By Federico Petroni
1. Power is nothing without will. How much are the Americans willing to sacrifice for the empire? This is perhaps the most important question of the times which we live in. No one doubts that the United States is powerful. The doubt that moves the world today is whether and how much the Americans are willing to defend their primacy. It is not about the ruling class, but about the people. The mandarins of foreign policy are certain that America’s fate depends on its success on the globe and the defeat (or downsizing) of the neo-imperial strategies of China and Russia. The population is not so certain.
In recent years, worrying trends have emerged in American society. There’s been the contestation of globalisation, i.e. the structures that organise the exercise of US primacy, and disillusionment with exceptionalism and the universal mission to evangelise and convert the planet to its creed. Then, distrust towards institutions, including the military, is on the rise together with the growing delegitimisation of the elite, hence also of foreign policy. The government and the population perceive China and Russia differently, the former considering them as existential danger while the latter feels threatened by internal rather than external enemies. Although hostile to Russian-Chinese projects, Americans would not die for Ukraine, perhaps not even for Taiwan.
The core problem is that the US is less and less able to mobilise its population to international challenges. Historically, the leadership has had to sell primacy to a society culturally disinclined to exercise power directly over other peoples. So this is nothing new. But in the past, imperial pedagogy worked because it met a common language in the grassroots. Now that language is heavily challenged.
It is also this purely human crisis that explains America’s predicament and why the international system is off its axis. The (peculiar) will to power of the United States has determined the shape of what passes for ‘globalisation’. A downturn in this will erodes credibility, Number One’s first asset. If this will is high, it deters adversaries and mobilises the resources of allies. If it’s low, it encourages revolts. If it’s nil, it ushers in a new era.
2. US foreign policy is often described as a tension between morality and self-interest. Henry Kissinger’s formula is famous: ‘How can America serve as a humane example and champion of justice in a world in which power is still often the final arbiter? How do we reconcile ends and means, principle and survival?’
Today, an even deeper tension gives a new dimension to Kissinger’s question. Before asking how to reconcile values and interests, the question arises as to whether Americans still want to exercise that role of example and champion of humanity. This new tension thus concerns the very purpose of US power in and over the world.
The hallmark of this period of crisis is that the American people no longer feel that they belong to an exceptional, God-elected nation with a universal mission. For centuries this lofty idea of self justified the expansion of US power, a means to serve the goal of civilising the world. It was shared by broad sectors of the population. It was the credo for assimilating Americans into America, that is, for turning the disparate masses into a cohesive people.
Today, exceptionalism is in sharp decline. In one of the most recent polls on the subject, only 21% of respondents believe their country stands above all countries in the world. It is not only a minority opinion. It is the least popular, beaten by ‘one of the greatest countries in the world’ (50%) and even that ‘there are other countries better than the United States’ (27%). From 2013 to 2021, the percentage of those who believe that God has assigned the United States a special responsibility in the history of mankind decreased from 64% to 44%.
Not only does the population not feel extraordinary. It does not even care. It is going through a phase of almost total introversion. Society has become deeply divided into multiple cultural models struggling with each other to survive and redefine national identity. The range of core values around which the central government can rally Americans to face a collective mission is increasingly narrow. Patriotism has become an obsolete term and for those who matter, it feeds more a blinkered nationalism than a missionary spirit. The general mood tends towards depression: according to all the most authoritative surveys, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Without agreeing on which one it is. It is no coincidence that exceptionalist pedagogy stops working just as social discord spreads. The one feeds the other.
The population demands relief from the burden of empire. That is, to reverse the flows of globalisation, reindustrialising the country and reducing the trade deficit, and to reduce international military commitments. It is no longer so willing to use force: the most visible fact is the decline in enlistments; in particular, the Army has missed its 2022 target by 25 per cent. Arming Ukraine is only fine because there is no direct combat and because that financial burden is still not competing with other spending priorities. This reluctance is the result of the long wave of defeats in the wars of the third millennium. The military is part of the national identity. Americans are such because they have fought the same wars (one among themselves), winning the most important ones. Losing generates existential crises.
Responding to these demands, on both the Right and the Left, the new generations of politicians entering Congress are highly critical of traditional foreign policy, convinced that the main threat is climate change (the liberals) or China (the conservatives), but only its industrial theft – many of them would not intervene in defence of Taiwan. They are still in the minority, especially in executive power. But they testify to the distance between popular inclinations and institutional views.
3. Let us extrapolate some lines of analysis from this reconnaissance.
First, discord prevents agreement on strategic priorities. The usual objections are that foreign policy has never warmed hearts and a distracted population can be an opportunity. It is not a bad thing if there is an underlying understanding, or if you can do everything at once. Today the understanding is not there and the Pentagon repeats that it cannot fight two wars on two fronts. While Americans debate abortion, guns, gender discrimination and transgender bathrooms, the US enters the hot phase of the challenge with Beijing and Moscow without being clear who the main enemy is. In a Gallup poll, 53% of liberal-minded Americans answered Russia and 30% China; 76% of conservative-minded Americans answered China and 12% Russia; 46% of independents answered China and 32% Russia.
Second, the lesser American propensity to use force changes the shape of the world. The US has been at war for much of the time it has had supremacy. Global armed supremacy (Pax Americana) has been the ordering principle of the post-World War II era. Less readiness generates landslides. We see it in small ways in the Middle East, where Washington’s diminished interest opens up space for other powers – not necessarily a bad thing because it overstretches rivals. It is seen in a big way in Ukraine, where the Biden administration has from the outset ruled out threatening Russia with the use of force. These signals fuel doubts about the credibility of American security guarantees to satellites.
Third, the call to reverse the direction of globalisation is revolutionary. Since 1945, and more emphatically since 1990, the US has been importing goods and exporting manufacturing investments, favouring free trade through the guarantee of naval power on trade routes and through the selective opening of its market to the goods of others. The logic goes back to the post-World War II period, when it was a matter of helping the reconstruction of countries destroyed by conflict. It became the economic side of inclusion in the US sphere of influence, the commercial premise of the Americanisation process. But it transformed the American citizen from producer to consumer, impoverishing him in the process.
The US cannot disrupt the flow, both because of the difficulty of finding skilled labour in the leading manufacturing sectors and because the trade balance is in deficit for structural reasons. But since the mid-2010s they have adapted their attitude. They no longer propose free trade agreements. They use their power to compete industrially with their partners (chips, electric cars). Instead of promoting foreign investments, they go after foreign investments in North America. The empire has entered a partially extractive logic. Which is also, above all, competitive: globalisation no longer serves to spread the American way of life with which to benignly neutralise adversaries; it must serve to slow down China’s rise, protecting America’s technological supremacy, hence its national security.
Fourth, Washington struggles to mobilise or cultivate some decisive sources of its power. The apparatchiks try to get the concept of corporate national security responsibility across to the economic powers. To put it in geopolitical terms: to participate in the economic pressure on the People’s Republic. Many companies resist, except for those active in high technologies niches, and this greatly restrains containment. Moreover, the war industry is not able to sustain warlike rhythms, because it has been working at minimum levels for years and because there is a shortage of skilled labour. In a real war, the Armed Forces would immediately run out of ammunition. Some armaments (Himars) are kept in Taiwan to give them to Ukraine or not to run out of stock. Orders for Taipei and Kiev are competing with those for Defence. It will take years to redirect industrial powers, and then only some.
Finally, an America that believes less in exceptionalism also cares less about Europe. Americans feel less Western and more Global. Irrespective of what this means, it certainly weakens the identity bond with the Old Continent. Joe Biden is the last leading politician convinced in his heart that American primacy in Europe is the premise of American primacy in the world. New generations of politicians have grown up in a world where this attachment was not a top strategic priority. Some, especially conservatives, have openly despised Europeans since well before Trump became their leader. Europe is becoming an establishment-only preference. Like exceptionalism.
4. It is clear that imperial pedagogy is not working. The ruling class is failing to explain to the population the meaning of America’s power in the world. To understand the depth of what is at stake, we must go back in history, to the founding moment of the global empire.
During the Second World War, a small circle of officials and intellectuals gathered around the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations planned the post-war period on behalf of the Roosevelt administration. It envisioned an order centred on US military supremacy, guaranteed by a series of institutions, including the United Nations, designed to structure American primacy. Having sketched out the plan, says scholar Stephen Wertheim, it had to be sold to the public. Some quarters asked if there was actually the need. The British historian Arnold Toynbee, visiting the States in 1942, did not think it was necessary: all the Americans he met were convinced of the need to assume world leadership.
The ruling class knew this. Its aim was not to persuade the people, but to make them secure. “Mr. Doe must be made sure”, reads an action plan of the time: global supremacy (woe betide calling it “empire”) must be cemented in the collective mindset of Mr. Doe overseas. Why so much zeal? The planners were not afraid of today, but of tomorrow. They feared the average American and his representatives in Congress. In the future, the consensus towards global leadership might erode. A ‘bastion’ must be built against the possible emergence of isolationism – a term popularised, if not invented, for the occasion.
These were the premises of a massive education campaign that enlisted public relations agencies, produced Oscar-winning films, distributed millions of pamphlets, and organised five hundred speeches in every major city in the country. At its core, was the invention of a historical narrative: an eternal struggle was being fought in America between internationalists and isolationists, between forces of good that want the United States to assert itself in the world and dark and retrograde forces of evil that want it to withdraw. The narrative was false, but we are here interested in its consequences.
The result was that World War II America did not discuss how to exercise world primacy or what form to give it, only whether and why it was right to do so. The plan for the post-war order lacked practical details. Military might would be enough to stabilise the planet and allow the United Nations to function. The debate on isolationism served to obscure the conversion of internationalists to power politics, and to present the welding together of nation and empire as natural. The moment the global empire was born, the hegemonic project was already unlimited – one could not give too many details to public opinion.
This endeavour had a predecessor: the ‘war for the American mind’ during the First World War. Stanford historian David Kennedy describes how, ‘more than the other belligerent governments, the Wilson administration was compelled to cultivate – even to manufacture – public opinion favourable to the war effort’, for fear of the “flaccidity” of society, too internally divided and unprepared for a hostile world.
These backward leaps shed light on a recurrence in American geopolitics. For as long as America has existed as a great power, there has been a hiatus between what the elite think needs to be done and what they think the population is willing to do. The hiatus has remained static. It was minimal in moments of glory, such as World War II; it widened in times of difficulty, like the present moment. A conspiracy theorist would conclude that manipulations of the federal apparatus can peddle anything to the citizens. The logical leap, however, is too steep.
Certainly the ruling class suffers from unbridled elitism. In Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann writes that democratic theory is built on sand, since citizens are ‘mentally children or barbarians’; the only solution is to create ‘an intelligence bureau’ ‘managed only by a specialized class’ to pursue ‘the common interests [that] very largely elude public opinion’. George Kennan, the architect of USSR containment, shared the founding fathers’ horror of an ‘excess of democracy’ because Americans are disinclined to ‘put the public good before their personal lives’. Much paternalistic distrust survives in a polite form in the behaviourist theories of “nudging”, now in vogue among government agencies, according to which the citizen is dull and must be prodded to make choices in his own interest that he cannot make on his own.
Yet, US elites tend to be held back by popular constraint when setting strategy. Not always, but let us cite two examples at as many crucial moments. One is 1953, when, in the famous Solarium exercise on what to do with the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower opted for containment, considered less demanding than roll back or, worse, a war on the USSR. His decision was based also on these considerations: ‘If you demand of a free people over a long period of time more than they want to give, you can obtain what you want only by using more and more controls; and the more you do this, the more you lose the individual liberty which you are trying to save’ and ‘the American people have demonstrated their reluctance after a war is ended to take the necessary action properly to occupy the territory conquered’. Another crucial moment is from the present time. Shortly before joining the Biden administration, current National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan co-signed a report in which he recommended, in effect to himself, to make ‘foreign policy work better for the middle class’. The reason: ‘there is no evidence America’s middle class will rally behind efforts aimed at restoring U.S. primacy in a unipolar world, escalating a new Cold War with China, or waging a cosmic struggle between the world’s democracies and authoritarian governments.’
5. If America does not feel so special, it cannot be hegemonic. American disenchantment moves to another phase.
It is not the end of the United States. The analysis of the human factors of US power opens, not exhausts, geopolitical analysis. Washington remains a great and, less than in the past, fearsome power. It remains in control of communication routes, some (Space, cyber-space) more contested than others (the sea). It continues to enjoy the exorbitant privilege that history and geography have given it. It confronts rivals unable to take its place.
Hegemonic sentiment will hardly regain popularity in America, even when social peace returns. Even if the enemies suffer brutal defeats, there will not be a repeat of the optimistic sense of liberation generated by the USSR’s suicide thirty years ago. The US has already proven what it means to be unchallenged at the top. It has already tried to take charge of the world, without getting satisfaction from it and, actually, ending up burning its fingers. It is the inability to order eight billion souls that is the problem, not China and Russia. And anyway a collapse of these two would produce chaos. And there is no doubt that chaos is ungovernable.
Can America renounce hegemony to confine itself to defending primacy? Theoretically, it could, but there are several obstacles. First of all, primacy and hegemony are almost synonymous in US strategic vocabulary. The former is a premise of the latter. Throughout the two-and-a-half centuries of its existence, America has conceived the power to achieve dominance, a goal promised by God. To justify primacy, one would have to find words that are compatible with the national mentality but that do not seem to exist. Completely new categories would have to be invented. But geopolitical alchemy breeds monsters. And Americans would continue to miss the deeper meaning of what is being done.
The ruling class continues to preach hegemonic rhetoric because it cannot practise hegemony. There is, however, an internal impulse within the establishment to demarcate the empire and circumscribe the mission. To frame allies more formally. Biden has launched industrial chains limited to a few Indo-Pacific countries to exclude China. The civil service suggests to distinguish useful allies from those who put spokes in the wheels in the technological containment of Beijing or to establish who is ‘with us and against us’ on the prosecution of war crimes in Ukraine. John Bolton proposes enlarging NATO to those who really spend on defence such as Japan, Australia, and Israel, and formalising Asian alliances. The empire would be the enlarged West and the mission to slow down China.
The picture is too sketchy to discern a coherent plan, as it risks being insufficient to prevent Beijing’s growing power and because it says nothing about what to do with Russia. It lacks a blueprint, which would help clarify the purpose of primacy. American tactics remain affected by strategic schizophrenia on three indispensable fronts: domestic (the primary front), Indo-Pacific, European. Too many priorities mean no priorities. One cannot take a step backwards even in the Middle East without everyone interpreting it as more than it is. Middle and supposed powers, from the Saudis to the Egyptians, now openly haggle with Washington to wrest the most disparate concessions. The unlimited empire cannot be limited without causing earthquakes.
A plan will emerge. And that plan will help the world take on new forms. Circumstances, however, will dictate it. In 1940, it took a catastrophe, the fall of France, to convince American leaders to assume the leadership of a global empire, an objective hitherto abhorred. It was the time when America was at the height of its power.
A longer version of this article appeared on Limes n. 4/2022 «Il bluff globale».
Translated into English by Mark A. Sammut Sassi.