The Search for a New Global Balance: America’s Changing Role in the World

Over the course of the program, the participants met multiple times in working groups in order to focus on select cross-cutting themes, including the impact of social media on the conduct of foreign relations, discussion of the readings from the Nye and Bremmer books, and the role of the US in world affairs. Many of the takeaways from the working groups are reflected in the preceding sections. What follows is a brief review of the group reports.

Social Media and Foreign Relations

The groups noted that most of the “evidence” was based on anecdotal examples and participants’ impressions generally segmented based on age and level of familiarity/comfort with social media. Participants who see social media as a generally positive development, were optimistic about its role in the conduct of foreign relations. They noted that it allows much more interaction between government representatives and populations, enabling the creation of feedback loops for policymakers and unfiltered communication directly to populations they are seeking to reach. It also helps to enable specific events to affect public opinion and policy decisions directly. One example provided was the photograph of the dead child on the Turkish shore that went viral and caused a public outcry across Europe to do more to address the refugee crisis. Another example was the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that used social media to bring more citizens to the streets and raise the profile of issues of income inequality in the US. The flip side, however, was also cited, with examples such as ISIS/Daesh using social media to simultaneously spread fear and recruit new combatants. Some said social media can cause confusion when individual politicians react over social media or adopt an opinion that people conflate with an official government position.

(Left to right) Edith Chapin, Oleg Ivanov, Wang Dong and Matthew Tracy

Participants who were either less comfortable with, or more suspicious of, social media tended to see its effects less positively. The speed of delivery via social media can be both positive and negative. It can help hold governments accountable, but it can also result in overly simplified responses, or a “dumbing down” of complex issues. It can provide a multitude of new resources for information, but can also be manipulated to spread propaganda and misinformation. It can help spread democratic movements, but can also be used by governments to increase surveillance on citizens. And although, in theory, it creates options for dialogue between policymakers and the public, it continues to be used more as a one-way communications tool. While public opinion influences foreign policy decisions, participants generally felt that those decisions are still largely State-driven. And to the degree that social media does impact the decision-making process, it may ultimately be more negative than positive in that it demands quicker responses and more reactive decisions from leaders, instead of thoughtful analysis and careful strategic problem solving.

Two things resounded clearly. First, the participants felt that social media is a “double-edged sword,” which brings both positive and negative impacts. Second, while it is an important tool altering how governments interact with domestic and foreign populations, it doesn’t necessarily change the basis for foreign policy decision making.

Discussion of Is the American Century Over? and Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World

The groups observed that there is no “blueprint” to which Obama can refer in dealing with foreign policy. Generally, participants agreed that the US is less able to project its power on the world and noted that in terms of domestic politics, it seems that conservatives are more concerned about perceptions of “respect” in the international arena. They suggested that it is not possible to reify decline and that there is no concrete way to measure decline in a meaningful way. Certain notions that are used tend to focus on GDP or military strength, but these are poor stand-ins for understanding whether a country can actually solve a given problem. As has been observed, no state has ever been able to solve all crises on its own. This led to discussion of distinctions between power and influence. Participants reflected that under George W. Bush, soft power declined and more emphasis was placed on hard power, and under Barack Obama, there has been an effort to reinvigorate soft power with “smart power” and to reduce military deployments. Yet, it seems to have made little difference to the desirability of America as an ally. People may be more or less disillusioned with America and may be more or less frustrated with American policies and practices, but it is rare that any country, or group, ultimately discounts America’s role. Even so, participants also underscored how vitally important American soft power is in terms of its appeal to the international community. Even though its effectiveness cannot be measured, there was a strong inclination to continue to invest in soft power. In fact, some suggested that only when other rising powers, in particular China, start investing in more soft power tools is there a chance of really challenging US dominance.

They noted that the texts referred to in the session were intended to, and did, provoke reflection on important issues. They also noted that the choices as presented were far too complex to be analyzed in distinct terms.

Working group discussions in the Max Reinhardt Library

The Role of the US in World Affairs

The groups returned more diverse views on this topic. Some decided that even if there is a perceived decline in US power, it is not a real decline, and may be more cyclical in nature. Others noted that the US has not always been considered a global power; it is a really a post-WWII occurrence. Even if its prominence is declining, that should not be of grave concern. It was also observed that the rise of other powers is beneficial to global balance if conflict is avoided. The groups also debated whether more American intervention in global affairs was desirable or not, and whether Americans would support more American activity abroad. They acknowledged the reality that even if domestic concerns draw attention away from international affairs, there is no question that America would take action if there is a perceived security threat. They discussed four possible roles that they see for America in the world:

Benign Hegemon

While this could be cast as a noble role, intervening to maintain international security or for humanitarian reasons, this is closely associated with colonial intentions and participants felt should be rejected.

Status Quo Leader

Participants observed that global chaos and insecurity increases if American leadership is absent. This role would be welcomed, if the majority of the international community provides interventions crafted in consultation with key stakeholders and if the US adopts the role of “honest broker.”

Multipolar Leadership

While this role might sound appealing, participants noted that it is not feasible. There are too many competing interests and concerns that other leading countries would do more to limit freedoms rather than support them. There was also a feeling that it would not, ultimately, assist global problem solving, with participants pointing to the UN Security Council as an example of how multipolar approaches often stymie problem solving.

Region-led Leadership with American Global Role

In this scenario, participants envisioned more active and effective regional alliances that could focus on regional problem solving without US direct intervention. There was no concern that America might become isolationist because its role will continue to be indispensable for the foreseeable future. But it would envision a reality of America investing more focus domestically, while still being an important balancing presence in the world.

Ultimately, the group recommended that the US maintain a leadership role, but focus more on interdependence and acknowledge the interests of others as well as its own interests. They also noted that the US is likely to continue to swing between “rivals,” namely China and Russia, collaborating on certain strategic concerns and competing on others. They suggested that global stability requires that America maintain a leadership role, but also that the US stand behind its stated values and not give “lip service” only to them while acting in ways that contradict the rhetoric.

Fellows, faculty, and staff of the 13th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) The Search for a New Global Balance: America’s Changing Role in the World

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This article is part of a report written on a session held by Salzburg Global Seminar in September 2015, with approximately 60 academics, journalists, political analysts and advisors gathered in Salzburg, Austria for the 13th Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) program The Search for a New Global Balance: America’s Changing Role in the World to reflect on and debate where America is headed, where they, representing 27 diverse countries from five continents, think it should go, whether it should lead or follow, and what impact these decisions have on the rest of the world.

To read the officially published session report, visit: https://issuu.com/salzburgglobal/docs/salzburgglobal_report_ssasa13/1