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Global Politics: America’s Anxiety of Influence – by Stephen Walt

David Ignatius at the Washington Post recently published an interesting column ruing the decline of U.S. “influence” in the Middle East. His central theme is that U.S. “disengagement” from the region is allowing local actors to chart their own courses, and that many of them are now making bad decisions.

In his view, the prospects for positive change in the region are receding and that we will all be worse off as a result.

It’s a thoughtful column and worth reading. It’s also a revealing one, because it rests on one of those unspoken assumptions that are articles of faith in the U.S. foreign-policy community. Specifically, it suggests that U.S. influence is always a good thing and that its diminution (whether by accident or by design) is something to mourn.

But if you’ve been paying attention to the results of U.S. policy over the past quarter-century—especially in the Middle East but also in some other places—that position may not be the hill you want to die defending.

Look, it’s easy to understand why American foreign-policy elites like having lots of “influence.” To some degree it’s unavoidable. The United States is still the 800-pound gorilla in the international system and other global actors will inevitably pay close attention to whatever Uncle Sam is doing. For foreign-policy practitioners, having lots of influence and being fully engaged is also a heady experience; it means foreign governments will take your calls, treat you with deference and respect when you visit, and sometimes they follow your advice (or at least pretend to). If you’re in the foreign-policy business, it’s a helluva a lot more gratifying to represent the United States than to be out there pitching on behalf of a small or weak country whose voice does not carry.

To be clear: I understand why our foreign-policy elites worry (constantly!) about declining U.S. influence, and I can even see how that might be a bad thing in some circumstances. But we ought to recognize that “influence” is insufficient by itself and in some cases is counterproductive. Excessive U.S. influence leaves us performing missions we don’t know how to do (such as creating workable political institutions in radically different societies), allows local actors to blame us for their own failings, fuels conspiracy theories at home and abroad, and distracts U.S. officials from other problems that they might actually know how to solve. In some regions—and the Middle East would be high on my list—less U.S. influence might be more. Given all the success we’ve had trying to manage that region, maybe we’d be better off letting somebody else try. They could hardly do worse.

Moving in that direction will require a major change in the mindset of the U.S. foreign-policy elite. For too long, its members believed the United States was in fact the “indispensable nation,” and that the solution to all (or at least most) global problems had to be made in Washington. Students of management are often taught that effective leadership also requires learning how to delegate responsibility, because no single person has the power, knowledge, and wisdom to do everything. What is true for individual leaders is true for leading nations: learning how to offload problems onto others is in fact a consummate strategic skill. As long as Americans view influence as an inherent end, and as a resource to be hoarded like gold, we’re going to find ourselves overcommitted and be much less effective than we could be. As President Harry Truman supposedly said, “it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets credit.”

Henceforth, Americans should worry rather less about the level of influence their country enjoys—and, relax, it will continue to dwarf that of most other countries—and worry a lot more about how that influence is being used. And guess what? If U.S. officials did a better job of selecting the right goals and actually achieving them, they would quickly find their influence growing; then, the number of problems they would then have deal with might shrink, instead of growing like kudzu or crabgrass in the warm summer sun.

Read the full report: America’s Anxiety of Influence – Foreign Policy

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