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A Gentler Hegemony

By Robert D. Kaplan
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Declinism is in the air. The latest conventional wisdom is that the combination of the disastrous Iraq war, the military and economic rise of Asia, and the steep recession in the West has chastened America, ending its period of dominance in world affairs. It is time for us to be humble.

There is a lot of truth to this, but it goes too far. For decline itself -- as a concept -- is overrated. Britain's Royal Navy went into relative decline beginning in the 1890s, even as Great Britain remained powerful enough to help save the West in two world wars over the next half-century.

The proper analogy may be the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and 1858, after the orientalists and other pragmatists in the British power structure, who wanted to leave traditional India as it was, lost sway to Evangelical and Utilitarian reformers who wanted to more forcefully Christianize India -- to make it in a values sense more like England. The reformers were good people: They helped abolish the slave trade and tried to do the same with the hideous practice of widow-burning. But their attempts to bring the fruits of Western civilization, virtuous as they were, to a far-off corner of the world played a role in a violent revolt against imperial authority.

Yet the debacle did not signal the end of the British Empire, which expanded for nearly another century. Rather, it signaled a transition away from an ad hoc imperium fired occasionally by an ill-disciplined lust to impose its values abroad -- and to a calmer, more pragmatic and soldiering empire built on trade, education and technology.

That is akin to where we are now, post-Iraq: calmer, more pragmatic and with a military -- especially a Navy -- that, while in relative decline, is still far superior to any other on Earth. Near the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy had almost 600 ships; it is down to 280. But in aggregate tonnage that is still more than the next 17 navies combined. Our military secures the global commons to the benefit of all nations. Without the U.S. Navy, the seas would be unsafe for merchant shipping, which, in an era of globalization, accounts for 90 percent of world trade. We may not be able to control events on land in the Middle East, but our Navy and Air Force control all entry and exit points to the region. The multinational anti-piracy patrols that have taken shape in the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden have done so under the aegis of the U.S. Navy. Sure the economic crisis will affect shipbuilding, meaning the decline in the number of our ships will continue, and there will come a point where quantity affects quality. But this will be an exceedingly gradual transition, which we will assuage by leveraging naval allies such as India and Japan.

Then there are the dozens of training deployments around the world that the U.S. military, particularly Army Special Forces, conducts in any given week. We are all over Africa, Asia and Latin America with these small missions that increase America's diplomatic throw-weight without running the risk of getting us bogged down. Aside from Iraq and Afghanistan, our military posture around the world is generally light, lethal and highly mobile. We have been quietly reducing land forces in South Korea while compensating with a more effective air and naval presence. In Colombia, platoon-size numbers of Green Berets have been instrumental in fighting narco-terrorists; in Algeria, such training teams have helped improve our relationship with that formerly radical Arab country. Such stripped-down American military deployments garner no headlines, but they are a formula that works.

The Marines, after becoming virtually desert forces since 2001, will return to their expeditionary roots aboard amphibious ships in the Greater Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. American military power is not going away. But instead of being in-your-face, it will lurk just over the horizon. And that will make all the difference.

In sum, we may no longer be at Charles Krauthammer's "Unipolar Moment," but neither have we become Sweden. Declinism of the sort being preached will go immediately out of fashion at the world's next humanitarian catastrophe, when the very people enraged at the U.S. military because of Iraq will demand that it lead a coalition to save lives. We might have intervened in Darfur had we not been bogged down in Iraq; after Cyclone Nargis, our ships would have provided large-scale relief, had Burma's military government allowed them to proceed. As world population rises, and with vast urban areas with tottering infrastructures in the most environmentally and seismically fragile zones, the opportunities for U.S. military-led disaster relief will be legion. The American military remains a force for good, a fact that will become self-evident in the crises to come.

Of course we are entering a more multipolar world. The only economic growth over the next year or two will come from developing nations, notably India and China. But there are other realities, too. We should not underestimate the diplomatic and moral leverage created by the combination of the world's most expeditionary military and a new president who will boast high approval ratings at home and around the world. No power but the United States has the wherewithal to orchestrate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and our intervention in Iraq has not changed that fact. Everyone hates the word, but the United States is still a hegemon of sorts, able to pivotally influence the world from a position of moral strength.

Yet American hegemony post-Iraq will be as changed as Britain's was after the Indian Mutiny. It will be a more benign and temperate version of what transpired in recent years. Henceforth, we will shape coalitions rather than act on our own. For that, after all, is the essence of a long and elegant decline: to pass responsibility on to like-minded others as their own capacities rise.

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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