Wanted: A Changed US Mindset

The Financial Times’ chief foreign affairs columnist, Gideon Rachman, is one of the most trenchant observers of world order and America’s evolving role within it. Writing in the National Interest, he asks a big-picture question that the US presidential candidates should consider and debate this fall: “how long can the United States, a country that represents less than 5 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of the world economy, continue to be the dominant military and political power in every significant region of the world?” The question is not new. In a November 16, 1961, address at the University of Washington, President John F. Kennedy declared that “we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient—that we are only 6 percent of the world’s population—that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind—that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity—and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.” And almost a decade earlier, the Scottish historian Denis Brogan penned an essay entitled “The Illusion of American Omnipotence.”

Still, Rachman’s question assumes a newfound urgency amid the turbulence that is roiling world order and key regional orders. One might reformulate it as follows: will the United States attempt to lock in its current measure of preeminence, however necessary, or will it focus more on accommodating itself to and shaping the major trends afoot?  If it pursues the former course, it is likely to hasten its relative decline. I argued in a recent piece that the chief obstacle to US adjustment is not the resurgence of China, the intensification of political gridlock at home, or any other oft-cited challenge, but rather, its own mentality. The Atlantic Council’s Mathew Burrows, the brain behind several of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends reports, argues that America’s challenge “is to alter [its] mindset, which seems trapped in the amber of America’s ‘exceptionalist’ tradition and ‘indispensable’ role. US leadership will have to be honest with the public about the country’s more limited influence and need for strategic restraint.” Stephen Kinzer, a Senior Fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, wrote in a recent article: “Fifteen years into the 21st century, it is clear that the United States faces an era full of new threats. Some are political and military. The most serious is psychological.”

Changing its mindset requires that the United States distinguish more carefully between trends that are immutable and those that it can and/or should attempt to influence. Despite the troubles that emerging-market countries have been experiencing in recent years, for example, the “rise of the rest” is an enduring phenomenon (attempting to contain China would be ill-advised in the extreme).  So, too, is the diffusion of power away from states to non-state actors, ranging from anonymous cyber hackers to groups, such as the Islamic State, that defy boundaries yet seek territory—an objective that has typically been the purview of states. 

While it prides itself on solving problems, the United States must appreciate that sometimes all it can do is circumscribe the damage they cause; in other cases it may not be able to do much, if anything. Consider North Korea, which recently conducted its fourth nuclear test, and whose atomic odyssey has vexed the world for over two decades. Given that it would lose virtually all influence in world affairs were it to denuclearize, insisting upon that objective seems unwise.  Former Defense Secretary William Perry concludes that “it is probably too late to dismantle North Korea’s program. All we can really do is try to contain it.” Similarly, the United States would be unwise to think it can distill a new regional order from the Middle East’s wide-ranging upheavals simply by “doing more” or “exercising stronger leadership.” 

A mindset of restraint, however, is hardly one of declinism or disengagement. It has become axiomatic to suggest that the United States is in the doldrums at home, but Politico Magazine’s Michael Grunwald reminds us how much progress it has made on a range of fronts. While its challenges are numerous and wide-ranging, they are preferable to those of its putative successor, China, which faces slowing growth, accelerating environmental degradation, and one of the grimmest demographic outlooks of major powers. China has few genuine allies, and its actions in Pacific waters are compelling many of its neighbors to strengthen their military and diplomatic ties with the United States—contributing to the very encirclement China so fears. 

And the oft-heard charge that the United States is shrinking from world affairs misses the mark as well. It has signed a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, opened a new chapter in relations with Cuba, and pursued an opening in Burma. It was also instrumental in securing the success of the COP21 climate change conference in Paris at the end of last year. It is advancing two enormous trade deals—the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—which, if successful, would substantially enhance the United States’ geo-economic stature. 

Still, the United States will have to exercise its influence in an increasingly chaotic and contested environment, prioritizing more rigorously which issues it addresses, threats it meets, and regions it prioritizes. Proceeding from that recognition is not an act of resignation, but a nod to prudence. 

Ali Wyne is a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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Image: The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) transits the East Sea March 8 during Exercise Ssang Yong 2016, a biennial combined amphibious exercise conducted by forward-deployed US forces with the South Korean Navy and Marine Corps, Australian Army, and Royal New Zealand Army Forces. (Photo courtesy of US Navy)