Monday, January 31, 2011

Power and Influence: The Atypicality of the U.S.

. Monday, January 31, 2011

John Quiggin suggests that the uprising in Egypt is another data point suggesting the decline of the U.S.:

There was another round of the more-or-less endless debate about the decline of the US not long ago, focused on the weak employment growth that has characterized the current ‘recovery’. I expect that the obvious inability of the US to exert significant influence, in either direction, over the fate of client regimes in North Africa and the Middle East will provoke some more discussion among similar lines.

As a public service, I’d like to bring an end to this tiresome debate by observing that the decline of the US from its 1945 position of global pre-eminence has already happened. The US is now a fairly typical advanced/developed country, distinguished primarily by its large population. ...

In geopolitical terms, the US spends a lot more on its military than anyone else (in fact, more than everyone else put together) and (contrary to the beliefs of most Americans) hardly anything on development aid or other efforts at promoting global public goods. The amount of sustainable influence generated as a result appears pretty trivial. The number of places in the world where the US can directly determine, or even substantially influence, political outcomes is approximately zero – nothing like what might be associated with an old style Great Power, let alone a superpower or “hyperpower”.As I’ve observed before, Americans of all classes (except those directly connected to the military-industrial complex) get very little payoff for their military expenditure – trillions of dollars of expenditure has been unable to produce positive outcomes in a couple of relatively insignificant countries, or even to put paid to a bunch of pirates in the Indian Ocean. ...

fn2. As other countries catch up to the advanced group that includes the US, those in that group might be said to have declined in relative terms. But this doesn’t seem to me to constitute “decline” in any important sense.

Taking the last part first, a decline in relative terms is exactly what most people mean when they talk about the rise or decline of states. There's a storied IR debate about whether states are concerned about absolute or relative gains (or both), but basically everyone agrees that when we're talking about power and influence -- as opposed to, say, affluence -- relative differentials is what is important. So Quiggin is not only wrong here, he's got it perfectly backwards.

Also, there is no sense in which development aid is a public good. It is excludable, and it is rival. And it is certainly political. (Moreover, as a commenter points out, once private giving is included the U.S. is actually the world's leader in foreign aid.)

Moving back to the top, the claim that America is a "fairly typical" developed country is extraordinarily naive. Dan Nexon shows up in the comments to say:

I want to be clear that (1) I don’t think the US should be spending what it does on its military, (2) it is really easy to underestimate the degree to which US defense policy—through alliances, bases, partnerships, expenditures, presence, stab ops, nuclear umbrellas, LIC, etc.—structures the current international system. Whethe that impact is “good, “bad”, or more complicated is certainly up for debate. That it depresses many other states military expenditures is, I think, pretty clear.

A clear example of this actually involves the very client states in North Africa and the Middle East that Quiggin says the U.S. is unable to influence. Egypt, for example, spends about $4bn a year on its military. The U.S. provides $1.3bn of that in military aid. It also provides a good bit of economic aid. Does Quiggin (or anyone else) think that this does not give the U.S. significant leverage over the Mubarak regime? The U.S. said yesterday that it would revisit all military aid to Egypt in light of Mubarak's actions, and has now called for a transition of power. If Mubarak instead cracks down on protesters, presumably U.S. aid will dry up and the regime will be further weakened. And as I blogged yesterday, preliminary research by Phil Arena suggests U.S. aid to clients in N. Africa and the Middle East has a pacifying effect on the region by suppressing violence between Israel and its neighbors. So Quiggin has got this backwards as well.

We also know that U.S. influence shapes IMF lending and conditionality, and that other countries leverage their ties to the U.S. for their benefit. The same is true of the World Bank.

The U.S. security umbrella in Europe continues to heavily influence the region. What might the Baltics look like without the U.S./NATO interventions in the 1990s and continued security guarantee to Kosovo? How does Russia's strategic calculus change in Eurasia without the U.S. presence? What does the foreign policy of France or Germany look like if NATO was dissolved tomorrow? I think it's unquestionable that the removal of U.S. influence would lead to major shifts in the policies of nearly every country in Europe. The effects of a strong U.S. presence in East Asia are even more pronounced. I think it's also clear that no other state has anything approaching that level of influence, which puts paid the notion that the U.S.'s power is "typical".

It's true that some other advanced countries have some influence over some countries, mostly former colonies. But none except the U.S. have this level of influence in every region of the world. Or, really, in any region of the world.

Or consider this: Japan and the rest of Asia had major financial crises in the 1990s, yet the effect on the rest of the world was slight. Same with all of the major Latin American countries, Russia, and others. The U.S. had a financial crisis in 2007-8 and the result is utter chaos in Europe and elsewhere. If the U.S. and Japan were comparable powers this asymmetry shouldn't exist.

Quiggin argued in comments:

Certainly, I can’t think of many examples where the US has been able to prevail on a diplomatic issue where the EU, Japan etc disagreed.

Financial regulation, climate change, arms control/missile shield, invasion of Iraq, monetary policy/exchange rates, integration of China into the global economic community, Israel. For starters.

But the point is even broader than that. If the E.U. and Japan agree with the U.S. on many or most major issues, isn't that evidence that the U.S.'s influence is greater, not lesser? The system that the E.U. and Japan exist in was largely created and maintained by the U.S. If other major countries have been socialized into it, does that fact not demonstrate just how pervasive the U.S.'s influence is?


John Quiggin said...

The concession at the end says it all. There isn't a single one of these examples where the US has in fact prevailed over the united opposition of the EU and Japan.

In most cases, I don't even know what you are claiming. Are you suggesting that
*the (disastrous) outcome of the various Basel rounds was dictated by the US?
*Or that the mess in Copenhagen counts as a success for US policy?
* Or that the missile shield was imposed over the objections of, say, the Poles
* Or that the EU and Japan opposed the Iraq war (Japan and about half the members of the EU sent troops)

etc. Feel free to spell out at least one of the examples, and I'll be happy to respond

As regards your claim that "the system was largely created and maintained by the US", I think the British might have something to say about that, as well as about the fact that there is life after decline.

Dan Nexon said...

John, most of the action happens before US allies publicly commit to objecting to, or supporting, US efforts. To put it another way, the choice to support the US or not does not occur in a vacuum.

John Quiggin said...

Agreed, but I still don't see Basel or Copenhagen as triumphs of US policy (overt or behind-the-scenes), let alone negotations about monetary policy, exchange rates or China. On the latter point, I'd say that the Europeans were keener than the US.

Iraq fits that story a bit better, but even there it's become clear that Blair was in full and unforced support from the beginning (I agree most of the others fell into line in the way you suggest). Without Blair's support, and the added benefits of his public duplicity, the war would have been a much harder sell.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Thanks for showing up, sirs. Sorry for being up late to my own party, but I've been busy this afternoon/evening. I'm working on a response, but I'm drawing from a bunch of different places so it's getting fairly long for a comment. I'll post it on the front page later tonight or tomorrow.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Sorry for the length.

Power and Influence: The Atypicality of the U.S.

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