The enduring limits of American power

The decline of U.S. power isn’t a problem; it is a call to global action.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

The United States is the most powerful country on the earth. If you add together its nuclear arsenal, its unmatched array of conventional weaponry, and its global economic reach, America might be the mightiest country in the history of the planet.

The United States has been responsible for destroying countries (Germany, Japan) and raising them from the rubble (Germany, Japan). It continues to hold sway in international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank. The dollar remains the global currency of choice. Wall Street is the Mecca of capitalism; Hollywood is a creator of global tastes; virtually everyone drinks Coca-Cola and eats Big Macs or dreams of doing so.

And yet U.S. power has serious limits. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 was a punishing reminder of just how little the U.S. military and the provision of U.S. security and humanitarian assistance can do to defeat a determined guerrilla force and liberalize a brutalized society. The earlier defeat of U.S. forces in Vietnam, the inability to prevent countries like North Korea from going nuclear, the embarrassing failures of “drug wars” in various countries: these are but some of the indicators that U.S. reach exceeds its grasp.

The left, in particular, has often identified these very same limits when pushing for a more modest U.S. presence around the world. This is a reasonable demand. The limits of military force should indeed spur a reduction of U.S. military bases abroad, the budget that sustains them, and the arms exports that expand the capacities of U.S. allies.

Sometimes, however, these lessons learned about the limits of U.S. power are forgotten or willfully ignored.

In both Ukraine and Israel, the United States currently wields a measure of influence because of the military (and non-military) assistance it provides. This assistance can occasionally fool the Pentagon and the State Department into thinking that it can determine outcomes on the ground in both regions. That’s not surprising, given the arrogance of American power.

What is surprising, however, is that the left, which is so often mindful of the limitations of U.S. power, sometimes makes the same mistake.

End the war in Ukraine?

I recently participated in a public forum that pitted proponents of a “ceasefire now” against those of us who support Ukraine and its efforts to resist occupation.

Like every Ukrainian—and Russian dissident who stands with them—I desperately want peace in the region. Ukraine cannot afford this war. And neither can the world at large.

But Ukraine did not ask for this war. It was invaded. And Russia didn’t simply want to secure territorial gains in previously occupied lands in the Donbas and Crimea. It aimed to seize the entire country and extinguish Ukraine by absorbing it into a “Russian world.” At the beginning of its intervention in 2022, it committed horrifying war crimes. With its continued aerial assaults on Ukrainian cities, Russia continues to kill civilians on a regular basis. Ukrainians are very clear about the consequences of losing this war. It’s not just a matter of territory or culture. It’s a matter of life and death.

Those who call for a “ceasefire now” do so out of a willful ignorance of the realities of the current war. Ukraine doesn’t support a ceasefire now because it hopes to push out all Russian occupiers. Russia doesn’t want a ceasefire now because it still harbors hopes of seizing all of the Donbas, perhaps taking the entire southern coast of Ukraine, maybe even reviving the original goal of displacing the current government in Kiev.

Rather than bring their demand to Moscow, which could indeed end the war tomorrow by withdrawing its troops from occupied territory, proponents of the “ceasefire now” position are trying to persuade the United States to use its influence over Ukraine to force a pause in the hostilities. This campaign has involved lobbying U.S. policymakers and even occupying the office of the country’s most progressive senator, Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“Use its influence” would, in realistic terms, mean cutting off military assistance to Ukraine, negotiating over its head with the Kremlin, and bullying Kyiv into accepting some kind of armistice agreement. Ukraine might one day conclude that it can’t win on the ground against Russian forces, something that the two Koreas ultimately realized in 1953. But at the moment, Ukraine believes that it can expel Russian forces, with U.S. assistance, much as the Croatian army did against Serbian forces in Operation Storm in 1995.

The ”use its influence” argument suffers from both pragmatic and ethical shortcomings.

The pragmatic problem is that, although the United States provides the lion’s share of military aid to Ukraine—a little over 50 percent through July 2023—it doesn’t direct Ukrainian operations. Ukraine’s military leadership doesn’t always inform the United States about the timing of its operations, often disregards the strategic advice of the Pentagon, and has conducted targeted attacks within Russia such as assassinations that have “complicated its collaboration with the CIA,” according to The Washington Post.

Even if Washington were to cut off assistance to Kyiv, Ukraine would continue to fight with whatever resources it could muster because it understands that the current Russian offensive—and any future military intervention—poses a continued threat to the survival of the country and its citizens. U.S. assistance is welcome, even essential. But it is not a light switch that, if turned to the off position, would shut down Ukrainian resistance.

The ethical problem runs deeper. Why on earth would a left that is deeply skeptical of how the United States has played power politics with smaller countries endorse a strategy of negotiating with a right-wing authoritarian power to dictate policy options to a smaller, struggling, occupied democracy? Why would a left committed to human rights avert its eyes from the shocking (and ongoing) human rights violations that Russia has committed? How can a left endorse peace without any measure of justice?

I was not the first choice of the organizers of the aforementioned public forum on Ukraine. The other proponents of my position were not available. The organizers, who supported the “ceasefire now” position, asked me for suggestions of another panelist of my persuasion. I asked if they had reached out to any Ukrainians in the area. They hadn’t. They didn’t have any contacts either.

A debate about Ukraine without any Ukrainians? That has been a recurrent problem with the “ceasefire now” position. It fundamentally doesn’t take into consideration what Ukrainians—or the Russian left—has to say. It spreads misinformation that denies Ukrainian agency, such as the myth of a “U.S.-engineered coup” in 2014 and the myth of a “proxy war” run by the United States today. And it proposes “solutions” that involve the United States forcing “peace” down the throats of Ukrainians as if they were infants incapable of making independent decisions.

It seems that this segment of the left has forgotten the well-worn recommendation of nihil de nobis, sine nobis—nothing about us without us.

End the war in Israel?

U.S. policy toward North Korea once suffered from a peculiar fallacy. According to this fallacy, China could and should use its considerable influence over the North Korean leadership to restrain the latter’s nuclear ambitions and push it toward an incrementally more open society. China and North Korea, after all, were allies dating back to the Korean War. North Korea was heavily dependent on Chinese economic assistance. The leadership of the two countries met on a semi-regular basis. Surely this was evidence of potential Chinese leverage.

This superficial friendship fooled U.S. analysts into thinking that China could, with a little pressure, make the North Koreans do their bidding. If Beijing refused to apply such pressure, then it must in fact support its neighbor’s nuclear program and erratic economic and political policies.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The North Korean government seemed to take almost perverse pleasure in ignoring Chinese advice and resisting Chinese pressure. All of that preferential treatment bought Beijing precious little influence in return.

Israel similarly ignores U.S. advice and seemingly U.S. pressure as well. In 2010, I described Israel as a “rogue ally” of the United States because it went behind the back of the Obama administration in an attempt to buy out North Korea’s nuclear program for a billion dollars. That was only one of many such examples of Israel’s flouting of its ally’s preferences.

For instance, Israel built a nuclear weapons program in secret and ignored pressure from the Kennedy administration for inspections. It pushed forward with an aggressive settlement policy in the West Bank despite concerns from the Obama administration. And it more recently ignored similar criticisms from the Biden administration about the expansion of these settlements.

Israel has acted this way because it has calculated that it can do pretty much anything without jeopardizing U.S. assistance. It has even cultivated spies within the United States—Jonathan Pollard was only the most prominent—and still Washington has delivered several billion dollars a year.

The problem, then, lies not only with Israel. The United States has not made serious efforts to back up its recommendations—and its threats—with serious costs. As a result, prior to the latest outbreak of violence in the region, some prominent mainstream figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof began to talk of conditioning U.S. aid and even phasing it out.

But frankly, as Tariq Kenney-Shawa wrote in The Nation back in August, such U.S.-imposed conditions would not likely have changed Israeli policy. “Because even if the US conditioned or outright cut the funding it provides to Israel on account of its treatment of Palestinians, it would likely not be enough to deter Israel’s increasingly extremist leaders,” he wrote. “Only by conditioning US aid alongside more assertive punitive measures such as divestment and sanctions can the US effectively pressure Israel to bring an end to occupation and apartheid.”

Certainly the U.S. government can do more to push Israel in the direction of respecting basic human rights. But by itself, the United States has limited influence over Israeli decision-making, whether Likud or Labor is in charge. The bottom line is that Israel is a wealthy country that doesn’t need U.S. largesse—the essence of Kristof’s argument—and so it can “go rogue” more effectively than the comparatively impoverished North Korea.

By all means, let’s continue to press the Biden administration to demand an immediate ceasefire, to pressure the Netanyahu government not to invade Gaza, and to call for new negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But let’s not be naïve about how much influence the Biden administration could have even if it unambiguously committed to those positions.

What role can America play?

Sometimes, like the proverbial stopped clock, the United States does the right thing with its foreign policy, like the current support for Ukraine. More frequently, it makes terrible decisions, like providing unconditional support for an increasingly right-wing and human-rights-abusing Israel. The conventional progressive approach to U.S. foreign policy is to campaign for Washington to abide by the ideals it (often) professes about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

But let’s face it: a United States that suddenly “sees the light” will still not be able to determine outcomes on the ground. That’s a reality of a post-Cold War era characterized by the “rise of the rest” and the limits of military power.

At the same time, the decline of U.S influence should not feed the narrative that anarchy has been loosed upon the world. The choice is not between a U.S.-led world and a Joker-led world. The United States should build up global institutions even as it relinquishes its supremacy. It’s not America that ideally should be saving Ukraine and constraining Israel. That should be task of international institutions committed to human rights and the rule of law. The decline of U.S. power isn’t a problem; it is a call to global action.

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