American Foreign Policy in a Changing World
by Mark English
I have previously drawn attention to the neo-conservative elements of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy orientation and spoken of the dangers (as I see them) of a resurgence of such policies.  At the time I wrote my previous piece on this topic (before the first TV debate), the polls were narrowing and the trend favored Trump. Subsequently, things have not gone well for the Republican campaign, and the polls now predict that Clinton is heading for victory.
Assuming Clinton does win, I sincerely hope that she changes tack on foreign policy because – given the epochal changes currently underway in the geopolitical and economic spheres – I just don’t see how neo-conservative-style policies, based on an essentially imperial vision of America’s role in the world and coupled with a deeply adversarial approach to Russia and China, could possibly play out in a benign way.
There are different views on this, of course, and I am not entirely sure of my position. On NATO, for example, I tend to the view that it should have been gradually scaled back or unwound after the demise of the USSR and that its expansion eastwards (in spite of assurances given to Gorbachev that this would not happen) and current activities have made the likelihood of large-scale war more rather than less likely. Charles Moore, a British neo-conservative who has a very dark view of Putin’s ultimate intentions, makes a case for NATO’s continuing importance in constraining Russia.  There is no simple answer here. Perceived weakness and confusion on the part of Western powers will no doubt be exploited by hostile forces. But it is also true that alliances which operate as vehicles for hegemonic powers can be very problematic.
The word ‘realism’ can mean many different things, depending on context. Often it is used rhetorically and lacks substantive meaning. In international affairs, however, it has a generally accepted meaning. Stephen Walt explains:
Realism sees power as the centerpiece of political life and sees states as primarily concerned with ensuring their own security in a world where there’s no world government to protect them from others. Realists believe military power is essential to preserving a state’s independence and autonomy, but they recognize it is a crude instrument that often produces unintended consequences. Realists believe nationalism and other local identities are powerful and enduring; states are mostly selfish; altruism is rare; trust is hard to come by; and norms and institutions have a limited impact on what powerful states do. In short, realists have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint, no matter how appealing this might be in the abstract. 
Walt makes a good case that had we listened to foreign policy realists over recent decades, many innocent lives would have been saved and the world would – in all probability – be a less militaristic and better place than it is today.
Realism is opposed to the more activist philosophies of neoconservatism on the one hand and humanitarian interventionism on the other. These labels – it must be said – are not clear-cut and blur at the edges: actual humanitarian interventions can, for example, take place within either a neoconservative or a realist framework. And realism itself comes in different flavors. But its key defining elements are clear enough.
All forms of realism in international relations are associated with strong skepticism about all forms of ideological thinking; an acute awareness of the dangers of the unforeseen consequences of military interventions; and generally modest expectations of what can be achieved on the international front (or “pessimism” as Walt puts it).
As I understand it, there are factions within the Obama administration, some (like Obama himself, perhaps) not so committed to neocon-style policies and some more committed to hawkish intervention. I think the election of Hillary Clinton would give comfort to the latter group, and there would be a policy shift in that direction. That is my fear and what – above all – has motivated this and the earlier essay.
Someone asked in the course of the discussion of my earlier piece whether I really thought that the Chiefs of Staff would accept a presidential order to do something likely to trigger war with Russia or China.
It would depend on the circumstances. But it seems obvious enough that to the extent that the US follows neocon-like policies, the prerequisites for a big war (as distinct from more limited, regional conflicts) are more likely to be in place. The worst situations arise when countries fall readily into blocs and particularly, if the blocs are very large and very few. We know this from the Cold War. At times we were very close to the brink of a global catastrophe. It would be quite stupid to return, deliberately, to such a state of affairs, not to mention unnecessary. But many of the neocons seem to want just that.
I happen to think our future is bleak, whatever happens with this election and whatever policies the new administration adopts. But a civilization-ending nuclear war is by no means inevitable and in my opinion is less likely in a multipolar world, in which political leaders see their role more in local and regional than in global and ideological terms. The Cold War was about power blocs, but it was also about ideology. The old Marxist-Leninist, Maoist and related ideologies have faded from the scene. I say it’s time for all of these overarching narratives to be dropped, including the idea that America has some kind of imperial destiny (or responsibility) to fulfil.
For years I bought into this narrative to some extent. But for a state to fulfil this kind of imperial role effectively, its strength and dominance and underlying economic health must be unquestioned. The state in question must also be widely trusted and respected. Arguably these conditions applied to the United States in the not-too-distant past. But today?
In America – and even to some extent in Britain – both neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism are associated with the idea of American exceptionalism: that the United States has a special status amongst the nations, moral as well as military, and that from this status flow certain unique rights and responsibilities relating to global order and governance. In the past this view may (or may not) have been associated with largely benign consequences. But, I would contend, in current circumstances it can only be extremely dangerous.
In a recent article, Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar points out that President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was preempted by an article published by Hillary Clinton which in turn reflected the ideas of Kurt Campbell.  Previously, Clinton had seen America’s battle to maintain world dominance mainly in economic terms, but Campbell’s influence led to her adopting a far more militaristic stance.
“Kurt Campbell,” writes Escobar, “is now the CEO of an Asia-centered advisory group. He’s also associated with the Washington think tank Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), a neocon/neo-liberal-con mix. It’s CNAS that came up with the geopolitical road map to be adopted by a future President Clinton. Key signatories include Campbell, the godfather of the neocons Robert Kagan, and Michele Flournoy, formerly with the Pentagon and a co-founder of CNAS.”
And Escobar notes that the “road map” – a report entitled “Extending American Power: Strategies to Expand US Engagement in a Competitive World Order” – pushes the notion of American exceptionalism. It “extols “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea – which is code for the US navy forever controlling the sea lanes straddling China’s supply chain.” It also calls for a no-fly zone in Syria – “which would pit the US air force against the Russian air force.”
America’s predicament is compounded by Europe’s social, political, economic and monetary crises. In fact, much of what is going on in Europe closely parallels the American situation – unprecedented levels of indebtedness (including sovereign debt), facilitated by unorthodox monetary policies, unemployment, falling productivity, the rejection by large swathes of the public of mainstream political parties, decreasing trust in and reliance on the mainstream media, mass (and largely uncontrolled) immigration, problems with the assimilation/integration of certain migrant groups, and so on. The crisis of the Euro is unique to Europe, of course, but the US dollar has its own problems. Its days as the world’s de facto reserve currency were always numbered, but mismanagement on the part of US authorities is hastening the decline.
In fact, the whole complex, Western-dominated, post-World War 2 architecture of international diplomacy and finance is in trouble, as the world’s center of economic gravity shifts to East and South Asia. US power and influence has been projected to a large extent through this system, but now that the edifice is tottering, more questions are being asked about the nature of America’s ongoing role.
Clearly the United States is in (at least relative) decline, both economically and in terms of global political influence. It can no longer plausibly play the dominant global role it has played – with mixed success – over the past seventy years or so. Will its leaders have the sense to realize this and slowly turn the focus to domestic and regional problems? Or will they cling – in some cases no doubt through sincere belief, in others from a need for self-aggrandizement – to a mythologized view of America’s destiny and role in the world?