On September 15, as the Wall Street crisis began, two University of Virginia professors, historian Melvyn Leffler and political scientist Jeffrey Legro, led a discussion at the University's Miller Center of Public Affairs on the topic "To Lead the World: American Strategy after the Bush Doctrine." They discussed a new book that contains contributions by a dozen prominent scholars from around the country.
These scholars differed widely in recommendations for the next president, but all made this basic assumption about the future: America will continue to be the world's most powerful country and will continue to exercise a preeminent leadership role.
The current economic crisis that stunned Wall Street and Washington is symptomatic of a deep problem that now impairs America's world influence. In short, our friends question Washington's ability to lead the global economy, and our adversaries are testing our willingness to confront their expanding influence.
Iran's defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency's request that it open its suspected nuclear weapons facilities to inspection suggests that its Revolutionary Islamic regime has no intention of succumbing to European and America pressure. It discounts the likelihood of an attack by Israeli or American forces.
Russia's behavior in Georgia, following an ill-conceived attack by Georgian troops in South Ossetia, underscores the self-confidence of President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. They calculate that Washington is so mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that it has no desire to confront Russia militarily in the Caucasus.
Similarly, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's flamboyant president, purchases large arms from Russia and speaks of a strategic relationship with Moscow. Chavez wants to expand his brand of socialism and anti-American influence throughout Latin America.
What do these countries have in common that bolsters their confidence about expanding their influence at the expense of the United States? All three are major exporters of oil and natural gas to world markets.
This financial crisis underscores the reality that America's once-vaunted economy, the underpinning of its political and economic power abroad, is in jeopardy. Reverberations are being felt around the world, as the sharp drop in the dollar's value last week and a spike in world oil prices attest.
One can debate how the United States got into this dangerous situation. Some blame it on the cost of President Bush's war on terrorism, especially the war in Iraq. Others say the country could not afford the massive tax cuts Congress approved in 2001. And others think it was ballooning federal deficits that were paid by borrowing abroad.
A historical factor, I suggest, is that Americans relaxed in the 1990s after the Cold War was won and the Soviet Union collapsed. We assumed that the world was safe, the United States had emerged as undisputed world leader, and other countries would accept American hegemony. This was wishful thinking, abetted by presidents Clinton and Bush.
The attacks of 9-11 shocked America out of its complacency, as Pearl Harbor had in 1941. If the United States did not respond forcefully, George Bush concluded, America would lose its credibility among both allies and adversaries.
We learned belatedly that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seriously strained our military forces, and that their costs far exceeded Pentagon projections. Unfortunately, few of America's allies and friends are willing to share the burden, either economically or militarily.
What can a president McCain or Obama do about America's loss of influence?
His first task is to scale back expectations about America's ability to lead, if this implies paying the bills and providing combat troops for being "the world's policeman."
A second task, flowing from the first, is to admit that America should not attempt to be the hegemonic superpower. This will entail more serious cooperation with allies and friends and making concessions to some adversaries, including Russia and Iran.
A third, perhaps most crucial, task is to greatly reduce America's reliance on foreign oil in order to curtail the growing influence of oil states like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, which have few other exports to sustain their ambitious policies. A large increase in the federal gasoline tax would be a quick, but painful, way to reduce domestic oil consumption.
Is either Barack Obama or John McCain likely to follow these policies? Probably not in the short term. But unless Americans are realistic about our dangerous economic situation and our vulnerability to foreign oil producers, this country will lose both its economic and political influence abroad, no matter how strong our military power is.
File last modified on Tuesday, 30-SEP-2008 2:36 PM EST