiss its magnitude, but he places it in proper perspective. And one of his very important insights is that power alone—just the raw accumulation of power—does not a superpower make. A superpower has to stand for an idea. You have to embrace a vision that others find compelling.
And so, interestingly, if you look at the United States, it had the world’s largest economy by the late 19th century. Some people say it overtook Britain in absolute size in the 1870s and some people say the 1880s or 1890s. But it wasn’t until the end of World War II that America became a superpower. And so people ask, ‘What happened in the interregnum?’ Because there’s a preoccupation—I would say almost a borderline obsession—in Washington with, ‘When is China’s economy going to overtake America’s in absolute terms?’ People fixate and say, ‘Well, if you measure it in PPP terms, or if you measure it at market exchange rates and build in these assumptions…’ I think that that kind of preoccupation is psychologically unhealthy.
My own feeling is that even if China’s rate of growth slows significantly, or it encounters certain economic obstacles, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which China’s economy doesn’t overtake ours at some point. But I think the real question is, ‘What does China do with that power?’ When America’s economy overtook Britain’s it still didn’t have a veritably global mindset. In the 1920s and 1930s, America was far more inward looking. There was the Great Depression, the imposition of tariffs.
“I read recently that America is currently combating terrorist organizations in 14 countries and has special operations forces deployed in roughly three quarters of the world’s countries”
Then you had World War II. America was thrust into a superpower role almost by default because Asia and Europe were devastated. President Truman and his advisors ask, ‘What do we do with this postwar inheritance of power?’ And they decided to fashion what we now call the postwar order.
But they had a vision. They were able to tether America’s raw, bountiful inheritance of power to a vision that has proven quite compelling, one in which American power was embedded within a system that was, not fully inclusive, but reasonably inclusive. And it was a system under whose auspices Western Europe and Asia recovered. And, as much as the postwar order is under duress nowadays, it still presents a compelling vision.
“For a superpower to be a superpower, you have to stand for an idea. You have to embrace a vision that others find compelling”
The big question that Joe Nye talks about a lot is, even if China eclipses the United States in absolute economic size, even if it eclipses the United States in terms of certain headline grabbing metrics, does China have an alternative vision of world affairs that is equally or more compelling?
Particularly under Xi Jinping, China has done quite a skillful job of conveying this aura of inexorability around its resurgence, despite facing formidable issues. China’s demographic outlook is quite grim. Environmental degradation has wreaked havoc. There are fundamental social issues. By 2025 or so they want to have brought roughly 250 million Chinese from rural areas into urban areas. Think about the economic and political costs of that urbanization.
China also doesn’t have an alliance network in the way that the United States does. It has a very transactional approach to foreign policy. So if you look at the Belt and Road initiative, if you look at China’s economic statecraft, it has been very effective in helping China build inroads into a number of countries. But over the long-term, a transactional foreign policy that’s narrowly tailored to Beijing’s interest, I don’t know how compelling a vision that is globally.
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And what’s interesting is that despite its rapid resurgence, China isn’t exactly chomping at the bit to replace the United States in its present capacity. Because what if, hypothetically, America were to decline precipitously or to decide tomorrow, ‘We’re packing up our bags, we’re coming home, we’re withdrawing everywhere and China, here are the keys.’ Then, all of a sudden, China’s domestic politics, which are already under tremendous scrutiny, are placed under an even harsher light. I don’t think China would like the reception that it would get.
I think the narrowness of China’s foreign policy and the inability of that foreign policy to mobilize coalitions to address global challenges would be placed in sharper relief. China benefits from having the United States as a foil. But I’m not sure that China is prepared take the spotlight and say, ‘Our vision for world affairs is x.’ It’s hard to fill in the blank at the moment.
In the book, he goes through the cycles of declinist thought: we used to worry the USSR was going to be better than America. Then we were worried that Japan was going to be better. It doesn’t ever quite work out as we feared.
One of the challenges posed by the declinist debate is that the United States has to navigate between two equally unhelpful impulses, complacence and fatalism. The benefit of the historical view is that you say, ‘We’ve been here before.’ In fact, the declinist preoccupation is not just a geopolitical preoccupation. James Fallows wrote an essay in 2010, ‘How America Can Rise Again,’ in which he makes the point that declinism dates back to colonial times when the concerns were about moral decline. In the 30s and 40s, there were concerns about declinism vis-à-vis Japan and Germany. Then, during the Cold War, there were concerns about decline vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Then it was Japan; now China. So you want to tell yourself that we’ve been here before, so let’s not get paranoid.
On the other hand two very trenchant observers of US foreign policy, Gideon Rachman and Ed Luce, say, ‘Well, it’s true that the declinist thesis hasn’t proved correct yet. But what if this time is different?’ And that’s a very important question because the fact that previous rounds of declinst predictions haven’t panned out has no bearing on whether the current declinist rhetoric will pan out or not.
The erstwhile failure of declinism should impart a certain caution to the debate, but it has no bearing on the analytical validity of the present wave of declinism. I’m not going to pronounce on whether the declinist case will prove wrong or right this time around. But I do think that the China challenge is more formidable, in certain ways.
So if you compare China to the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or fascist Japan, the mistakes the 20th century powers made was of posing a frontal assault on the system. These were heavily militaristic and heavily ideological assaults. There was very little nuance. The Chinese have learned from those mistakes. If you look at the core of China’s competition, it’s placing a lot more emphasis on economic statecraft than on militarism or on ideological fights.
They are selectively revisionist. There are certain elements of the postwar system that they’re chipping away at; there are certain elements of the system that they’re shoring up. And then there’s certain Chinese behavior that’s proceeding independent of the postwar system.
The very frontal nature of the 20th century assaults made the threats, at least in the short term, more alarming. But those threats were also more capable of rousing a sense of shared national purpose. It’s far easier to galvanize a polity and the policymaking apparatus if you say, ‘We face a real and/or perceived existential challenge.’ It’s far more difficult to rouse a similar level of concern when you go to Congress or to the public and say, ‘China is militarizing certain features in the South China Sea and it’s stealing intellectual property. It’s not really exporting its ideology, but its values don’t comport with ours.’ Also, we have a robust economic relationship with the Chinese. It may be at risk now, but at least up until now we’ve had deep economic interdependence with the Chinese. We also have cooperated on certain issues. The US-China relationship is marked by both competitive and cooperative dynamics.
So how do you rise to a challenge that’s incremental, that’s more economic than military or ideological? It’s a long-run challenge. George Kennan warned about this in his later years. On the occasion of his 90th birthday, he gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said that for 60 years American foreign policy has been oriented around singular threats. There was Japan, there was Germany, there was the Soviet Union. But he said that institutionally, the US is not oriented towards dealing with a world in which there are no existential or singular challenges that can absorb the energy of its foreign policy apparatus. And if you look at the landscape right now, you have a range of challenges, but none of them rise to an existential level.
Joe Nye is my lodestar for thinking about these sorts of issues. You know you’re the preeminent figure when even those who vigorously disagree with you begin by acknowledging you. For several years running, researchers at William and Mary have asked international affairs practitioners to identify which international relations scholars have had the greatest impact on U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades. Joe Nye tops the rankings. Dan Drezner wrote a column in mid-2011 saying, ‘All roads to understanding American foreign policy run through Joe Nye.’ Whether you disagree with him or agree with him, he is central to any discussion of foreign policy, and of power.
China doesn’t seem to have a good relationship with any of its neighbours. North Korea used to be the exception but I’m not sure about that anymore either. How can you be a superpower when you can’t get on with anyone?
It’s far from being a preeminent position among the Chinese foreign policy establishment, but it is a position that is starting to get more attention among leading scholars. Yan Xuetong, for example, has a reputation for being a China hawk. He says that we’re locked in a zero-sum competition with the United States and has been leading the baton on that front. He wrote an op-ed in 2011 in the New York Times called ‘How China Can Defeat America.’
He says the core of the competition between the United States and China will be the number and the quality of alliances. That’s why he has been urging Chinese leaders to revisit their erstwhile leeriness of alliances. He says that those alliances are a force multiplier, they’re an influence multiplier. You have to have people who inculcate your values, who inculcate your vision, who are able to engage in burden sharing.
So even Yan Xuetong—who has been quite critical of America’s alliances and of the alliance construct—has said, ‘Look, China, until and unless you’re able to get on with people, there’s going to be an intrinsic limit to how far you can progress,’ particularly in the Asia Pacific. China’s path to regional or global preeminence has to start in China’s backyard.
The dynamic that’s playing out in the Asia Pacific is very interesting. Many of China’s neighbors are saying, ‘How do we simultaneously ride the coattails of China’s economic resurgence and strengthen our trade ties and strengthen our investment ties, but hedge against its security ambitions? We’re concerned about its conduct in the South China Sea. We’re concerned about its conduct in the East China Sea. We’re concerned about the unspecified nature of its nine-dash line.’
If I’m one of China’s neighbors, particularly if I’m one of China’s smaller neighbors—and that’s why I think that the behavior of Vietnam and the Philippines and Laos and Cambodia will be a bellwether—I’m mindful of history. China’s preferred arrangement is a hierarchical regional construct where it sits on top and its smaller neighbors pay tribute.
Now, the question is, ‘Will China’s economic magnetism, its economic gravitational pull, at some point become sufficiently large that China is able to circumvent that putative alliance requirement?’ There are some people who make the argument that, ‘Well, maybe China won’t need alliances if it can exert a sufficient grip on the economies of its neighbors.’ I’m not persuaded of that view, but it is a view out there.
We’d better get on to your next book. This is by Anne-Marie Slaughter and it’s called The Chessboard and the Web. She’s making the argument that foreign policy makers are still looking at the world through 17th century lenses and that they need to move on.
I found this book fascinating. It made me recognize how impoverished our conceptualization of power remains. One of her core arguments is that the predominant theoretical and prescriptive frameworks that we use in foreign policy remain very state-centric. They reflect a Westphalian system where the nation state is the predominant actor and state-to-state interactions are the dominant interactions.
She’s certainly not making the argument that we need to discard these frameworks, hence the duality in the title, it’s a chessboard and the web. She’s saying that we need to enrich them and think about the role of non-state actors. In order to understand how power is evolving, you need to look, for example, at the role of philanthropies in shaping priorities. She makes the argument in the book that the Gates Foundation plays an outsize role in global health. If the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stipulates, in one of its annual letters, that we think that the global health community should be focusing on priorities a to z in the upcoming year, people pay attention.
You also look at the role of terrorist organizations. They’re empowered not only with kinetic technologies, but also with social media.
Then there’s the role of social media in fomenting unrest and the intrinsically dual use nature of the platforms and the technologies that actors have at their disposal. The very same social media platforms that facilitated the Arab Spring have also, sadly, been co-opted by authoritarian regimes. And so you have this cat-and-mouse game where frustrated populaces are going head-to-head with actors that want to subdue them, but they’re using the same technologies.
The chessboard/web metaphor is also helpful in terms of understanding how actors wield influence. Take climate change. If you want to steer the conversation about climate change policy, it just doesn’t suffice to talk with other national-level governments. You still need to do that but increasingly, some of the most exciting, consequential action is taking place at the sub-national level. Particularly in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the Paris accords, there were governors and mayors in the United States stepping up to say, ‘No, even if the national-level government is choosing to go one way, we’re still going to uphold the provisions of the agreement.’ So there’s a lot of city-to-city diplomacy, for example.
“In Afghanistan…if you look at the amount of territory that the Taliban controls today versus the amount of territory it controlled pre-9/11, it’s roughly the same”
There’s also a recognition now that for most issues, as clichéd as it may sound, you need to bring in stakeholders from as wide an array of sectors as possible. You need to bring NGOs to the table, you need to bring philanthropists to the table, you need to bring thought leaders to the table. You need to get out of the confines of state-to-state interactions. And if you want to think about how to wield influence, you need to understand how networks form. How does influence get channeled through networks? How do you exercise influence within networks, how do you construct new networks?
One of the advantages of networks is that they are far more pliable and can be generated more easily than state-to-state transactions. There is a certain institutional rigidity to the way that diplomacy is conducted. There are certain diplomatic protocols. But it’s difficult to navigate an entrenched bureaucracy like the United Nations. It’s very difficult to innovate within the state-to-state model. You can innovate more easily within networks.
In decades to come, I suspect that we’ll look back at The Chessboard and the Web as a foundational text. There are other books that have given a perfunctory nod to non-state actors and concede that they’re becoming more important, but then they tend to revert back to a state-centric discussion. Hers is one of the first books that in a systematic and rich way—not in an exhaustive way certainly, and she acknowledges that—tries to think about how we incorporate non-state actors into our power frameworks, into our influence frameworks.
It’s a veritably interdisciplinary book. Her insights into network theory draw on physics, biology, economics. I found the book exciting and stimulating for that reason too. She’s not only challenging our erstwhile conceptions of power but she’s also demonstrating the promise and the imperative of interdisciplinary work. You would not normally put the words ‘international relations’ and ‘physics’ or ‘biology’ in the same sentence, but she does so—not in a contrived way, to be interdisciplinary for its own sake, but because she says that some of the most important conversations you can have about international relations come from engaging other disciplines.
If the United States wants to wield influence it’s important that it not only pays attention to the traditional means of statecraft and is mindful of existing networks, but also can build new networks and draw on the full range of actors and stakeholders in the international system.
Do you think this book will have an effect on foreign policy? Will people in the State Department pay attention to what she’s advocating?
I certainly hope it has an impact. This is a fuller exposition of an essay that she wrote in Foreign Affairs at the beginning of 2009, ‘America’s Edge.’ She was talking then about the imperative of leveraging networks to advance American influence. At the time, the State Department was quite different. But regardless of whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat or Donald Trump or somebody else, I don’t find her notion of adapting diplomacy to a network age to be a particularly partisan proposition.
What I will say—and she acknowledges this sobering recognition in the book—is that there is a very robust confluence of forces working against the openness that she’s advocating. We think about the post-Cold War era as one of globalization, the weakening of the nation state and the erosion of borders. But she looks at the number of physical walls that have been erected since the end of the Cold War, and the data is striking. Then there’s the vigour with which certain countries are pushing to create internet or cybersilos.
Then there’s the rhetoric about immigrants, the state, and the salience of the border. There are a number of forces that are pushing against network diplomacy, that are trying to carve up networks and pushing against what she’s saying.
So, on the one hand, my hope is that her conception of network diplomacy will prevail and gain wider traction. I wouldn’t call it a Sisyphean task, but it certainly faces an uphill climb. There’s no question. We shouldn’t be overly deterministic in thinking about the course of history. There is no intrinsic motive force to history. There is no law that dictates that history bend in a more open direction. Human beings have to play a role in bringing that about.
I certainly took it for granted for a long time that the forces propelling the forces of openness along were more or less inexorable, and I’m realizing that that kind of determinism is very misguided. We’re seeing the consequences of that now.
So let’s go on to your next book, The Sovereignty Wars by Stewart Patrick. This is primarily a book about America, but it’s also fascinating in the context of Brexit, because a lot of people who voted for Brexit talk about their desire to restore British sovereignty. Tell me more.
Stewart Patrick is a big ideas person and this book is very much in keeping with his scholarship to date. What he does is he takes abstract concepts and interrogates them. He deconstructs the assumptions underlying them and he imparts greater clarity and nuance. Whether it’s failed states, global governance or, now, sovereignty, he really unpacks the term.
Underlying this book is a paradox that I find fascinating. It’s a paradox that has always dogged American foreign policy, but we’re seeing it play out with far greater force post-2016. The paradox is: ‘How can it be, and why is it, that the country that has the greatest freedom of maneuver in world affairs, that has accumulated far more power than any other actor in the international system (and maybe contextually more than any other actor in history) and should, in practice, be most unencumbered by considerations of sovereignty, is most preoccupied with it?’
He makes a point, early on in the book, that the United States is not alone in its preoccupation with sovereignty. The Chinese are also preoccupied with their sovereign rights as are the Indians and the Russians. But it’s hardest to understand in the case of the United States because we essentially have more or less unrestricted freedom of maneuver.
A lot of the discussion about infringements on American sovereignty veers in conspiratorial directions. The UN is conspiring to do this, that or the other to the United States or the World Trade Organization is conspiring to do this, that or the other. But how can you be the victim of a conspiracy when you are the architect of the system? People say, ‘I don’t want international institutions infringing on American sovereignty.’ But the irony is that many of the international institutions of whose surreptitious intrusions we’re most concerned are largely American creations.
It’s an important book because it demonstrates that this preoccupation with sovereignty is increasingly undercutting US influence. The Transpacific Partnership (TPP) is a good example. Is it a perfect agreement? No. It was a highly flawed agreement but then again, which agreement isn’t? It’s true that as a condition of joining certain agreements (not all) you cede a certain amount of sovereignty. But you can do so in a way that advances your interests. Joining the TPP would have given us a very important pillar of economic influence in the Asia Pacific. Now we look back and we want to contest the economic practices of the Chinese. We would have been in a far stronger position to do so than we are now if we had been with the other 11 countries that were negotiating that agreement. Many of those TPP countries have essentially moved on. They’re making progress on the TPP, they’re joining Chinese-led arrangements and the United States is out in the cold.
So what Stewart Patrick is trying to argue in his book is that, sure, every country has to be concerned about its borders. It has to be concerned about its sovereign prerogatives. But if, hypothetically, we were to unwind ourselves from international agreements and unwind ourselves from world affairs, we would have won a very pyrrhic victory. Some people might say, ‘Ah, we’re finally rid of the UN, no one can tread on us.’ But then it would become increasingly clear that we need those institutions and agreements to exercise influence.
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Take, for example, the Law of the Sea. It’s an interesting example of an agreement by which—were we to accede to that agreement and ratify it—we would actually increase the jurisdiction of our sovereignty. We would be granted an exclusive economic zone which would grant us tremendous economic opportunities. It would give us a legalistic footing to push back against the Chinese in the South China Sea that we presently lack, because China says, ‘Well, you’re not a member of UNCLOS.’ Which is true. We’re not.
He also demonstrates that when we talk about sovereignty, Americans are often talking about different phenomena. Some Americans are talking about sovereignty in a narrow, constitutional sense: ‘I don’t want other actors or other countries to be able to undermine America’s constitutional commitments.’ There are other people who use sovereignty more in the sense of independence or autonomy: ‘I don’t want countries to be able to undercut the independence of American foreign policy.’ And then there’s the influence dimension. There are different dimensions of foreign policy and people who talk about sovereignty sometimes are talking past each other.
In another part of the book—which I actually wish he would’ve expanded on—he issues a warning to western and particularly US policymakers that they would be remiss to treat populism as a passing storm. From the 1940s to roughly the mid-1970s, before the financialization of the American economy took off, US policymakers did a good job, not perfect, of synchronizing domestic policy and foreign policy: ‘Yes, let’s embrace globalization, let’s develop this postwar order, let’s embed American power in a larger framework, but let’s simultaneously put in place safety nets so that people who are displaced by globalization have a cushion on which to fall.’
Starting in the mid-1970s, we continued to embrace globalization and technology, but without making a commensurate investment in our social safety net. The result is that many people who have been displaced by globalization feel very left out. They don’t have the skills that they need to be competitive. There’s this increasing disconnect between a foreign policy that says we should continue to embrace globalization and a domestic policy where many members of the middle class haven’t seen a real gain in wages or income in roughly four decades and have seen their purchasing power decline. They feel excluded.
What Stewart Patrick is saying is, ‘Yes, we need to embrace globalization. We need to embrace interdependence. We can’t be a country that essentially turns its back on the world. But we need to do a better job on the domestic front.’
Is he arguing that when people say, ‘I’m worried about America’s sovereignty’ what they’re really saying is ‘I’m feeling buffeted by all these forces of globalization going on in the world?’
That’s a huge element of it. I wouldn’t say that it’s the sole precipitant of the conversation. As he points out in the book, America is a foundational experiment in a certain kind of sovereignty. America basically said, ‘We are chafing under the dominion of the British. We need to wrest ourselves free and we need to embark on this radical experiment.’ So Americans have been preoccupied with sovereignty since the country’s birth. But it’s undeniably true, particularly since the 1970s, that there has been a feeling of being buffeted, of being unmoored and unanchored; that you don’t have control over the forces that are dictating your life.
“The psychology of power lends itself to overstating the extent to which you can influence events in far-flung corners of the world”
Stewart Patrick talks about how free trade is far less of a boogie man than it’s made out to be. If you look at the extent to which America’s manufacturing sector has hemorrhaged jobs, it’s largely the result of automation and technology. It’s not so much about China or Mexico stealing our jobs. But there is a sense for many people in America that they have less and less agency over their lives. Not only am I increasingly victimized by forces outside of my control, but the individuals whom I have entrusted with protecting me against the vagaries of globalization are not fulfilling that promise.
As Stewart Patrick says—and I completely agree with him—it’s not a passing storm. We need to be investing in our social safety net far more aggressively, investing in job retraining skills and a whole host of other arrangements that we’ve underinvested in over the past 30-35 years.
One of the catchy phrases that really helped Brexit was the idea of ‘taking back control.’ As you’ve just described for the US, if we do go ahead with Brexit, the ultimate agreement will basically mean that Britain has less control because we’re not part of the EU, so we’re not making the decisions, but in order to continue to be fully economically involved with Europe, we’ll have to accept all the EU rules. So while Brexit was billed as taking back control, it’s actually about losing control.
It’s a powerful feeling. We do need to think about the psychology of disorientation and dislocation. When you feel you don’t have agency and that your agency is being undercut by these phantom-like forces that you can’t see or control, the ensuing resentment against those who are seen to be not doing what they should be doing is very powerful.
I hasten to implicate myself in this. My thinking prior to Trump’s election was that the benefits of the postwar order are largely self-evident and that folks in the think tank community just need to do a better job of explaining those self-evident benefits that we’ve been discussing amongst ourselves. Explanation is a component of it, but there’s a real failure that has occurred. We need to meet people where they are. It’s not going to do to go to people who say, ‘I’m feeling angry or I’m feeling dislocated’ and say, ‘Well, your anger and your dislocation are empirically fallacious.’ That kind of reasoning will boomerang.
So you brought up psychology, which is what your next book is about. This sounds fascinating. The Psychology of a Superpower by Christopher Fettweis. Tell me about it.
This is a new book which I found very powerful because the author demonstrates how insights into the psychology of individuals map onto the psychology of great powers, in this case the world’s preeminent power. There’s an enormous amount to unpack in the book, but there are a few core insights that I really took away from it.
The first is that the psychology of power lends itself to overstating the extent to which you can influence events in far-flung corners of the world. This is a psychological predisposition that has dogged America throughout the postwar era. There’s a very important essay that was written by a Scottish historian, Denis Brogan, in December 1952 called ‘The Illusion of American omnipotence.’ What Brogan argues in that essay, and what Professor Fettweis points out in his book, is that we’ve always overstated the extent of American preeminence and the extent of American control. And we continue to overstate our ability to shape events. Afghanistan and Iraq are poster children for the limits of military power.
“When you’re a superpower you have less of an ability, or feel less of a need, to inhabit the shoes of others”
You also believe that when currents don’t go your way, that’s because of an under-application of power. So rather than taking away from Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya or other countries that have proven recalcitrant to American influence, that maybe we need to recalibrate our foreign policy or maybe that our foreign policy just doesn’t wield as much influence as we think, you think we need to do more. Your takeaway is, ‘If we had applied more military power, or if we had put more boots on the ground or if we had intervened in more places…’ You take away the wrong lesson.
The psychology of a superpower also lends itself to exaggerating the extent to which other countries presume the benevolence and beneficence of your arrangements. I think there’s an increasing recognition in the American foreign policy commentariat, but a recognition that I think we need to amplify, that not everyone sees the postwar order as being as liberal as we do. Some people regard it as an imposition.
When you’re a superpower you have less of an ability, or feel less of a need, to inhabit the shoes of others. And that’s something that he exhorts in his book, that we need to inhabit the mindsets of other countries.
The last point I took away from the book is that when you are a superpower, because you are so powerful, the reservoir of power you have at your disposal lends itself to a do-something orientation. And so rather than disciplining your national interests and the pursuit thereof, the more power you have, the more capacious your conception of vital national interests becomes. And so you end up including in your conception of vital national interests places and areas and conflicts that are not actually vital to your national interests. You end up risking imperial overstretch. I hope and trust that his book is going to spur more research in this area, how concepts of individual psychology map onto the mentality of great powers.
Does he use the term ‘narcissistic’ about America? I mean he’s kind of implying that, isn’t he, that it’s a bit full of itself, unempathetic etc?
He does. He explores the consequences of self- preoccupation. I think it’s natural. When you are that powerful and when your authority goes that uncontested, you don’t feel a sense of urgency to inhabit the minds of others. And even if you were to inhabit the minds of others and you were to find that they disagree with certain policies or arrangements of yours, you say, ‘Well, there’s not much they can do about it because we are this powerful.’
He’s not saying, ‘America turn inwards, America come home and pack up all your bags.’ What he’s advocating for is that if America seeks to be more disciplined and husband its power and its influence, it needs to examine the potential strategic liabilities of its mindset.
Let’s go on to your last book which is Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.
There has always been this contrived boundary between domestic policy and foreign policy. They have always been intimately intertwined, but with the populist and nationalist stirrings we’re seeing, I think that looking at the relationship between the two and recognizing the artificiality of the boundary between the two of them is becoming more important.
I also like the conceit of the book. James Fallows and his wife Deborah fly across the country. They charter a private plane and parachute into small towns across the country. There’s this romanticism about it.
Sam Huntington said three decades ago that the litmus test of a great power is its capacity to renew itself. And we pride ourselves on being able to reinvent ourselves socially and politically. What they demonstrate in their book is that at a time when many Americans and many foreign observers look to American politics and see nothing but dysfunction, outside the view of social and national media, there is a renaissance and a regeneration occurring. One of the reasons we don’t hear about it is that it’s local news. Local news just doesn’t get the airtime that national news does and, tragically, a lot of funding for local journalism is being gutted. There isn’t enough bandwidth to cover it.
Bill Clinton said, ‘We should rely more on the power of our example than the example of our power.’ And one point that they make in their book is that if America wants to restore this soft power, this ideational and ideological power that is so key to its overall power, we really need to be doing more to surface the success stories at the local level. What they document is that a lot of exciting policy innovation—whether it’s on energy, education, healthcare, you name it—is occurring in governors’ offices. It’s occurring in mayors’ offices. It’s occurring in city councils.
Now they’re not naive. They’re hardly arguing that localities are quarantined from national-level political dysfunction, and they’re certainly not arguing that localities are immune from very deep political chasms. But they’re arguing that people on a day-to-day basis say, ‘Look, we need to get work done. So if congressional dysfunction is persisting, then we need to take matters into our own hands.’ There’s a pulling-ourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps pragmatism that is increasingly animating people. ‘Look, yes, you’re a Republican, I’m a Democrat, but people are complaining about traffic. People are saying that schools aren’t working. We need to do something.’ They are more creative in policymaking and they’re thinking in refreshingly bigger terms.
At the national level right now, we feel good about our government if we don’t have a shutdown and are able to pass basic pieces of legislation. At the local level, though, people are forging a path for how America can reinvent itself.
One reason I put the book on this list is that it affirms what makes America a superpower. Yes, it has a singular capacity to project military power. It has the largest economy. But that power has always been seen to be tethered to an idea—an idea that America can rebuild itself and that America’s polity is resilient. Also, the idea that people from around the world can contribute to its ongoing renaissance.
I don’t think we’re going to be reduced to second-rate status, but if we continue to rely inordinately on our hard power assets, I don’t know how long we can sustain ourselves as a superpower. So what I want people to see with this book is that the American idea is taking shape in a different way. America is reinventing itself again. There is a very intimate connection between our ability to wield influence in world affairs and the impression that people have of how our domestic politics are functioning. Their book gives me a sense of optimism about America’s capacity for reinvention. They have a good sense for taking the pulse of the country.
Certainly for me, part of what defines America’s success is immigration, and all these brains coming from around the world. What’s happening there, at the local level, according to the book?
Their book gave me a newfound appreciation for how distorted our views of politics can be if we just focus on what’s happening at the national level and spend too much time on social media. That’s not to say that certain concerning rhetoric about immigrants and immigration at the national level hasn’t trickled down. But their journalism bears out that if you get past that rhetoric and actually go to certain cities that are alleged to be very hostile to immigrants, there’s a sense of people saying, ‘Okay, let’s all come together. We need to work on these problems.’ So I think that there is a sense of resilience and pragmatism at the local level when it comes to immigration as well.
And I would also say there is a sense of urgency that, ‘Yes, we would like for our national level leaders to be the agents of policy innovation, but if they’re not going to take action, then we need to.’ I’m from a small town in Virginia, Fredericksburg, roughly 30,000 people. My parents are immigrants. They came from Pakistan well over 30 years ago now. I owe my life to this town, which has been very welcoming to me. If someone who had never been to Fredericksburg were to make a prediction about what the atmosphere would be like for immigrants, they might say, ‘Well, it’s in Virginia, you’re starting to get towards the south, maybe it’s unfriendly to immigrants.’ But we have a flourishing immigrant community that plays a very active role in Fredericksburg. Once you zoom in from the national level and actually observe what’s going on across America—go to a coffee shop, go to a library, go to a town hall, talk with people—you get a sense that people are pulling up their bootstraps and getting work done. And I believe that that phenomenon will continue.
What I’m not certain about is whether that narrative of revival will percolate up. The storyline of political paralysis, of polarization is so dominant in an era of social media. And it’s difficult to avoid. I don’t doubt America’s capacity to reinvent. I do question whether that narrative of reinvention will rise up high enough that it gains traction here at home as well as with a foreign audience. That’s a concern.
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