Presentation Summaries

 On 23 August 2011, The Centre for Transatlantic Studies at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies arranged the first FokusUSA conference on the timely topic The Future of US Power in the International System.

 These were the questions initially asked: How will the United Statesrespond to the growing political, military and economic constrains to its influence and active international engagement? What implications do these changes have for US–Chinese relations and the international security system? Below is a summary of how the speakers addressed these questions.

Espen Barth-Eide

The Norwegian State Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Espen Barth Eide, argued that the world is changing fundamentally, a change that is being accelerated by the current economic crisis which presumably hit the West harder than the rest of the world. The US political system, which presupposes bipartisanship, is now at a procedural impasse due to the polarized political climate and unable to effectively solve its economic problems while Europe is struggling with its own debt.

Yet, Eide pointed out that western values are as popular as ever. The Arab Spring calls for democratic/western ideals, not a new caliphate, and the new world powers are mostly democratic and becoming more so as they progress. Regardless of the fate of western ideals, we are entering either a multi or zero-polar system, which is uncharted territory for most of the world’s population.

In this new system, many emerging powers are content with minding their own business and are not keen to take on a stronger role in the world. An important question is whether anyone is ready to fill the vacuum left by the relative decline of the west. In this new world order, Eide concluded, international institutions such as NATO, EU and the OSCE should be emphasized. They are the strength of the West and nothing comparable can be found among the Asian powers.

Andrew Bacevich

Bacevich argued that – despite the end of the Cold War, the events of 9/11 and the very different presidents Bush and Obama –USforeign policy has been marked by continuity since the end of World War II. This continuity is based on what he calls The Washington Rules, an obsolete set of principles guiding US foreign policy, consisting of the US Credo and the Sacred Trinity. The Credo is twofold:

1) The US determines the course of history. This is predicated on four assumptions, firstly that the world must be shaped, otherwise there will be chaos; secondly that it is the US that must do this shaping; thirdly that everyone wants the US to lead; and last, that US values are universal and that the triumph of freedom is the end-state.

2) Activism and hard power are the best ways of shaping the world. This is based on the experience from World War Two, which changed theUSpeople’s attitude to military power and use of force from suspicion to considering it as being benign.

The second part of the Washington Rules is the Sacred Trinity:

1) Global military presence which allows theUSto use force anywhere in the world.

2)US forces configured for power projection instead of defending theUS.

3) A penchant for intervention, which actually did not change fundamentally after the Vietnam War.

Bacevich argued that the Washington Rules are obsolete: they are threatening to break both the bank and the troops. There is a need for a new paradigm in which the US needs to engage the world in other ways than just militarily, and that nation building efforts are undertaken at home and less so abroad. Fixing Detroit and Cleveland must take priority over fixing Afghanistan and Iraq.

Johannes Rø

Rø argued for a project of creating a toolbox of mechanisms with which to explain concrete puzzles pertaining to US foreign policy. He elaborated on three mechanisms that, based on his analysis of theUSresponse to 9/11, should have a prominent place in this toolbox. The first mechanism was derived from the realist tradition, the second from the idealist tradition and the third from the domestic ideology tradition. Evidence was presented that these mechanisms shaped the Bush-administration’s conduct after 9/11, including the decision to attack Iraq in 2003. Finally, Rø indicated, by calling upon recent evidence, that these mechanisms are likely to shape U.S. policy in the future as well, including its policy towards China.

Geir Lundestad

In the title of his presentation, Lundestad asked “When Will China Overtake the US”? In an economic sense, he noted, it will happen within a few years. The US share of global economic production has declined at a steady rate since the 1950s, and US debt is now at 10 per cent of GDP. Furthermore, there are no prospects for economic growth in the near or medium term, and the USpolitical system is in gridlock with no responsible solutions expected anytime soon. This has contributed to an acceleration of the relative economic decline of the US. Despite this, he argued, China will in a larger sense not overtake the US as a world leader in the foreseeable future, an assertion that he based on a number of factors that strengthen the US position on the international scene.

First, US GDP per capita is far ahead ofChina’s and will remain so for many years. Second, China lags behind the US in the militarily realm to such an extent that they must be considered to be in two different leagues. Thirdly, China’s political future is very uncertain. For instance, it is by no means certain that China’s economic growth can be sustained indefinitely. Furthermore, there are protests and debates about the future of China on a daily basis, and combating corruption requires the public reporting of corruption cases: in other words, a free press.

Additionally, political changes resulting from the economic growth could spell the end of the period of stability that China has so far enjoyed. Also, the Chinese education system is not geared towards encouraging the creative thinking that is a prerequisite for technological development and innovation. Hence, the political future of China is far from certain. A last factor that Lundestad viewed as strengthening the USposition is its position as the principal regional balancer against Chinaand the alliance relationships this engenders, such as the one with Japan. These factors contribute to the continued prominence of the US, he argued, and it is unlikely that China will overtake the US in the foreseeable future.

Christopher Layne

Layne’s principle argument was that the USunipolar moment is now over, given the shift of wealth from the Euro-Atlantic area to Asia and the rise of the BRIC countries, a shift that has been accelerated by the recent economic crisis in the US. The unipolar moment was based on economic and military hegemony. The removal of one of these two pillars has now caused the Pax Americana to collapse, according to Layne. He based this conclusion on the assumption that the US is no longer an economic hegemon, and that US military supremacy is soon coming to an end. It is now militarily and economically overstretched, and the recent US domestic gridlock will lower the entry barrier for rivals and allies.

This is, however, a slow decline rather than a sudden collapse. In the future, theUSmust rethink its strategy and base its actions on policy of restraint and offshore balancing as a result of declining defence budgets. This is the best strategic approach in a multipolar world, according to Layne.

As for the potential for friction in the international system, Layne argued that there are a number of likely pathways to conflict. Most prominent are the territorial conflicts in Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and the East and South China Sea, growing resource competition, contests for regional prestige and status, and naval competition. Layne concluded that the world is transforming due to the end of the PaxAmericana and that great power conflict is possible in this new system. He wondered how the US would adjust to this transition, will it react with graceful restraint or will this transition be forced upon it through war or crisis.


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