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An article by Philip Zelikow in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, titled “The Atrophy of American Statecraft,” argues that the U.S. is having a hard time dealing with all the problems in the world because our government no longer has “the breadth or depth of competence”—the “capabilities and know-how”—that it once did.

There may be something to this. Today’s diplomats, shrewd and talented as many of them are, couldn’t honestly claim peerage with the likes of George Kennan, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, or the other eminences who shaped the frameworks and crafted the policies that kept the West free and prosperous in the years after World War II.

We live in “a period of high crisis,” writes Zelikow, himself a former official and a diplomatic historian. The crises include a major war in Europe; threats of conflict throughout East Asia; war and turbulence in the Middle East; hostile relations with Russia and China, as well as North Korea and Iran; democracies in decline; and all new threats or uncertainties from climate change, pandemics, and A.I.

Yet this long list of challenges—which Zelikow rattles off in his first paragraph—undermines his thesis. For it is doubtful that, compared with our current roster of strategists and tacticians, reincarnations of Kennan or Marshall (once fully briefed on the vast array of problems) would be much more adept at solving them.

In some ways, our Cold War pioneers had it easy. The United States emerged from WWII with an atomic-weapons monopoly, half of the world’s GDP, most of its hard-currency reserves, and—with the return of its soldiers—the foundations of an enormous economic boom, while much of the rest of the world still lay shattered from the war’s destructiveness.

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True, those pioneers devised a policy of containing an expansionist Soviet Union without provoking another major war. They recognized, with the Marshall Plan, that spending billions to rebuild Europe and Asia would create markets for U.S. goods and thus redound to our economic benefit as well. They created an international financial system that would help make the world safe for democracy (and for capitalism).

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None of this should be minimized. But the structure of international politics—the carving of the world into two spheres, led by the U.S. and the USSR, with no strong powers in between—made it fairly easy for Washington to impose its will, at least within its sphere. And the structure of domestic politics—a broad consensus on foreign policy, rooted in a strongly Democratic Congress loyal to a Democratic president’s internationalist agenda—made it possible for Washington to do the imposing with little resistance at home.

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It is changes in these structures that have sparked some of today’s crises—and have made all of them much harder for the U.S., or any other single power, to manage.

These changes began, and have since evolved or devolved, 30 years ago, with the end of the Cold War. The Cold War was, in many ways, a dreadful time, but it was also a system of international security—a system that worked to the advantage of the two “superpowers.” As long as the Soviet threat hovered across the horizon, Washington could persuade or arm-twist allies, and even some neutral countries, to go along with U.S. policies—even when those policies didn’t suit their interests. Once the Soviet Union imploded, the looming threat vanished as well, and those countries, including some that generally aligned with U.S. interests, could go their own way, when they wanted.

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For instance, in 1971 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided to end his politico-military relationship with the Soviet Union. As the leader of a medium-size regional power on a continent of Cold War proxies and rivalries, he needed protection from some major power, so he turned to the United States—started buying weapons from its arsenals, sent his officers to its military academies: morphed into a U.S. ally. He had no choice: Given the global structure, the safe move was to be aligned with one of the superpowers; leaving the Soviet sphere, he joined the American sphere.

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Today, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, buys arms not only from the U.S. but also from France, Germany, Italy, and even Russia.

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In a more striking illustration of global complexity, the tiny emirate of Qatar has been declared a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States; it hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, a hub of U.S. military operations throughout the region, and, just this week, quietly signed a deal to extend the lease for another 10 years. Yet its leader, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, is also a major ally and chief economic supplier of Hamas, the terrorist organization that Israel is trying to crush in Gaza, mainly with U.S.–supplied arms.

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Turkey is a member of NATO, but it also trades extensively with—and buys advanced anti-aircraft systems from—Russia. Hungary is a member of the European Union but practically allies itself with Moscow and has blocked EU efforts to ramp up aid to Ukraine. Many countries in the “global South”—ones that were once called “less developed” or part of the “third world”—pick and choose sides to favor or oppose, depending on their own interests (or lack of interest) in the issue at hand, in many cases aligning with the U.S. on some matters and with Russia or China on others.

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Domestic politics are also frayed. Back in Zelikow’s golden age, America’s two major parties were run from the top down. The party leaders selected and funded candidates. (Not until the 1970s did popular primaries bind a majority of delegates at presidential conventions.) As a result, presidents had considerable leverage over their parties’ lawmakers. In the past few decades, parties have lost much of their power to political action committees and populist insurgents. President Joe Biden—who has a keener grasp of congressional politics than any occupant of the White House since Lyndon B. Johnson—is having a hard time passing a $60 billion aid package to Ukraine, which a majority of Americans and legislators favor (yes, it’s a dwindling majority but a majority nonetheless) because his Republican opponents are tying the aid to the passage of a Senate bill shuttering the U.S.–Mexico border so tightly that, when the bill came before the House last spring, not a single Democrat voted aye. (It passed with unanimous Republican support, but with the understanding that the Senate would vote it down.)

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In other words, the United States is having a hard time getting its way in the world, or effectively managing global challenges, not because our officials lack skill at practical problem-solving but because the problems are so damn hard to solve. The United States enjoys less influence because the world is less susceptible to any single nation’s influence—and because, even when a president figures out how to deal with a problem, Congress can all too easily block his way.

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In fact, when it comes to the sheer ability—the “know-how,” as Zelikow puts it—to solve problems, American officials are in many ways more adept, and have more efficient tools, than their predecessors. With the expanding bureaucracies have come more specialists, including technical specialists (economists, environmental experts, medical teams), who have in fact dealt with the complexities of trade, energy, climate change, and pandemics much more skillfully than anyone could have half a century ago. Whether their efforts have impact often depends on domestic and international politics—and there, we’re back to the structural transformations of the post–Cold War era.

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And by the way, the Cold War era of American statecraft wasn’t so uniformly glorious either. Before we get too entombed in nostalgia, it’s worth recalling such strategic disasters as the Vietnam War, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the Bay of Pigs, the CIA-led coups in Iran and Chile, and a host of approved-at-the-top black-bag jobs that did our country little good in the end.

Zelikow’s article concludes:

The operational talent that Western policymakers displayed in the 20th century was not in their genes. It was the accumulation of hard-earned experience and an accompanying culture that reinforced practical professionalism, including new and difficult habits of cooperation with international partners. There is only one way to recover these skills: practice them again.

If only it were that easy.

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QOSHE - America Is Struggling on the World Stage. There’s a Very Bad Lesson to Take From That. - Fred Kaplan
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America Is Struggling on the World Stage. There’s a Very Bad Lesson to Take From That.

20 1
05.01.2024
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An article by Philip Zelikow in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, titled “The Atrophy of American Statecraft,” argues that the U.S. is having a hard time dealing with all the problems in the world because our government no longer has “the breadth or depth of competence”—the “capabilities and know-how”—that it once did.

There may be something to this. Today’s diplomats, shrewd and talented as many of them are, couldn’t honestly claim peerage with the likes of George Kennan, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, or the other eminences who shaped the frameworks and crafted the policies that kept the West free and prosperous in the years after World War II.

We live in “a period of high crisis,” writes Zelikow, himself a former official and a diplomatic historian. The crises include a major war in Europe; threats of conflict throughout East Asia; war and turbulence in the Middle East; hostile relations with Russia and China, as well as North Korea and Iran; democracies in decline; and all new threats or uncertainties from climate change, pandemics, and A.I.

Yet this long list of challenges—which Zelikow rattles off in his first paragraph—undermines his thesis. For it is doubtful that, compared with our current roster of strategists and tacticians, reincarnations of Kennan or Marshall (once fully briefed on the vast array of problems) would be much more adept at solving them.

In some ways, our Cold War pioneers had it easy. The United States emerged from WWII with an atomic-weapons monopoly, half of the world’s GDP, most of its hard-currency reserves, and—with the return of its soldiers—the foundations of an enormous economic boom, while much of the rest of the world still lay shattered from the war’s destructiveness.

Advertisement

True, those pioneers devised a policy of containing an expansionist Soviet Union without provoking another major war. They recognized, with the Marshall Plan, that spending billions to rebuild Europe and Asia would create markets for U.S. goods and thus redound to our economic benefit as well. They created an international financial system that would help make the world safe for democracy (and for capitalism).

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None of this........

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