The Realist Prism: U.S. Power and Its Discontents

By Nikolas Gvosdev

There are two simultaneous and contradictory trends occurring right now in the international system. The first is the diffusion of power, as reflected by the displacement of the old Group of Seven, which at its founding in the 1970s comprised the bulk of the world’s productive capacity, by the Group of 20, where there is no longer one dominant power capable of driving the global agenda. The second is the reality that the United States still far outstrips any other one state or group of states in terms of capabilities, ranging from the power of its currency to its ability to project military force to any corner of the globe.

The result has been a growing “trust deficit” between the United States and several of the rising and resurgent powers, such as Russia and China, which in turn has had an impact on the latter states’ willingness to work with Washington to address major international challenges, such as in Syria and Iran.

The recent jeremiads about American decline notwithstanding, the United States still holds the bulk of the world’s political, economic and military power. As a result, other countries remain focused on finding ways to limit how Washington deploys that power. In a recent monograph on arms control, Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest notes how “the asymmetries between America’s global capabilities and ambitions and Russia’s more limited options and aims” produce continued uneasiness in Moscow, something that was quite evident to me during the recent sessions of the Dartmouth Dialogue on U.S.-Russia relations, held in Valdai, Russia.

These concerns are shared by other rising powers, including China, who seek reassurances and formal treaty limitations that would constrain America’s ability to use its power in the international system. Whether arguing against U.S. plans for theater ballistic missile defense, seeking a binding international agreement on cyber-capabilities or pushing for a very limited and stringent definition of the conditions under which the “right to protect” can be invoked, these governments, cognizant of their own weaknesses and capabilities deficits, are expressing their concern over their vulnerability.

This sense of exposure is heightened by what appears to them to be the unpredictable way in which the U.S. exercises its power. In other words, the question they all must consider is, what will “set Washington off”? How and why the U.S. intervened in Libya when Washington routinely ignores humanitarian crises elsewhere raises the unpleasant notion that the United States does not operate according to any fixed set of criteria. Governments in Moscow and Beijing are left to wonder whether, given the right set of circumstances, the United States would push for regime change in Russia or China, too. Hence the growing trend of these powers seeking to limit the exercise of U.S. power whenever possible.

These fears also limit their enthusiasm for wanting to help Washington solve some of the current intractable issues it faces. None of the world’s great powers want Iran, for instance, to pursue a nuclear “breakout” and become an atomic-weapons state. But, as Russian interlocutors have sometimes privately indicated, they see no rush in solving this problem either. Assuming that the United States might be inclined to turn its attentions to thwarting some of Russia’s geopolitical objectives once the problem of Iran’s nuclear program is settled, what incentive does Moscow have to help get the Iran portfolio quickly off America’s agenda? Considered in this light, the course that Russia and China and other rising powers have adopted makes sense: some sanctions on Tehran, notably for its sins of omission and nondisclosure, but otherwise not bringing their full force to bear on Iran to help force a settlement.

Washington, for its part, is unwilling to give the types of commitments that the rising powers want to reassure them of U.S. intentions. In a dangerous and unpredictable world, the United States does not want to foreclose on its options or voluntarily sign away any tool that might become acutely necessary. Missile defense is a good example. With the continuing spread of both missile and nuclear technology around the world, who can say with any certainty whether the current status quo will endure? Within a few years, a whole host of unsavory regimes, not to mention even less accountable nonstate actors, might have access to dangerous technologies that could threaten the American homeland. America’s position is that it seeks limited but effective defenses against such threats and that the established nuclear powers need to trust that whatever capabilities Washington deploys are not designed to upset the pre-existing global strategic balances. At best, the United States is willing to accept only unilateral and, if necessary, easily reversible limits on its capabilities, rather than locking in such barriers in terms of longer-term and more-binding compacts.

The United States also sees no reason to voluntarily limit the exercise of its own power and to trust that other countries will “do the right thing” to help protect America’s own security. The continuing leakage of sensitive technologies from countries such as Russia -- sometimes in defiance of government efforts to stop such export, sometimes with officials turning a blind eye to the trafficking -- raises questions in Washington as to whether other powers would really exert themselves to take action to stop threats aimed at America. As the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden showed, Washington is perfectly willing to ignore international rules to “get the job done.” Whether it concerns utilizing drones or deploying sophisticated cybertools to cripple an opponent’s infrastructure or research programs, the United States is not going to forego any of the tools it has in its arsenal that could neutralize emerging threats.

Washington’s first preference will always be to work through international institutions, as demonstrated by its approach to both Iran and Syria. In its efforts to bring pressure to bear on both Tehran and Damascus, the United States has worked through the United Nations Security Council -- where both Moscow and Beijing have a veto and emerging powers such as India, Brazil and South Africa often have a vote -- and taken part in international conferences, such as the P5+1 negotiations with Iran and the recent conclave in Geneva that produced the agreement for a possible transition of power in Syria. But if these efforts fail, the United States will find a way to act, even over the objections of Moscow or Beijing.

If that happens, however, finding a way to assuage the insecurities of the rising powers will become an absolute necessity. Right now, despite some opposition to U.S. policies, there is no sustained anti-American bloc in the world interested in consistently and uniformly contesting Washington’s power around the world. U.S. policymakers must therefore focus on finding the right mix of incentives to keep such a bloc from emerging. Being more sensitive to how the U.S. exercises its power is an important first step.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government.