Gordon Adams:  A new world is dawning, and the US will no longer lead it

 

By Gordon Adams, American University School of International Service

From pulling out of treaties to denigrating allies to starting trade wars, the impulsive actions of President Donald Trump are upending the international order that has been in place since the end of World War II.

But even before Trump’s belligerent foreign policy positions, America had been gradually losing its dominant role in world affairs.

A power shift among the nations of the world began at the end of the Cold War and has been accelerating this century.

It is not as simple as saying “America is in decline,” since America remains a powerful country. But American global power has been eroding for some time, as I argue in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2018” volume. The power of other countries has grown, giving them both the ability and the desire to effect global affairs independently of U.S. desires.

I am a foreign policy scholar and practitioner who has studied U.S. foreign policy through many administrations. I believe this global trend spells the end of the “exceptional nation” Americans imagined they were since the nation was founded and the end of the American era of global domination that began 70 years ago. We are no longer the “indispensable” nation celebrated by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the end of the last century.

Pax Americana no more

Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has been the central player in the international system, leading in the creation of new international organizations like the United Nations, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

American diplomacy has been essential to multinational agreements on trade, climate, regional security and arms control. Americans could and did claim to be at the center of a “rules-based international order.”

Those days are gone.

Not only do China and Russia contest America’s global role, a growing number of other countries are asserting an independent and increasingly influential role in regional economic and security developments.

Neither American political party has come to grips with this sea change. Until they do, U.S. global actions are likely to be less effective, even counterproductive.

Who’s on top?

The power shifts are increasingly visible. In the Middle East, the U.S. hoped for decades to isolate Iran as a pariah and weaken the regime until it fell.

Today, that goal is unimaginable, though national security adviser John Bolton continues to imagine it.

Iran is and will remain an increasingly assertive and influential power in the region, defending and promoting its interests and competing with the Saudi regime.

The Russians are in the Middle East region for good, building on their long-standing relationship with the family of Syria’s dictator.

Turkey, a rising regional power, acts increasingly independent of the preferences of the U.S., its NATO ally, playing its own hand in the regional power game.

The U.S. helped unleash these trends with the strategically fatal invasion of Iraq in 2003 – fatal, because it permanently removed a regional leader who balanced the power of Iran. The failure to create a stable Iraq stimulated regional religious and political conflicts and rendered ineffective subsequent U.S. efforts to influence current trends in the region, as the continually ineffective policies in Syria show.

In Asia, decades of U.S. condemnation and efforts to contain the rise of Chinese power have failed. An assertive China has risen.

China now plays almost as powerful a role in the global economy as the U.S. It has defended an authoritarian model for economic growth, armed artificial islands in the South China Sea, and built a military base in Djibouti. China has created new multilateral organizations for security discussions and one for infrastructure loans, which the U.S. declined to join. It has developed a global lending program – the Belt and Road Initiative – and has stepped into a stronger global role on climate change. And China is spreading its political and economic influence into Africa and Latin America.

The U.S. cannot slow Chinese economic growth nor contain its power. China is changing the rules, whether the U.S. likes it or not.

Elsewhere in Asia, Japan moves toward a renewed nationalism and has removed restrictions on its defense spending and the deployment of its military in the face of growing Chinese power.

North Korea behaves more and more like a regional power, winning a direct meeting with the U.S. president while making only a general commitment to denuclearize. The prospect of a unified Korea would bring into being another major regional power center in the Northern Pacific.

Other countries, like the Philippines and Australia, hedge their bets by improving bilateral relations with China. And India is a growing economic and military presence in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.

Nor will the U.S. contain the rise of Russia, whose government poisons its citizens overseas and kills dissenters at home. At the same time, Russia is rebuilding its military and intruding in others’ elections. The Russian regime is threatening its near neighbors and actively engaging in the Middle East.

President Vladimir Putin asserts Russia’s interests and role in the world, like any other great power. Russia is consciously and actively rebalancing the power of the United States, with some success.

Military power, the American global trump card, is not as useful a tool as it once was.

While the U.S. continues to have the world’s only global military capability, able to deploy anywhere, it is no longer evident that this capability effectively sustains U.S. leadership. Clear military victories are few – the Gulf War in 1991 being an exception. The endless U.S. deployment in Afghanistan carries the whiff of Vietnam in its inability to resolve that country’s civil war.

Meanwhile, the militaries of other countries, acting independently of the U.S., are proving effective, as both Turkish and Iranian operations in Syria suggest.

Abroad at home

The transition to this new era is proving difficult for American policy-makers.

The Trump “America First” foreign policy is based on the view that the U.S. needs to defend its interests by acting alone, eschewing or withdrawing from multilateral arrangements for trade, economics, diplomacy or security.

Trump praises “strong” nationalistic leadership in authoritarian countries, while democratic leadership in allied countries is criticized as weak.

In response, allies distance themselves from the United States. Others are emboldened to act in an equally nationalistic and assertive way.

Some conservatives, like Sen. John McCain, call for confrontation with Russia and strengthening traditional American alliances, particularly NATO.

Others, like John Bolton, call for regime change in assertive powers like Iran.

Liberals and many Democrats criticize Trump for alienating traditional allies like Canada, France and Germany while befriending dictators. Policy-makers once critical of confrontational policies now condemn Trump for failing to confront Russia and China.

A different president in Washington, D.C., will not restore the “rules-based” international order. The underlying changes in global power relations have already undermined that order.

A neo-conservative foreign policy, featuring unilateral American military intervention, as favored by John Bolton, will only accelerate the global shift. Liberal internationalists like Hillary Clinton would fail as well, because the rest of the world rejects the assumption that the U.S. is “indispensable” and “exceptional.” Barack Obama appeared to recognize the changing reality, but continued to argue that only the U.S. could lead the international system.

The ConversationAmerica will need to learn new rules and play differently in the new balance-of-power world, where others have assets and policies the U.S. does not and cannot control.

Gordon Adams, Professor Emeritus, American University School of International Service

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How to fight work bullshit (and keep your job and your dignity)

By André Spicer | A professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London, he is author of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimisation Movement (2017), co-written with Carl Cederström. His latest book is Business Bullshit (2018).

After getting lost in the conference hotel, I finally located the ‘creativity workshop’. Joining the others, I sat cross-legged on the floor. Soon, an ageing hippie was on his feet. ‘Just walk around the room and introduce yourself,’ he said. ‘But don’t use words.’ After a few minutes of people acting like demented mimes, the hippie stopped us. ‘Now grab a mandala,’ he said, pointing to a pile of what looked like pages from a mindfulness colouring-in book. ‘And use those to bring your mandala to life,’ he said pointing at a pile of magic markers. After 30 minutes of colouring, he told us to share our mandalas. A woman described how her red mandala represented her passionate nature. A man explained how his black mandala expressed the negative emotions haunting his life. A third person found words too constraining, so she danced about her mandala. Leaving the room after the session, a participant turned to me and quietly said: ‘What a load of bullshit.’

All over the world, organisations encourage kooky activities unrelated to employees’ work. I have attended workplace retreats where I learned beat-boxing and African drumming. I have heard about organisations that encourage employees to walk across hot coals, take military assault courses, and guide a raft down dangerous rapids. There are organisations that force their employees to stage a lingerie show, take part in a ‘bush-tucker trial’ by eating insects, and dress up in giant animal costumes to act out fairy tales.

My cynical fellow participant in the mandala-colouring workshop described it as ‘bullshit’. She had chosen her words wisely. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt at Princeton University defined bullshit as talk that has no relationship to the truth. Lying covers up the truth, while bullshit is empty, and bears no relationship to the truth.

The mandala workshop bore many of the tell-tale signs of bullshit. The session was empty of facts and full of abstractions. Participants skipped between buzzwords such as ‘authenticity’, ‘self-actualisation’ and ‘creativity’. I found it impossible to attribute meaning to this empty talk. The harder I tried, the less sense it made. So, during the event, I politely played along.

After spending more than a decade studying business and organisations, I can assure you that my unheroic response is the norm. Most people are likely to follow my bad example, and stick to the script. There are many reasons for this, but politeness is an important one. Bullshit greases the wheels of sociability. Questioning bullshit can be a sure way to lose friends and alienate people. Even when we smell bullshit, we are willing to ignore it so we can avoid conflict and maintain a polite atmosphere. Our desire to keep social interaction going smoothly prevails over our commitment to speak the truth.

In a short aside in his book On Bullshit (2005), Frankfurt describes an interaction between the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and Fania Pascal, Wittgenstein’s friend and Russian teacher. ‘I had my tonsils out and was in Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself,’ Pascal wrote. ‘Wittgenstein called. I croaked: “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.”’ Wittgenstein, apparently, was disgusted: ‘You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.’

Wittgenstein’s response seems not just odd, but rude. So why did the great philosopher do this? Frankfurt’s answer is that throughout his life ‘Wittgenstein devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying and combatting what he regarded as insidiously disruptive forms of “non-sense”.’ Wittgenstein is ‘disgusted’ by Pascal’s remark because ‘it is not germane to the enterprise of describing reality’. She is ‘not even concerned whether her statement is correct’. If we were to react like Wittgenstein whenever we were faced with bullshit, our lives would probably become very difficult indeed.

Instead of following Wittgenstein’s example, there are ways we can politely call bullshit. The first step is to calmly ask what the evidence says. This is likely to temper our interlocutors’ views, even if the results are inconclusive. The second step is to ask about how their idea would work. The psychologists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil at Yale University found that when they asked subjects to tell them, on a scale of 1 to 7, how they would rate their knowledge about everyday objects such as toilets, most people would say about 4 or 5. But when asked to describe precisely how a toilet worked, they dropped the rating of their own toilet expertise to below 3. Asking over-confident bullshitters exactly how their idea might work is another way to slow them down. Finally, ask the bullshitter to clarify what he means. Often, bullshit artists rely on ‘zombie nouns’ such as ‘globalisation’, ‘facilitation’ and ‘optimisation’. Pushing beyond linguistic boondoggles helps everyone to see what is solid and what is clothed in ornamental talk.

Politely questioning a peer is one thing, but it is much trickier to call out the bullshit of junior colleagues. Decades of research has found that people listen to positive feedback and ignore negative feedback. But Frederik Anseel from King’s College, London has found that people are willing to listen when negatives are focused on the future. So instead of concentrating on the bullshit a junior might have created in the past, it is best to ask how it can be minimised in the future.

Calling out an underling’s piffle might be tough, but calling bullshit on the boss is usually impossible. Yet we also know that organisations that encourage people to speak up tend to retain their staff, learn more, and perform better. So how can you question your superiors’ bullshit without incurring their wrath? One study by Ethan Burris of the University of Texas at Austin provides some solutions. He found that it made a big difference how an employee went about posing the questions. ‘Challenging’ questions were met with punishment, while supportive questions received a fair hearing. So instead of bounding up to your boss and saying: ‘I can’t believe your bullshit,’ it would be a better idea to point out: ‘We might want to check what the evidence says, then tweak it a little to make it better.’

Next time you’re faced with a bullshit attack, it might be tempting to politely zone out. But that only gives the bullshit artist time and space. Or you might be tempted to follow the example of Wittgenstein, and fight back. Sadly, bullshitters are often impervious to full-frontal attack. The most effective tactic in the war on empty talk seems to be to outflank the bullshitter by posing your questions as constructive tweaks, rather than refutations. That way, you might be able to clean up the mess from within, rather than raging from the outside.Aeon counter – do not remove

André Spicer

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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