Former US Secretary of Defense: USA – the ‘Dysfunctional Superpower’

12:06 09.10.2023 •

Pic.: Foreign Affairs

The Foreign Affairs magazine published a very revealing article by the former US Secretary of Defense (from 2006 to 2011). Mr. Robert Gates is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and calls on the US authorities to come to their senses so as not to lose the global competition to Russia and China. Despite the array of "America Strong" propaganda clichés he uses, it is clear from this article that the former Pentagon chief simply panicked about what is happening in Washington, in Congress and in the White House. He is forced to admit that America is split from within, and the rise of Russia and China is becoming a challenge that the United States may not have the strength to meet under what he called “Dysfunctional Superpower”...

Robert Gates

The United States now confronts graver threats to its security than it has in decades, perhaps ever. Never before has it faced four allied antagonists at the same time — Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran — whose collective nuclear arsenal could within a few years be nearly double the size of its own. Not since the Korean War has the United States had to contend with powerful military rivals in both Europe and Asia. And no one alive can remember a time when an adversary had as much economic, scientific, technological, and military power as China does today.

The problem, however, is that at the very moment that events demand a strong and coherent response from the United States, the country cannot provide one. Its fractured political leadership — Republican and Democratic, in the White House and in Congress — has failed to convince enough Americans that developments in China and Russia matter. Political leaders have failed to explain how the threats posed by these countries are interconnected. They have failed to articulate a long-term strategy to ensure that the United States, and democratic values more broadly, will prevail.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have much in common, but two shared convictions stand out. First, each is convinced that his personal destiny is to restore the glory days of his country’s imperial past. Second, both leaders are convinced that the developed democracies — above all, the United States — are past their prime and have entered an irreversible decline. This decline, they believe, is evident in these democracies’ growing isolationism, political polarization, and domestic disarray.

The United States prevailed in the Cold War thanks to a consistent strategy pursued by both political parties through nine successive presidencies. It needs a similar bipartisan approach today. Therein lies the rub.

Diplomatically, the war in Ukraine has handed the United States new opportunities. Renewed fears of Russia have allowed the United States to strengthen and expand NATO, and the military aid it has given Ukraine has provided clear evidence that it can be trusted to fulfill its commitments. Meanwhile, China’s economic and diplomatic bullying in Asia and Europe has backfired, enabling the United States to strengthen its relationships in both regions.

Sadly, however, America’s political dysfunction and policy failures are undermining its success. The U.S. economy is threatened by runaway federal government spending. Politicians from both parties have failed to address the spiraling cost of entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Perennial opposition to raising the debt ceiling has undermined confidence in the economy, causing investors to worry about what would happen if Washington actually defaulted. (In August 2023, the ratings agency Fitch downgraded the United States’ credit rating, raising borrowing costs for the government.) The appropriations process in Congress has been broken for years. Legislators have repeatedly failed to enact individual appropriations bills, passed gigantic “omnibus” laws that no one has read, and forced government shutdowns.

Diplomatically, former President Donald Trump’s disdain for U.S. allies, his fondness for authoritarian leaders, his willingness to sow doubt about the United States’ commitment to its NATO allies, and his generally erratic behavior undermined U.S. credibility and respect across the globe. But just seven months into the administration of President Joe Biden, the United States’ abrupt, disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan further damaged the rest of the world’s confidence in Washington.

For years, U.S. diplomacy has neglected much of the global South, the central front for nonmilitary competition with China and Russia. The United States’ ambassadorships are disproportionately left vacant in this part of the world. Beginning in 2022, after years of neglect, the United States scrambled to revive its relationships with Pacific island nations—but only after China had taken advantage of Washington’s absence to sign security and economic agreements with these countries. The competition with China and even Russia for markets and influence is global. The United States cannot afford to be absent anywhere.

The military also pays a price for American political dysfunction — particularly in Congress. Every year since 2010, Congress has failed to approve appropriations bills for the military before the start of the next fiscal year. Instead, legislators have passed a “continuing resolution,” which allows the Pentagon to spend no more money than it did the previous year and prohibits it from starting anything new or increasing spending on existing programs. These continuing resolutions govern defense spending until a new appropriations bill can be passed, and they have lasted from a few weeks to an entire fiscal year. The result is that each year, imaginative new programs and initiatives go nowhere for an unpredictable period.

To ensure that Washington is in the strongest possible position to deter its adversaries from making additional strategic miscalculations, U.S. leaders must first address the breakdown in the decades-long bipartisan agreement with respect to the United States’ role in the world. It is not surprising that after 20 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Americans wanted to turn inward, especially given the United States’ many problems at home. But it is the job of political leaders to counter that sentiment and explain how the country’s fate is inextricably bound up in what happens elsewhere. President Franklin Roosevelt once observed that “the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate.” But recent presidents, along with most members of Congress, have utterly failed in this essential responsibility.

It is not just one Oval Office address or speech on the floor of Congress that is needed. Rather, a drumbeat of repetition is required for the message to sink in. Beyond regularly communicating to the American people directly, and not through spokespersons, the president needs to spend time over drinks and dinners and in small meetings with members of Congress and the media making the case for the United States’ leadership role. Then, given the fragmented nature of modern-day communications, members of Congress need to carry the message to their constituents across the country.

Restoring public support for U.S. global leadership is the highest priority, but the United States must take other steps to actually exercise that role. First, it needs to go beyond “pivoting” to Asia. Strengthening relationships with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and other countries in the region is necessary but not sufficient. China and Russia are working together against U.S. interests on every continent. Washington needs a strategy for dealing with the entire world — particularly in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, where the Russians and the Chinese are fast outpacing the United States in developing security and economic relationships. This strategy ought not to divide the world into democracies and authoritarians. The United States must always advocate for democracy and human rights everywhere, but that commitment must not blind Washington to the reality that U.S. national interests sometimes require it to work with repressive, unrepresentative governments.

China and Russia think the future belongs to them. For all the tough rhetoric coming from the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch about pushing back against these adversaries, there is surprisingly little action. Too often, new initiatives are announced, only for funding and actual implementation to move slowly or fail to materialize altogether. Talk is cheap, and no one in Washington seems ready to make the urgent changes needed. That is especially puzzling, since at a time of bitter partisanship and polarization in Washington, Xi and Putin have managed to forge impressive, if fragile, bipartisan support among policymakers for a strong U.S. response to their aggression. The Executive Branch and Congress have a rare opportunity to work together to back up their rhetoric about countering China and Russia with far-reaching actions that make the United States a significantly more formidable adversary and might help deter war.

Even in the best of worlds — one in which the U.S. government had a supportive public, energized leaders, and a coherent strategy — these adversaries would pose a formidable challenge. But the domestic scene today is far from orderly: the American public has turned inward; Congress has descended into bickering, incivility, and brinkmanship; and successive presidents have either disavowed or done a poor job explaining America’s global role. To contend with such powerful, risk-prone adversaries, the United States needs to up its game in every dimension. Only then can it hope to deter Xi and Putin from making more bad bets. The peril is real.


… Everything has its time and comes to an end. America is indeed too weak inside to be strong outside. Mr. Gates perfectly understands the situation. But it is not the “formidable adversaries” who are to blame, it is the changing world refusing to live by American rules.


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