" "Hagel Warns Congress Against Isolationism; Renews Call For Soft Power"
" "Hagel warns that defense cuts mean trade-offs"
" "Pentagon chief Hagel tells world: US will continue to lead"
To some extent, each of those headlines is partially correct, but only Euronews expresses the big picture, while the rest only highlight details of varying and uncertain importance. The full meaning of the speech is opaque, no doubt deliberately, offering observations and omissions, hints and trial balloons, any of which may or may not be revealed to have had meaning in the long run. Taken as a whole, the speech implies no significant change (or any) in American hegemonic policy except perhaps at the margins.
"President Obama has been moving the nation off a perpetual war footing -- one in which America's priorities, policies, and relationships around the world were dominated by the response to 9/11," Hagel said, without offering any assurance that the U.S. would get off a perpetual war footing any time soon -- or ever. Instead he fretted over how the country would "transition to what comes after the post-9/11 era," which he didn't define, and didn't say was over, and didn't even describe how anyone would ever know "the post 9/11 era" was over.
Hagel offered no comprehensive analysis of the world as it is today beyond "shifting geopolitical centers of gravity, reflecting the astounding diffusion of economic power and sweeping demographic change." He didn't address how it was that such a world still had to be America-centric, since that is an intellectual assumption that goes publicly unexamined. Hagel listed various countries and regions that he said mattered, but the listing was somewhat random: he left out Russia and all of Europe, and he mentioned the "turmoil that is embroiling the Middle East" as if it had emerged surprisingly from technology and the United States had nothing to do with any of it. "Cyber activists, terrorists and criminal networks," Hagel suggests without further clarification, are all equivalent and are now on notice.
Maybe this will be the second time America can save the world?
"Not since the decade after World War II has mankind witnessed such a realignment of interests, influences, and challenges," Hagel claimed dubiously and with a remarkable grandiosity that evoked a time when the United States had actually fought "the last good war" and helped at least part of the world to rebuild in freedom, albeit often freedom to be obedient to the United States. Whatever qualifications American behavior in 1940-1952 may deserve, what is there about American behavior in 2000-2013 that is comparable in beneficence? What in this "New American Century" is likely to make anyone proud fifty years from now?
Even while viewing the world through the distorting lens of American exceptionalism, Hagel observed some factors beyond American (or any other) control: "More than 40 percent of the world's 7 billion people today are under the age of 25, and 90 percent of them live outside the United States and Europe" -- so the problem is still those perennial enemies of peace and stability, pesky young people and foreigners. And without laying blame directly, he went on in the context of the young and foreign to list "an array of 21st century challenges," namely terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyberwar, natural disasters, pandemics, Iran, and North Korea. That was Hagel's exact list, although he presented it more artfully and, tellingly for a defense secretary perhaps, mentioned weapons proliferation twice.
"All of these challenges will be with us for the foreseeable future. There is not a short-term solution to these 21st century global threats and problems," Hagel assured his audience of self-selected, full spectrum dominance, global managers. Perhaps because he had no need to remind them, Hagel omitted any mention of American terrorism around the world, or America's role in weapons proliferation as the world's largest arms dealer, or American cyberwarfare against just about everybody. Nor did he mention the realities of Iran (stuck between nuclear-armed Pakistan and nuclear-armed Israel) or North Korea (stuck between nuclear-armed China and nuclear-armed American proxy South Korea).
It's the American burden, trying to herd these international cats
Hagel paid lip service to the thought that "these challenges are not America's responsibility alone," but he mentioned no possible equal partners. He mentioned no possible junior partners either. He spoke of "coalitions of common interests," but specified only NATO. He did not use the word "cooperation." He never mentioned the United Nations. Instead he warned against "the false notion of American decline" (without further description or analysis) and returned to a restatement of the American faith that the world's challenges:
"will demand America's continued global leadership and engagement. No other nation has the will, the power, the capacity, the capability, and the network of alliances to lead the international community in addressing them. However, sustaining our leadership will increasingly depend not only on the extent of our great power, but an appreciation of its limits, and a wise deployment of our influence". We remain the world's only global leader". We remain the world's pre-eminent military, economic, and diplomatic power."