Courtesy Reuters


We live in an era of contradictions: globalization and fragmentation, peace and conflict, prosperity and poverty. Only when one or more of these tendencies wins out will our era gain a name of its own, displacing the awkward "post-Cold War" tag line. But amid this uncertainty is the stark reality that the United States is the most powerful country in the world -- first among unequals. Still, this is a description, not a purpose or a policy. The fundamental question that confronts America today is how to exploit its enormous surplus of power in the world: What to do with American primacy?

It must be said at the outset that America's economic and military advantages, while great, are neither unqualified nor permanent. The country's strength is limited by the amount of resources (money, time, political capital) it can spend, which in turn reflects a lack of domestic support for some kind of American global empire. De Tocqueville's observation that democracy is ill suited for conducting foreign policy is even more true in a world without a mortal enemy like the Soviet Union against which to rally the public.

Moreover, U.S. superiority will not last. As power diffuses around the world, America's position relative to others will inevitably erode. It may not seem this way at a moment when the American economy is in full bloom and many countries around the world are sclerotic, but the long-term trend is unmistakable. Other nations are rising, and nonstate actors -- ranging from Usama bin Ladin to Amnesty International to the International Criminal Court to George Soros -- are increasing in number and acquiring power. For all these reasons, an effort to assert or expand U.S. hegemony will fail. Such an action would lack domestic support and stimulate international resistance, which in turn would make the costs of hegemony all the greater and its benefits all the smaller.

Meanwhile, the world is becoming more multipolar. American foreign policy should not resist such multipolarity (which would be futile) but define it. Like unipolarity, multipolarity is simply a description. It tells us about the distribution of power in the world, not about the character or quality of international relations. A multipolar world could be one in which several hostile but roughly equal states confront one another, or one in which a number of states, each possessing significant power, work together in common. The U.S. objective should be to persuade other centers of political, economic, and military power -- including but not limited to nation-states -- to believe it is in their self-interest to support constructive notions of how international society should be organized and should operate.

The proper goal for American foreign policy, then, is to encourage a multipolarity characterized by cooperation and concert rather than competition and conflict. In such a world, order would not be limited to peace based on a balance of power or a fear of escalation, but would be founded in a broader agreement on global purposes and problems. In his insightful first book, A World Restored, Henry A. Kissinger argues that the competitive multipolar world of nineteenth-century Europe managed to avoid great-power war because the great powers forged a consensus on certain core issues of international relations. American leaders must seek to build such an international consensus for the 21st century.

This goal is not as far-fetched as it may appear. Even now, significant areas of international life are characterized by substantial cooperation, especially in the economic realm. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an orderly, rule-based mechanism for resolving trade disputes and opening the world economy; finance ministers meet regularly to coordinate monetary policies; and broadly supported conventions ban bribery and corruption. Economic interaction is also regulated by an international marketplace that puts a premium on government policies and procedures -- privatization, reduced government subsidies, accepted accounting practices, bankruptcy proceedings -- that encourage investment and a free flow of capital.

Military and political interactions are also regulated, although less deeply and extensively. There are some accepted grounds for using military force, such as self-defense. Norms (along with treaties or other arrangements to back them up) outlaw biological and chemical weapons, prohibit nuclear-bomb testing, and discourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In the political domain, formal international agreements promote human rights, outlaw genocide and other war crimes, and safeguard refugees. Clearly, though, the political-military area is going to be characterized by greater anarchy and discord than is economics. Important questions remain hotly debated: When is it legitimate to use military force other than in self-defense? What should be done to further limit weapons of mass destruction? What restrictions, if any, ought to exist on the ability of governments to act as they wish within their own borders?

Only when there is consensus among the major powers on these and related issues will a significant degree of order exist. Without great-power agreement, international relations could easily revert to a much more hostile system than the one that exists today. With such cooperation, however, we can ameliorate (though never abolish) some of the dangers of great-power competition and war that have plagued the world for much of its history.


Ideally, post-Cold War international society will be built on four foundation stones: using less military force to resolve disputes between states, reducing the number of weapons of mass destruction and the number of states and other groups possessing such weapons, accepting a limited doctrine of humanitarian intervention based on a recognition that people -- and not just states -- enjoy rights, and economic openness. Such a world would be relatively peaceful, prosperous, and just.

The goal of reducing, if not eliminating, the role of force is not foolishly optimistic. Already, the use of force by one major power against another is either politically unthinkable or prohibitively expensive -- with costs that include the danger of escalation to unconventional weaponry. The challenge is to make any such use of force between major powers even more unlikely and to forge agreement about when using force is legitimate.

Real progress has been made in the effort to reduce the role of weapons of mass destruction. The world has come a long way since nuclear weapons were the basic unit of account of great-power competition. U.S. and Russian nuclear inventories are slated to decrease to approximately 3,500 weapons apiece under the signed but (in the Russian case) unratified start ii accord. The two inventories would shrink further under start iii. Biological and chemical weapons are prohibited, as is all nuclear testing. Although India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests last year, a number of states, including Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina, have voluntarily given up nuclear weapons programs in recent years. The remaining items on the agenda include negotiating further reductions in the arsenals of existing nuclear weapons states, principally Russia; methodically introducing defensive antimissile systems; discouraging the proliferation of missile and nuclear capability to additional states or nonstate actors; and enforcing the ban against possessing or using chemical and biological weapons.

The third building block of a post-Cold War world could well prove the most controversial. For 350 years, international order has been buttressed by the notion of sovereignty: that what goes on within the borders of a nation-state is its business and its business alone. The notion of sovereignty was itself an advancement that promoted order by discouraging the meddling that could all too easily lead to conflict. But over the past half century and especially during the past decade, a new reaction against absolute sovereignty has gained strength. Today, sovereignty is increasingly judged as conditional, linked to how a government treats its citizens. When a government proves unable or unwilling to safeguard its citizens -- when the inherent contract between the government and the governed is violated -- the leadership forfeits its normal right to expect others to keep their distance. It then falls to the international community to act, either diplomatically (utilizing persuasion, sanctions, or aid) or with force, under the banner of humanitarian intervention. The obvious challenge is to gain broader recognition of this modified view of sovereignty, and acceptance of (if not support for) particular interventions.

The fourth building block of post-Cold War international society is economic openness, which requires not only the easy movement of goods, capital, and services across national lines, but also transparent domestic markets that favor private-sector activities. Such openness is necessary to sustain prosperity and works to buttress civil society and increase linkages and interdependencies -- factors that should be a bulwark against military conflict. What is needed is not so much a new international financial architecture or added controls on the movement of money as some interior decorating that would increase the transparency and efficiency of national economies throughout much of the world.


The world described here will not come about solely from its inherent appeal. To the contrary, building and maintaining such an order requires sustained effort by the world's most powerful actor, the United States. Its ultimate success, in turn, demands that Americans properly handle their country's role as sole superpower of the world. American foreign policy must project an imperial dimension, although not in the sense of territorial control or commercial exploitation; such relationships are neither desirable nor sustainable today. Rather, the United States must attempt to organize the world along certain principles affecting both relations between states and conditions within them. The U.S. role should resemble that of nineteenth-century Great Britain, the global leader of that era. U.S. influence would reflect the appeal of American culture, the strength of the American economy, and the attractiveness of the norms being promoted. Coercion and the use of force would normally be a secondary option.

The United States seeks a world based on peaceful relations, nonproliferation, respect for human rights, and economic openness. It must therefore convince other great powers to join with it to promote these ends, thereby constructing a stronger and more durable order that protects the bulk of U.S. interests and reduces the foreign policy burden -- in financial and human terms alike -- on the United States.

Certain costs will accompany such a cooperative arrangement. The United States will need to relinquish some freedom of action and modulate the tone of its rhetoric. Sanctions should cease to dominate policy; incentives need to be employed instead, or in tandem. Carrying out unilateral preemptive strikes on suspected weapons facilities, as the United States did in Sudan last August, would become more difficult. The barrier against intervening in internal conflicts would be higher. The pace and extent of additional NATO enlargement would most likely be restrained. The United States would have to limit the scale of any national missile defenses if Russia and China were to cap their strategic forces. Although the benefits would outweigh such costs, bringing about a world that would justify such restraint will be difficult. In fact, three main obstacles lie in the path toward establishing and maintaining an international society to America's liking.

First and most obvious is the opposition of other power centers, major and minor alike. Some resistance is inevitable, at times from France or other European states or Japan, more often from China and Russia. China in particular will oppose any limit on its ability to use force to resolve the Taiwan issue. China is also determined to increase its strategic arsenal. Both China and Russia will feel threatened by American deployment of defensive systems. In response, they may sell technology that could bolster another state's unconventional weapons program. Russia (to some extent) and China (especially) will view humanitarian intervention as a pretext for unwelcome interference in their internal affairs. Japan holds to a more closed view of the ideal economy. Few if any major powers would support preventive attacks on the fledgling unconventional weapons programs of what the United States views as rogue states; as a rule, the United States tends to find itself isolated when emphasizing sanctions and military attacks instead of commerce and other forms of unconditional engagement. A host of smaller but still considerable powers, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and others, are likely to view an American-led world as discriminatory, threatening, or both.

How, then, might the United States persuade others of the desirability of such a world? The operative word here is "persuade." Areas of consensus will begin to emerge only following strategic dialogues -- intense conversations with other governments and opinion leaders in various societies. If negotiations were at the center of Cold War diplomacy, consultations must form the core of post-Cold War foreign policy. The goal is to build or strengthen global institutions that buttress the basic principles of order. Optimally, this would include a revamped U.N. Security Council willing and able to counter aggression, whether by one state against another or by a government against its own people; a more comprehensive WTO better able to promote open trade; smaller nuclear arsenals and a reduced chance of nuclear conflict; supplier clubs that restrict the spread of advanced weapons technology; and a stronger International Atomic Energy Agency to police nuclear proliferation and similar organizations to enforce chemical and biological weapons bans.

Why would other states go along with U.S. preferences? In some cases, they will see the same inherent benefits as America. This applies best to Europe, already America's most frequent partner. More generally, economic openness tends to be its own reward. Most major powers also have a stake in avoiding large-scale conflicts, slowing the spread of technologies that threaten them, and maintaining a free flow of oil and gas. Cooperation with the United States will bring benefits in the form of shared technology and capital. At least as important is the status that the United States can confer on its partners. Both Russia and China clearly want to be seen as great powers, as members of the inner circle shaping international relations. Only by working with the United States can they and the U.N. Security Council avoid being regularly bypassed.

Still, consultations alone -- even consultations buttressed by incentives -- will not bring about consensus in every area. Persuasion has its limits. The major powers may not agree on general rules; even when they do, they may not agree on how to apply them in a particular situation. In such circumstances, it makes little sense for the United States to work in vain for the emergence of international consensus, guaranteeing only inaction or a lowest common denominator and hence ineffective foreign policy.

The other extreme, unilateralism, likewise has little appeal. On its own, the United States can do little to promote order. Too many of today's challenges -- protectionism, proliferation, genocide -- cannot be solved by one nation alone, either because cooperation is necessary to combat the problem, resources are limited, or both. The benefits of multilateralism outweigh its tendency to constrain American means and dilute American goals. In addition to distributing the burden of promoting order, multilateralism can restrain the impulses of others, reduce opposition to U.S. actions, and increase the chances of policy success.

What, then, are the options that fall between perfect internationalism and unilateralism? One idea, put forward by Samuel P. Huntington and others, is dependence on regional powers, sometimes referred to as "pivotal states." There are serious problems with this idea, however. In several regions, the strongest state is not accepted as a legitimate policeman by its weaker neighbors: consider India, Israel, and China. Worse yet, in the Middle East, for example, it is the dominant states (Iran and Iraq) that require policing.

A better option is regionalism. Regionalism is not to be confused with assigning the task of promoting order to regional hegemons. The former involves building consensus and capacity on a regional scale, the latter the assertion of dominance by a single actor over its neighbors.

The problem with regionalism is that in many regions -- Northeast Asia, South Asia, the Levant, the Persian Gulf -- the principal states do not agree on what constitutes regional order. In other regions such as Europe, the problem is primarily one of capacity. Europe needs far more military muscle -- and the ability to speak with a common voice -- to play an effective role on the continent or beyond. The same holds for Latin America. In Africa, disagreement and a lack of consensus limit what the principal regional organization (the Organization of African Unity) can do, although subregional organizations have done some good in limited cases.

The main alternative to promoting political, economic, and military order on either a regional or a global scale would be to organize coalitions -- as broad as possible -- of the able and willing, normally with the United States in the lead. Such groupings are not ideal -- they tend to be ad hoc and reactive and lack the legitimacy of U.N. or formal regional undertakings -- but they are consistent with a world where the willingness of governments to cooperate varies from crisis to crisis and situation to situation, and where great-power consensus is unreliable. Lord Palmerston's dictum -- "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow" -- applies in spades to the post-Cold War world.


In the end, the creation and maintenance of an American world system will depend as much or more on what Americans and their leaders do as on outside influences. One internal obstacle to properly achieving this goal stems from the desire to do too much, from establishing ends that are overly ambitious. Hegemony, as has already been noted, falls under this rubric. So, too, does democratic enlargement, the only attempt by the Clinton administration to define a post-containment foreign policy doctrine. America simply lacks the means to shape the political culture and system of another country -- short of long-term occupation, an option usually unavailable and not guaranteed to work, as demonstrated in Haiti. Moreover, partial success might make countries vulnerable to nationalist fervor. A foreign policy informed by a universal humanitarian impulse would surely qualify as a case of what Paul Kennedy defines as "imperial overstretch." At the same time, not acting entails real costs, not only for the innocent people who lose their homes or lives or both, but also for America's image in the world. Moreover, a narrow foreign policy based solely on self-interest is unlikely to capture the imagination or enjoy the support of the American people, who want a foreign policy with a moral component.

But how can the United States get it right? To address this dilemma, it helps to divide the humanitarian intervention issue into three questions: whether, how, and why to intervene.

What factors should influence the decision to intervene? The first is the scale of the problem: not every repression is a genocide. A second consideration is whether there are other interests, economic or strategic, beyond humanitarianism. Do such interests argue against intervening with military force, as they did in Chechnya, or in favor, as in Bosnia? Third is the matter of partners. How much help can the United States expect from others, militarily and economically? Fourth, what are the likely costs and consequences of intervening? Will action significantly reduce the problem? What larger consequences will acting have for U.S. interests in the region and beyond? Last, what would be the likely results of other policies, including, but not limited to, doing nothing?

Such objective questions are no substitute for situational judgment; there can be no intervention template. But they do provide discipline and, with it, some potential guidance. These considerations would have made the United States less likely to occupy Haiti or expand the Somalia intervention into nation-building, but more likely to act earlier in Bosnia and Rwanda, where a small intervention could have prevented genocide.

It is thus impossible to answer the question of whether to intervene without also considering how to intervene. The likely costs and benefits of various foreign policy instruments -- including diplomacy, political and economic sanctions, incentives, covert action, and military force -- need to be weighed. Military options can be further divided to include aiding one side in a conflict, deterring through presence or threats to act, creating safe havens, bombing to weaken or coerce one side, deploying combined armed forces to defeat one or more of the protagonists on the battlefield, nation-building, or sending in forces to keep a peace. Significant interventions that require subsequent long-term occupations cannot be pursued very often.

The third and last question concerns purpose. Humanitarian interventions can be undertaken to prop up a failed state, protect an entire population from danger, or shield part of the populace from the government or another group. If a segment of a society is threatened, when should the United States support the desire of a people for their own state?

A universal bias in favor of self-determination would be destabilizing, so several factors should be weighed. There must be some historical legitimacy. The historical argument can be positive, reflecting a tradition, or negative, resulting from necessity borne of persecution. A second consideration is viability: it makes no sense to encourage independence if the new state would be doomed. A third consideration is internal stability and the likely behavior of the new government toward its citizens. The international community should have done more to condition its support for the independence of parts of the former Yugoslavia on the protection of minorities. A fourth factor is regional stability and the likely reaction of neighboring states. It is for this reason that the United States is correct to oppose a unilateral Palestinian claim for self-determination. Israel has a fundamental stake in this decision. Similarly, Kurdish desires for statehood must be weighed against the claims of Turkey and others. The United States ought not adopt political objectives that are more ambitious than what the humanitarian circumstances warrant.

Inconsistency is unavoidable, but it is also a virtue. Intervening everywhere would exhaust the United States; intervening nowhere would encourage conflict and undermine America's belief in itself and its ability to do good.

What would all this have meant in the case of Kosovo? It is not clear even in retrospect how asking these questions would have influenced the decision to intervene militarily. U.S. interests, while less than vital, went beyond the humanitarian; European allies were prepared to offer significant assistance. At the same time, the scale of the problem was decidedly less than genocide, and strong Russian and Chinese opposition was predictable. The most critical judgment -- how to use military force -- was one the Clinton administration and NATO got wrong: believing that the threat or use of air power alone would pressure Slobodan Milosevic to cease killing and ethnically cleansing the Kosovars and accept the Rambouillet peace accords. Instead, the bombing turned a humanitarian crisis into something much worse. The fact that 11 weeks of bombing led Milosevic to back down does not alter this judgment. It would have been wiser to continue diplomacy and deal with a limited humanitarian crisis while looking for ways to weaken or topple the Milosevic regime, or to send in ground forces at the outset and prevent the displacement and killing. The administration was correct, however, to avoid making Kosovo's independence an objective, an outcome which would have alienated most European states as well as Russia and led to further regional conflict.

A somewhat restrained approach to humanitarian intervention is unlikely to satisfy either those who wish to place it at the center of American foreign policy or those who wish to relegate it to the periphery. But there must be limits on U.S. military action when a situation is not dire, when partners are scarce, or when other major powers oppose American intervention. Promoting this dimension of world order should not be allowed to undermine the other dimensions. At the end of the day, order is more fundamental than justice; one can have the former without the latter, but not vice versa. Adhering to this precept will take discipline, but discipline is essential in foreign policy if the urgent is not to crowd out the important.

Anyone doubting this assertion need only consider for a moment the costs of a breakdown in any of the other three areas of international order. Major conflict, the spread or use of weapons of mass destruction, or a global financial meltdown would have profound and direct consequences for the United States and American society. Humanitarian abuses simply cannot cause comparable harm on a global scale; as a result, the United States must avoid jeopardizing larger interests when addressing them.


The third obstacle to expanding international order is the opposite of the second. It is the problem of the United States' doing too little, of underachieving. It may seem odd to suggest that a country that spends more than $300 billion a year on national security (if one includes defense, intelligence, economic and military assistance, and diplomacy), stations hundreds of thousands of troops overseas, maintains hundreds of embassies and diplomatic missions of every sort, and listens in on millions of phone calls may not be doing enough, but this is the case. A decade into the post-Cold War era, the United States risks squandering its primacy.

This judgment reflects more than the fact that what is now spent on national security (in terms of percentage of GDP) constitutes a post-World War II low. Indeed, it is precisely what we are not prepared to do for our global interests and preferences that is most noteworthy. Examples include an increased unwillingness to commit ground forces and risk casualties; a failure to garner "fast-track" negotiating authority from Congress to expand open trading arrangements beyond NAFTA and the WTO; the low priority given to reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals; a half-hearted and arbitrarily limited effort to pressure Iraq into accepting the presence of U.N. weapons inspectors; a lack of time devoted by senior officials to discussing basic international issues with other powers; and a lack of effort to explain to the American people why they ought to support an active leadership role -- indeed, an imperial role -- for the United States despite the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union.

But no idea, no matter how compelling, ever sells itself. Ideas must compete in the political marketplace. Polls suggesting strong domestic support for U.S. leadership in the world are misleading. They reflect inclination but not intensity; Americans, for the most part, are not so much isolationist -- which requires strong feelings about foreign affairs -- as disinterested. Polls therefore offer little insight into political behavior or public readiness to sustain foreign policy amid considerable human or financial cost.

The Kosovo experience revealed deep cleavages. And whereas President Clinton has often called for a national dialogue about race, the time has come for a national dialogue on this country's role in the world. Such a dialogue is necessary because what is being argued for here -- a foreign policy directed toward promoting world order -- demands not only substantial resources but also public attention. Any approach to the world that includes large elements of hegemony and unilateralism will require more than the American public and the U.S. political system can sustain, but the greater danger is that even a multilateral policy of promoting world order will prove to be too much. Future presidents will not be able to appeal to fear as they could during the Cold War. Nor will they have the advantage of simplicity or clarity. Ultimately, the United States will intervene in some crises but not others; other countries will be less than allies but also less than adversaries; and the United States will look differently on other nations' becoming nuclear powers. In this complicated, ambiguous world, greater understanding and explanation will be necessary. Only the president can lead a dialogue on what to do with America's primacy, and this will be a priority for Clinton's successor. "It's the world, stupid" should be his or her refrain.

  • Richard N. Haass is Vice President, Director of Foreign Policy Studies, and Sydney Stein, Jr., Chair in International Security at the Brookings Institution.
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