European Affairs

For foreign policy-analyst and one-time Democratic party-adviser Michael Mandelbaum, the date marks the moment when the U.S. could no longer afford the international burdens of underpinning global stability, in other words all those so-called “global public goods” that the Western and then lone superpower had borne for the post-war half-century. The consequence, he says, will be a less secure world for all, and perhaps mostly for middle-sized nations with global interests but very limited leverage. There have been previous turn-over moments for the privileges and burdens of the hegemon, notably the post-war watershed when the U.S. assumed the world-order tasks of the British Empire and Royal Navy. The difference this time around is that there is no obvious successor.

It is the second time Mandelbaum has taken up this theme of American limitations: in his book “The Case for Goliath,” he made the point almost in passing. Now, expanding on some lectures of his, this small new volume makes America's growing inability and unwillingness to pay for global leadership the premise for some predictions about the future world order.

Start with the proposition that the U.S. government is running out of money. As the author puts it: "By the first decade of the 21st century the federal government of the U.S., judging by the pattern of its spending, was well on its way to becoming a gigantic domestic insurance company, albeit one with a sideline in foreign policy."  In other words, the increasing bills coming due for Social Security and health care on top of the trillions spent to prevent a Global Depression in 2008-09 including domestic bailouts of banks, auto-makers, insurance companies and the like will consume the bulk of federal revenues as a new, overwhelming priority of the nation.

The dollars that financed decades of containment against communism in Europe, Asia and the Middle East will no longer be there to deal with the new potential menaces coming from China, Russia and Iran.

And of those three risks, Mandelbaum sees the greatest coming from the Middle East, especially from the Iranian mullahs, and that threat largely stems from the inability and unwillingness of the United States to take such simple defensive measures as imposing higher domestic taxes on gasoline for American consumers. In his view, American dependency on foreign oil and the inability of its political system to reverse it creates the greatest foreseeable risk to the world order.

Mandelbaum says there are already signs of contracting American ambitions. No longer will there be humanitarian interventions as there were in Haiti and Kosovo in the 1990s. Experiments in nation-building such as the current ones in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be repeated, he predicts – nor will there be any future push for missions to expand democracy into the autocratic Middle East. In Mandelbaum’s view, NATO has become a "hollow shell," incapable of curbing Moscow’s revived imperial aspirations, except to the degree that they become self-limited due to their in-built problems of Russia’s economic inefficiencies and the demographic catastrophe it is now undergoing.

As for successor powers, Mandelbaum sees none. Certainly, it is theoretically possible that Europe could be jolted by crises into a more forceful global role sometime in the future. But Mandelbaum does not believe it: “Anticipating the often-predicted emergence of Europe as a 21st-century powerhouse in international affairs comparable to the U.S. resembles the plot of the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot. Godot never arrives and the European superpower will not arrive either," he writes. The notion of large-scale international interventions had already been under fire by most Europeans since the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, so there seems scant prospect of Europe undertaking or even joining any future similar forays to quell a potential threat to global security by some rogue regime.

Beyond the historical “demilitarization of Europe” – as famously lamented early this year by Defense Secretary Robert Gates – Europe has real economic burdens that bear on its military power. Even more than the U.S., Europe is weighed down by demographic pressures that push up the cost of its entitlement burdens.  European birthrates are lower than those of the U.S. and some countries will actually experience population shrinkage. Along with more generous retirement benefits, that puts even more pressure on European budgets. Specifically in the security arena, it has become clear, Mandelbaum says, that the EU cannot act as a political and military unit – and, of course, it has very little military force that it can actually bring to bear in a crisis.

Some observers, particularly in Europe, have often foreseen this outcome – in which Washington has shrunk to a relative power in a multi-polar world – as an inevitable and actually desirable state of affairs. In practice, Mandelbaum suggests, less powerful countries – including European nations – may find themselves bearing the brunt of threats and upheavals that there is no longer any single power capable of quelling.

As put by one such observer, George Walden, a conservative who reviewed the book in Britain’s Guardian, America has for years been acting as the world's de facto government, and the first duty of governments is to keep order, so as it conducts itself more like an ordinary country, the world will now get less governance. In making this case, Mandelbaum warns as he has previously that if the U.S. cedes its superpower role, the rest of the world will soon regret it.

He concludes with a kind of upbeat warning: "The 21st century seems tilted towards peace, but this tilt is scarcely irreversible, and if it should be reversed, America's fiscal position will hamper efforts to cope with that reversal."

Where Mandelbaum parts company from many fellow analysts who are pessimistic about the transatlantic relationship is his continuing argument -- now more than ten years after the fact -- against NATO expansion during the Clinton administration. He and his collaborator and friend, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, led the intellectual charge against the alliance’s expansion to new democracies in the mid 1990s in an unsuccessful crusade that Friedman has now abandoned for other causes.

Recently, Friedman weighed in on Mandelbaum’s current theme in the New York Times: In his article, the headline ‘Superbroke, Superfrugal, Superpower?’ says it all. Friedman added: “An America in hock will have no hawks.”   This month, the Obama administration officially addressed this theme, albeit somewhat obliquely, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at a Washington meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations and acknowledged in her comments that mushrooming deficits could “constrain” U.S. policy and possibly “send a message of weakness.”

Mandelbaum maintains that history will treat this post-cold war approach to Europe as an example of imperial overstretch – even ranking it along with the Iraq occupation as the worst recent failures of American policy.

As Mandelbaum notes, there are comparisons to be made between the upheavals and power shifts of the early part of this century with those that occurred when Germany was challenging British supremacy in the early twentieth century. The difference is that 100 years ago most analysts and chroniclers were anticipating a glorious and peaceful future. This time around, the bookshelves and airwaves are full of dire warnings. So far, as Mandelbaum and others point out, the U.S. and its leaders – like the EU and its leaders -- seem incapable of responding.


Michael D. Mosettig is Foreign Affairs & Defense Editor of the PBS NewsHour.