Democratic strategy in new era of complexity



The US will remain indispensable to global problem-solving, provided an updated mindset, new institutions, and flexible alliances are in place, says a leading analyst.

The American government elected in 2016 will face a transforming world – one that will require strategic approaches that are markedly different from those of the last two US administrations and it will confront new challenges – such as ‘hybrid warfare’ or ‘grey conflicts’ – which are especially difficult for open, democratic, pluralist societies, according to John E. McLaughlin of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Every country has what might be called a ‘strategic culture’ – that is, the instincts at play and the means employed as the country defines and advances its interests in the world, he writes for Global Brief:

This affects everything from how countries set priorities to how they fix the balance between diplomacy and the use of force. The strategic culture of the US over the last 16 years has reflected the unusual circumstances and characters of two very different – and in some ways very unusual – administrations.

No factor influences a nation’s strategic culture more than its power relative to others – and how that power is perceived. …..But power is a slippery concept. There is military power, economic power, the power that derives from fixed things like geography and natural resources, and power connected to things that countries can control to varying degrees – population, industrial capacity, and governing systems. And then there is the newest idea, ‘soft power’ – the term devised by Harvard professor Joseph Nye to capture the influence that countries can exert by virtue of the appeal of their culture or values.

Standing against a pessimistic outlook for US power and influence, however, are a number of factors, McLaughlin adds:

  • First, the US has a strong record for renewal and adaptation. …
  • Second, no country yet rivals the global cultural appeal of the US and its closest partners….
  • Third, other countries’ receptivity to US leadership is unmatched by the appeal of any other country. …..
  • Fourth, it is still nearly impossible to solve major world problems without American involvement – although an important distinction is that the US cannot solve such problems alone.
  • Fifth, demographics will play a role. Much of the developing world is burdened with overpopulation, high unemployment, and a youth bulge. China faces a looming ageing crisis. India suffers from a marked split between haves and have-nots. The US, on the other hand, is growing at a balanced rate, has a population that is refreshed by immigration – election pyrotechnics notwithstanding – and is still a meritocracy compared with much of the world.
  • Sixth, America’s military power, while under budgetary pressure, still dwarfs the capabilities of other states. ….

Having said all of this, let us agree that the challenges of today are substantially different than those that the US has faced before, and therefore require more complex calculations from US strategists, he notes:

  • First, in the years ahead, American strategists will have to take note of much more serious competition than they have faced in the 25 years since the Soviet Union’s collapse. The relative power balance among nations is shifting, and while America seems likely to remain preeminent among nations, the margins of its lead are contracting. …
  • Second, the US will need to work even harder to defend its interests and to build coalitions in the world that is emerging…The bottom line, then, is that the world coming into view – a world of shifting power relationships among a larger constellation of countries, and sharply growing assertiveness outside US borders – is a new strategic context for the US. ….
  • Third, the US will have to live with and continue to refine techniques for dealing with the reality of what many call ‘asymmetric power’ – that is, the ability of small numbers of people to exert power dramatically in excess of their potential influence (measured in conventional terms). …
  • Fourth, the US will have to work with others to establish a consensus on what constitute the norms underlying the global order in this new era – clearly a matter of some dispute. ….And then there is the challenge to the traditional state system by the advances in the Middle East of ISIS, which has for now erased century-old borders with no certainty as to what will replace them, and indeed as to whether the states most affected – Iraq and Syria – will survive. ….
  • Finally, the US must be prepared for the geopolitical turbulence that could come from changes in something that for decades has been the ‘X factor’ in international relations – the global supply of oil.


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