Does America (Still) Want to Lead the Free World?

“We confide in our strength, without boasting of it; we respect that of others, without fearing it”. Thomas Jefferson

Checks and balances
November 5th, 2020. So, that was that! The Great Arsenal of Democracy has spoken…sort of. As I write the US is heading for a Biden presidency. However, the Democrats are likely to see their majority in the House of Representatives reduced and, crucially, fail to gain control of the US Senate.  If confirmed the real ‘winner’ is the US Constitution. The checks and balances it enshrines will ensure that a Biden White House will be an essentially centrist administration.  What does the last forty-eight hours suggest about the next four years for Europe and America’s leadership of the free world?

Many Europeans will be quietly celebrating this morning amidst the economic wreckage of COVID-19. At least the transatlantic relationship will return to some form of ‘business as usual’, some will suggest.  Wrong! It cannot and will not.  There are few concepts I can lay claim to but I was the first to suggest the foreign and security policy of the Trump presidency would be transactional. At the time I called upon Europeans to look beyond the politics of Trump at the structural challenges the Americans are facing, foreign and domestic. They did not.  Instead, Europeans have used President Trump as an alibi to avoid facing the hard security and defence choices they must now make. This is something, I fear, COVID-19 is about to make a whole lot worse.

The world is changing…
Some months ago I also asked a question: who will win COVID-19?  It will certainly not be Europe, but nor will it be the US.  The terrible twin titans of the post COVID-19 international system are geopolitics and geo-economics, neither of which are trending in the West’s favour.  The world is witnessing a profound shift in the balance of coercive power away from the democracies towards China, and by extension its piggy back partner, Russia. The economic and military rise of China also seems to be accelerating as a consequence of COVID-19 with profound implications for European defence and the transatlantic relationship.The defence strategic consequences?  In spite of the still awesome military power projection the US Armed Forces are still capable of even the mighty US Armed Forces cannot be present in strength in all places all of the time across the full spectrum of twenty-first century conflict.  Power is relative and for a state to exert such influence it would need to be uniquely strong in relation to all other possible peer competitors. There may have been a moment back in the early 2000s when some Americans thought the US enjoyed such power and could act as the Global Policeman (even if many Americans denied such ambitions), but 911, Afghanistan and Iraq quickly proved such pretention to be illusory, if not delusional. The coming years will thus likely see a kind of information-digital-hypersonic arms race in which the autocracies systematically seek to ‘short-of-war’ exploit the many vulnerabilities that are also the very essence of democracy.

…but so is America
Then there is the changing nature of America itself. A lot of Europeans still tend to view America through the prism of ‘the Greatest Generation’, which in tandem with Churchill’s Britain and Stalin’s Russia won World War Two. They forget the isolationist Vandenberg America of the 1930s and ignore the extent to which the US is again fast changing. There were two telling trends in this election. First, the percentage of white voters fell from 70% in 2016 to 65% in 2020. Second, the sheer scale of voting revealed a far greater engagement of minorities in the electoral process. This is to be welcomed. Political legitimacy in liberal democracies rests upon the need for the greatest number of citizens to engage.  Analysts too often tend to see geopolitics in terms of power indicators, which are often stripped down to size of a respective state’s economy and the relative power of its armed forces.  However, the ability of a state to apply power also rests upon a range of other, often intangible domestic factors. The power of the ageing ‘baby boomer’ vote was again apparent in this election. However, their future is behind them and twenty years hence the US will wear a different identity and political complexion.

Lessons from history?
In some important (although not all) respects contemporary America is not unlike late imperial Britain in the 1920s.  On the face of it, 1920 saw British power and influence at its zenith. Britain emerged from World War One victorious and in 1920 still possessed by far the largest navy in the world, the true measure of global power at the time. However, Britain was also mired in debt, not unlike the US today which faces a budget deficit of some 16% GDP, the largest since 1945, and a national debt fast approaching $28 trillion.

Britain was also deeply divided.  The 1918 Representation of the People Act and the 1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act extended the franchise to all men and women over the age of twenty-one.  With two strokes of the Parliamentary pen the age of High Victorian Aristocratic Imperialists (of which Churchill was very much a part) was effectively brought to an end. To say the political and strategic consequences were profound is an understatement.  Britain had been in relative decline on the international stage since the 1890s as Wilhelmine Germany emerged as a European industrial powerhouse, America stopped colonising itself and began to look outward, and the Empire of Japan began to take its first tentative steps towards Great Power. Important though such change undoubtedly was Britain’s retreat from Empire accelerated far more quickly because of the changing nature of Britain itself.  

Downton Abbey America?
The shift in the Britain of the 1920s away from Imperialism and towards Disarmament was not just a consequence of the sacrifice of World War One. With the seizure of power by the political leaders of the bourgeois and working classes a British world view began to emerge that was very different from that of the Patrician order of old. That is the implicit story of Downton Abbey which any fan will recognise. In what was perhaps the first great struggle between imperial globalists and social nationalists the Great Depression then further accelerated change in the global, political and social order, just like COVID economics seems to be doing today. The change showed itself most clearly over the question of Britain’s role in the world, in particular what was then termed Indian Home Rule.  Gandhi, Nehru and others were successful (eventually) in agitating for Indian independence, but what is not often recalled is the support for such independence in Britain itself.

Masked by Britain’s subsequent role in World War Two it is often overlooked that much of 1930s Britain no longer had the political appetite to be an imperial power. With the political empowerment of the working class, both men and women, British politics rapidly became focused on the domestic struggle between entitlement, capital and labour. In Britain, such tensions took the form of events like the 1926 General Strike and the rise of the Trades Union Congress.  In contemporary social media driven America it is reflected in culture wars, entrenched politics of identity and the demand for far greater political and real investment in promoting racial and social equality.  There is also the huge task that any new Administration must face of modernising American infrastructure, much of which is clapped out. 

These immense domestic pressures the new Administration will face also begs two further questions of Americans. First, do Americans still want to lead the free world?  Second, if Americans do, how? Britain’s past may again prove illuminating.  The Naval Defence Act of May 31st, 1889 formally adopted the so-called Two Power Standard. This committed the Royal Navy to maintain twice the strength of the next two most powerful navies combined. On the face of it the Standard was a statement of British Imperial power. In fact, it was recognition that the French and Russian navies enjoyed the luxury of being able to make life exceedingly difficult for an over-stretched Royal Navy by choosing when, where and how to apply pressure the world over.  This is much the same dilemma the US faces today with the rise of China as a hybrid, cyber and potentially hyper war power, and Russia’s assertive coercion in and around much of Europe. In other words, for America to still lead the free world and defend Europe it will need to impose some form of ‘tax’ on the Allies to do it.  

Rise and Fall…
Britain’s decline was played out on the world’s oceans, as will America’s. Throughout the 1890s the challenge for Britain of controlling home waters, the Mediterranean and the sea lines of communication to Britain’s African colonies, India and the Eastern Empire became increasingly acute.  The appointment of Admiral Tirpitz in 1898 led to the eventual 1907 creation of Imperial Germany’s High Seas Fleet which was designed for one purpose – the defeat of the Royal Navy in Britain’s home waters. London soon recognised that in the face of such challenges Britain could no longer defend all of its interests everywhere, all of the time.

To solve the problem of what became known as imperial overstretch in January 1902 Britain forged the first Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The alliance helped transform the Chrysanthemum Throne into a regional-strategic Great Power, and all that happened thereafter, including the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The policy quickly paid strategic dividends to Britain with the crushing May 1905 naval defeat of Russia by Japan at the Battle of Tsushima (with at least one Royal Navy officer in attendance) and helped lead to the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907. 

America? America is not Britain and its power fundamentals are far stronger than Britain’s ever was.  Therefore, if the US still has the will and political cohesion to lead the free world it can do so, but only in concert with committed and capable allies. In the Indo-Pacific that will mean deeper ties with Australia, South Korea and, of course, Japan. India? As for Europe, the Americans need NATO, but only if NATO can be transformed into a group of capable allies that can and will properly share risks, costs and burdens.  However, if such a new NATO is to be realised THIS America must want to lead and be willing to continue to bear the costs of such leadership, which will remain substantial.  Washington will also need to demonstrate the strategic patience needed to rebuild and maintain the alliances Washington increasingly needs. The alternative?  Look at Britain. A century ago London’s writ ran the length and breadth of the world. Today, London’s writ does not even run the length and breadth of Britain.

The difference between a President Biden and President Trump? They will be manifold, particularly in matters of style.  President Trump also saw American power as transactional because he for him international relations is little more than a protracted big business negotiation over global real estate. The transactionalism would be driven by a simple truth: the US has no alternative. Yes, there are many Americans who no longer confide in US strength and not a few who increasingly fear the power of the other, but the free world still needs American leadership and that leadership must both empower its people domestically and its allies globally. 

Julian Lindley-French