How to re-imagine a superpower, post-election

Obama’s brand of liberal internationalism wasn’t new enough to reset America’s place in the world. As the next president has her work cut out for her, Pierre P. Lizée offers policy changes, from Syria to the IMF, to consider.

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November 7, 2016
An empty podium is seen after a campaign rally by U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

On the eve of the American election, analysis turns to the challenges for the next government.

Whether the United States is in decline, despite being the most useless of debates, will nonetheless be at the very centre of the next administration’s foreign policy. 

This is what Donald Trump has wrought: his noisy tales of world-gone-wrong and unstoppable American decline will require in the coming four years an equally compelling story of redemption and return to global power. 

It is likely that Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. How will she reassert America’s power and diffuse any talk of sustained decline? This will entail deploying “smart power” – code for a commitment to the liberal internationalist agenda of Barack Obama, but mixed in with a hard-nosed willingness to back those efforts with military force, closer to the positions of the George W. Bush administration.

The problem is that this strategy will not work to reinforce America’s superpower status. The world is changing around it and these past points of reference in the use of force or the deployment of liberal internationalism can no longer serve American foreign policy or, for that matter, the broader interests of the world community.

Obama’s “underneath-it-all-we-are-all-the-same” liberalism, defended as a counterpoint to the “you-are-with-us-or-against-us” of the Bush era, will not do.  Obama certainly wanted a value-based U.S. foreign policy, in line with the brand of American exceptionalism he wanted to promote when he came to the White House. 

The problem with that form of liberalism, though, is that it spoke to a wide push for democracy around the world, but not to the resistance to it. His assumption – read his famous 2009 Cairo speech – was that people could simply choose to be democratic individuals, respecting the rights of all others and pushing their governments to do the same. How everyday life blurs together liberal and non-liberal aspirations for many who were listening to him, how they want governments to uphold ethno-religious and nationalist claims as much as democratic rights, and how the pull of the U.S.-led liberal international order could somehow cut through all of this; he explained none of that. The failure of this project – see the embarrassment of the White House when it did not quite know how to handle the Arab Spring – has opened the door to the sort of post-exceptionalist policies promoted by Trump; the U.S. is a powerful country which should act like all other powerful countries and think only of its national interest.

When it comes to the use of military force, recent U.S. administrations’ guiding principles have also failed to connect to current realities. In other words, military action by the U.S. over recent years has not been successful, in part due to the denying of the complexities of the conflicts it has tackled, and therefore has diminished the country’s global reputation.

The template here was set by the neo-cons of the Bush era. Neo-conservatism is a system of thought with a fierce belief in the idea of good and evil. And evil needs to be eradicated – not explained or understood, but fought until it is no more. In this Manichean universe, a driving concern with the historical developments which were precursors to evil or the social transformations which could give them a new inflection – precisely what is needed in today’s wars and their resolution – is simply wrong. And Obama did not rethink military force, he simply used less of it – hence his half-wars fought without knowing whether he was fishing or cutting bait. 

This all means that smart power cannot simply be some attempt to mix push and pull, the sharp sting of military force and the genteel appeal of American values. The principles and logic which animate U.S. action in both spheres must be rethought so they match current global realities.  

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What would an American liberal internationalism which has caught up to its times look like? The point is not that the U.S. should move away from the values and institutions it has championed since 1945. The exact opposite is true; the U.S. needs to make that case again, but wisely and with a clear sense of how the world is shifting around it. 

This means, in the first instance, laying out an agenda of global institutional change which reflects the structural transformations underway in world politics. An example would be efforts to ensure that the next head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) comes from Asia. If the U.S. is the indispensable nation, Asia is the indispensable region. Naming someone from China is a non-starter, but having an Asian direct the IMF (instead of the traditional European) would show that the American-led economic order is capable of timely reforms. 

This still leaves open, though, the deeper issue of American values and the extent to which they give energy and appeal to this institutional machinery. When he spoke of America’s values, Obama used a language of universals – democracy and liberal capitalism are universal needs the U.S. can help implement – which glossed over particularities of time and place. Now a sustained intellectual engagement with the deeper social and institutional tensions involved in U.S.-led liberalism must be part of the rolling out of smart power.

Crucial examples of this problem over the coming year will be the likely failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the slow tearing apart of the EU through the Brexit negotiations, and the continued enlargement of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. All three issues challenge the idea of a seamless and worldwide embrace of U.S.-led economic liberalism. Obama chose to sidestep this challenge. Clinton’s smart power, to really be transformative, will need to address the issue directly. One way of doing this will be to clarify the links and tensions between global institutions and regional economic architectures, each with its own logic and corresponding set of values.         

And then there is force. The post-9/11 wars have never been sufficiently thought through in terms of what should happen after the use of military force, when drawn-out social reconstruction is essential to peace. This has been said before. The real question, if smart power is to bring any change to U.S. foreign policy, is why exactly this has been the case, and how the concept can provide a solution to that problem. There the neo-conservatives will need to be confronted, because their ideological insistence on military shock and awe without a sense of subsequent social needs has forced the discussion away from important issues. 

The liberal side of the smart power equation, however, will also require some refinement. Building institutions and extolling democracy – this is the liberals’ game. A sense of process is still needed in the liberal ethos, however, if we are to know the steps through which a more liberal social contract can be built with the institutional and social materials found in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Obama failed to do this in Libya. Hillary Clinton will need to do it in Syria – most certainly the first test of smart power.

Specifically, movement should happen on two fronts. First, a Clinton administration should chart a credible political end-game in Syria, something Obama has never done. And second, it should push the grand bargain with the domestic and international allies necessary to make it happen. This is, in the end, what smart power requires: a reawakened national imagination regarding the role of the U.S. in the world, and a convincing engagement with international actors to ensure that they modulate force and liberal internationalism in parallel with the U.S.

This is how a President Clinton should address the idea of the decline of the U.S.  The issue is not that the U.S. is losing its power, the issue is that the world is changing around the U.S., and the country needs to learn how to use its power in ways which reflect these changes. It is on that basis that smart power must develop.