Can the United States Think Strategically About Iran, China, and the Deepening Ties Between the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia?
One of the many satisfying aspects of Flynt’s appointment as a professor of international affairs and law at Penn State is his service on the faculty editorial board for the new Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs, published jointly by Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law (DSL) and School of International Affairs (SIA). As its name suggests, the Journal focuses on subjects that lie at the intersection of law (international or national) and international relations. In keeping with the traditional law review model, Flynt’s wonderful colleague, Executive Editor (and assistant dean at DSL and SIA) Amy Gaudion oversees a talented batch of student editors from both schools who produce each issue.
The newest (second) issue of the Journal (vol. 1, no. 2) is out, see here. It includes our most recent article, “The Balance of Power, Public Goods, and the Lost Art of Grand Strategy: American Policy Toward the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia in the 21st Century”; for a pdf version, click here. It also includes pieces by (among others) Harold James, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Ronald Deibert, and P.J. Crowley. The issue grew out of a series of presentations that the Journal sponsored over the course of the last academic year around the theme of America’s emerging national security narrative.
Our article seeks to explore the roots of the worsening crisis in American foreign policy, of which America’s dysfunctional policy toward Iran is an especially salient manifestation. As we write,
“While no single factor explains the relative decline of American standing and influence in world affairs, one of the most important is the failure of American political and policy elites to define clear, reality-based goals and to relate the diplomatic, economic, and military means at Washington’s disposal to realizing them soberly and efficaciously. Defining such ends and relating the full range of foreign policy tools to their achievement is the essence of what is known among students of international relations and national security practitioners as ‘grand strategy.’ Questions of grand strategy are becoming an increasingly important element in America’s emerging national security narrative—because of accumulating policy failures, relative economic decline, and the rise of new power centers in various regional and international arenas.”
To explore what is wrong with contemporary American grand strategy and what it would take to put that strategy on a sounder course, our article evaluates “Washington’s posture toward two regions where the effectiveness of American policy will largely determine the United States’ standing as a great power in the 21st century: the Middle East (with a focus on the Persian Gulf) and rising Asia (with a focus on China).” As we explain,
“Fundamental flaws in America’s stance vis-à-vis these critical areas have contributed much to the erosion of the United States’ strategic standing. Over time, deficiencies in policy toward each of them have become synergistic with deficiencies in policy toward the other. Recovering a capacity for sound grand strategy will require a thoroughgoing recasting of American policy toward both—and a more nuanced appreciation of the interrelationship between these vital parts of the world for U.S. interests.”
We have come more and more to appreciate that recasting American policy in this way must necessarily be preceded by a kind of “cultural revolution” in the United States. Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has been increasingly driven by a grand strategic model—we call it the “transformation model” in our article—in which “the United States seeks not to manage distributions of power but to transcend them by becoming a hegemon, in key regions of the world and globally.” Such a commitment to hegemony—an assertion of military, economic, and ideological dominance that aims to micromanage political outcomes in far-flung parts of the world and to remake, or at least to subordinate, vital regions in accordance with American preferences—is deeply problematic, strategically as well as morally.
Strategically, the transformation model rejects a lesson that balance of power theorists, foreign policy realists, and astute students of international history all know:
“While hegemony seems nice in theory, in the real world it is unattainable; not even a state as powerful as the United States coming out of the Cold War can achieve it. Pursuing hegemony is not just quixotic; it is counter-productive for a great power’s strategic position, dissipating resources…and sparking resistance from others. Pursuing hegemony ends up making you weaker. This is the critical factor that has undermined the effectiveness of American foreign policy over the last 20 years or so.”
Notwithstanding such a dismal record, the commitment to hegemony remains deeply rooted in American strategic and political culture. It is grounded in venerated notions of American exceptionalism and of the United States as “the indispensable nation.” It is driven by a teleological view of history reflecting a culturally-conditioned belief in “progress”—the inevitable triumph of liberal, secular modernism over other ways of looking at human and social existence—and a conviction that, ultimately, everyone wants to be “just like us.”
Of course, one can argue that there are resources available in American political culture to push back against the embrace of hegemonic foreign policy. For all that the United States has come, over the course of its history, to embody an ideology of liberal universalism, many of its founders (e.g., James Madison) and early leaders could well be described as hard-core “republican (small ‘r’) realists,” who understood that imperial ambitions are bound to undermine liberty at home and national strength abroad. But, for a long time, the relative balance of cultural resources has been tilted ever more in favor of liberal hegemony as the reigning paradigm for American foreign policy.
Today, this is most urgently felt with regard to U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. Pushing back against that is our primary task for the coming year—first and foremost, through our forthcoming book, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will be published just eight days into 2013.
Best wishes to all for a Happy New Year.
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