The warning signs seem to be everywhere. A resurgent Russia is exerting its power in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. A rising China is extending its reach across its periphery. ISIS has taken control of large parts of Iraq and Syria. Establishment Democrats and Republicans couldn’t even stop Donald Trump from becoming the president of the United States.
For the foreign policy establishment in Washington, it all raises a very troubling question: is the United States an empire in decline?
Some insist that the answer is yes — that the period of US global dominance that has reigned since the end of the Cold War is coming to an end. As things now stand, “the post–Cold War, unipolar moment has passed,” the National Intelligence Council reported earlier this year. Former CIA officials John E. McLaughlin and Gen. David H. Petraeus made a similar assessment before the House Armed Services Committee this past February. In the years ahead, McLaughlin argued, “the world will be without a hegemonic power — that is, without a country so powerful as to exert dominant influence and advance policy with little reference to others.” Petraeus agreed, saying that the post–Cold War era of “US domination of the world” is ending.
Still, there are some reasons to think otherwise. As former US diplomat R. Nicholas Burns recently observed, the United States maintains “alliances in Europe and Asia, and the Russians and Chinese do not.” In addition, the American military has begun to wipe out ISIS, killing more than sixty thousand fighters over the past two and a half years.
So do a resurgent Russia, an ascendant China, and the emergence of the Islamic State suggest that US power is ebbing, or are these challenges exaggerated? What do US officials really think about these matters?
If we take stock of their public statements as a whole, the foreign policy establishment certainly appears concerned about the latest challenges to US empire, especially the uncertainty that Trump’s election has introduced. But they also remain quite confident in their power to shape the world and steer the United States into a new age of global hegemony.
The World’s Superpower
Over the past few years, a number of high-level officials have expressed great confidence in the durability of US hegemony. Not only have they insisted that the declinist thesis is wrong, but they have argued that the United States will remain the world’s dominant power well into the future.
In May 2016, two former high-level officials laid out the more confident view for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In a statement to the panel, former Secretary of State James Baker said that the United States would continue to lead the international system. Certainly, “much of the rest of the world — countries like China, Brazil and India — are catching up with us,” Baker conceded. “Still, we should remain the world’s preeminent leader for the foreseeable future.”
Former National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon agreed. As long as the United States takes the proper precautions, he said, it “will continue to be the world’s leading and most powerful nation for a long time to come.” Donilon also rejected the declinist thesis, calling it a “myth” that should not be taken seriously: “The idea that America is in decline does not stand up to a rigorous analysis of our national balance sheet of strategic assets and liabilities,” Donilon asserted. “The truth is that no nation can match our comprehensive set of enduring strengths.”
Other Obama administration officials offered similar views. Last October, for example, Secretary of State John Kerry noted that the United States maintains tremendous economic advantages. “We’re the richest country on the face of the planet,” Kerry said.
In fact, the Obama administration made great strides in expanding US economic power across the globe. President Obama, who acknowledged during his final months in office that he had “made it a priority to open up new markets overseas,” boasted that his administration had “increased US exports to the world by more than 40 percent — to record levels.”
At the same time, administration officials also pointed to their other great advantage in world affairs: American military power. As Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter noted in April 2015, “it will take decades — and let me repeat that: decades — for anyone to build the kind of military capability the United States possesses today.”
Obama expressed similar sentiments during his farewell tour. The United States possesses “the greatest military in the history of the world,” Obama declared. “Make no mistake,” he continued, “even with the challenges of recent years — and there have been challenges — our allies and adversaries alike understand America’s military remains, by far, the most capable fighting force on the face of the Earth.”
In short, contrary to those who warn of waning US hegemony, high-ranking officials insist that the United States remains the most powerful country in the world. “We are, without a doubt, the world’s superpower,” CIA Director John Brennan said this past September.
Of course, every great power faces challengers. Not even the mighty United States is immune from pushback. As Carter noted last November, the United States faces enemies that are “extremely competitive,” ranging from terrorists to “high-end opponents.”
Facing such a broad range of adversaries, foreign policy elites have tried to assess how seriously to treat each, weighing whether current and potential enemies can significantly weaken the United States’ hold over the world.
For the most part, they agree on the issue of terrorism. Although American leaders regularly denounce terrorism as the modern world’s greatest plague, most don’t see it as a major challenge. Last November, former State Department official Daniel Serwer warned, “We shouldn’t blow up terrorism into an existential threat. It’s not.”
A month later, Obama agreed that ISIS and other groups stand no real chance of defeating the United States. “Today’s terrorists can kill innocent people,” Obama stated, “but they don’t pose an existential threat to our nation.”
Instead, officials have grown more concerned about other challenges. Taking a more traditional view of the world, they have largely concluded that rising powers in the international system now pose the most serious threat to US hegemony.
Early last year, Carter articulated this basic rationale, describing the latest trends as “a return, in some ways, to great power competition.” Without diminishing the US’s capacity to fight terrorism, he contended that the nation should prepare for new confrontations with Russia and China. These countries, he argued, “are our most stressing competitors, as they’ve both developed and are continuing to advance military systems that threaten our advantages in specific areas.”
China: A Closer Look
Throughout Washington, many officials are worried that China will replace the United States as the dominant power in the Pacific.
Last June, Brennan delivered this warning: “China is a growing power of great economic, political, and increasingly military influence and presence.” China, he noted, has continued expanding its presence in the South China Sea, an area American officials have identified as a strategically important transit route. “There is a reason for the United States to pay attention to what China is doing on a number of fronts, which we are,” Brennan said.
A few months later, two high-level officials put the matter more directly. Appearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Secretary of Defense Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford claimed that the United States and China are now arrayed against each other.
Alabama senator Tom Cotton asked, “Gen. Dunford, are we in great-power competition with China?” “We are, senator,” Dunford replied. Carter agreed, saying, “absolutely right.”
In early January, Secretary of State John Kerry even suggested that China would eventually surpass the United States as the world’s leading economic power. “We’re the most powerful country on the planet, yes, and we’re the biggest economy in the world, yes,” Kerry stated. “But China will be eventually just by virtue of its size.”
Nevertheless, US officials have also expressed certitude about their ability to deal with China. While they may identify China as a great-power competitor that is destined to grow more powerful, they have also argued the US maintains the upper hand in bilateral relations.
In July 2016, Vice President Joe Biden provided one example. He recounted that after the Chinese government had tried to create an air defense identification zone over disputed territory in the East China Sea, the United States had asserted its dominance. According to Biden, President Xi had asked him, “What do you expect me to do?” In response, Biden had said, “I don’t expect you to do much, but just so you know, we’re flying B-52s through it. We’re coming.” In other words, Biden told the Chinese president that regardless of any newly declared air rights, the United States would continue to use that area.
Since then, officials have only grown more confident in their capacity to manage China. Kerry himself bragged last September that China has not been able to alter the strategic calculus in the South China Sea. “In the South China Sea, we have been able to make it clear, freedom of navigation,” Kerry commented. “We’ve been able to deal with China.”
In fact, the United States has maintained the dominant position throughout the entire Asia Pacific area. The United States “is the strongest military and the power of the region and will remain so for a long time,” Carter said last December.
Officials in the Trump administration have indicated they may use that military power to confront China. In January, Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing for secretary of state that the US will no longer tolerate China’s attempts to gain control of the South China Sea. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said.
In short, US officials are relatively unperturbed by China’s power. Although they still fear that China may one day emerge to challenge American hegemony, they have largely ensured that China will remain a secondary power in the region for the immediate future.
Russia: A Closer Look
Meanwhile, state officials face another significant challenge to their plans: Russia.
Last June, Brennan captured their trepidation in a statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: “Russia is threatening its neighbors and aggressively reasserting itself on the global stage,” he stated.
The following month, diplomat Alexander Vershbow provided a more direct assessment, explaining that the United States and Russia are once again competing for influence in Europe. “We now sadly recognize that we’re in a long — what I’d call a long-term strategic competition with Russia,” Vershbow said.
Earlier this year, Mattis issued the strongest warning, saying that Russia represented the main hazard to the world order. “I would consider the principal threats to start with Russia,” Mattis said.
At the same time, US officials assert that the rivalry with Russia remains largely one-sided. While they see Russia as a competitor, they simultaneously insist that the country has much less power than the United States.
In April 2016, US ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute argued that Russia — not the United States — has entered a period of declension. “There’s a sense that, yes, there’s a new, more assertive, maybe even more aggressive Russia,” he explained, “but fundamentally Russia is a state in decline.”
A few months later, Defense Department official Elissa Slotkin made a similar argument. The Russians are “acting from a position of weakness,” she stated, before going on to note that the Kremlin faces many constraints. “I think the combination of the economic sanctions after Crimea and Eastern Ukraine plus the low price of oil has really hurt them,” she said. The United States should not “overestimate the competitor,” she continued, suggesting that her predecessors had done just that with the Soviet Union. The Russians “are not unbeatable,” she insisted. “They are not operating from a position of strength.”
The highest ranking officials in the Obama administration shared her view. This past October, Secretary of State John Kerry said that very little about Russia scared him. “I don’t sit around quaking about Russia,” Kerry commented.
Obama also waved away the notion that Russia posed a serious challenge, even after allegations of election interference surfaced. “The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us,” he stated. “They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country.”
Essentially, foreign policy elites seem content in the knowledge that while Russia has emerged as a competitor on a variety of issues, it is acting from a position of weakness. As former US ambassador to Russia William Burns noted earlier this year, “I’ve learned that we have a much better hand to play with Mr. Putin than he does with us.”
The Latest Concern: Trump
The only thing that seems to really worry the US foreign policy establishment at the moment is Donald Trump. Since the election, officials have been scrambling to work with a president who is largely unfamiliar with — and perhaps hostile to — establishment thinking on American foreign policy.
In the days after the election, establishment fears about Trump were rampant. A series of New York Times headlines captured the growing concern: “Donald Trump’s Victory Promises to Upend the International Order.” “Uncertainty Over Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Risks Global Instability.” “The End of the Empire.” The establishment’s central concern was that Trump’s election signaled the start of an internal decline. “Empires rot from the inside even as emperors blame the barbarians,” writer Viet Thanh Nguyen asserted.
The fears became so intense that Obama felt a special responsibility to make sure Trump understood what Washington insiders expected of him. “I think the main reflection I have and the main advice that I give to the incoming president is the United States really is an indispensable nation in our world order,” Obama explained.
Pushing the same point, Antony J. Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, penned an op-ed for USA Today titled “America must engage with the world.” If the US pulled back from the international stage, Blinken warned, tumult would ensue and citizens “would be worse off.”
Indeed, US officials grew quite skittish about what a Trump presidency meant for their plans for the world. On top of everything that Trump had said and done during the campaign, they feared that the new president did not understand how to run the most powerful country in the world — and how to ensure the continuation of US empire. Ultimately, Trump’s approach “could lead to global chaos,” career diplomat Ryan Crocker said.
The Final Outlook
Despite these concerns, officials have been willing to give Trump a chance to lead the country. Over the past few months, state leaders have done everything in their power to prepare Trump for his new position.
Notably, Obama played a lead role in welcoming Trump to Washington. Just days after the election, he complimented the president-elect on his willingness to cross the ideological divide. “I don’t think he is ideological,” the outgoing president said. “I think ultimately he’s pragmatic in that way. And that can serve him well, as long as he’s got good people around him and he has a clear sense of direction.”
In the following weeks, Obama also requested that people around the world give Trump a chance. People should not “just assume the worst,” Obama said. It would be better to “take a wait-and-see approach,” and allow Trump the opportunity to run the country.
Politicians, Obama stressed, often make promises that they don’t keep. “My simple point is that you can’t assume that the language of campaigning matches up with the specifics of governing, legislation, regulations, and foreign policy,” Obama said. He continued: “I can’t guarantee that the president-elect won’t pursue some of the positions that he’s taken. But what I can guarantee is, is that reality will force him to adjust how he approaches many of these issues. That’s just the way this office works.”
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter provided similar reassurances. “America’s interests remain the same,” he insisted. “So, we still have ISIL to fight, we still have Russia — that isn’t gonna change, the world isn’t gonna — isn’t gonna change.”
Establishment officials have also been willing to accept the new leadership and look for silver linings in Trump’s cabinet. For instance, they were pleased that Trump chose Gen. Mattis to be the next secretary of defense. Mattis is “a friend, and I hold him in the highest regard,” Carter commented shortly after the nomination’s announcement.
Trump’s secretary of state pick, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, was also met with applause. The man is “superbly qualified,” former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates promised. “He is deeply knowledgeable about the international scene and geopolitics and importantly would be an informed and independent adviser to the president.”
So far, a number of Trump’s establishment critics have found continuity in the new administration’s foreign policy. Early last month, Obama’s former advisor David Axelrod tweeted that a number of the Trump administration’s earliest moves bore striking resemblance to Obama’s policies: “Much of what @realDonaldTrump admin has done in foreign policy in the past 36 hours is Obama policy, just delivered thru clenched teeth.”
The New York Times has also begun to moderate its tone. Since early February 2017, new headlines have included: “Trump Embraces Pillars of Obama’s Foreign Policy,” “Trump Foreign Policy Quickly Loses Its Sharp Edge,” and “From ‘America First’ to a More Conventional View of U.S. Diplomacy.”
In short, the establishment, at least for now, seems confident that it can continue having its way with the world. Despite all of the post-election quaking about Trump, which was greased by the ongoing concerns about Russia, China, and ISIS, establishment officials and their supporters seem to believe that Trump is starting to understand what they mean when they say that the United States is indispensable to the world order. As always, they are speaking the words of empire, and they are determined to keep it.
“I know some people are looking at the world and saying, ‘Oh my God, the world order is coming apart,’ and this and that,” Secretary of State John Kerry commented during his final days in office. “No, it isn’t, folks. And it won’t.”
The empire, in other words, is here to stay.