By Khurram Husain
May 29, 2014
THIS week it is time to bid farewell to Washington D.C. as my fellowship draws to a close, and I look forward to writing my next column from Karachi.
Washington D.C. has been an interesting place to be during the past nine months. I had an opportunity to observe very closely as the policy dialogue in this city went about the business of making sense of a rapidly changing world.
When I arrived, the conversation was all about Egypt. The fresh overthrow of a democratically elected government presented policymakers here with a vexing problem: how do you respond to a coup when the people being overthrown cannot be considered to be friendly to your interests?
It was with dismay that I, and my Pakistani peers who have seen the same situation play out in our own country, watched the case slowly being made for embracing the coup and its perpetrators. The difficulty of the situation was clear when decisions had to be made regarding the disbursement of vitally needed aid, and the policy machinery vacillated.
America’s response to global issues indicates that it is a superpower in decline.
The difficulties were compounded when Gen Sisi went on a rampage, rounding up the leadership and street following of the Brotherhood, imprisoning Morsi and sentencing 683 of his followers to death in a single verdict in what must have been the largest mass trial in recent history.
Then came the news of the chemical attacks in Syria, and the conversation shifted comprehensively. It was surprising how quickly Egypt dropped off the radar, replaced by Bashar al-Assad, and his regime’s increasingly desperate measures to stay in power and fend off a vicious and violent challenge to his rule. Once again the policy machinery vacillated.
How should the president respond? After all, he had only a year earlier drawn a line in the sand saying that any use of chemical weapons would call forth an armed response from the US.
A tortured debate ensued, and again vacillation was the response. The president discovered that armed options were very limited, especially since he had given a commitment that ground troops would not be engaged. There is zero appetite in this city for committing troops to another war in the Middle East.
In the end the president tossed the ball into Congress’s court, where any idea of an armed response was promptly shot down.
Through both events, some spirited and highly articulate voices made the argument that America could no longer afford to shoulder the burden of policing the world. They pointed to the budget crisis at home, the steep cuts in the military.
Since March of last year, defence spending has been frozen and will remain so until Congress and the White House can agree to cut the deficit by $4 trillion. They’ve agreed on just over half that amount thus far, but since then the negotiations have hit an impasse.
Then came the government shutdown, when far-right elements in Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling until steep spending cuts were put in place first, and the superpower came within days of a potential default. A compromise was struck at the last minute.
Then came the upheaval in Ukraine, followed by Russia’s invasion and annexation of the entire eastern wing of that country. Yet again the vacillation returned. No coherent response could be mustered by the superpower and its European allies, and from the midst of that crisis, the defence secretary came to the Woodrow Wilson Centre and in a public event, called on all NATO allies to increase their defence spending and help lighten some of the burden for the United States.
Through it all, we’ve seen American trade policy run aground on India’s sophisticated protectionist urges, and the feted Transpacific Partnership sputter for support, particularly in Japan. We’ve seen deep anxiety develop in Asia towards the growing assertiveness of China, with stinging boundary skirmishes. And we’ve seen the vacillation in Washington D.C. growing in each instance.
In short, this is a superpower in deep trouble. It’s astonishing to think that only little more than a decade ago, the Bush administration peddled the belief that America was the most powerful country on earth and could impose its will on others unilaterally and by force.
Today, almost everybody here agrees that this is a superpower in decline, that it has neither the stomach nor the financial wherewithal to police the world that it is facing a rising arc of challenges from smaller regional powers that throw their weight around in their neighbourhood with an impunity that is becoming ever more emboldened. China and Russia top the list, but even in a region like Latin America, which the superpower once considered its backyard, it treads as if walking on eggshells.
There is no room for schadenfreude here. The accelerating retreat of the US from the global stage is not likely to usher in a freer and more just world. On the contrary, the space vacated by the superpower is more likely to be filled by smaller powers with narrower outlooks, driven often by atavistic urges, and which are tyrannical in their constitutions.
I’m no fan of how the US went about securing its hegemony in our time. But I fear even more the kind of world that regional powers like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia are busy ushering in.
Khurram Husain is a business journalist and 2013-2014 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington D.C.