As usual, Walt nails it with an incisive critique of US foreign policy. (If you don’t read him, you should.) He argues that the US grand strategy has become ‘selective retrenchment.’ That is a good term that captures well the post-Bush hangover US power is enduring. After W’s dreams of global democratic imperialism, we have crashed into reality. W overreached and infuriated the world. In 2000, the US was the ‘indispensible nation.’ Today, we talk about the coming of non- or multi-polarity, or the ‘post-American world.’ For all W’s strutting machismo about defending and strengthening America, he left us far worse off than the pot-smoking draft-dodger did.
For Americans, this should be rather sad, especially if you think that US hegemony is more benevolent than any others would likely be. Consider the possible list of other leaders: The EU is paralyzed and inward looking, India is too weak, China is undemocratic and culturally arrogant, and Russia is too mean. In short, the list of replacements for global US power are unappealing. For all that US arrogance and messianism under Bush, the US has by and large supported good, liberal things like human rights and democracy. (Compare Chinese and US behavior in Africa, e.g.) Don’t expect the realist Euros or nationalist Chinese to advocate this way. (For the longer version of this argument, read this.)
So, once again, you can blame W for this. Under Clinton, for all his personal shenanigans, US power was relatively secure. Foreign respect for the US was reasonable, US overseas commitments were manageable, the US budget – the long-term foundation for US power projection abroad – was improving. In just 8 years, W did astonishingly damage to US power, and now we must retrench, as Walt says. We must increasingly give up important projects (possibly even AfPak) and share leadership with others in some flimsy multilateral collective effort more likely to induce free-riding and buck-passing than joint leadership. Obama has to run around the world telling to telling foreigners we are not a bully. How humiliating. Andrew Sullivan said the Bush administration was one of the worst presidencies in US history. Any American should be embarrassed at this low ebb of US power. Like the overstretched and widely perceived as imperialist British in the 50s, we now have to start to pull back. It did not have to be this way.
But so hath W wrought. He convinced even a lot our allies that the Pax Americana didn’t have much pax in it. The notion that the US was a gentle giant, a benevolent hegemon flew out the window; we became Thucydides’ Athenians – right down to our own Sicilian expedition in Iraq and Melos at Abu Ghraib. Under the preemptive war doctrine, the US became something unheard of in IR – a revisionist hegemon. IR theory doesn’t even know what that means – hegemons, by definition, are supposed to be status quo seeking. It’s an oxymoron. Yet the Bush people pulled it off. We looked like we wanted to rewrite global rules – the very ones that we helped build after WW2. To the rest of the world, we became imperialists. I spend enormous amounts of time here in Asia trying to convince Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese that we are not in fact global imperialists. It’s terribly embarrassing.
To boot, W broke the bank. The budget flew out of extremely out of balance; W added 50% onto the national debt in just 8 years ($6T to $9T). No rainy day fund for crises like the Great Recession was ever even contemplated. The Clinton-Rubin opportunity to place US power on a durable financial footing was squandered. Now we borrow $20B a month from the Chinese. If you think we can hang on at the top doing that, go take Econ 101. We are, literally, selling American preponderance to the PRC – ast0nishing, heartbreaking. No ‘empire’ can survive very long when it becomes a debtor; yet the Bush people pursued a costly foreign policy while simultaneously stripping the government of the resources to pay for it (through tax cuts we could not afford). This was simply insanity, and the pain of the Great Recession is deserved because we brought it on ourselves. For an example of serious budgeteering, including cuts and tough choices, try Korea, instead of US fantasies that we can spend without worrying about where it comes from. What a waste, what a squandered opportunity to make the world a better place…