By Paolo von Schirach
October 7, 2011
WASHINGTON – On Friday, October 7, Mitt Romney went to the Citadel, a famous military school in Charleston, South Carolina, to deliver an address focusing on foreign and security policies. I shall not analyze the content of the speech and the specific policy recommendations made by presidential aspirant Romney. I just want to observe that the premise, the foundation on which the whole construct is based is flawed, probably well intentioned, but deeply flawed.
America is exceptional
Former Governor Romney starts with the assumption that America is an exceptional country bound to lead the world. And for this reason this has to be an “American Century”. President Romney will see to that.I do agree that America is exceptional in its origin, based on democratic values and principles and not on nationality. I do agree that America developed like no other country. And I do agree that the mixture of free institutions and economic freedoms attracted talented people from all over the world who with their ingenuity made this country of immigrants great and unique. And I also agree that America, with all its flaws and mistakes, on balance has been a positive force in the world. America defeated totalitarian Fascism and Nazism. America stood in the way of Soviet expansionism. America protected Europe.
America can no longer be leader of a changed world
So, I am with Romney on all this. But I cannot agree with him about making this an “American Century”. Not because it is a bad idea. But because it is an unachievable idea, given the gigantic shift in the balance of power that has occurred in the last three decades: away from the West and all to the East. In other words, in relative terms, America no longer has the economic resources and the military might to be respected, to influence others and lead in the same way it did 50 or 60 years ago. But in his talk at the Citadel Romney omitted all this this and talked about America’s primacy as if this were 1945, the year in which America stood on the world scene not only victorious but also ultra rich and super powerful, with no other country, friend or foe, even a close match.
Leadership, in Romney’s words
Anyway, here is how Governor Romney put it speaking at the Citadel:
“But I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
Let me make this very clear. As President of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century. And I will never, ever apologize for America.
Some may ask, “Why America? Why should America be any different than scores of other countries around the globe?”
I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world. Not exceptional, as the President has derisively said, in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States.
But we are exceptional because we are a nation founded on a precious idea that was birthed in the American Revolution, and propounded by our greatest statesmen, in our fundamental documents. We are a people who threw off the yoke of tyranny and established a government, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
We are a people who, in the language of our Declaration of Independence, hold certain truths to be self-evident: namely, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. It is our belief in the universality of these unalienable rights that leads us to our exceptional role on the world stage, that of a great champion of human dignity and human freedom”.
So, there you have it, the “mission to lead the world” is in our DNA. In order to achieve it, we need the strongest economy and the stronger military. Well, technically speaking, we already have both. Even with the rise of China, America is still Number 1 economically. And the US has by far the largest military in the world.
However –and this is what Romney failed to observe– the context facing the next president in January 2013 is not even close to the context of the world after WWII. Our resources, while considerable, are insufficient for world leadership the way we knew it. Even if we assumed a total recovery from the nasty 2008 recession, a buoyant housing market and a finally balanced federal budget, and this is assuming really a lot, America’s standing in the world would and could not be what it was in 1945, 1960 or even 1970.
America is still powerful, but not as in the Cold War years
Simply stated, in 1945 and for most of the Cold War years America was by far the richest, most advanced, most innovative country on earth. Nobody came even close. In 1945 Europe was destroyed: defeated Germany was in ruins ands so was France. Britain was the sorry shadow of its Imperial past: exhausted, indebted, essentially finished as a world power. Japan was defeated, humiliated, demilitarised. And who else was around? Yes, the Soviets were a real menace. But they were contained. China was a poor peasant society held back by a Communist dictatorship that objectively prevented economic development for many decades. India after independence was immensely poor. Latin America had no bright spots. Africa was very poor and it was just beginning a decolonization process that led to weak and often corrupt indigenous rulers who certainly did not help economic development.
In this global context, America, Soviet nuclear threat notwithstanding, had no match.
Other countries have become stronger, Soviet threat disappeared
And this is what has changed for good. It is not that we have become weaker, although this in part true. The fact is that others have become stronger. And they do not eagerly await and expect American leadership, because America has little to offer. America is no longer the logical ally against security threats that are far less clear and obvious. In a new context, without the Soviet Union as an obvious existential threat, in which dangers, like terrorism, are less clear, other countries are far less eager to accept American leadership.
This is no reason for a new American leader to give up. Of course America should be vibrant and strong. But America cannot have the reach and the influence that it used to have. Precisely because America won the Cold War, there are fewer reasons for allies to go along with Washington.
The clearest example is the NATO Alliance, once the fundamental pillar of US security polices. Today NATO is a joke. The European NATO Allies, with a few exceptions, do not spend any real money on defense. And why not? Because the Soviet Union is long gone. There is no more Warsaw Pact. The Red Army is no longer a couple of days away from the Rhine. America is still the leader of NATO. But a mostly defenseless NATO is useless. President Romney would like to revamp it? Well, good luck.
Leading against Iran?
And what about Iran? Even in this case, as its nuclear arms threat is not clear and immediate, good luck in creating a credible NATO based coalition that would send a clear message to Tehran that they better abandon all nuclear ambitions, or else. The Europeans have no intention to go to war with Iran on this, even if a nuclear Iran may threaten them. You can bet that the Europeans will continue to “negotiate” with Iran for ever. And it would take a much stronger America, even stronger than the one Romney imagines, to go to war alone with Iran on the nuclear issue, given all the obvious consequences on oil flows and potential world economic catastrophe in case of serious, prolonged disruptions caused by a conflict in that Region. So, even in this case, America cannot lead.
America should be strong, but not the world leader it used to be
In the final analysis, America can and should be strong, (provided we fix the economy and federal finances). And, as such, it will be a formidable player. But even an economically restored America can no longer lead a much changed multi polar world that no longer instinctively looks at Washington for clues about what to do next. Governor Romney should take note of this and tone down the world leadership aspirations. His heart may be in a good place. But a changed world no longer fits the program.