No, Syria Is Not Proof Of American Decline

Obama and Putin meet on the sidelines of the 2013 G-8 Summit CREDIT: KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS
Obama and Putin meet on the sidelines of the 2013 G-8 Summit CREDIT: KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS

Here are a few things that are still true after President Obama’s much-mocked deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Syria’s chemical weapons:

  • The United States, which houses about 4 percent of the world population, accounts for 39 percent of global military spending. America’s military spending matches at least the next ten biggest spenders put together.
  • America and its formal allies spend around 75 percent of the world’s world’s military dollars. That number is projected to fall to a historic low by 2015 — a still whopping 60 percent.
  • 148 countries (75 percent of all nations) play host to American troops. American foreign bases house by far the most technologically advanced ground, naval, air, and unmanned forces in human history.
  • US GDP is about twice that of its nearest competitor, China. A recent slowdown in Chinese economic growth suggests Beijing may not catch Washington until the 2100s.
  • International institutions — the U.N., the IMF, the World Bank — all work to make the rest of the world OK with the American-led order by providing tangible benefits, like free trade on the high seas and means for states to resolve disagreements peacefully.

But forget all of that, says the Beltway foreign policy cognoscenti. American power is in free-fall because Obama didn’t lob a few cruise missiles at Assad.

“We may look back on last week and see [a threshold moment that] signaled growing American weakness,” wrote The Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith. Progressive Policy Institute President Will Marshall wondered if the United States could “be facing its own ‘east of Suez’ moment,” a reference to the 1956 Suez Canal crisis that many see as marking the end of Britain’s imperial global role. The normally sober Timothy Garton Ash penned a funereal dirge on the occasion of America’s death as “the indispensable anchor of some kind of liberal international order.”

This is all nonsense. Let’s put aside for a moment that President Obama got what he wanted — an agreement to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles — without firing a shot. The fact remains that American power and the American-led global system won’t be affected in the slightest by what we do in Syria. Anyone who tells you otherwise badly misunderstands the nature of our current international order.


The numbers I ran through at the beginning give the most obvious lie to the “Syria = decline” thesis. American global influence is built on a deep foundation of military, economic, and political power. Put simply, the U.S. has way more of each than anyone else. The foundations of this power gap are things like a larger and more technologically advanced military, a massively productive economy, and a deep web of alliances and privileged American positions in international institutions. This robust grounding doesn’t magically disappear because Obama made nice with Putin (and no, don’t step to me about “credibility.”)

Of course, there’s a lively debate about whether untrammeled American power is, in fact, in decline. Smart, deeply well-informed people disagree about this question. But the reasons why America might be waning — say, the rise of China and India or the aftershocks of the Great Recession — have nothing to do with Syria. The deep structure of global politics won’t be affected by the outcome of the civil war in Syria.

The flipside of this fundamental truth is that talk of “empowering Putin” is equally deluded. Russia is unlikely to gain or lose major allies as a consequence of its Syria position. No country’s view of its relations with Russia will change because of the deal. Militarily, its best-case scenario — Assad holds on and Russia keeps its naval base at Tartus — merely returns Russia to its pre-war position. The conflict won’t affect the Russian economy. Nothing about this deal, in short, strengthens Russia’s hard or soft power hand.

But isn’t the Syria deal a sign that America is “no longer interested in leading?” That “isolationism” is winning out over “internationalism” in the domestic political fight?

Not hardly. There’ve been a slew of humanitarian crises that the United States has chosen not to intervene in, for good or for ill. And the U.S. has historically backed down from using military force to solve international crises all the time, even at the zenith of its post-Cold War Power.


This occasional American unwillingness to fight wars is a feature of the American-led global order, not a bug. Princeton professor G. John Ikenberry, one of the sharpest theorists of American global strategy, pegs the U.S. as engaging in a deliberate tactic called “strategic restraint.”

Strategic restraint, for Ikenberry, means that the U.S. accepts limitations on its power imposed by institutions like the U.N. as part of an implicit deal with the rest of the world. “You guys accept that we’ll be the leading military and political power,” the American government says, “and we’ll make sure to follow most of the same rules about fighting wars as you do.”

The Syria deal is just the sort of thing Ikenberry’s theory would predict. If the U.S. turned to its military every time it needed a problem solve, it would undermine the implicit deal with the rest of the world, not to mention bankrupt itself.

Maintaining the American ability to effectively and legitimately intervene in some conflicts, as it did in Libya a scant two years ago, requires non-intervention in others. Restraint isn’t antithetical to American leadership; it’s part and parcel of preserving it.

“The world wants the United States to act as a Great Power,” screams Edward Luttwak’s lede in the Washington Post, “but Americans decline the honor.” Luttwak’s article appeared on the front page of the Post’s Outlook section — on June 26th, 1994, bemoaning President Clinton and America’s reticence in “Korea, Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia.” We know, given the Bush administration’s willy-nilly interventionism, just how ridiculous Luttwak’s prediction was. Today’s Luttwaks saying the same about Syria will likely prove just as silly.