In 1994, during a brief stint in the National Intelligence Council as director of its Analytic Group, I was involved in the first of the “Global Trends” exercises, organized by the then-chairman of the NIC, Joe Nye. (The “Global Trends 2010” report was published in early 1997 under the chairmanship of Dick Cooper.) In an essay that I wrote for the project (and later published in a book of mine called At the End of the American Century), I described a world that would remain militarily unipolar, with no power or group of powers capable of matching the global reach of the US, but with a tripolar distribution of economic power among North America, Europe, and East Asia. Beneath the level of these familiar yardsticks of national power, moreover, I saw not the concentration of power but its diffusion among supranational, subnational and transnational actors beyond the control of any government.
I looked back on that essay a decade later in a speech I gave in April 2003, shortly after I became NIC Chairman and three weeks after the invasion of Iraq. In the speech, I acknowledged that some of my earlier judgments had been overtaken by events; others were just plain wrong. But the core argument, I contended, was still valid: “At a time when the spectacular performance of our armed forces in Iraq may tempt us to see power in predominantly military terms, it is worth recalling that our preponderance is not so great in other areas and that we continue to live in an interdependent world. We can’t wage the war on terrorism by ourselves, and we can’t bomb the global economy into submission. Our smart bombs aren’t that smart.”
The subtext of both the essay and the speech was that the “unipolar moment” was a dangerous illusion that would tempt us to vastly overestimate our real power and our ability to bend world events to our liking. In a couple of other speeches I gave that year as NIC Chairman, I spoke – a bit more recklessly – about “the problem of American power,” which “may tempt us to take on more than we can handle, simply because there is nothing to stop us from doing so.”
Now, with the passage of another decade and chastened by our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, we seem to have lurched in the other direction and are now underestimating our power in a kind of declinist funk. There are worrying indicators, to be sure, of declining education levels, a deteriorating American workforce, rising inequality, degraded infrastructure and many others that augur poorly for our longer-term competitiveness and vitality. Other contributors to the GT 2030 blog can comment more ably than I on those. My focus here is how those with policy responsibility think about America’s power position and how they act upon their assumptions.
It is worth pointing out that the Global Trends projects – GT 2030 is the fifth of them – were not intended to be mere intellectual exercises in thinking about the future but rather were meant as guides to action. By thinking systematically about future trends and their implications, we wanted to help policy makers at the most senior levels decide what to do right now.
Looking out to 2030 and the kinds of challenges the United States is likely to face, amassing ever more potent military power seems among the least relevant activities we might undertake. Our larger problem is that we quite literally have more power than we know what to do with.
Instead, we need to accentuate and develop the advanced skills needed to deal with constantly shifting coalitions of partners, diffuse threats to American interests coming from almost anywhere, and complex problems that are not often susceptible to “kinetic” solutions. There are encouraging signs: the Obama administration has shown itself adept at applying force strategically and selectively, and it has been wise enough to see that not every challenge merits an unconditional and unlimited American commitment.
But we as a society need to do much better at understanding other cultures, mastering the techniques of statecraft, better combining the military and non-military dimensions of our power, and better coordinating the public, private, and non-profit sectors in our complex interactions around the world.
We need better diplomats, too. For all the complex relationships we have around the world, it is striking that few American diplomats have ever taken or ever will take a course on diplomacy, strategy or statecraft. This is why (shameless self-promotion coming here) the LBJ School of Public Affairs has embarked on a major global initiative toward “Reinventing Diplomacy,” working with scholars and practitioners around the world to make the study of diplomacy better grounded in history, more comprehensive in scope and more global in outlook.
Robert Hutchings is the Dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He has previously served as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council.