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by Amb. Thomas E. McNamara (ret.)Introduction
It does not take a “foreign policy wonk” to notice that U.S. global influence today is weaker than at any time since the end of World War II. There are many reasons for this, but two rarely get mentioned, yet they are critical.

We and our European allies have moved apart in the past ten years. This is a major weakness for both sides of the Atlantic because, Asian “pivot” or not, the Atlantic Community has determined and will determine the influence, wealth, and power of The West for the foreseeable future. Make no mistake, the U.S. would never have been a superpower but for the development and unity of the Atlantic Community in the 20th C. The Community has kept Western thought, values, culture, and institutions in the forefront, despite being undermined by two devastating civil wars in Europe.

A second, important reason for our decline is that domestically, we are suffering from a most bitter, dysfunctional, political partisanship, which permeates all levels of our politics—the worst in my professional lifetime as a career diplomat. It is so bad that Ebola has become a political football.

We are not properly governing ourselves. We know it, and our friends and adversaries know it. The American public decries the divisions, yet it votes to continue, and even enhance, them. The righteous militants insist they have absolute answers, failing to see that their absolutism is a principal cause of our inability to govern.

It is important to put this second observation up front because our position in the world depends critically on the strength of the nation at home. Another way of saying it is (apologies to A. Lincoln) that a house divided cannot long maintain primacy in global affairs. As a result, we are still the primary world power, but no longer the indispensable nation.

This is not the lament of an old warrior, unable to see the vision of a new tomorrow. It is the observation of a professional diplomat who spent half his career functioning under a coherent national security strategy, and half without one. Our primacy in 1945 was unchallenged, as it was in 1992. In the two decades since, we have stumbled, and not because of one president or one party.

As our forces depart Afghanistan and Iraq, we are entering a new Post-9/11 Wars period. We must reassess our strategic position and come to a minimum national understanding of our international commitments and our role as leader. Otherwise drift and decline will continue.

The Need To Establish Priorities
Our main problem is not the complexity of the issues we face, though they are many and serious. Neither is it the strength of those wishing to displace us, though they have significant power. The main cause is our failure to establish strategic priorities and ensure that we have the diplomatic, economic, and military capability to implement them.

Until we set priorities, we are driven by tactics, which means by headlines, pressure groups, conflicting demands, and partisan considerations, instead of by national interests. Without defined priorities, we cannot say to ourselves, or others, that we have a strategy. Without a strategy our allies and partners deal cautiously with us, uncertain of what we will do. Our adversaries are suspicious and quick to oppose, not knowing what our intentions are.

We have had these strategic debates at the end of all previous wars—except the Cold War. Recall the debate about Containment Strategy after World War II. Nine president adopted and adapted that strategy with great success. The post-Cold War failure to reassess was an extraordinary lapse, given the profound revolutions that occurred. One superpower collapsed; Eastern Europe and Central Asia metamorphosed; China, Napoleon’s “sleeping giant,” awoke. Other major changes, also, reshaped the global political map. Yet, we failed to reassess.

Let me focus on three regional examples that highlight our quandary. I believe articulating a global strategy is best done by developing regional and other strategies, specifically interlinked and reinforced within an overall national strategy.

The U.S. And The Islamic Civil War
We justifiably invaded Afghanistan, and expelled Taliban and Al Qaeda from Kabul. Unfortunately before invading, we did not pause to establish clear, limited objectives. Hence, we’ve spent a dozen years mired in nation-building, in Afghan-Pakistani politics, and with a duplicitous Pakistani “ally.” We had success, against Al Qaeda, but we did not destroy it.

Then, without finishing our Afghanistan venture, we heedlessly and unjustifiably invaded Iraq, ostensibly to remove terrorists and WMD, but really in a futile attempt to restructure politics and culture in Iraq and the Mideast. In a decade of warfare, we succeeded in roiling Mideast politics, unsettling oil markets, undercutting our supporters, weakening our influence, and motivating extreme Islamic movements and jihadist recruits. Iraq was a strategic error for which we are paying dearly.
It is time to reassess our strategic positions in the Mideast.

The Current Situation
The Mideast today is a cauldron of violent history, ideologies, theologies, nationalisms, and social discontents. ISIS is only a symptom of a wider, deeper disorder. Destroying ISIS will not resolve the turmoil convulsing the Islamic world.

Our stated objective in using air strikes against ISIS is to “degrade and destroy” it. Yet, we know that we cannot do that with available capabilities.

  • American air power without “boots on the ground” cannot solve the problem, and no one is committed to putting credible boots on the ground, especially in Syria.
  • Regional states vacillate due to conflicting objectives and historical hatreds.
  • ISIS’s powerful opponents, the U.S. and Iran, cannot work together, Egypt and Turkey are at odds, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States deeply distrust Iran and Iraq, and the latter return the sentiments.
  • In Iraq, partisan militias are not loyal to Baghdad; and Baghdad’s military has collapsed.

These and other factors suggest that we are repeating the Afghanistan and Iraq error of proclaiming objectives which exceed our capabilities. For now, ISIS is an existential threat only to Arab nations—not to us. Yet, they cannot overcome their differences to confront the threat.

Meanwhile, at home bitter, partisan, uncompromising fights stifle dialog on Mideast strategy.

A More Modest Approach
With all these problems, more modest and achievable goals are called for. Now that we have committed to air strikes, a better objective would be to state: we will use air power to blunt the advances of ISIS, thus giving time for its many opponents, including the U.S., to coordinate and cooperate in effective offensive action. We should say that we will engage further, when adequate commitments and coordination exist, including significant Arab boots on the ground.

Iran can bring strong capabilities to such efforts. To enhance prospects for success, we should explore a temporary expedient of coordinating efforts to defeat a common enemy. If, perchance, this is complemented by a nuclear agreement, so much the better to reduce hostility and mistrust in our bilateral relationship and increase stability in the Mideast.

Limited, realizable goals are the beginning of an effective strategy. Objectives clearly stated should not exceed capabilities, and should be credibly achievable. Americans must learn that overstated objectives are a curse on national security policy.

The Challenge in the Ukraine
Europe is not the strategic centerpiece it was during the Cold War. As noted above, the US and Europe have drifted apart. Each of us needs the other, but each is incapable of reigniting the cooperative spirit and common purposes of earlier decades. Maybe the embarrassment of a weak Russian oligarch and aspiring autocrat, Vladimir Putin, defying the Atlantic Community will energize that community to act decisively.

The Ukraine crisis has occurred because Western and Eastern Europe resumed normal relationships after the unnatural, enforced separation of the Soviet period. A weak Russia has reasserted itself in traditional Russian fashion, by seeking a “sphere of influence” along its frontiers (“the near abroad”).

This crisis reflects, and flows from, two very different political cultures. Europe’s loose confederal association, which respects national prerogatives, is in conflict with Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial, populist, centralized nationalism. His policies are the successor of Tsarist policies.

We err if we think and act as though Russia were part of the West. Russia never experienced the last 600 years of Western culture. In Russia there was no Renaissance; no Reformation; no 17th C. scientific revolution; no 18th C. Enlightenment; no 19th C. Industrialization; no 20th C. popular Democracy. To say Russia is not Western, does not denigrate Russian culture. We do not belittle China, Japan, India, Nigeria, and Egypt by saying they are not Western.

Ukraine, unlike Russia, is a borderland with multiple mixes of Western and Russian cultures. The recent elections, and earlier ones, demonstrate that Ukrainians neither believe they are, nor want to be Russians.

Putin has boldly, challenged the post-Cold War border settlements, agreed to by his predecessors. The challenge must not stand because political and economic stability in Eastern Europe will degenerate if Russian revanchism is unanswered. The Atlantic Community must act energetically to negotiate a resolution.

Eastern Europe has little faith that Western Europe can respond effectively to Putin without the United States leading it. Unless the Atlantic Community agrees on effective measures, Putin will be embolden to take another step, and then another, and another and… “Salami slicing” is a very traditional Russian tactic.

Give Diplomacy A Try
Nonetheless, we cannot ignore Russian concerns, even though we reject its unilateral actions.

Putin’s challenge has caused the crisis, but the West has been ambiguous and contradictory on matters of concern to Russia. The West did not follow up the border agreements with definitive policies to define its relationships with Eastern Europe, especially on NATO and EU expansions. Worse, it vacillated in the Balkans when Yugoslavia imploded, and in 2008 in Georgia.

Why these Western missteps? They resulted from the failure of the U.S. and Europe to go beyond agreements on borders, and agree on a post-Cold War strategy in Europe. Border settlements were only part of the task that needed to be done.

Putin has chosen to interpret events as an insult to Russia. Seeing Western hesitancy, he decided to act in Ukraine. If he is successful, next step is probes in the Baltic States.

Neither Russia nor the West would benefit from military confrontation. Therein lies an opportunity for diplomacy via a conference of interested states. Neutrality is written into Ukraine’s constitution. That language needs strengthening and international confirmation. As for Ukraine’s overall orientation, European history is instructive. Historically, Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland have retained sovereignty and territorial integrity, but accepted policy limitations. The case of Austria during the Cold War is very relevant.
Devising a solution for the Crimea is more difficult. One possibility is to reestablish Ukrainian sovereignty, but make the naval base a “Sovereign Base Area,” similar to Britain’s arrangement for bases on Cyprus.

Here again, our poisonous politics may well lead us astray. Any compromise is likely to degenerate into chest-pounding shouts about being “strong” and berating others as “weaklings.” In search of partisan advantage, we will see appeals to ethnic pressure groups.

The Asian Pivot
Finally, a brief look westward. The Asia-Pacific [nations bordering the Pacific Ocean] is important to us. It is in change, but not in crisis. With its growing economies, growing trade, and recently growing conflicts, we should reassess our role there.

The Asian half of this region has little history of community or of community institutions to buffer multiple interests and disputes. Traditions and institutional weakness, therefore, leave it susceptible to strong shifts caused by nationalist, geo-political, economic, and political pressures, and historcal hatreds. Nevertheless, Asia has managed its conflicts, until now, with moderation and caution—except for North Korea.

Major strategic elements are present in our policies, but in this region, as elsewhere, domestic political rigor mortis hobbles us. In 2009, we joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership (PTT), a trade negotiation effort. The “Asian Pivot” announced in 2011 to widespread applause had two major prongs, increased trade and reaffirmation of security relationships.

Regretfully, after five years Congress is immobilized on fast-track trade authority, so trade negotiations are stalled. With congressional blessing, however, our military activity in Asia-Pacific has moved ahead smartly. Hence, we created two problems. Our regional partners doubt our commitment to trade, and China sees “the pivot” as a ploy for military advantage.

A Long Road Ahead
Any Asia-Pacific “pivot” should be guided by the principle that no one nation should dominate the region, and that our regional alliances and presence threaten no one. They enhance regional stability. Also, to reduce tensions our priorities should be regional trade relations and regional institution building. A somewhat similar policy has served us well in Europe.

We are not the indispensable nation in Asia, but we can be the “balanced and balancing nation.” We need not “contain” China, but should work to develop mutually beneficial cooperation and encourage China to assume a stabilizing role as a major regional power.

The region is far more complex, and China less threatening, than most Americans think. An energetic, awakening China is not an aggressive military adversary. It is not an oriental Soviet Union. Nor should its economic growth be regarded, as we mistakenly regarded the “Japanese Juggernaut” of the 1980s. Like Japan, China is among our largest trading partners, and like Japan, China’s economy is export driven. But, China has more and hugely bigger political, economic and social problems than Japan had. Any Chinese “miracle,” like the former Japanese “miracle,” is far from a sure thing. It is wise to be skeptical of miracles.

Final Thoughts
I am not pessimistic about the future, despite my critique of the past two decades. As a historian by training and predilection, I think we must see events in long range—as waves, not as blips.

We have overcome our downturns in the past. For example, in mid-19th C. during a period of war and social change, a phenomenon somewhat similar to the Tea Party was the Know-Nothings. It reached its peak and spent it force in less than 10 years. I suspect the Tea Party has peaked, and hope we can return to traditional American politics, where compromise and civil discourse is valued—and practiced. Our mass media could accelerate this, by admitting that uninformed sound and fury blasted coast-to-coast over the airwaves creates discord and weakness, not strength.

This country has always been introspective, and self-critical—an important strength. We do self-correct. Domestically, we can see how the Progressive Movement of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson transformed our social thinking and structures. In foreign policy, we can see how the Containment Strategy of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower led us to superpower status. These momentous course changes are proof that we know how to come out of self-corrections stronger for having done the correction. I hope we are in for a course correction in the next decade. I look forward to it and hope to be around for it.bluestar 

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Thomas E. McNamara has served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, ambassador to Colombia, ambassador at large for counterterrorism, and special assistant to President George H.W. Bush.


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