Opinion

An American decline would undermine global security

Adversaries and allies alike should remember the unique role of the US in keeping the world safe and prosperous – and help out.

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The great recession, mounting debt, military burdens, overconsumption. From New York to Beijing to Paris, there is talk, sometimes jubilant in tone, that the United States is on the decline. Some have even said that it's about time.

The truth is, if the US declines, who else could take on the tremendous world role? No one.

Rather than jeering, the rest of the world should consider just how much the US does, and step up support for it. The security of the world is at stake.

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The US has played a critical role in the Persian Gulf since Britain withdrew in 1971. Without a regional protector, regional crises would cause oil prices to spike, creating economic shocks around the world. Indeed, the most serious oil shocks have come when US capability in the region was weak (consider the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1980 eruption of the Iran-Iraq war).

Washington's role is also critical for Middle East peace. Israel is very strong, but a strain of its national psyche remains massively insecure. If Israel were to perceive American weakness, it would compensate by refusing to make serious concessions for peace.

In Asia, Washington helps preempt a dangerous arms race. Understandably, the US wants Japan to fund more of its own costly defense. A weakening America would likely cause Japan to increase defense spending well beyond its norm of 1 percent of gross domestic product. That could trigger a runaway Asian arms race that hurts world security.

The world also benefits from the US-led fight against terrorism, the invasion of Iraq aside. America leads the world in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the world.

The US also works hard to fight nuclear proliferation. The United Nations Security Council does not want a nuclear-armed Iran. Nor do most countries in the region. If the Iran nuclear standoff ends peacefully, it will be in part because Iran fears sustained US-led pressure. US credibility and strength are crucial here, as they are in containing North Korea.

Economically, Washington has promoted free trade. Since the 1947 Marshall Plan, America has run trade deficits and yielded economic benefits to others so as to bolster the global economy and stay trade wars – a critical role.

Then there is the question of who will help ensure stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Iran has claimed that it can protect the region, but many Arab countries and other nations don't trust it. And Arab countries have repeatedly failed to develop the military force to protect the region. Europeans currently lack the force projection and the will to do the job.

If the US declines, what countries could play these global roles?

Of course, the US isn't perfect. In order to merit support, it must be multilateral in a globalized world and must accommodate rising powers. Certainly, Washington needs to make sure to be consistent in consulting and enlisting other nations before it hatches big plans. And then there is the fact that asking other countries to support the US is wrapped in politics.

Yet, if the rest of the world doesn't step up and support America's overburdened and undersupported shoulders, global security could diminish exponentially.

Here are three examples of what other countries could do to help lift the US burden:

1. Beijing should leverage its influence with Pakistan. If China could put pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting the Afghan Taliban facing US-led forces through its intelligence services, that could be just the right amount of pressure to force Pakistan to act. Deservedly, China is becoming a great power and should start supporting major global efforts.

2. Many of America's allies play important roles in Afghanistan, but all should contribute significantly more troops, nonmilitary personnel, and money. They also have much to lose from failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

3. As many countries as possible should back US-led threats of tougher sanctions and the threat of force in Iran, especially given recent revelations of Iran's secret nuclear facility near Qom. At a minimum, China should cancel any existing contracts to provide Iran with gasoline – contracts that may embolden Tehran. Without serious threats, Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear option, and a military showdown will be likely.

Bolstering America makes far more sense for world security in the 21st century than hoping for its decline or undermining it.

Steve Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University and is the author of "Crude Awakenings" and "The Absence of Grand Strategy."

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