Philip Zelikow is an academic and a diplomat. He also served in several US administrations, most notably that of George W Bush, where he was a discreet voice for sanity – for instance arguing against the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (i.e. torture).
Therefore, when he speaks out on the strategic position that America – and, by extension, the entire free world – finds itself in, we ought to listen. Last month, he addressed a gathering of the Aspen Strategy Group. The Atlantic re-prints his speech. Though not given to histrionics, Zelikow doesn’t pull his punches:
“Looking around other countries or regions around the world, probably all of us share some sense that the world is slouching toward another cycle of grave systemic crisis. The last three years have been disheartening…
“It is hard for me to see how American efforts in the world are being purposefully directed in any meaningful way.”
The situation is all the worse because America’s biggest rivals are making purposeful headway:
“Every one of America’s major adversaries now has the strategic initiative. They—Russia, Iran, China—are currently better positioned to set the time, place, and manner of engagement, including political engagement. On every vector, we react.
“Blustery declarations, backed by unsustainable commitments, do not regain the strategic initiative.”
America’s flailing about – as emphasised by, but not the sole result of, President Trump’s buffoonery – invites “exemplary humiliation”. Indeed, Zelikow fears that 21st century America faces its own version of the Suez Crisis that humiliated Britain in 1956.
The parallel is inexact. On any reasonable measure – comparative or absolute – America is hugely more powerful today than Britain (and France) were in the post-war period. While the Suez crisis served to expose Britain’s weakness, an equivalent ‘moment’ for America would be about exposing the superpower’s inability to apply its strength effectively.
Zelikow’s speech is essentially about America’s strategic incompetence – a chronic condition affecting successive administrations. But what would a competent strategy look like? Zelikow advocates what he calls the “outside-in approach”:
“1. Set priorities. What battleground issues or states are most likely to influence this generation’s global election about prospects for an open and civilized world?…
“2. Think outside-in. Out in those states, out in the world of those issues, are there catalytic possibilities? How do they see their situation? What (and who) are the critical variables in their choices?
“3. US efficacy. In that context, where or how can the US really make a strategic difference?”
That’s the theory; what does it mean in practice? The example that Zelikow gives is East Asia in the 1970s. Though the era may be best remembered for the Vietnam catastrophe, it was also a moment of triumph:
“Mao died in 1976. China was divided among competing visions. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping and his allies started a pivotal turn. They rejected the Soviet model. Why? Looking around, they were influenced less by the example of the United States and more by examples nearby: Japan, South Korea, and (whisper it) Taiwan.”
American support for increasing levels of prosperity and liberty in China’s neighbours went a long way to setting China (and indeed Vietnam) on a more positive path. Obviously, the success is a partial one; China is still a long way from, say, Japanese levels of economic and political freedom. Yet, compared to the Maoist era, the progress made is significant, to say the least.
Tragically, the lessons of the 20th century have been forgotten. Instead of a peaceful focus on influential nations that actually want its help, America in the 21st century has done the opposite – forcing its attentions on the most hostile and peripheral places on the planet:
“Especially since 9/11, the danger of catastrophic terrorism has turned America’s global strategic priorities upside-down. Terrorists tend to flourish in the broken ‘wilderness’ areas of the world. These are just the places that therefore are least likely to change the course of world history in any positive way.”
America’s response to terrorism has been everything its enemies could have hoped for.