Kerry, Congress Agree: Superpower Status Not What It Was

Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on one thing yesterday: Being a superpower isn’t what it used to be.

At a hearing on the U.S. State Department budget, Republicans and Democrats alike raised concerns about America’s limited ability to cope with global challenges, from Russian aggression in Ukraine to Iran’s nuclear program, China’s assertiveness in the Pacific and Syria’s civil war.

While some Republicans blamed the administration for decisions that they say have eroded U.S. influence, Kerry pointed to a “changed world.”

“The United States has power, enormous power,” he said, “but we can’t necessarily always dictate every outcome the way we want, particularly in this world where we have rising economic powers -- China, India, Mexico, Korea, Brazil, many other people who are players.”

The two-hour Senate hearing was only one place where lawmakers and others challenged President Barack Obama’s foreign policy yesterday. The jousting underscored the U.S. struggle to defend its global interests and allies as technology and the diffusion of economic and military power erode its post-Cold War position as the lone superpower.

Halfway around the world, Chinese Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the U.S. rebalancing to Asia won’t contain China or affect its claims to territory in the region. “With the latest developments in China, it can never be contained,” he said.

‘Beef Up’

On Capitol Hill, members of the House Armed Services Committee pushed administration officials to provide the Ukrainian military with more than Meals Ready to Eat, and Republicans introduced legislation that they said would “beef up” the U.S. posture on Ukraine. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee blamed the administration’s Syria policy for Lebanon’s current instability.

The Senate committee’s top Republican, Robert Corker of Tennessee, said administration decisions, particularly Obama’s failure to follow through on threats to conduct a military strike on Syria, have eroded U.S. influence.

People in both parties “are very concerned about U.S. credibility,” Corker told Kerry. “If things don’t change, you, in effect, could be presiding over a period of time when more U.S. credibility is lost than anyone could have imagined, and a time when the world is becoming less safe as a result.”

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, was blunter, telling Kerry that his diplomatic quests -- Middle East peace, Syria peace talks, negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program - - “are finished.”

Lone Superpower

Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat who was under secretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008 and U.S. ambassador to NATO before that, said there was a “brief moment after the end of the Cold War” when the U.S. “was pretty much the only power in the world that was capable of acting globally.”

With the rise of China and other powers, the U.S. remains “chairman of the board” as the strongest nation in the world, Burns, now a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in a telephone interview. “But we have to talk things through; we have to achieve consensus; we have to act through coalitions. We can’t just dictate to the world. Those days are well in the past when we could do that.”

Kerry similarly argued that the changing global dynamics and the realities of a budget-strapped, war-weary America mean diplomacy must be fully explored.

‘Contrived Crisis’

Even as Russia worked to create what Kerry called a “contrived crisis with paid operatives” in eastern Ukraine, the top U.S. diplomat said he’ll meet next week for talks with officials from Russia, the European Union, and Ukraine. “We owe it to ourselves and to everybody to exhaust the possible remedies that the diplomatic process might provide,” he said.

The administration has dealt with many of the challenges by pursuing partnerships to help contain or diffuse threats, from bolstering Asian alliances to creating contact groups to cope with Middle East instability.

The need for international teamwork limits the U.S.’s ability to act unilaterally, and Kerry suggested that in spite of the lawmakers’ rhetoric, there’s little appetite for more aggressive unilateral action.

When Corker highlighted administration inaction in Syria as the Islamic extremist presence there grew, Kerry replied: “But what was the plan to not have that happen, senator? I didn’t notice Congress racing to the barriers saying we’re going to do something.”

Crimea Reluctance

Kerry also challenged the senators on Crimea, saying, “I don’t know anybody in the United States of America who said we ought to go to war over Crimea.” He then asked, “Is there any member of this committee who believes that? I don’t think so.”

The people calling for more muscular action on Ukraine, said Harvard’s Burns, “ought to look back to August 2008, when a very tough-minded American president -- no one ever accused him of being a shrinking violet -- George W. Bush essentially followed the same strategy that President Obama is following now. We’re not going to go to war over a Georgia or Ukraine.”

Kerry pointed to the “21st Century tools” he said the U.S. is using. In Russia’s case, they include the threat of expanded “sector sanctions” on its banking, mining, and arms industries that Kerry said would damage its economy.

“Sure, there are problems in different parts of the world,” Kerry told a Republican questioner. “There’s greater sectarianism, greater religious extremism, greater radical Islam presence in various places. You’re going to dump all of that on the United States of America -- I mean, please. This is a complicated world, my friend.”

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