Five Big Questions about contemporary world politics


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Five Big Questions about contemporary world politics

I've been thinking about U.S. grand strategy again, and pondering some big questions that ought to be central to the debate on America's global role. Some of these big questions are researchable, others are by their very nature more speculative. How you answer some of them also depends on the theories you think are most powerful or applicable (i.e., realist theory suggests one set of answers, liberal approaches offer a different set, etc.), and the answers your get should have profound implications for what you think U.S. grand strategy ought to be.

So here are Five Big Questions about contemporary world politics.

1. Where is the EU project headed? The construction of the European Union was a major innovation in global politics, but new doubts have arisen about its long-term future. Pessimists such as Notre Dame's Sebastian Rosato believe the highwater mark of European unity has already been passed, while optimists like Princeton's Andrew Moravcsik think that Europe's current difficulties are likely to encourage further steps towards integration. The answer matters, because the re-emergence of genuine power politics within Europe could force the United States to devote more attention to a continent that some argue is "primed for peace" and no longer of much strategic concern.

2. If China's power continues to rise, how easy will it be to get Asian states to balance against it? Balance of power (or if you prefer, balance of threat) theory predicts that weaker states will try to limit the influence of rising powers by forming defensive alliances against them. China's rise is already provoking alarm in many of its neighbors, who look first to the United States and possibly to each other for assistance. But how strong will this tendency to balance be? If China gets really powerful, and the United States disengages entirely, some of China's neighbors might be tempted to bandwagon with Beijing, thereby facilitating the emergence of a Chinese "sphere of influence" in Asia. But if China's neighbors get support from each other and from the United States, then they'll probably prefer to balance.

But here's the question: Just how much support does the United States have to provide, given that this issue ought to matter more to the Asian states than it does to us? If you think balancing is the dominant tendency (as I do), then the United States can pass a lot of the burden to Japan, India, Vietnam, etc. It can "free-ride" to some degree on them, instead of the other way around. But if you think these states will be reluctant to balance, then the United States might have to do a lot of the heavy lifting itself.

To make matters more complicated still, both the United States and its Asian allies may be tempted to do some bluffing with each other, to try to get their allies to pay a larger share of the burden. Asian states will quietly threaten to realign or go neutral if they don't get more backing from the United States, and U.S. leaders may drop hints about disengagement if they don't get what they want from the allies they are helping protect. And this means figuring out just how large and iron-clad the U.S. commitment needs to be in order to sustain a future balancing coalition is a tricky business, and there will be lots of room for disagreement.

Finally, China's own conduct will also affect the propensity for Asian states to balance. If China starts playing "divide-and-conquer" and refrains from overtly threatening behavior, then its neighbors will be less worried and less inclined to seek closer ties with either the United States or with each other. If China starts throwing its weight around, by contrast, the United States will find it easier to enlist allies and will be in a stronger position when bargaining with them.

3. What's the relationship between U.S. defense spending, the deficit, and America's economic health and well-being? Many people believe that the United States is spending way too much on national security, especially given the 2008 recession, the soaring budget deficit, the impending retirement of the baby boomers, the looming fiscal problems facing states and local governments, and the need to rebuild infrastructure and improve U.S. education. I tend to agree with that view, but the actual relationship between defense spending and economic well-being isn't that clear-cut. In the short term, cutting defense spending dramatically would put people out of work and could make the recession worse. Moreover, cutting defense doesn't help with the budget deficit if the money just gets shifted into entitlement programs.

As you might expect, economists who have studied this issue have reached a wide array of conclusions (in part because the effects of defense spending or defense cuts depend a lot on the condition an economy is in at the time). Bottom line: If you're trying to figure out how big America's global military role ought to be, this is a Big Question that you can't ignore.

4. If the U.S. disengaged from key areas in the Muslim world -- most notably Iraq and Afghanistan -- would the threat of anti-American terrorism rise or fall?
We are supposedly fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places to "disrupt, defeat, and destroy al Qaeda." But our military presence in these areas is one of the big reasons (along with our unconditional support for Israel and our close ties with several Arab governments) why we have a terrorism problem in the first place. Some scholars, such as Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, argue that anti-American terrorism (and especially suicide terrorism) would decline if the Untied States ended these military campaigns and reduced its military "footprint" in these regions. Others point out that our military efforts are also inspiring home-grown terrorists like the inept Times Sq. bomber Feisal Shahzad. More hawkish commentators believe that disengagement would be a morale booster for Al Qaeda, facilitate their recruitment and make them more ambitious, and encourage them to "follow us home."

As readers here probably know, I favor the former view. But my main point here is that this issue is central to the design and conduct of U.S. grand strategy, and deserves more careful and systematic scrutiny. It would be a tragic irony if even well-intentioned efforts to make ourselves safer led to policies that had precisely the opposite effect.

5. Is the era of U.S. primacy over? How will the end of post-Cold War primacy affect its grand strategy and foreign policy? The United States will remain the world's most powerful state for some time to come. Its economy will be the world's largest until 2030 at least, and its per capita income will be much higher than that of other potential rivals (meaning there is great potential wealth that can be mobilized for national purposes). Unlike Europe, Japan, and Russia, the U.S. population will continue to grow and will not as old. And it will take a great deal of time before any other country amasses global military capabilities akin to ours.

Nonetheless, the position of primacy that the United States enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse has already eroded significantly and is unlikely to return. China is growing rapidly, and it will gradually translate some of its growing wealth into greater military capacity. It will not challenge the United States around the globe, but it is likely to challenge America's current pre-eminence in East Asia. No great power likes seeing another one with a large and visible military presence in its own backyard, and China will be no exception to that rule. Other states may acquire a greater capacity to deter us (in some case including WMD) thereby forcing the United States to treat them gingerly than we might prefer. Countries such as Brazil and Turkey have been growing steadily in recent years, casting off their past deference to Washington, and gaining considerable influence in their immediate surroundings.

To succeed, therefore, U.S. diplomacy and grand strategy will have to be more nuanced, attentive, and flexible than it was in the earlier era of clear U.S. dominance (and a rigidly bipolar global order). We'll have to cut deals where we used to dictate, and be more attentive to other states' interests. The bad news is that nuance and flexibility are not exactly America's long suit. We like black-and-white, good vs. evil crusades, and our leaders love to tell the rest of the world what to do and how and when to do it. Even worse, our political system encourages xenophobic posturing, know-nothing demonizing, and relentless threat-inflation, all combined with a can-do attitude that assumes Americans can solve almost any problem and have to play the leading role in addressing almost anything that comes up. It is also a system that seems incapable of acknowledging mistakes and admitting that sometimes we really don't know best. Leaders like Bush and Obama sometimes talk about the need for humility and restraint, but they don't actually deliver it. So for me, a big question is whether the United States can learn how to deal with a slightly more even distribution of power, a somewhat larger set of consequential actors, and a rather messier global order. It's hard to be confident, but I'm open to being pleasantly surprised.

I can think of other questions too (e.g., how serious is the threat of nuclear terrorism? How will climate change affect global politics? Will Iraq settle down or fall apart after the U.S. withdraws? Etc.) but the five questions listed above are the biggies for me right now. How about you?

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