Since 1991, following the fall of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, the United States has expanded its global power and has successfully maintained this dominating position for a couple of decades. The U.S. has been what political observers call a unipolar power structure. However, this position of dominance has changed in recent years with the emergence of a multi-polar system, a kind of oligopoly structure in which a few countries are engaging in give-and-take rivalry and are enjoying substantial power both economically and politically. The power is further diffusing and is shifting away from the U.S. as we are approaching an era dubbed by some analysts as the post-American age. Given such an astonishing development and the diminution of American involvement, the key question is: What will the power structure of the world look like in the future? This is, I believe, the central intent of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, the latest book by Dr. Vali Nasr.
Undoubtedly, the ongoing geopolitical affairs have impacted the United States profoundly. Events, such as the Arab Spring, Iran’s nuclear ambition, conflicts and civil war, have been occurring so frequently around the world lately that they are becoming sort of routine and less significant, especially in terms of their economic impact. Financial markets, for instance, are becoming somewhat less jittery with regard to these events; these markets are less spooked by political events and are reacting rather more vigorously to economic information. In addition, because of the massive popularity of consumerism around the globe, economic capability and not military force is becoming more of a decisive driver in the global market. Dr. Nasr argues, rightfully, that global economic power is shifting away from the U.S.and moving in favor of heavily populated countries, with China, India, and Brazil at the forefront. While the economic rise of China is bound to happen, this does not necessarily entail the elimination of America as a superpower. This movement is mainly a shift in the global economic scene from one superpower to a few mega powers playing on a more level field.
Globalization, no doubt, has created its own opportunities as well as challenges. The author seems to suggest that America has failed to take full advantage of these opportunities thanks to its imprudent foreign policy practices, especially during the George W. Bush administration, which have predominantly contributed to this failure. While scores of books have been written in recent years that examine the deteriorating global influence of the United States and the inevitable evolution of the monopoly of superpower into a new paradigm, Nasr’s book is unique for its in-depth analysis of this issue but from a different vantage point. The vantage point the author brings to bear on this deteriorating U.S. influence is the decision-making process of the White House concerning foreign policy and its reluctance to rely on expert opinions but instead relies on the input of military generals and intelligence reports.
When President Obama was first elected in 2008, it was commonly anticipated that he would improve the image of America abroad from that of a warmonger—an image instilled by his predecessor—to a peace-keeping nation willing to settle differences with its adversaries through diplomacy and good-will and thus restore its praiseworthy moral authority around the world. Well, that has not happened as yet, according to Dr. Nasr who is a cognoscente who served as a top adviser to diplomat Richard Holbrook for two years. Dr. Nasr is highly critical of the Obama administration for turning a blind eye to diplomacy and returning to the hawkish mentality of the previous era and the use of force, albeit in different forms, such as drone warfare.
Despite what some politicians want us to believe, the world is not such a dangerous place. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism, for instance, is not as dire as we think; Iran’s aspiration of becoming a nuclear force in the Middle East is not as calamitous for the U.S. or its allies as we think. In addition, wide spread diversity within the Islamic world will make it less probable that the world’s Muslims will turn into a single lethal enemy of America and its allies. Dr. Nasr argues that the relative economic prosperity and the rise of a new kind of middle class in Islamic world should be the focus of America’s foreign policy, not domination.
Dr. Nasr maintains that cultural institutions, including religion, will continue to play a role in shaping economic progress in various countries, especially in the Middle East. The non-Western countries have always been eager to learn about the West and imitate its progress, not only economically but also in technological, human rights, and cultural areas. People are inclined to side with the winners and not with the losers. However, doing so doesn’t mean people should undermine their own cultural and social values. To succeed economically, non-Westerners have had to borrow from and utilize Western technology and managerial style without chipping away at their own cultural norms and institutional settings. Many of these countries, however, did not thrive in the long term simply because they just wanted to imitate the West hastily. They erroneously assumed that mere imitation would bring them success. Kamal Ataturk in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran are cases in point. The new world order has promoted a new nationalism. Ironically, frustrated with the outright pressure to accept the American and Western economic and political systems, other countries are paying less attention to the West in general and the U.S. in particular and are focusing more on themselves. In other words, growth of other countries has not followed the Western style completely.
Dr. Nasr has successfully communicated what I think is a pivotal message in his book. In the modern world, the policy of force and coercion is doomed to failure. It is the appeal to culture and pioneering ideas that works, not the use of military power. Chinese expansion, for instance, has been generally facilitated by the use of soft power and smile diplomacy; this has been a winning strategy. Considering the triumphant of China and its ensuing economic as well as cultural influence in the world, one of the basic suggestions of this book is that America’s pathway to prominence should be paved by its diplomacy, not militarism and hegemony. The exorbitant costs of war with Iraq and Afghanistan have already placed a heavy burden on the U.S. government budget and have forced it to incur enormous debt; currently more than sixteen trillion dollars and this figure is growing ceaselessly.
The author is overly disappointed with President Obama for his unwillingness to pay due attention to diplomacy and his failure to uphold the goodwill assets of the U.S. as he promised to do when he was a presidential candidate. Even with the obvious failure of its confrontational approach, the administration has been arrogantly unwilling to change its attitude on many vital issues, such as sincere negotiation with Iran over its nuclear power intentions, and take on a more conciliatory approach based on mutual respect rather than unilateral imposition of unacceptable preconditions. Obviously, if the U.S. threatens a country like Iran with a military strike or regime change, this only makes the Iranian government more determined to seek nuclear weapons, which is a survival strategy and serves as an insurance policy in the chaotic world politics of today.
Dr. Nasr mentioned in his April 23rd presentation in Chicago that he wrote this book, The Dispensable Nation, American Foreign Policy in Retreat, reluctantly; however, he earnestly wanted to tell the American people his side of the story as an insider and why he believes American foreign policy has been on a wrong trajectory. He wanted to tell the public how smart, patriotic diplomats like Richard Holbrooke and Hilary Clinton had to fight hard so that their voices could be heard and their views counted. Dr. Nasr argues, the reason why the administration did not place deserving merit on the opinions of such diplomats was because U.S. foreign policy is mainly based on the advice of military generals and intelligence reports rather than on the expert advice of these diplomats. He genuinely believes that Obama’s foreign policy is the same as that of George W. Bush, only Obama’s policy has, as the author put it, “additional teeth.”
Reading the Dispensable Nation enables us to judge more accurately if all the hype about American global decline and China’s takeover is well-grounded. Although, there is no doubt that many significant contributions have been made by the United States to the world, such as education, democracy, humanitarian assistance, and science, America has been more criticized for its faults in recent years than appreciated for its positive involvement. Nonetheless, the United States is still the most welcoming and resourceful nation. It is true that America does have an important role to play on the global stage due to its economic and financial success; however, this position of success shouldn’t give America the discretion to direct the world as it wants. The inevitable ascendancy of other countries will not necessarily be bad for America; however, it needs to be reminded of the nature and the limits of its interference.
Finally, it is really a precarious business to voice your dissenting opinion when it comes to prevailing U.S. foreign policy. Nonetheless, Dr. Vali Nasr has reluctantly but courageously done that. He believes that American foreign policy has the appearance of being successful but this view is a delusion. I greatly admire his courage and tenacity in telling the story as it truly is and not the way the public wants to hear it.
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