Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Fear and Loathing in the Most Powerful Country in the World

The seeming chaos that characterized this election is the predictable consequence of massive wealth inequity, a deadlocked and corrupt political system, fifteen years of hyping the terrorism threat, twenty years of the most recent decline narrative, and twenty-five years of not knowing what to do next after winning the Cold War.  Despite their unchallenged superiority on the world stage, the American people have become confused and scared.  Their long-sought status and power have not brought a society-wide sense of security.  Yet, like all who have power, we are afraid to lose it, and our resultant choices are unfathomable to those who do not understand this dynamic.

When at least a significant part of a population shares these feelings, the stress reduces their cognitive functioning and makes them susceptible to simplistic explanations (such as xenophobia and class warfare).  They look for the reassurance of a strongman figure who places blame in convenient places and promises simple, sweeping solutions that restore the old, preferred status quo, even if that status quo didn't really exist and it's clear the policies can't either be implemented or, if somehow implemented, successful. (This explains why Russians like Putin so much.)

The United States is throwing everything it has (and borrowing heavily) to try to uphold an international system that daily grows more divorced from modern reality and an increasing percentage of the world views as unfairly benefiting a heavily American global elite.  External adversaries try to undermine us (justly, in their view) and our country becomes increasingly divided as these efforts predictably fail to produce greater security.

Exacerbating matters, a subdivided media now owned by corporate interests (and corporations themselves) gradually abandoned objective journalism to pursue its owners' political interests and follow titillating but inconsequential stories that serve as profit sources, but hardly pass muster as true news items.  As a result, the population is unprepared to apply meaningful perspective to life's harsher, come complicated realities.  By 2016, we had a perfect opportunity for the ignorant bully, the corrupt palace courtier, and a few well-meaning but unqualified others to make a play for power.  No matter who wins that kind of contest, we lose.

This is not to say all is lost.  Wielding real power within our entrenched and antagonistic bureaucratic system is expensive and frustrating for a reason.  Like all things, this ill-favored episode in our history will pass.  With luck, foresight, and perseverance, it will happen sooner rather than later, shortening the dark age between stable, generally beneficial international systems in which we find ourselves so ineffectively floundering at present.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Our Grandest Strategy

America rose from colonial backwater to unprecedented superpower by pursuing the grandest of grand strategies: attainment. Conceived in high ideals and conscious of its own potential for greatness, the United States was born allergic to the cold embrace of pure power politics. Americans demanded their leaders implement a grand strategy based on the notion that the United States remained fundamentally a different, better system of government.

Having grown to strength and defeated all serious challengers to primacy, this is the American moment. It is our time to lead the world, and America has floundered a bit from the awesome responsibility of rare historical potential. The giddiness has passed; it is time for a serious settlement of the issue of what this nation wants to accomplish in the world.

I believe U.S. grand strategy only functions well when it adheres to American traditions and values. This means our goal ought to be to create the conditions in which the American system can furnish security and prosperity for its citizens and free them to do great things. It must also shine as an example of the notion that great power and high ideals are not mutually exclusive.

American grand strategy rests on a precondition of a stable American international primacy. No other nation can do or will do what the United States must do in the next century to advance human civilization. Therefore our grand strategy must rest on the notion that America must remain the world’s preeminent power. Here is how to accomplish that:

1. Restore America’s image. The new administration has made great strides here. Keep going. Take the lead on matters of international interest. End the perception of inevitable American decline and alleviate the international fear that we will go down swinging. The world will resist U.S. primacy and leadership with full force if it does not accept the fundamental benevolence of American power.

2. Keep growing the population. The preferred way is for Americans to have more babies. Failing that, the United States must encourage strategic immigration. In the next century the price of labor will soar while the world flattens (somewhat). Our available labor pool will play a dramatic role in our economic performance. The United States has a tremendous advantage here in its ability to assimilate immigrants. Growing the domestic workforce is tremendously expensive, but provides a solid foundation for labor sustainability. Which leads directly to…

3. Drastically reduce the costs of raising children and caring for the elderly. When our ratio of labor to non-labor shrinks, America’s ability to do great things evaporates. Productivity gains cannot close the gap. The United States cannot long remain a great power if every child costs more to raise than he or she will someday produce. Nor can it do so if its workforce strains under an obligation to pay for its seniors to play twenty years of golf while requiring enormously expensive medical care. Education, retirement, and health policies must serve dual goals of national interest and individual dignity. Currently they serve the latter at the expense of the former.

4. Choose our conflicts more wisely. If an adversary could point to areas on the map in which it would most like to see American power engaged, it would look very much like the map of American military involvement in the last several decades. Primary among these are Vietnam (graveyard of great powers), Afghanistan (graveyard of empires), and Iraq (cradle of civilization, but now a persistent gadfly with no resources that cannot also be found in friendlier terrain). Although we must rise to meet challenges to our security, the United States must find a way to avoid ill-defining threats and spending power for limited gains.

5. Devote significant resources to developing renewable energy. Whoever becomes the Saudi Arabia of cheap, renewable energy will have a significant economic, political, and military advantage for many, many years. Alleviating dependence on petroleum imports will open new vistas for diplomacy and investment in areas where the United States chooses, rather than where it must. The United States is uniquely positioned to push forward in multiple areas, including biomass, solar, wind, lunar collectors, and geothermal. We should use this opportunity to develop several different sources of renewable energy and create sustainable dominance in multiple new energy markets.

Many of these policies are elements of domestic strategy, rather than classical grand strategy. I contend that good grand strategy presumes good domestic strategy, for the foundations of power are largely domestic. Beyond this list of top priorities are other, also important tasks required for long-term American primacy and security. Taken together, they form a guideline for a successful U.S. grand strategy.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Strategies of Attainment

Ask your average foreign policy expert to name a grand strategy and the answer is almost invariably, “Containment. It's the strategy that won the Cold War.” If so, then with the Cold War era that containment served barely visible in the rearview mirror, America appears to need a new grand strategy.

Finding that new strategy is a career maker -- a guarantor that the smart or lucky person who proposes it will be remembered with the likes of George Kennan and Paul Nitze. So the search commenced for a successor strategy. It shows plenty of creativity, zeal and trial balloons. However, no one has calculated or stumbled on the winning formula yet. Perhaps it's time to revisit our assumptions.

Let's assume that containment alone did not win the Cold War. That means containment was merely a holding action against an aggressive and expansionist enemy while something else significant took place. Checking Soviet expansion did help keep much of the world, especially areas of strategic interest, either free or nonaligned. But playing defense alone does not and cannot win. Trying to prevent the rise of potential challengers is exhausting, morally bankrupt, unworthy of a nation conceived in greatness, and almost certain (if history is any guide) doomed to fail. There was another strategy at work, a much older one, that finally came to fruition while containment kept our primary adversary at bay.

The United States won the Cold War by outperforming the USSR. Its military jumped a generation ahead of the Soviet military. Its capitalist economy created vastly more individual and collective wealth than Soviet communism. Its liberal political system held far greater philosophical legitimacy and provided a richer political experience for its citizenry. The United States government behaved more honorably in its foreign relations and held far greater moral authority than the evil empire could hope achieve with its propaganda. The Soviet Union could not compete with American performance and collapsed from the effort. When the dust settled, the United States stood alone as the world's only superpower.

America won the Cold War by pursuing the grandest of grand strategies: a longstanding strategy of attainment. This strategy was in place from the Founding Fathers through manifest destiny into and through the twentieth century and it proved wildly successful. Seeing the danger, Soviet leaders quickly sought peaceful coexistence, but a segment of American society disagreed vehemently. However, ingrained reluctance to strain national budgets for international aims such as the defeat of communism reflected America's preoccupation with its own growth and initially restricted enthusiastic pursuit of rollback. So the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations practiced containment as a holding action. For a few years Nixon and Ford sought stable balances of power, but these strategies soon proved insufficient because something was amiss in the thinking underlying them.

The social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s brought this insufficiency to the fore. While most accounts of this era examine changes in American domestic life, the effect on U.S. grand strategy was no less transformative. American society rejected the amorality of realpolitik and stopped turning blind eyes to the dirty business of Cold War sub-war maneuvering. Americans demanded something better from their government. They sought a grand strategy based on the idea that the United States remained fundamentally a different, better system and destined for something greater than shady subterfuges and endless superpower stalemate.

The decision by the Carter and Reagan administrations to capitalize on American moral, military, and economic strength and compete vigorously turned the tide of the Cold War. Refusing to accept peaceful coexistence, moral equivalence, and stable balances of power, they pushed for confrontations designed to undermine Soviet strength: the Afghan conflict, export controls on vital petroleum technologies, arms races, and the strategic defense initiative. Confronted directly by American power, the Soviets were unable to compete at the same level and ultimately conceded the contest.

This strategy of attainment capitalized on the United States' significant advantages, including its educated and innovative population, access to international trade, geographic position, and ingrained ingenuity. The residents of other systems found something compelling about the American system and way of life. They concluded the Americans were on to something good and forced radical change upon their own governments to emulate the United States.

Misguided by the notion that containment alone won the Cold War, in the days following the Soviet collapse our American strategists got it wrong. They needed to account of the fundamental changes brought about by the loss of a credible competitor to American primacy. However, the strategy that needed to be discarded in addressing challenges of the new era was not that of winning by outperforming America's adversaries, but the strategy of containing them. The environment in which the United States could attempt great things in international politics evolved at precisely the moment in which American strategists stopped prescribing them.

Fortunately, this situation can be corrected. The American moment can still become an era of great attainment. It simply requires acceptance of a single proposition: the current superiority of the American model. Throughout American history, we have not had much difficulty thinking ourselves different and somehow better, the world's exceptional nation. However, our academic training teaches us that this kind of thinking is dangerous. Presuming one’s own systemic superiority is arrogant and somehow “unscientific.” To accept the superior performance of the American system requires accepting that international politics is not a science. The units of measure –- states -- are not and can never be fundamentally equivalent, nor can the conditions of international politics ever be repeatable. Therefore strategy making based on the belief that one is being scientific will be flawed. The academic treatment of systems as morally, functionally, and qualitatively equivalent prevents good strategy. Different systems are different, some perform better than others, and the evidence indicates the American system currently outperforms all others.

American strategists must swallow their training, accept that we’re either very right or very lucky, and keep going with our winning strategy. There are other governmental and societal systems out there, and some of them are pretty good at performing for their citizens. The United States' post-Cold War grand strategy should be to continue to create the conditions of fair competition in which the superiority of the American system can prevail. If a better model arises in a rising power and threatens American superiority, then we’ll discover it, learn from it, and adapt our strategy as necessary. Until then, the challenge for American grand strategists is to concentrate on fine-tuning the American system and have the courage and faith to see their grandest grand strategy through to new heights of greatness.

The next article will focus on ways to continue to implement this strategy.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Strategies of Atonement

Reputations are not derived on what something is or has been, but what people know about it. This holds as true for nations as it does for individuals. For most of its history, the United States has been the world's exceptional nation, the one that did things differently. Through its statements and actions the United States stockpiled a reserve of international goodwill. As a result, much of the world welcomed American international leadership during and immediately after the Cold War. However, memories are notoriously short in international relations and the pages continue to fly off the calendar.

Grand strategies are meant to last many years, so they require the support of future generations of leaders and policy makers. They will be implemented and followed during the careers of today's 30 year olds, who will then, at the ends of their careers, design these grand strategies' successors before moving into retirement. As such, grand strategies must be made with today's 30 year olds in mind or risk being abandoned by them as illegitimately derived by outdated mindsets.

If we mark the beginnings of a person's political awareness somewhere around 16 years old, we find that the average 30-year-old in the world today has roughly fourteen years of personal recollection of American foreign policy. He or she does not remember very much about the strategies and policies of Bill Clinton's first term (14-18 years old), and likely has no recollection of George H.W. Bush's prudence (10-14 years old) or Ronald Reagan's steadfastness (2-10 years old). Within his or her perspective, the idealism of Jimmy Carter, the social upheavals of the sixties, and the heroism of the Second World War are half-remembered history lessons and occasional Jeopardy! questions. What the average 30-year-old learned most clearly about American foreign policy happened during the second Clinton term and the George W. Bush presidency. So what do these fourteen years say about America in the world?

America got some things very right. It put terrorist organizations throughout the world on notice and, in many cases, on the run. It signed far-reaching trade agreements to improve the world trading system. It pushed peace in Ireland and peaceful pursuit of civilian nuclear energy, most notably with India. America also provided disaster aid for natural catastrophes and HIV/AIDS and malaria assistance for biological ones, and increased education support for millions in Africa.

However, America also got some things very wrong. It spent more than seven of the last fourteen years fighting an inconclusive war in Afghanistan and perhaps five of the previous six years doing so in Iraq. American missiles bombed tents in Central Asia and an aspirin factory in Sudan. Some of its most respected and trustworthy leaders provided public and incontrovertible testimony about Iraqi WMD that turned out to be false. The United States imprisoned foreign nationals without due process, tortured at least some of them to protect its own, and claimed throughout to be unconstrained by such niceties as the Geneva Convention. American exceptionalism in these years was more descriptive of the United States' bold claim that it was above the rules of international order than an honorific earned by its unusual greatness.

Finally, in many ways America failed to make good on the potential of these important years. The United Nations at sixty looked very much like the United Nations at forty. NATO gained new members, but not new purpose. American foreign policy continued its long transformation from military intervention in major contests with vital interests (First and Second World Wars) to medium- and small-scale conflicts with increasinly moderate interests (Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Panama, First Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda) and, finally, to staying completely out of things completely regardless of interest (Rwanda, Sudan, and Georgia) unless faced with direct or perceived near-term attack (Afghanistan and Iraq). The United States failed to create new security arrangements to address important international problems such as nuclear proliferation (North Korea and Iran), smuggling, drug trafficking, slave trafficking, resource depletion, global climate change, and international piracy. It also failed to build international consensus around important concepts such as the legitimacy of peaceful Islamic governance, the viability of international law, and superior reliability of liberal economics.

America's history is full of greatness, but the sum of recent memories is not a powerful argument for the credibility of American international leadership. The past few years have shown an increasing difficulty in generating support for American initiatives among the international community, and American policy makers have become well aware of the effects of a tarnished reputation on overall American international power. Imagine, for example, the enormous task the current administration would face in creating an American-led international financial stability institution or building support for an international coalition of sanctions and/or military force to remove even obvious threats such as Iran's growing nuclear weapons capabilities. America needs its good reputation back so it can lead the world in meeting the next set of challenges effectively.

Appropriately, the new President's immediate actions represent its strategies of atonement. Recognizing that a lowered internal and external opinion of American moral authority weakened the United States, he moved to end some of the most damaging practices of the previous administration. He ordered the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, a ban on interrogation practices that constitute torture, and began work on a final plan to withdraw American forces from Iraq. These were strong and necessary first steps toward restoring America's stockpile of international respect, the kinds of actions I described in many of my previous posts. Reinforcing them with other, larger actions in the coming months will do much to restore the world's high opinion of American values. This will set the stage for the presumed follow-up strategy, one aimed at reestablishing the world's acceptance of American leadership for vital international issues.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Jeffersonian Path to Leadership

The “simile du jour” in today’s discussions of President-elect Obama’s actions is that he is organizing is cabinet as described by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fantastic work, Team of Rivals. Choosing the strongest primary opponents for his team proved a wise tactic for Abraham Lincoln, and presumably it will do so for Obama. Lincoln faced the task of restoring the country to wholeness; Obama must restore it to greatness. Once his team of power players is in place, the President-elect would do well to emulate Thomas Jefferson when choosing at least one of the components of his grand strategy.

As British rule over American colonies came to an end, pirate ships and crews from the North African states of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers (the Barbary Coast) ravaged Mediterranean commerce. American efforts toward independence from Britain ended British protection of American merchant ships and sailors from the Barbary pirates. France guarded American ships in the Mediterranean during the war, according to the terms of their 1778 Treaty of Alliance. However, the end of the war in 1783 meant the United States had to protect its own commercial interests in the Mediterranean.

Paying ransoms and bribes to Barbary rulers sounded like a cheaper solution than raising an international navy to defeat them. Deep in debt from its war for independence, Congress appropriated funds for tribute payments and directed the American ministers in Europe (Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) to begin negotiations. Jefferson opposed this plan, arguing that paying ransom and bribery demands only leads to further demands. Instead he tried to put together a coalition of affected powers that would, in his words, “compel the piratical States to perpetual peace.” Jefferson got quite a few European nations interested in his proposal, but he was unable to persuade Britain and France to sign on, so nothing came of it. The United States began sending ships laden with tribute to the Barbary rulers, and it received little beyond insult and further demands. Ransom and tribute payments to the Barbary states rose to 20% of United States government annual revenues in 1800.

When Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli, weakest of the Barbary powers, congratulated him by demanding an immediate tribute payment of $225,000 and a further annual payment of $25,000. Jefferson refused, and the Barbary states declared war. Although the American naval fleet then consisted of just a few frigates, Jefferson ordered American vessels to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping. The United States Navy and the Barbary pirates each won bold victories and suffered humiliations during the two wars that ensued. In 1815 American naval forces finally defeated Algiers and signed treaties with the Barbary states that ended all ransom and tribute payments by the United States. Freed of their own internal warfare, European nations accomplished the same within fifteen years, effectively ending the problem of Mediterranean piracy.

Today piracy remains a serious international problem. Pirate vessels operate with impunity off the coasts of Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, and elsewhere. The November 15 hijacking of the MV Sirius Star while carrying oil from Saudi Arabia to the United States gained international headlines for its audacity and the enormous value of its prize. However, this problem of today can be an opportunity for tomorrow.

Providing an international environment in which global trade can flourish is the responsibility of all nations, but particularly so for the great trading states. As the world’s preeminent trading state, the United States can make significant gains in its power and prestige by spearheading an international effort against piracy. President Obama can do what Ambassador Jefferson could not -- create an international coalition of affected and interested nations to address the global piracy problem.

The world is ready for such a step. In 1982, Articles 101-107 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defined international piracy and set forth the rights and obligations of nations. In 1992, the International Maritime Organization created the Piracy Reporting Centre in Malaysia for monitoring and alert purposes. Today the subject of international piracy has traction from columns of The New York Times to the corridors of the Pentagon. The time is ripe for the United States to call for creation of an enforcement mechanism of international maritime law that can bring together sufficient force to drive piracy into extinction. Such an effort would do much to restore confidence and a sense of legitimacy to American international leadership.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Power of Hope

On 27 July 2007 I wrote a blog entry entitled “Moral Power, Leadership, and American Strategy.” It traced the United States’ current weakness to its long neglected reserve of moral authority. Beginning with a worldview that includes moral authority as a source of international power, I used a modified version of dynamic differentials theory to foresee a course correction in American grand strategy. The data indicated the United States was in the first stage of the cycle: vague recognition of a problem. Next the American citizenry would develop a deep sense of insecurity and dissatisfaction with the leaders who allowed the problem to develop. This would culminate in the election of political leaders capable of transformational diplomacy that promises to restore this critical component of power. I offered that this moment in history is a time for such leaders, noted that history has a habit of producing them when needed, and hoped it would do so again.

All this has come to pass. What’s next?

Primary among the tempting pitfalls of electoral mandate is the ease of policy oversteer. Just as a car skidding in an icy turn will crash into one side of the road if the driver does not take corrective action, it will just as surely crash into the other side if the driver overreacts. Precipitous, poorly gauged change could be just as disastrous as no change at all. Great challenges tempt grand solutions, yet the creation of international structures and signing of international treaties must remain consistent with American interests. High-level talks must end in far-reaching accords, not petty positioning, geopolitical stalemate, and self-serving propaganda.

The choices the new administration will make in the next six months are of enormous importance to long-term national security, the preeminence of American power, and the continuation of American primacy. I laid out several prescriptions in "How to Extend American Hegemony: A Strategy Guide" on 13 July 2007. Numerous potential missteps beckon, while uncounted golden opportunities lie undiscovered. Distinguishing the paths to success from the roads to misfortune will require clear-eyed prescience and steeled resolve.

The new administration’s most pressing task in foreign relations: defining a clear vision of America in the world. As I noted previously, American grand strategy has lacked a set of unifying goals since failed efforts at creating a New World Order following the Cold War. Once regarded as a city on a hill and a shining beacon of freedom, the United States has tarnished its image in the eyes of the world with a series of policies and actions that contradict these values. American unwillingness to lead on global issues such as genocide in Darfur, climate change, and the development of international society and law have contributed significantly to this perception.

The next administration must set forth a clear and detailed plan for restoring American exceptionalism. This requires a clear articulation of the reasons the world has shown a preference for American-style democratic, republican, and free-market values. This must be followed by a series of confidence-building measures that demonstrate a renewed American commitment to the principles and policies that placed the United States atop the international system. These measures must incur a cost to short-term American power in order to be credible.

The time has come for transformational diplomacy. Concepts such as "the homeland is the planet" and "national security requires international security" can change the way Americans and their foreign brethren identify their basic interests. President Obama can take clear and concrete steps to demonstrate the United States is worthy of international trust. Closing Guantanamo Bay’s detention centers and ending the practices of warrantless wiretapping and quasi-legal detainment are good ways to start. They send a clear signal that the world’s most powerful nation remains answerable to its own laws and treaties. At the same time, the United States must decide once and for all if terrorism is an international crime, an act of war, or some third, possibly hybrid, sphere of jurisdiction. Until it does so, it cannot provide credible – or even comprehensible – international legal leadership.

Renewed international confidence in America’s respect for the rule of law can lay the basis for an American-led reform of international legal structures. Rather than wrangle over signing onto the World Court, the United States would have an opportunity to recreate international law as something tangible, effective, and in U.S. interests to have and obey.

The rebuilding of the American brand is only one part of the strategy. The U.S. military has been decimated by chronic overreach. Extended deployments and unwillingness by the successive administrations and Congress to expand its size significantly to meet them have strained and exhausted military personnel and equipment. Shortfalls in readiness strength and projection capability are coupled with a lack of international support for American military actions. The time to correct these problems is evaporating quickly. Absent major changes to the federal entitlement system, within the next several decades the Federal government will have little left to spend on improving the U.S. military. Substantial investments to repair and strengthen the U.S. military must be made now, for they will become impossible at a later date.

Finally, none of this will be possible if the United States does not invest wisely in sustainable domestic economic growth. U.S. economic output will vary significantly according to the willingness of government and corporate leaders to create the conditions for productivity. The availability of educated workforces, mid-career training, favorable tax policy and regulations, finance, and business infrastructure will dictate the level of investment and growth. American economic strength will depend on the effectiveness of its economy in developing these factors. Investment in the conditions for economic growth must be made in areas where they will take advantage of American competitiveness, while maintaining a sufficient mix of factors to prevent against single-factor vulnerability.

America has seen the projected path of decline and despondency, decided it was insufficient for so great a nation, and elected to chart a new course. The new path of American history is uncertain, but those who have chosen it believe it will take their country to new heights of prestige and security. Opportunities and pitfalls await the new administration. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Legacy of Failure

“Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.” Today the United States announced the current administration will ignore the principles of its own misstated maxim and bet much of its legacy on the trustworthiness of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. Somewhere John Bolton must be pulling his moustache off. No other world leader has a history of breaking agreements with U.S. administrations to match that of Kim Jong-Il. He is the master of what is known as “selling the same horse twice” – the practice of taking payment for a good or service and then demanding a second payment before rendering what is due. North Korea has sold the international community on nuclear transparency and disarmament more times than one can count, but never has delivered. And yet, once again, the United States is reaching for its wallet.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice set forth the foundations of the administration’s decision in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, “Diplomacy is Working on North Korea.” She asked, “What if North Korea cheats? The answer is simple: We will hold North Korea accountable.” Doing so would surprise everyone, for the United States has not yet held North Korea accountable for any of its promise-breaking or treaty violations. She continued, “We will reimpose any applicable sanctions that we have waived – plus add new ones.” In strategy terms, this means the United States will allow North Korea to replenish its stores of many of the items denied under sanctions, build stockpiles, and then break the agreement again when it feels ready to accept the pain of sanctions. Finally, she offered, “And because North Korea would be violating an agreement not only with us, but also with all of its neighbors, those countries would take appropriate measures as well.” In other words, the United States has failed to take “appropriate measures” for such a long time that its own threats to do so are no longer credible. They must be backed instead by the enforcement of other Great Powers.

This is a disgraceful admission from the world’s remaining superpower. Combine the new policy with the emergence of an Iranian nuclear program and it becomes clear that post-Cold War administrations have utterly and abysmally failed to deter nuclear proliferation in two of the world’s most dangerous nations. This says much about the limits of unilateralism, the absence of effective U.S. leadership, and the realities of an international community that has been largely content with allowing the United States to take on the tough post-Cold War challenges while refusing to follow its lead or lend substantial assistance to its efforts. There are, of course, notable exceptions such as the United Kingdom and Australia, but honorable exceptions do not excuse the complacent majority.

The post-Cold War period began with comparisons to the post-Second World War years, in which the United States addressed emerging challenges with large-scale multilateral structures (the United Nations and NATO), clear ideals (liberty v. totalitarian oppression), and hard-headed realism (containment and nuclear agreements). The fall of the Berlin Wall represented the promise of a New World Order earned by the triumph of a global liberal international society and its superpower champion. The post-Cold War period is coming to an end, and the comparisons have shifted to the frustrations of an ineffective League of Nations, the weak-willed appeasement of Germany at Munich, and unwillingness to fully recognize that the debate over isolationism and neutrality is over. The United States is fighting two shooting wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), one ideological war (fundamentalist terrorism), and one nascent and unrecognized cyberwar with a nation that holds the potential of someday challenging and perhaps surpassing the United States in overall international power (China). Domestic economic comparisons have switched from measuring the heights of the Roman and British empires to recalling the 1970s “days of malaise.” Once again the United States finds its economic power hobbled by the world energy market and its people fretting over their personal financial futures. U.S. leaders continue to borrow heavily from foreign nations and their children and grandchildren to try to shore up the nation's crumbling economy.

All of this adds up to a United States that no longer appears to have the ability to deter smaller powers from pursuing nuclear ambitions. Today’s announcement on North Korea is an admission of the dangerous overall frailty of U.S. international power. Diplomacy backed by weakness is the surest route to policy failure. The United States needs to rebuild its power and do so quickly, or accept a world in which its legacy of failure places its citizens, and the world at large, in grave peril.