America’s Rodney Dangerfield Moment

April 24, 2014

Rodney Dangerfield, the late bug-eyed twitchy comic who for decades annoyed and delighted us, had a famous line that defined his solo act: “I don’t get no respect!” This quintessentially American wisecrack could describe our foreign policy predicament today. As of late in crisis after crisis, whether in Asia, the Middle East, or now in Eastern Europe, the United States has routinely come to the table from a position of strength only to get its nose bloodied in the end. For notwithstanding the current congressional–White House discord, dysfunctional public finances, and internal ideological vitriol, America remains without question the only country able to provide what so often is tritely but accurately described as “leadership.” So why is it that America “don’t get no respect” these days?

Without a clear proactive strategy to stabilize Eurasia, the greatest power on earth has found itself time and again trapped in its own meandering ways, with rhetoric substituting for planning. Other factors notwithstanding, America’s predicament today is caused largely by one affliction: Somewhere between the trauma of 9/11 and Ukraine’s unfolding drama the United States lost its ability to maintain the larger national security consensus that had carried the West through the Cold War and beyond.

We are not living through a period of American decline, recent hand-wringing notwithstanding. In terms of global power rankings, America’s predicament defies conventional wisdom. The country remains the most dynamic economy in the world, with flexible labor markets, an accelerating revolution in the energy sector that has fueled a resurgence in manufacturing, and an innovative research base second to none. The United States has one of the most diversified and technologically advanced economies in the world. Despite the Great Recession, the country has rebounded. Its gross domestic product (GDP) has expanded at a rate of 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, slightly more than half a point less than the 3.24 percent averaged growth rate from 1947 to 2013. Notwithstanding the deepening imbalance in public finances, the country’s fundamentals remain sound. In fact, in light of America’s shale gas and shale oil “dual revolution,” we are poised for a period of unprecedented growth fueled by cheap energy. Last but not least, America’s military might remains unmatched.

And yet at the same time, America’s fortunes as the world’s superpower continue to slide faster than many thought possible. Despite vast military and economic resources and the geostrategic advantages of being a continental island, America has executed a largely reactive foreign policy, driven more by crisis management than grand strategy.

There have been undeniable foreign policy successes during the Obama presidency, such as the killing of Bin Laden or a successful counterterrorism campaign, to name a few. These accomplishments are considerable, but they do not fundamentally improve America’s global position — the last five years have been marked by strategic drought, especially in our relations with Europe.

Russia’s creeping invasion of Eastern Europe demands that America revisit the larger strategic question about the key role of U.S. relations with Europe, and by extension how the United States operates in Eurasia. The United States needs to reinvest in NATO, enhance U.S. military presence on the continent, and shift military assets to Poland and the Baltic States. Washington needs to lead the alliance to reverse the decline in defense budgets that has weakened NATO’s credibility and its ability to respond to quickly should conditions demand it. Most of all, America needs to recommit to forging a new strategy for containing China and Russia as a common transatlantic task, building consensus among the allies that NATO is a global alliance, with reciprocity and solidarity in collective defense whatever the theater. Notwithstanding the “resets” and “pivots” of the past, the fundamentals remain what they have always been: The security of Europe and stability in Eurasia are key to American security, as they are the baseline for American policies in Asia and elsewhere. They are essential to the preservation of the open liberal international order, for without a secure Europe and stable Eurasia, America will be constrained in the Pacific, forced yet again to revisit the geostrategic dilemmas of the 20th century. Revising the proposed U.S. defense budget upward, shoring up NATO’s northeastern flank, and focusing the upcoming NATO summit on a strategy for Eurasia are the obvious first steps in the right direction. Only after those fundamentals are in place can we expect the larger strategic overlay to again guide U.S. foreign policy.

It is perhaps ironic that today the shenanigans of the late comic have come to describe the Obama administration’s foreign policy predicament. So it is time to rephrase the famous dictum of Poland’s Solidarity leader Lech Walesa: “I don’t wanna, but I gotta.” If the White House gets the “gotta” part and leads the West along a path of clear strategic priorities, it will get some of the respect that comes with it.

 

Andrew A. Michta is the M.W. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College and a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).