Re-shaping the U.S. Global Role: The View from Baku



By Chiragov Fuad

Center for Strategic Studies, Azerbaijan

The international community has been staring with one eye on recent developments in Syria, North Korea, Iran and elsewhere, and with other eye on Washington.

What will Washington do to deal with the evolving crises?

Since the policies and strategies of all US administrations in the last 60 years have played important and consequential roles during such crises, the international community naturally eagerly seeks to learn how the US will handle the current crises.

With the relative decline of U.S. power in recent decades, its responsibility has not been converging with its decline, but diverging.

The U.S. remains engaged but how is it executing its engagements?

Is there an intelligent and well-executed strategy?

Is there any well calculated and designed plan for future with reductions in resources and perhaps commitments? 

The rest of the world has been used to adjusting strategies to the policy changes in Washington since the end of WW2.Even U.S. adversaries could not ignore what is being discussed in D.C for long.

American strategies have become critically important even for geographically remote states like Azerbaijan.

The stronger the US became, by design or by the default of others, the more responsibility it assumed in the international arena, intentionally or unintentionally, and the more the world expected from it.

This responsibility has become an “obligation to act or to lead” or the “responsibility to protect” the most vulnerable during crises U.S. fulfillment of this responsibility gave the international community a sense of predictability in world affairs.

Some Americans try to justify the nonfeasance of its obligations, arguing that “what happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn’t matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won’t make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).”

In this case, we should ask. Who can guarantee that the unintended consequences of less engagement will not pose perilous challenges ultimately to U.S. security in an increasingly interdependent and globalizing world?

Besides the US nonfeasance of its obligations, the world clearly sees that there is an anxiety and confusion of the politicians in Washington facing shifts in geopolitics and increased political polarization over foreign policy.

All these factors have made it more difficult to forecast not only short term but also mid and long term U.S. strategy.

Although the world has been discussing a post-American world for some time, the United States has yet to adopt a well-defined grand strategy to guide its engagement strategy in the face of decline.

Actually, all past empires find it difficult to design sophisticated strategies to stop their decline, win back their one-time might, and more importantly make the process of decline less harmful for themselves and others.

Designing a strategy to rise is easy; designing one for reversing a decline is not.

The challenge facing U.S. foreign policy makers resembles that of confronting traders in a very volatile currency market (FOREX). Traders will tell you about the psychological pressure when the trend is going against their expectations and how hard they find it to calculate and accept the reasonable losses. Almost all traders in an acutely bear market panic and make more mistakes trying to recover what they are losing often ending up in bankruptcy.

Not every trader can manage the psychological pressure when they are losing, especially when they are used to winning. Only very few traders can overcome the psychological effect of loss and adjust to new reality, recover and again win back what they have lost. Even fewer traders resign with their fate and loss and just exit the market.

The behavior of winning traders should not be disregarded as well. In the situation of winning trend, greediness and lure to earn more push a trader to more aggressive actions to exploit suitable trends as much as possible.

So far only China has been able to stay away from the trap by not forgetting what Deng Xiaoping said: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Meanwhile, other regional powers Russia and Turkey have already expressed their claims about their post-imperial areas openly and assertively.

Clearly, choosing the right strategy to reverse decline poses a more delicate intellectual challenge that the U.S. political establishment has ever faced.

With the relative decline of the United States, the world is entering a new era of international disorder. Just like the fog of war that exists when an army faces uncertainty in its situational awareness in a military operation, the fog of international relations leaves the United States uncertain and ambiguous about the capabilities and intent of its adversaries and allies.

But one should not be forgotten that what is seen as disorder and international relations fog in the United States  is not necessarily seen the by others, who perceive a new order and winning situation. 

The problem for U.S. foreign-policy professionals lies partly in the fact that they are not academically trained to manage their nation in decline and they are not ready theoretically and mentally to meet the new realities that are perceived by them as disorder.

In fact, for more than a century the United States has been used to being, first, a rising nation, and then a nation in a bipolar world, and most recently in a unipolar world.  It always takes a time to accept and adapt to the new realities; even longer, when they are unpleasant.

Foreign policy managers as well as other professionals are like computers designed to run certain programs. They get stuck with the appearance of new programs, realities, or viruses.  Therefore, foreign policy managers, like computers, need constant updates and new programs to meet changes.

New realities for foreign policy professionals are always seen not as order but as disorder or chaos.

They are very conservative, don’t like changes, want to play games with old rules, and get nervous with the changes.

The problem also is that when you refer to a new reality as disorder or chaos you are falling in the trap of not adapting to a new reality but resisting it–and forgetting the first lesson of history that novelty always replaces archaism. A new reality is also always complicated.

The world after the Cold War has been relatively simple for generations of foreign policy professionals. They became accustomed to it. There were two hostile blocks and some nonaligned nations. Put simply, there were enemies and friends, whether “you were with us or against us,” and common enemies made the world more simple, secure and predictable.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the first serious challenge for this constructed order and the U.S. political establishment. The United States lost an adversary that helped unify its friends, rivals with one another and sometimes the United States, against the greater danger.

Perhaps after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush had a vision of new enemy against which the Western world could unite, leading him to utter his famous line: “You are either with us or you are against us in the fight against terror.” However the world has entered a new era when enemy of my enemy is not always necessarily my friend.

The end of Cold War was referred by some as “end of history”.

Now there is a chance that this phrase might get a literal meaning.

In a bipolar world, it was much easier to calculate who will win or lose the potential war. However, in a multipolar world, when the power is diffused among different countries, it is not easy to predict who will be a final beneficiary of potential war, especially when everybody is against everybody. Alliances in multipolar world might occur, but these alliances are not as unified, organized, and loyal to each other as the alliances with a dominant and leading state.

During the Cold War, nuclear weapons made the two hostile blocks act rationally. They restrained them from getting into a hot war since they had a clear awareness of the adversary’s intentions and capabilities.

Now others’ intentions are more obscure.

The possibility is greater that that at least some of the multiple actors will not act as rationally as the United States and Soviet Union did.

There is a greater probability that miscalculation and reckless moves might lead bloody conflicts.

Since the United States is losing its position as international arbiter, a struggle for power is increasing among different regional actors.

However, these emerging regional powers do not have the capacity and resources to replace the United States as the dominant world player.

But the role of regional powers is increasing in their particular regional affairs. It will be more and more difficult for the United States or other outsider powers to intervene in regional affairs where they are not bound geographically. With the pulling back of the United States, the political vacuum will be filled not by another hegemon internationally, but by different regional powers in different parts of the world.

China’s priority is East and South Asia, Russia has already claimed its ambitions in the post-Soviet space, and Turkey is seeking special status in Middle East and Balkans. 

The United States has to find ways to live in a multipolar world whether it likes these shifts in world order or not. But the responsibility for designing adequate strategies for the changing world falls upon not only on the US but also on rising nations. Even so, this task is harder for the United States than for rising regional powers. It is easier to build a strategy for a rising nation rather than for a declining country.

For more secure world, the world needs to reset or reinstall the current changing world order or to reset or reinstall our way of thinking and seeing the world. The later is more difficult but less harmful. It is comparable to installing new or updated version of computer software.

The problem is not only the speed of changes, which is hard to follow.

The problem is also because we are attached to our stereotypes, desires, and habits won’t easily give them up. Most people and states are conservative by nature.  They resist changes of orders and rules that could cause them losses.

All empires during their decline have resisted and ignored the winds of change. Conversely, the clear winners of the new order always welcome it.

The rise of regional actors will affect also the role of international institutions, which were not designed for the current changing realities of the world.

For more than 60 years, these institutions have been backbones of international order and have guaranteed the security of weaker nations.

The rise of regional powers will make weaker states neighboring emerging regional powers more vulnerable.

The later are already seeking to become a regional arbiter while powers external to the region are encountering difficulties intervening in regional disputes. Especially, after Obama administration’s “reset” of its relations with Russia, the weak countries of Former Soviet Union (FSU) find themselves with less U.S. assistance confronting Russia’s attempts to regenerate them under Moscow’s leadership.

The world is not sure that the U.S. adequately will meet its responsibility to design grand strategy for itself and world that will make everybody better off. The longer decline will last, the more polarized and confused the views of the American political establishment will be.

With the lasting decline of the U.S., the temptation of the regional powers to exploit the situation will grow.

The U.S. remains indispensible in shaping a more regional crisis management engagement and working more effectively with its allies and friends in shaping regional outcomes that are more rather than less favorable to its interests and to global stability.  It was easier to manage a global empire; it is harder to leverage regional crises to shape as effective as possible regional outcomes.

But the U.S. with its capabilities and its status remains crucial to shaping more favorable regional outcomes for the democracies and people’s resisting tyranny worldwide.

These comments reflect the author’s personal views and do not reflect those of the government of Azerbaijan.