The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
The 1991 Persian Gulf War was, according to President Bush, about "more than one small country; it is a big idea; a new world order," with "new ways of working with other nations . . . peaceful settlement of disputes, solidarity against aggression, reduced and controlled arsenals and just treatment of all peoples." Not long after the war, however, the flow of White House words about a new world order slowed to a trickle.
Like Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points or Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms, George Bush’s grand rhetoric expressed the larger goals important for public support when a liberal democratic state goes to war. But after the war, when reality intruded, grand schemes turned into a liability. People were led to compare the war’s imperfect outcome with an impossible ideal. The proper standard for judgment should have been what the world would look like if Saddam Hussein had been left in possession of Kuwait. The victory lost its lustre because of an unfair comparison that the president inadvertently encouraged, and recession shifted the political agenda to the domestic economy. The White House thus decided to lower the rhetorical volume.
The administration faces a deeper problem than mere political tactics. The world has changed more rapidly in the past two years than at any time since 1945. It is difficult to keep one’s conceptual footing within such fundamental shifts in politics. Familiar concepts fail to fit a new reality. It is worth recalling that it took Americans several years to adjust to the last great shift in the late 1940s. But the Bush administration, famous for eschewing "the vision thing," added to the confusion because it had never really thought through what it meant by the concept it launched. Neither the administration nor its critics were clear about the fact that the term "world order" is used in two very different ways in discussions of world politics.
Realists, in the tradition of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, see international politics occurring among sovereign states balancing each others’ power. World order is the product of a stable distribution of power among the major states. Liberals, in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, look at relations among peoples as well as states. They see order arising from broad values like democracy and human rights, as well as from international law and institutions such as the United Nations.
The problem for the Bush administration was that it thought and acted like Nixon, but borrowed the rhetoric of Wilson and Carter. Both aspects of order are relevant to the current world situation, but the administration has not sorted out the relation between them.
From the realist perspective there is definitely a new world order, but it did not begin with the Gulf War. Since order has little to do with justice, but a lot to do with the distribution of power among states, realists date the new world order from the collapse of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe in the autumn of 1989. The rapid decline of the Soviet Union caused the end of the old bipolar order that had persisted for nearly half a century.
The old world order provided a stability of sorts. The Cold War exacerbated a number of Third World conflicts, but economic conflicts among the United States, Europe and Japan were dampened by common concerns about the Soviet military threat. Bitter ethnic divisions were kept under a tight lid by the Soviet presence in eastern Europe. A number of Third World conflicts were averted or shortened when the superpowers feared that their clients might drag them too close to the nuclear abyss. The various Arab?Israeli wars, for example, were brief. In fact some experts believe that a stronger Soviet Union would never have allowed its Iraqi client to invade Kuwait. If so Kuwait can be counted as the victim rather than the cause of the new world order.
Some analysts see the collapse of the Cold War as the victory of liberal capitalism and the end of the large ideological cleavages that drove the great international conflicts of this century. There is no single competitor to liberal capitalism as an overarching ideology. Rather than the end of history, the post?Cold War world is witnessing a return of history in the diversity of sources of international conflict. Liberal capitalism has many competitors, albeit fragmented ones. Examples include the indigenous neo?Maoism of Peru’s Shining Path guerrilla movement, the many variants of Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of ethnic nationalism.
This does not mean that the new world politics will be "back to the future." There is an enormous difference between the democratically tamed and institutionally harnessed nationalisms of western Europe and the revival in eastern Europe of untamed nationalisms whose ancient animosities were never resolved in the institutional structure of state communism and the Soviet empire.
Moreover national boundaries will be more permeable than in the past. Nationalism and transnationalism will be contending forces in the new world politics. Large transnational corporations distribute economic production according to global strategies. Transnational technological changes in communications and transportation are making the world smaller. Diplomacy occurs in real time; both George Bush and Saddam Hussein watched Cable News Network for the latest reports. Human rights violations and mass suffering in distant parts of the globe are brought home by television. Although Marshall McLuhan argued that modern communications would produce a "global village," his metaphor was misleading because a global political identity remains feeble. In fact nationalism is becoming stronger in most of the world, not weaker. Instead of one global village there are villages around the globe more aware of each other. That, in turn, increases the opportunities for conflict.
Not all transnational forces are benign any more than all nationalisms are malign. Transnational drug trade, terrorism, the spread of AIDS and global warming are cases in point. With time, technology spreads across borders, and the technologies of weapons of mass destruction are now more than a half century old. The collapse of the Soviet Union removes two of the factors that slowed the spread of nuclear weapons in the old world order: tight Soviet technological controls and influence over its client states. The United States cannot escape from these transnational problems, and few of them are susceptible to unilateral solutions. Like other countries in the new world order, the United States will be caught in the dialogue between the national and the transnational.
The United States will need power to influence others in regard to both transnational and traditional concerns. If the old world order has collapsed, what will be the new distribution of power? Over the past few years of dramatic change, different observers have claimed to discern five alternatives.
Return to bipolarity. Before the failure of the August coup and the final collapse of the Soviet Union, some argued that a newly repressive Soviet or Russian regime would create a harsh international climate and a return to the Cold War. But even if the coup had succeeded, it would not have restored bipolarity. The decline of the Soviet Union stemmed in large part from overcentralization. Stalin’s system was unable to cope with the Third Industrial Revolution, in which flexible use of information is the key to successful economic growth. The return of the centralizers might have created a nasty international climate, but rather than restoring Soviet strength, recentralization would have continued the long?term decline of the Soviet economy. The same would be true for a centralizing Russian dictatorship.
Multipolarity. This is a popular cliché that drips easily from the pens of editorialists, but if used to imply an historical analogy with the nineteenth century it is highly misleading, for the old order rested on a balance of five roughly equal great powers while today’s great powers are far from equally balanced. Russia will continue to suffer from economic weakness, and its reform is a question of decades, not years. China is a developing country and, despite favorable growth, will remain so well into the next century. Europe is the equal of the United States in population, economy and human resources. Even after the December 1991 summit at Maastricht, however, Europe lacks the political unity necessary to act as a single global power.
Japan is well endowed with economic and technological strength, but its portfolio of power resources is limited in the hard military area as well as in the cultural and ideological appeal that provides soft power. Japan would have to make major changes in its attitudes toward military power as well as in its ethnocentricity before it would be a challenger on the scale of the United States.
Three economic blocs. Those who devalue military power argue that Europe and Japan will be superpowers in a world of restrictive economic blocs. An Asian bloc will form around the yen, a western hemisphere bloc around the dollar and a European bloc (including remnants of the former Soviet Union) will cluster around the European Currency Unit (according to optimists) or the deutsche mark (in the view of pessimists). Others foresee a European versus a Pacific bloc.
There are three problems with this vision. First, it runs counter to the thrust of global technological trends. While regional trade will certainly grow, many firms would not want to be limited to one?third of the global market and would resist restrictive regionalism. Second, restrictive regional blocs run against nationalistic concerns of some of the lesser states that need a global system to protect themselves against domination by their large neighbors. Japan’s Asian neighbors do not want to be locked up in a yen bloc with Japan. There will continue to be a constituency for a broader international trade system.
Most important, however, this vision is too dismissive of security concerns. With large nuclear neighbors in turmoil, both Europe and Japan want to keep their American insurance policies against uncertainty. The second Russian revolution is still in its early years, and China faces a generational transition. It is difficult to imagine the United States continuing its security guarantees in the context of trade wars. The end of the Cold War was not marked by European and Japanese calls for withdrawal of American troops. European and Japanese security concerns are likely to set limits on how restrictive the economic blocs become.
Unipolar hegemony. According to Charles Krauthammer, the Gulf War marked the beginning of a Pax Americana in which the world will acquiesce in a benign American hegemony. The premise is correct that the collapse of the Soviet Union left the world with only one superpower, but the hegemonic conclusion does not follow. For one thing the world economy is tripolar and has been since the 1970s. Europe, Japan and the United States account for two?thirds of the world’s product. In economics, at least, the United States cannot exercise hegemony.
Hegemony is also unlikely because of the diffusion of power through transnational interdependence. To cite a few examples: private actors in global capital markets constrain the way interest rates can be used to manage the American economy; the transnational spread of technology increases the destructive capacities of otherwise poor and weak states; and a number of issues on the international agenda—drug trade, AIDS, migration, global warming—have deep societal roots in more than one country and flow across borders largely outside of governmental control. Since military means are not very effective in coping with such problems, no great power, the United States included, will be able to solve them alone.
Multilevel interdependence. No single hierarchy describes adequately a world politics with multiple structures. The distribution of power in world politics has become like a layer cake. The top military layer is largely unipolar, for there is no other military power comparable to the United States. The economic middle layer is tripolar and has been for two decades. The bottom layer of transnational interdependence shows a diffusion of power.
None of this complexity would matter if military power were as fungible as money and could determine the outcomes in all areas. In describing Europe before 1914, the British historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote that the test of a great power was the ability to prevail in war. But military prowess is a poor predictor of the outcomes in the economic and transnational layers of current world politics. The United States is better placed with a more diversified portfolio of power resources than any other country, but the new world order will not be an era of American hegemony. We must be wary of the prison of old concepts.
The world order after the Cold War is sui generis, and we overly constrain our understanding by trying to force it into the procrustean bed of traditional metaphors with their mechanical polarities. Power is becoming more multidimensional, structures more complex and states themselves more permeable. This added complexity means that world order must rest on more than the traditional military balance of power alone. The problems encountered by the Bush administration at the end of the Gulf War are illustrative. The traditional approach of balancing Iran and Iraq was clearly not enough, and U.N. resolutions 687 and 688 (which dealt with Iraq’s weapons and refugees) went deep into areas of national sovereignty.
The realist view of world order, resting on a balance of military power, is necessary but not sufficient, because it does not take into account the long?term societal changes that have been slowly moving the world away from the Westphalian system. In 1648, after thirty years of tearing each other apart over religion, the European states agreed in the Treaty of Westphalia that the ruler, in effect, would determine the religion of a state regardless of popular preference. Order was based on the sovereignty of states, not the sovereignty of peoples.
The mechanical balance of states was slowly eroded over the ensuing centuries by the growth of nationalism and democratic participation, but the norms of state sovereignty persist. Now the rapid growth in transnational communications, migration and economic interdependence is accelerating the erosion of that classical conception and increasing the gap between norm and reality.
This evolution makes more relevant the liberal conception of a world society of peoples as well as states, and of order resting on values and institutions as well as military power. Liberal views that were once regarded as hopelessly utopian, such as Immanuel Kant’s plea for a peaceful league of democracies, seem less far?fetched now that political scientists report virtually no cases of democracies going to war with each other. Current debates over the effects of German reunification, for example, pit against each other realists who see western Europe going back to the troubled balance of power, and liberals who fault such analysis for neglecting the fact that unlike 1870, 1914 or 1939, the new Germany is democratic and deeply enmeshed with its western neighbors through the institutions of the European Community. Moreover the interactions between democratic politics and international institutions reinforce each other.
Of course the game is still open in post?Cold War Europe, and Europe is very different from other parts of the world such as the Middle East, where traditional views of the balance of military power are still the core of wisdom. But the experience of Europe (and the democratic market economies more generally) suggests that in at least parts of this hybrid world, conceptions of divisible and transferable sovereignty may play an increasing part in a new world order. The complex practices of the European Community are a case in point.
These liberal conceptions of order are not entirely new. The Cold War order had norms and institutions, but they played a limited role. During World War II Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill agreed to a United Nations that assumed a multipolar distribution of power. The U.N. Security Council would enforce the doctrine of collective security and nonaggression against smaller states while the five great powers were protected by their vetos.
Even this abbreviated version of Woodrow Wilson’s institutional approach to order was hobbled, however, by the rise of bipolarity. The superpowers vetoed each other’s initiatives, and the organization was reduced to the more modest role of stationing peacekeepers to observe ceasefires rather than repelling aggressors. The one exception, the U.N. role in the Korean War, proved the rule; it was made possible only by a temporary Soviet boycott of the Security Council in June 1950. When the decline of Soviet power led to Moscow’s new policy of cooperation with Washington in applying the U.N. doctrine of collective security against Baghdad, it was less the arrival of a new world order than the reappearance of an aspect of the liberal institutional order that was supposed to have come into effect in 1945.
But just as the Gulf War resurrected one aspect of the liberal approach to world order, it also exposed an important weakness in the liberal conception. The doctrine of collective security enshrined in the U.N. Charter is state?centric, applicable when borders are crossed but not when force is used against peoples within a state.
Liberals try to escape this problem by appealing to the principles of democracy and self?determination. Let peoples within states vote on whether they want to be protected behind borders of their own. But self?determination is not as simple as it sounds. Who decides what self will determine? Take Ireland, for example. If Irish people voted within the existing political boundaries, Ulster would have a Protestant majority, but if the Irish voted within the geographical boundaries of the island, Ulster would be encompassed within a Catholic majority. Whoever has the power to determine the boundaries of the vote has the power to determine the outcome.
A similar problem plagues Yugoslavia. It seemed clear that relatively homogeneous Slovenia should be allowed to vote on self?determination, but a similar vote in Croatia turns Serbs in some districts into a minority who then demand a vote on secession from an independent Croatia. It is not surprising that issues of secession are more often determined by bullets than ballots.
Nor are these rare examples. Less than ten percent of the 170 states in today’s world are ethnically homogeneous. Only half have one ethnic group that accounts for as much as 75 percent of their population. Most of the republics of the former Soviet Union have significant minorities and many have disputed borders. Africa is a continent of a thousand ethnic and linguistic peoples squeezed within and across some forty?odd states. Once such states are called into question, it is difficult to see where the process ends. In such a world, federalism, local autonomy and international surveillance of minority rights hold some promise, but a policy of unqualified support for national self?determination would turn into a principle of enormous world disorder.
How then is it possible to preserve some order in traditional terms of the balance of power among sovereign states, while also moving toward international institutions that promote "justice among peoples?"
International institutions are gradually evolving in just such a post?Westphalian direction. Already in 1945, articles 55 and 56 of the U.N. Charter pledged states to collective responsibility for observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Even before the recent Security Council resolutions authorizing postwar interventions in Iraq, U.N. recommendations of sanctions against apartheid in South Africa set a precedent for not being strictly limited by the charter’s statements about sovereignty. In Europe the 1975 Helsinki Accords codified human rights. Violations can be referred to the European Conference on Security and Cooperation or the Council of Europe. International law is gradually evolving. In 1965 the American Law Institute defined international law as "rules and principles . . . dealing with the conduct of states and international organizations." More recently the institute’s lawyers added the revealing words, "as well as some of their relations with persons." Individual and minority rights are increasingly treated as more than just national concerns.
Of course in many, perhaps most, parts of the world such principles are flouted and violations go unpunished. To mount an armed multilateral intervention to right all such wrongs would be another source of enormous disorder. But we should not think of intervention solely in military terms. Intervention is a matter of degree, with actions ranging from statements and limited economic measures at the low end of the spectrum to full?fledged invasions at the high end. The U.N. Security Council and regional organizations may decide on limited nonmilitary interventions. Multilateral infringements of sovereignty will gradually increase without suddenly disrupting the distribution of power among states.
On a larger scale the Security Council can act under chapter seven of the U.N. Charter if it determines that internal violence or development of weapons of mass destruction are likely to spill over into a more general threat to the peace in a region. Such definitions are somewhat elastic—witness the imposition of sanctions against Rhodesia in the 1960s. The reasons for multilateral intervention will gradually expand over time. Although Iraq was a special case because of its blatant aggression, Security Council resolutions 687 and 688 may create a precedent for other situations where mistreatment of minorities threatens relations with neighbors or where a country is developing weapons of mass destruction in violation of its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty.
In other instances groups of states may act on a regional basis to deal with internal fighting, as Nigeria and others did by sending troops to Liberia under the framework of the Economic Community of West African States. In Yugoslavia the European Community employed the threat of economic sanctions as well as observer missions in an effort to limit the violence. In Haiti members of the Organization of American States imposed economic sanctions in response to the overthrow of a democratically elected government. None of the efforts was fully successful, but each involved intervention in what are usually considered domestic affairs.
It may also be possible to enhance U.N. capabilities for independent actions in cases where the permanent members do not have a direct interest. The gains for collective security from the Gulf War would be squandered, for example, if there were no international response to a Rwandan invasion of Uganda or a Libyan incursion into Chad. A U.N. rapid deployment force of 60,000 troops formed from earmarked brigades from a dozen countries could cope with a number of such contingencies as determined by the Security Council.
Such a fighting force, as contrasted to traditional peacekeeping forces, could be formed around a professional core of 5,000 U.N. soldiers. They would need frequent joint exercises to develop common command and operational procedures. The U.S. involvement could be limited to logistical and air support and, of course, the right to help control its activities through the Security Council and the military staff committee. Many details need to be worked out, but an idea that would have been silly or utopian during the Cold War suddenly becomes worth detailed practical examination in the aftermath of the Cold War and Gulf War.
Such imperfect principles and institutions will leave much room for domestic violence and injustice among peoples. Yugoslavia is an immediate example, and it will not be alone. But the moral horrors will be less than if policymakers were to try either to right all wrongs by force or, alternatively, to return to the unmodified Westphalian system. Among the staunchest defenders of the old system are the poorly integrated postcolonial states whose elites fear that new doctrines of multilateral intervention by the United Nations will infringe their sovereignty. The transition to a liberal vision of a new world order is occurring, but not smoothly. Liberals must realize that the evolution beyond Westphalia is a matter of decades and centuries, while realists must recognize that the traditional definitions of power and order in purely military terms miss the changes that are occurring in a world of transnational communications and instant information.
What is the American national interest in promoting a new world order? As election?year rhetoric asks, why not put America first? The country faces a number of serious domestic problems. The net savings rate has dropped from about 7.5 percent of gross national product in the 1970s to about 4.5 percent today. The federal budget deficit eats up about half of net private savings. The educational system is not producing a high enough level of skills for continuing progress in an information?age economy. In terms of high school dropouts the United States is wasting a quarter of its human resources compared to five percent for Japan. There is a need for investment in public infrastructure. Clearly we need to do more at home.
But Americans should beware of a false debate between domestic and foreign needs. In a world of transnational interdependence the distinction between domestic and foreign policy becomes blurred. The real choice that Americans face is not between domestic and foreign policy, but between consumption and investment. President Bush has said that the United States has the will but not the wallet. The opposite is closer to the mark. The United States spends about 31 percent of gross national product on government at all levels, while most European countries spend closer to 40 percent. The United States is a rich country that acts poor. America’s U.N. dues are a relative pittance, and many countries see our failure to pay them as proof of our hypocrisy about a new world order. Similarly Europeans cite our low levels of aid and question our seriousness and relevance to stability in postcommunist eastern Europe. The American economy could support a few more percentage points of gross national product to invest at home while helping to maintain international order.
But why spend anything on international order? The simple answer is that in a world of transnational interdependence, international disorder can hurt, influence or disturb the majority of people living in the United States. A nuclear weapon sold or stolen from a former Soviet republic could be brought into the United States in the hold of a freighter or the cargo bay of a commercial airliner. Chaos in a Middle Eastern country can sustain terrorists who threaten American travellers abroad. A Caribbean country’s inability to control drugs or disease could mean larger flows of both across our borders. Release of ozone?depleting chemicals overseas can contribute to a rise in skin cancer in the United States. With more than ten percent of U.S. gross national product exported, American jobs depend upon international economic conditions. And even though not a direct threat to U.S. security, the human rights violations brought home to Americans by transnational communications are discomforting. If the rest of the world is mired in chaos, and governments are too weak to deal with their parts of a transnational problem, the U.S. government will not be able to solve such problems alone or influence them to reduce the damage done to Americans.
In addition, even after the Cold War the United States has geopolitical interests in international stability. The United States has a continuing interest that no hostile power control the continent of Europe or that European turmoil draw us in under adverse circumstances, as happened twice before in this century. While such events now have a much lower probability and thus can be met with a much reduced investment, a wise foreign policy still takes out insurance against low probability events. Given the uncertainties in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, an American security presence, even at greatly reduced troop levels, has a reassuring effect as European integration proceeds. The United States has an interest in a stable and prosperous western Europe that gradually draws the eastern part of the continent toward pluralism and democracy. The primary role will rest with the Europeans, but if the United States were to divorce itself from the process, we might find the future geopolitical situation far less stable.
The United States also has geopolitical and economic interests in the Pacific. The United States is the only country with both economic and military power resources in the region, and its continued presence is desired by Asian powers who do not want Japan to remilitarize. Japan’s current political consensus is opposed to such a military role, and Japanese leaders realize it would be destabilizing in the region. With a relatively small but symbolically important military presence the United States can help to provide reassurance in the region, while encouraging Japan to invest its economic power not in military force but in international institutions and to help share the lead in dealing with transnational issues.
In realist terms the United States will remain the world’s largest power well into the next century. Economists have long noted that if the largest consumer of a collective good, such as order, does not take the lead in organizing its production, there is little likelihood that the good will be produced by others. That was the situation in the 1920s when the United States refused to join the League of Nations or cooperate in preserving the stability of the international economy. Isolationism in the 1920s came back to haunt and hurt Americans a decade later. There is even less room for neo?isolationism today.
Why not simply leave the task of world order to the United Nations? Because the United Nations is the sum of its member nations and the United States is by far the largest member. Large scale U.N. efforts like the repulse of Iraq will continue to require the participation of the world’s largest power.
The United States correctly wants to avoid the role of world policeman. The way to steer a middle path between bearing too much and too little of the international burden is to renew the American commitment to multilateral institutions that fell into abeyance in the 1980s. The use of multilateral institutions, while sometimes constraining, also helps share the burden that the American people do not want to bear alone. Multilateralism also limits the resentments and balances the behavior of other nations that can lead them to resist American wishes and make it harder for Americans to achieve national interests.
While the Bush administration failed in its policies toward Iraq before and at the end of the Gulf War, its actions in organizing the multilateral coalition that expelled Iraq from Kuwait fit the national interest in a new world order. The administration combined both the hard power of military might and the soft power of using institutions to co?opt others to share the burden. Without the U.N. resolutions it might have been impossible for the Saudis to accept troops and for others to send troops. Nor is it likely that the United States could have persuaded others to foot nearly the entire bill for the war. Had there been no response to Iraq’s aggression and violation of its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty, the post?Cold War order would be far more dangerous.
In short the new world order has begun. It is messy, evolving and not susceptible to simple formulation or manipulation. Russia and China face uncertain futures. Regional bullies will seek weapons of mass destruction. Protectionist pressure may increase. The United States will have to combine both traditional power and liberal institutional approaches if it is to pursue effectively its national interest. We want to promote liberal democracy and human rights where we can do so without causing chaos. The reason is obvious: liberal democratic governments are less likely to threaten us over time. We will need to maintain our alliances and a balance of power in the short run, while simultaneously working to promote democratic values, human rights and institutions for the long run. To do less is to have only a fraction of a foreign policy.