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After Iraq Part 3: American Eclipse

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on December 16th, 2006

Quite unexpectedly American difficulties in Iraq are precipitating a shift in the entire world situation which though long in the making will nevertheless be disconcerting for all concerned.

Some recent developments suggest how:

Russia has mugged Shell Oil into ceding control of its field in Sakhalin and is threatening gas cut offs not only to Georgia but also to Belarus. By these actions Russia has made clear that she will not be the cooperative player foreign observers had talked themselves into expecting: trading foreign access to Russian resources for Russian access to foreign infrastructure and markets. No: Moscow is going to take as much as she can get.

China has strong-armed one of their best American "friends"—Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson—by signaling her unwillingness to cooperate as he had hoped. No: China will continue to pile up US dollars and violate her WTO commitments. And she will use those dollars to pay for a military build up and foreign policy that seeks, quite clearly, to weaken the United States.

If Russia and China are signaling strength, Europe is manifesting weakness and indecision. The European members of NATO have proved unable to staff a small military mission to Afghanistan and have mostly recoiled from Iraq. Brussels has moreover created a huge security problem for the European Union by gravely insulting Turkey and pushing its accession even further into the future,

These developments are driven off the front pages, however, by the spectacle, at once absorbing and terrifying, of the United States collapsing into a foreign policy nervous breakdown for which the most recent parallel is the abandonment of Vietnam, forty years ago.

This time, however, the territory being abandoned is not in Southeast Asia but in the Middle East: it is not ten thousand miles from Europe but shares a border with Turkey. This time the force that has confounded the United States is not a nationalistic communist movement overshadowed by a nearby great power (China in the case of Vietnam) but rather an ideological movement that no Middle Eastern state has yet managed to master.

The result looks to be a situation for which no one is prepared: one in which the United States, without warning, changes political course and diminishes her world wide involvement.

For here we are. The United States—recently labeled a "hyper power"—has proven unable, after four years, to bring order, not to mention control, to a medium sized Middle Eastern state, despite full effort, massive expenditure, and huge exertion of force.

Let us think through what this suggests:

If we cannot prevail in Iraq, then it seems unlikely that we would be able to discipline Iran or stabilize Saudi Arabia and the Gulf—no matter what we say.

If we cannot prevail in Iraq, then it seems unlikely that we would be able to keep Russia from pressuring and coercing the "near abroad."

If we cannot prevail in Iraq, then Asian states such as Japan are probably miscalculating if they count on US nuclear deterrence against their potential adversaries.

If we cannot prevail in Iraq, then Europe cannot expect us to do much as they face a poor, over-populated, increasingly well armed, and profoundly hostile set of states along the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

To sum up, the failure of the United States in Iraq will create a situation in which the calculations of a score of nations, mostly our friends, will be undermined. (I call Iraq a failure and not a defeat because the situation is not purely military. Its political dimensions are key).

Is the world prepared for this situation? Clearly not.

The best evidence of global un-preparedness for this development is perhaps Kofi Annan’s United Nations valedictory, in which he (like so many) called on the United States not to cease policing the world, but rather to do a better job of it—which in Annan’s view would be accomplished if Washington began to take more instruction from Turtle Bay.

Few foreign commentators or planners seem to understand just how alien to her own history has been America’s global role since the end of the Second World War. Or more accurately since 1947, for America’s immediate response to victory over Germany and Japan was immediate demobilization and a return home—which was reversed only two years later, when it became clear that Europe had thoroughly destroyed herself in the fighting and was not reviving (hence the need for a Marshall Plan) and that the Soviet Union, having emerged as by far the strongest continental player, was seeking to extend her control and influence in a way Europeans could not resist (hence containment).

Washington moved to fill part of the power vacuum in both Europe and Asia that would otherwise have been filled by the USSR alone. Both Western Europe and offshore Asia (Japan, Taiwan, and—for these purposes—South Korea) were saved.

Since that time the Americans have become ever more ubiquitous and (being human and overconfident) tending to take charge where they can—we Americans like to be in charge. As this has happened, more and more people have come—like Kofi Annan—to see American ubiquity and American global power as part of the natural order of things, a common good, as it were, in which all should share.

This author amuses himself, reading the London-edited Financial Times most mornings, by counting the stories in which a geographically remote issue—such as Iran—is described as an "American" problem, and nearer neighbors (European, for example) go unmentioned, and keeping track of the number of paragraphs that European commentators fill discussing almost any issue before they shift their attention from Washington to some other capital—if indeed they ever do.

In Paris and London and many other capitals, the policy elites have come to think of themselves as, essentially, spectators in a world in which the United States looks after their interests.

The focus on America by foreigners may not be surprising—after all Americans focus on America too, and the population of the world today has grown up since World War II—but it is profoundly a-historical (who even IN the United States studies our history in the nineteenth century, which is when our character was formed?) and worse, it blinds all to consideration of alternatives.

Nor is it clear that such a world role is even in America’s interest.

The issues are increasingly moot however. That world is being swept away.

In the United States, the new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, while eager to assert power at home, and happy to criticize, has shown no indication whatever of a coherent foreign policy that is different from that of the administration.

The administration remains clearly at sea with little idea of how to move forward.

Nor has any serious discussion begun about what America’s interests are or how they should be safeguarded in the new situation.

That is very bad, of course. But the United States itself, however, is far less threatened by the developments mentioned (even with its dependence on foreign energy) than are other states. Yet most of these states are not yet even fully awake to this new situation.

New thinking will have to come from somewhere other than Washington. But the rising powers like China and Russia are dictatorships, where no searching policy discussion is possible, while in places like Japan and France discussion still follows the deep and familiar ruts of Cold War ideas.

The precipitating event of this world realignment may be US failure in Iraq, the rest of the world, far more than the United States, will have to deal, as a pressing matter of security, with the new situation.

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