Advice for a Declining Superpower

Many long years ago, when I was half my present age, I studied at the National War College and penned the following words as part of my thesis:

…one area where our proclivity for pat answers seems to be giving way to a more pragmatic assessment of our interests is in our reaction to Soviet Bloc aid programs. We are learning to play the influence game more economically in those countries where the objective is mainly influence, and to tolerate, perhaps even welcome, Soviet resource inputs in countries like India where the objective is mainly that of development.

         The rules of the influence game are simple. In effect, they say that given the client state’s propensity to maintain its independence and freedom of action, any effort to buy control over it will be very costly and also risky. Control can be defined as that point at which one patron achieves enough influence over the client to be able to manage the client’s relations with the other patron. Even if this occurs, and it almost never does, the population of the client state is likely to be so agitated over its government’s incompetence and perfidy at selling the national birthright as to render that government’s tenure dubious unless it backslides. Thus either patron can prevent the other one from gaining control at a cost that is minimal compared to the cost of gaining control itself.

For better or worse, my thesis never got the circulation I thought it deserved, and was never even considered at high levels. Even now, our government seems obsessed by the notion that some real or perceived adversary is gaining influence in states we would like to regard as our clients, and that we should regard this as a threat to our  vital interests.

Iran, for example, is said to be moving into a strong position of influence with our former client Iraq, and this somehow translates into a mortal threat and a failure of our foreign policy. The real failure, of course, occurred nearly a decade ago when we invaded Iraq. Once that happened, certain consequences were predictable and perhaps even inevitable. Now that the consequences of our folly are playing themselves out, we should relax and recognize that when it comes to the playing field of Iraq, we are in an entirely new ball game. Instead of panicking at every signal that the new Iraqi regime is being influenced from Tehran, we should be assessing our own strengths and weaknesses in Iraq and its neighborhood, while analysing Iran’s strengths and weaknesses, both in Iraq and the region.

Basically, Iraq has no desire to become a satellite of Tehran, for a variety of compelling historic and ethnic reasons. Its central purpose, now that it has gotten rid of our unwelcome military occupation, is to shore up its recently regained independence. If we can rise above the details of Baghdad politicking we can see an emerging pattern in which Iraqi leaders will be leaning either toward us or toward the Iranians,  depending on which patron has the greater influence, seeking an equilibrium between us that leaves Baghdad the greatest freedom of action. It follows that either patron can achieve an increment of influence economically when it is helping Baghdad to restore its balance, while, conversely, it becomes increasingly expensive for either patron to achieve more influence when that will push Baghdad beyond what it perceives as its point of equilibrium.

Of course this is a gross oversimplification, omitting as it does the Kurdish factor, oil, and any number of other complications. But it does illustrate a point that needs to be considered whenever we enter into any competitive relationship with another power, whether it be regional or global, in a third country. If that third country, call it the client state, is a real country in the sense of having a functioning government with perceived interests including its continued independence, then the foregoing rules of the influence game apply. If our goal is total dominance, including the establishment of permanent military bases, then we should figure on just flat-out conquering it, recognizing that the natives are probably going to stay in a more or less permanent state of rebellion, the neighborhood is going to be alienated, and the competing major power is going to be able to force us into expensive reactions to what will be for it low-cost annoyances. If our goal is limited to having dominant influence, the risks and costs will be less, but only somewhat. It will cost us a lot more to maintain our position than it will cost our adversary to maintain the initiative and keep us off balance, while still maintaining a significant level of influence with the client. And of course the reverse holds true, if it is the competing rival power that seeks to maintain dominance.

When you add up all the cost factors of the two competing powers who are playing the influence game in country X, they are minimized when the two influences are balanced. This kind of equilibrium allows each of the powers to pursue its special interests, assuming they don’t directly conflict with those of the other power, while avoiding the extravagant overinvestments that are usually necessary when striving for a degree of influence substantially greater than the rival’s. During the Cold War we were paranoid about Soviet objectives for world domination and over-reacted when our rivals sometimes gained a toehold of influence in some far-off country by offering economic aid. This allowed the client state to actively pursue the game as an independent actor itself, in efforts to scare one power or the other into excessive investments to counter a threat to its own influence that was usually more apparent than real. That sort of situation was what I confronted when I wrote my thesis. There have been many changes since then but the basic principles of the influence game still apply.

Enough theorizing. What can we infer from the foregoing as applied to our current role in the world?

First, we had a multigenerational spell as world hegemon, without any serious rival, and have gotten out of the habit of balancing our capabilities against those of other states when deciding which of our goals to pursue. But it is no longer a unipolar world, and we need to start thinking of ourselves as only one of the big players, perhaps still the biggest for the moment, but that is changing.

Second, our long-range strategic thinking should aim for balance of influence in many parts of the world where we now assume a need to dominate. We’ll have fewer failures and save a very large amount of our treasure if we do. If China rises as presently forecast, this approach can apply in spades to the countries on its periphery. It might even save us from finding ourselves in a ruinous conflict with that country.

Third, this approach can resolve the ideological conflict within America, between those who still believe we have to be the world’s policeman, and those who say we cannot afford it, let’s retreat to Fortress America. Both sides are partly right, for yes, the world is disorderly and needs a policeman, and no, we cannot afford to carry the burden ourselves, certainly not by ourselves. There is a halfway house, and it is staring us in the face if we would only see it.

We need a new strategic view based on using our influence globally to play a balancing role among competing local and regional powers. We do not need to dominate to play that role. We just need to play the influence game a lot more intelligently than we have in the recent past.

Carl Coon 1/19/12






Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a recent interview, deplores the absence of a long view in our nation’s strategic thinking. (Financial Times, January 13, interview by Edward Luce). I agree, and recommend his views as reported in the FT report.

It’s not for lack of trying. There are more think tanks in the greater Washington area than you can shake a stick at, and the whole country is pockmarked with other high-voltage cerebral institutions, but few are directly concerned with strategic concepts bearing on our role in a future increasingly connected world. The central problem is that most of the US public doesn’t know much about the rest of the world and doesn’t care. Congress shares this apathy and ignorance. (If you doubt that, all you need to do is hold your nose and listen to some of the current pre-campaign rhetoric about America’s place in a changing world. The dominant theme is that we are the center of the universe and will always remain so. End of message.)

I don’t want to compete with the experts in State and CIA and the NSC who are thinking about specific problems in our changing world, or should be. I want to offer a kind of bridging concept between the blissfully ignorant public and those experts. My offer will consist of a general vision of a future US role in the world that will be good for us and for everybody else, and a theory about a kind of equilibrium that can help us stay there comfortably once we’ve arrived..

The vision is one of an America resting comfortably midway between world hegemon and fortress America. The fact of the matter is that we have overextended ourselves during the past couple of decades and can no longer afford a strategic doctrine that requires us to be able to project decisive military force throughout the entire world. But the idea of retreating into a shell, and telling the rest of the world it’s on its own is equally unattractive. The world has become too interconnected to allow us that luxury. We are still a part of the global economy and lead the pack in the emerging global information network. More important in terms of strategic thinking, there are many trouble spots in the world where a constructive US presence can be useful, and wanted by the neighbors. I’m not just talking about economic aid programs, free advice and free movies and sometimes free bakshish, I’m thinking about situations where an active diplomatic intervention will be in our and the common interest, if it is backed up by a significant military force and everyone knows it can be deployed if absolutely necessary.

My vision, then, is a future America that spends much less of its treasure on its military than we do now, but still maintains enough to play an effective role as an offshore great power, capable of influencing developing situations everywhere in the world primarily through a balance of power strategy. Our primary instruments under this strategy would be  diplomacy, backed up by our economic clout; our military capability would be kept in the background, used only as a last resort.

A shift to this strategy requires that the American public be convinced, first, that the rest of the world is important to us, and second, that our role in the world should be that of good neighbor rather than messiah. Enough proselytizing, nobody else likes it, and it’s only brought us grief in the recent past. What we want is a world of good neighbors where conflicts are resolved peacefully and progress is for everyone.

How do we get there? Young people are already thinking along these lines, so it may be only a matter of time, a generational shift. What these idealists need is some assurance that we’re not just talking pie in the sky, that this vision is not only attainable but sustainable…which brings me to the principle I promised up front in this little essay.

That principle is that we can and should retain some influence in every country in every part of the world, but that we should not be greedy and demand more influence than the situation requires. Levels of influence can range from the lower end, which is access and the right to be heard, all the way to dominance, which involves

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2 Responses to Advice for a Declining Superpower

  1. B Spicer says:


  2. sddgfgf says:

    Mr. Coon, do you have email? I had a quick question.

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