Earlier this month, Flynt gave a public lecture at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs and Dickinson School of Law, where he teaches. His presentation was entitled “Energy, Economics, and the Lost Art of Grand Strategy: American Policy Toward the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia in the 21st Century,” and can be seen here.
In this lecture, Flynt makes a number of points that should be of interest to those who care about Iran and its geopolitics, including its vexed relationship with the United States. He argues (and is hardly alone in making the point) that “if one considers where America was 20 years ago and compares that to where the United States is today, in terms of its ability to achieve its own stated, high-priority objectives in the world, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the United States is a declining power.” It is declining “because, since the end of the Cold War, American political and policy elites have failed to do their job as strategists. They have failed to define clear, ‘reality-based’ strategic goals and to relate the diplomatic, economic, and military tools at Washington’s disposal to realizing these goals in a sober and efficacious manner.” (This is “the lost art of grand strategy” referred to in the lecture’s title.)
Flynt holds that “over the past several decades, American policy has been pulled in opposite directions by two competing models of what is the optimal grand strategy for the United States.” On one side, there is a “global leadership model, whereby the United States seeks to maximize its international standing and influence through adroit management of regional and global power balances and through the creation of what economists would call public goods for its allies and for others that it wants to draw into more cooperative relationships.” (The definitive modern example of adroitly managing the balance of power through diplomacy, in keeping with this model, is the U.S. opening to the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s.)
On the other side, there is a “global transformation model, whereby the United States seeks not to manage the balance of power but to transcend it, by becoming a hegemon, in key regions of the world and globally…In the post-Cold War period, this model has helped to drive a plethora of bad policy choices by the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations.”
To return to the earlier point about American decline, the chief reason why American policy is failing “is because, since the end of the Cold War, the global transformation model has gained almost complete ascendancy over the global leadership model in American policy circles.” This is seriously problematic because champions of the transformation model—whether neoconservatives on the right or liberal internationalists on the left, refuse to accept, as Flynt says in the lecture,
“a lesson that balance of power theorists and foreign policy realists, even those of, as John Mearsheimer refers to himself, the offensive realist variety, all know: that, while hegemony might seem nice to have in theory, in the real world it is unattainable. Even a state as powerful as the United States coming out of the Cold War can’t do it. And, even more importantly, the pursuit of hegemony, in the face of objective, material reality, is not just quixotic—it is deeply counter-productive for a great power’s strategic position. It inevitably overstretches a great power’s resources…and inevitably sparks resistance and counter-balancing behavior from others. Pursuing hegemony actually ends up making you weaker. And that is the story of American foreign policy over the last 20 years or so.”
Flynt then looks at American policy toward the Persian Gulf (and the Middle East more broadly) and rising Asia (with an emphasis on China) to see how the failure to internalize this timeless lesson is propelling the United States to the brink of strategic failure. Flynt’s colleague, Amy Gaudion, gives him a beautiful introduction but for viewers who want to cut straight to his presentation, go to 9:45 into the video. And, for those who want to cut to the substance of his presentation, go to 12:15 into the video.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett