US foreign policy is under considerable pressure. There’s a long list of almost routine problems (e.g., North Korea, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, failing states in Africa), a resurgent challenge to liberal democracy, and the longterm matter of climate change.
And within this setting are three issues which seem to be especially pressing and appear to directly impact on both US credibility and the maintenance of global order. These are: (1) the rise of Islamic State; (2) Russia’s threat to the Ukraine; and (3), Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. Each case has unique origins, and each has a dynamic of its own. But one thing they all have in common is that the protagonists in Beijing, Moscow and IS are pushing the envelope, seeing what they can get away with. And, although they are mostly pushing against local opposition, they each see the US as being in their way and, in different forms, they each see Washington as an opponent.
In addition, each issue has the potential to redraw the map. That is the aim of Beijing, Moscow and IS. Consequently, the old-fashioned idea of geopolitical competition is on the agenda. Depending on how events unfold, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia might look quite different in ten years time. Of course, they might look better, but at the moment the worry is that they will look worse. And if that happens, there is the potential for significant unwanted spill-over effects.
These effects could include greater proliferation and arms racing, a wider disintegration of the state system in North Africa and the Middle East, a further repositioning of Iran, worsening turmoil in Afghanistan and who-knows what in Pakistan. There is also the possibility of more direct confrontation between the US on the one hand and Russia and, or, China on the other hand. That type of confrontation could turn extremely scary.
If this doesn’t look bad enough, there is an extra headache for Washington here. This is a concern that the three issues (IS; Russia-Ukraine; and the South China Sea) might be somehow linked. How? The linkage is provided by the idea of America’s credibility as a Superpower.
Since 1945 it has been assumed that the US is the ultimate enforcer of world order. The assumption has often been framed simplistically, as a cliche of world affairs. But the idea had more than a grain of truth to it, and it certainly has had a strong grip on how the international system is conceptualised.
The implication has been that a diminution of US power, or a collapse of American and/or foreign belief in this power, would lead to a disastrous unravelling of world order. Never mind that it was sometimes Washington which broke the rules and disrupted the international system, most obviously in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Or that previous misadventures demonstrated that US power had its limits, most dramatically in the case of the Vietnam war of the 1960s and 70s. But despite this, the idea of the US as a keystone of world order has persisted.
Which means that US failure anywhere, or the perception of a US back-down anywhere, is considered by many to have serious implications for the big picture. A hairline fracture could open up and crack-apart the keystone — or so the theory goes. Which means the US has felt obliged to constantly prove the credibility of its power. Which means relatively little issues can be seen as Big Issues – which in turn can then make them become Big Issues.
We are about to see this sort of logic play out, yet again, in the US presidential campaign now getting underway (even though the election isn’t until the end of next year). As if the international arena is not difficult enough to manage, President Obama will also have to hold at bay domestic American noise on foreign policy. That’s what happens in a lively democracy. Expect US Republicans to throw every thing they can at Obama’s record (and, by implication, whoever ends up being the Democratic Party candidate in 2016). There will be allegations of weakness, lack of direction, lack of focus on US national interests, and appeasement. Some of the claims will be measured, but many others will likely be wildly stupid and damaging to America’s standing.
Then we will see a rehearsal, with contemporary twists, of the old American ideological battles between isolationism, internationalism, and unilateral assertiveness. Meanwhile, once again, US allies will get nervous about Washington becoming either too inward looking or too reckless in deploying American power: will it retreat, or over-step? Either would, it is feared, make bad situations worse.