The United States finds itself in an increasingly hostile world. Still the world's only superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago, America seems beset by challenges and threats on all sides, no longer able to exert the influence it did just a few decades ago. Reports of the decline of American prestige and influence around the world are becoming more and more common.
Like it or not, the evidence is piling up. Following nearly a decade of struggle in Iraq that had that nation nearly stabilized, U.S. President Barack Obama followed the wishes of an increasingly war-weary public and withdrew all U.S. troops. Into that power vacuum flowed a devastating new threat—formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS and now called simply the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared a new Islamic caliphate based on Muslim sharia law (see "Islamic Caliphate Declared: What Does It Mean?").
Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki ignores American advice to broaden his government in an effort to avert disaster. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai thumbs his nose at U.S. calls for a new security pact. China's leaders tell America to get lost when it tries to intervene in disputes between China and Japan over small islands in the South China Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin laughs at feeble U.S. economic sanctions following its annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine.
With problems seeming to careen out of control on all sides, where does the nation turn for advice? Who could advise the president and Congress on the best foreign policy path to take?
Advice from two leading diplomats
Two recent books by leading foreign policy experts attempt to offer helpful advice. Both authors, Zbignew Brzezinski and Richard Haass, served in key foreign policy roles in recent U.S. presidential administrations, and both experienced major international challenges and crises.
Brzezinski, who was national security advisor under President Jimmy Carter, warns in his 2012 book Strategic Vision, America and the Crisis of Global Power, of the dangerous and fragmented world that will result if the United States ceases exercising leadership.
He spotlights two major shifts that threaten world stability. First, the dramatic shift in the world's center of gravity from the West to the East has directed attention away from America and Europe to the Asia-Pacific arena. Second, what he calls the deterioration of American performance both domestically and nationally presents a major challenge to American interests and the geopolitical stability of the world. America, he writes, must get out ahead of this crisis while it still can.
The first section of his book carries the ominous title, "The Receding West." Brzezinski states that "the long-lasting political domination of the world by the West has been fading for some decades" (p. 7), and it's happened despite the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, which left America as the major global power.
The past 20 years, he says, have not been good to either the United States or Europe. "Few now expect the European Union to emerge as a serious global player while America's preeminent global status seems tenuous," he states (p. 8).
And yet, as a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out, the threats to America are not so much from emerging powers. Says Journal columnist Bret Stephens: "Here's something else that's strange: American pre-eminence isn't being challenged by emerging powers. The challenge comes from an axis of weakness. Russia is a declining power. China is an insecure one. Groups like ISIS and other al Qaeda offshoots are technologically primitive and comparatively weak. Iran is a Third World country trying to master 70-year-old technology" ("The Post-Pax Americana World," July 7, 2014).
In other words, a still-strong America is being challenged by weak nations everywhere!
America still has major strengths, Brzezinski writes, which include its place as the world's leading economy. Its Gross Domestic Product of more than $16 trillion still accounts for nearly 25 percent of world output.
Brzezinski points to other U.S. strengths —an entrepreneurial culture that spawns constant new discoveries and innovations, superior universities that attract some of the best students from around the world, a strong demographic base not overly skewed to the aged or very young. (And of course America still has vast military resources.)
But despite these strengths, Brzezinski sees major challenges for America. He calls for the United States to take the lead in forging a "greater and broader" unity of the West, a Europe that would include both Turkey and Russia, which would act as a bulwark against what he sees are long-range threats from the Eurasian continent.
We proceed next to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations since July 2003, who was also director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and special assistant to President George H.W. Bush. In his 2013 book Foreign Policy Begins at Home, Haass argues for a reversal of the foreign policy that has evolved over the present and previous administrations.
Decades of foreign policy experience have convinced him that the United States is on a dangerous and unsustainable track in its dealings with other nations.
Challenges posed by a rapidly rising China, a nuclear Iran, North Korean saber rattling and continued Middle East turbulence must be dealt with. While stopping short of saying that America is in decline, he says the nation is overextended and calls for a "more discriminating" foreign policy that takes a more pragmatic look at what the country can and should seek to do in its relationship with other nations.
Based on this assessment, he calls for less emphasis on the Middle East and reduced commitment to the types of wars that have sapped American strength and treasure. It would be better, he argues, to devote more attention to the Asia-Pacific region, home to more than 60 percent of the world's population. A China beginning to flex its economic and military muscle and a dangerous North Korea, he argues, demand more U.S. attention and resources.
Haass admits that where he departs the most from the foreign policy establishment is his prescription for America. The theme of his book is American restoration, wherein he calls for a redirection of resources away from international challenges and towards rebuilding America at home. As he puts it, "Restoration is not just about doing less or acting more discriminately abroad; to the contrary, it is even more about doing the right things at home" (p. 121).
Haass delivers a stinging rebuke over the huge U.S. national debt, now nearly $17 trillion, and points to the rise in entitlements, the costs of the Iraq and Afghan wars, and the huge $787 billion federal stimulus of 2009 as the main culprits. The debt already threatens American competitiveness, and he warns that "the United States will be forced to eat its seed corn to pay for its past and present" (p. 124).
While various problems facing the country such as poor overall educational achievement, crumbling infrastructure and lackluster economic growth must be addressed, the debt can be catastrophic and must be dealt with immediately. "The world," he says, "is looking for a signal that the United States has the political will and ability to make hard choices" (ibid.).
What is truly remarkable is the degree to which these experts agree on America's problems as well as proposed solutions. Both see China as a threat, although Haass is more optimistic about the long-range prospects for coexistence. Both agree that the growing nuclear threat posed by Iran must be removed, by force if necessary. Both call for a revitalized Europe, although Brzezinski ties that to a pan-European and Russian super-confederation that would be the main force working with America to promote peace and stability.
Perhaps most significantly, they recognize the clear and present danger of a United States that seems to be lying down on the job, lacking the will to exercise leadership that seems almost divinely ordained.
The missing element—reliance on God
America would do well to follow the advice of these experts whose combined experience provides a vision for the nation's continuing role in a dangerous world. But both are missing the key piece of advice that would give the United States the will and strength to turn itself around.
What they do not realize is that America has turned its back on the very God who gave America (and earlier the British Empire) tremendous power and wealth. For years this magazine has revealed the amazing fact that America's national wealth, greatness and world influence are the result of blessings given to the biblical patriarch Abraham and his descendants millennia ago. (To learn more about the details, download or request our free study guide The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy.)
Brzezinski cites the worth of an America that stands as an example to the world—one that is, as he states in his introduction, "economically vital, socially appealing, responsibly powerful, strategically deliberate, internationally respected, and historically enlightened."
All very true, but another element needs to be added: America should be the proper moral example to the nations!
Beginning in the early 20th century, the United States came to be seen as the major force for stability and peace in the world. With the background of its Judeo-Christian ethic, America's leaders called for national days of prayer in the face of domestic or international crises. Former U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt, recognized that the nation should seek God's wisdom and His will for guidance.
America and the world recently commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Many historians overlook the fact that President Franklin Roosevelt led the nation in prayer that day, asking for God's intervention as the huge invasion force prepared to embark across the English Channel.
We would do well to remember the example of Solomon when he was newly crowned as king of Israel. He asked not for riches or wealth from God, but for the wisdom to serve as a wise ruler. Notice his prayer: "Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king . . . But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties . . . So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?" (1 Kings 3:7-9, New International Version).
A nation that has turned its back on God is seeing God turn His back on it.
So the question becomes: Will the United States return to the Source of its blessings? Will its people turn from the pursuit of lawlessness and seek help from the One who could make the difference?
Expert diplomats may offer sound insights into what America needs to do in this present crisis. But national repentance would lead to God providing the will and the strength to do what needs to be done!