The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
AN IMPERIAL CONSENSUS
An implicit alliance has emerged in Washington since the Cold War's end: internationalist liberals, anxious to extend American influence and to federate the world's democracies, and unilateralist neoconservatives, who believe in aggressive American leadership for the world's own good, have joined forces in what some call the New Wilsonianism.
The United States enjoys a hegemonic position in these first years of the new century, in terms of both its military power and its economic weight and dynamism. The technological capabilities of the former extend to something resembling a doomsday extermination of civilization, yet the exercise of American power has repeatedly proven incompetently conceptualized and directed, and in significant respects irrelevant to the world's military and political challenges.
Examples of such mishandling include not only the Vietnam War, the maladroit Central American and Caribbean interventions, and the Somalia fiasco, but also the 1999 intervention in Kosovo. There, NATO fought a war that proved to be different from the one Serbia was fighting, leaving the Serbian army intact while failing to prevent the purge of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. In the end, Russian diplomatic intervention was required to produce an outcome that preserved NATO's reputation. The Kosovo campaign -- well-meant but lacking coherent political direction or geopolitical vision, reliant on technology but recoiling from the risk of casualties -- revealed an American approach to the exercise of power that is scarcely one of a determined hegemon. One of France's commanders in the Bosnia campaign, General Philippe Morillon, asked at the time, "How can you have soldiers who are ready to kill, who are not ready to die?"
A hegemonic spirit nonetheless underlies both the liberal activism and the neoconservative unilateralism evident in much of recent American foreign policy. It is behind the aggressive congressional initiatives to impose sanctions or boycotts on states regarded as miscreants -- and even on allies insufficiently accommodating on trade. It was also responsible for the Clinton administration's program to enlarge NATO's membership and extend its operations "out of area," first to the Balkans and eventually beyond Europe. This essentially unilateralist initiative (the other NATO members reacted coolly to it) reflected a larger concept of extended American influence that has become the principal theme of post-Cold War policy thinking. Some even envisage NATO's eventual expansion toward the frontiers of another American-led strategic system -- this one in the Pacific.
Still more ambitious, some in the policy community regard the new century as an opportunity for an international reenactment of the confederation of the 13 original colonies into what became the "united states" of America. Some propose a confederation of the North American Free Trade Agreement states with Britain and possibly New Zealand and Australia -- a defensive vision coming mainly from conservative circles in Britain and inspired mainly by hostility toward the European Union and nostalgia for the wartime Atlantic alliance. Others would like the industrial democracies -- the developed world, or a major part of it -- to form a new democratic union of which the United States would be the inspiration and the leader. This ambition is not always baldly expressed, but it lies behind Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's characterization of the United States as the "indispensable nation" that, because it "stands taller," scans horizons others cannot see.
A recent statement of what its advocates call the New Wilsonianism (and others call the case for hegemony) appeared in the spring 2000 issue of The National Interest, in which William Kristol and Robert Kagan recapitulate the arguments they first made in a 1996 Foreign Affairs article:
Today's international system is built not around a balance of power but around American hegemony. The international financial institutions were fashioned by Americans and serve American interests. The international security structures are chiefly a collection of American-led alliances. ... Since today's relatively benevolent international circumstances are the product of our hegemonic influence, any lessening of that influence will allow others to play a larger part in shaping the world to suit their needs. States such as China and Russia, if given the chance, would configure the international system quite differently. ... American hegemony, then, must be actively maintained, just as it was actively obtained. ... [T]he United States does not pursue a narrow, selfish definition of its national interest, but generally finds its interests in a benevolent international order. In other words, it is precisely because the United States infuses its foreign policy with an unusually high degree of morality that other nations feel they have less to fear from its otherwise daunting power.
This notion of America's unique benevolence unites two very different approaches to the world. As historian H. W. Brands explains in his 1998 book What America Owes the World, American "exemplarists" think the country should try to serve as an example of a humane and just society, whereas "vindicators" believe that America's "peculiar obligation" to better humanity's lot may require intervention and coercion. According to the "vindicators," Brands writes, "human nature is too recalcitrant for mere example to have much lasting effect, and ... military might, even if it doesn't necessarily make right, certainly can restrain wrong." Joshua Muravchik, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that other nations "know that they have little to fear or distrust from a righteous [America]." In his 1996 book The Imperative of American Leadership, he writes that "aside perhaps from the French, the only people averse to American leadership are the Americans."
Opposed to this view are the "exemplarists," whose most eminent member is undoubtedly the diplomat and historian George Kennan. In his 1951 essay "America and the Russian Future," he wrote,
Any message we may try to bring to others will be effective only if it is in accord with what we are to ourselves, and if this is something sufficiently impressive to compel the respect and confidence of a world which, despite all its material difficulties, is still more ready to recognize and respect spiritual distinction than material opulence. Our first and main concern must still be to achieve this state of national character. We need worry less about convincing others that we have done so. In the lives of nations the really worthwhile things cannot and will not be hidden.
Forty-eight years later, Kennan observed in an interview in The New York Review of Books that "this planet is never going to be ruled from any single political center, whatever its military power." He added that for Americans "to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world" is "unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable."
One may add that an American bid for hegemony would also eventually fail because its objective, however "benevolent," is seen by other nations as a threat. America's European allies have resented U.S. efforts to discourage them from establishing a European security regime separate from NATO. A European foreign minister remarked in the fall of 1999 that all his European Union colleagues regarded their most serious foreign-relations problem as that of dealing with the United States. In an April 2000 Le Monde article, Paul Quilès, the president of the Defense Commission of the French National Assembly, expressed the disquiet in both the assembly and in the French policy community at what Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) had told the U.N. Security Council earlier that year. Helms, according to Quilès, had "maintained that states, above all the United States, which are democratic, and act in the cause of liberty, possess unlimited authority, subject to no external control, to carry out military interventions." Quilès went on,
If we allow these attitudes to follow their course, the risk is great that the United States, in searching to impose its will, will provoke greater and greater defiance from countries such as Russia and China, and still others. American refusal of collective security; recourse to solutions of force by an increasing number of states; intensification and generalization of conflict (think of Grozny, the first European city to be razed since 1945) -- doesn't this recall something from the past? Are we going to relive the drama of the powerlessness of the League of Nations?
Helms' views do not usually represent general American opinion, but in this case they probably do. They express one version of a Wilsonian legacy that is more complex, less glorious, and less successful than its contemporary followers -- whether conservatives such as William Kristol or liberals such as Al Gore -- seem to understand.
William McKinley became the reluctant begetter of American global engagement when, under pressure from the press and the public, he took the undoubtedly accidental explosion of the battleship Maine as an occasion to conquer the Spanish colony of Cuba. Then, because it seemed logical, he seized Spanish Puerto Rico, Wake Island, and the Philippines -- and for good measure, Hawaii, which had nothing to do with Spain.
The most enthusiastic promoter of the war was the romantic nationalist Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt believed in the sea-power theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who held that colonies were essential to the commercial power of a modern nation; but he also simply liked war, which he thought brought out the best in a nation. Roosevelt would have preferred a war with Germany, but as he wrote to a friend, "I am not particular, and I'd even take Spain if nothing better offered." He was an expansionist and an imperialist. He did not argue that the United States had some peculiar benediction to confer on humanity. Imperialism was simply the work of civilizing the benighted races of the world, a white man's burden incumbent on all advanced nations. The United States, Roosevelt held, should not leave this good work to the European powers but should take up its share. That was the moral and "manly" thing to do.
Woodrow Wilson began as a splendid isolationist, apologizing to Colombia for the United States' theft of Panama (to build the canal), appointing the pacifist William Jennings Bryan as his secretary of state, and naming political hacks to ambassadorships. His initial foreign policy concern was to cope with the consequences of revolution in Mexico. He occupied Veracruz after some American sailors were arrested in Tampico, and sent a punitive expedition under General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing to chase "Pancho" Villa's band of revolutionaries back into Mexico after a cross-border raid. Wilson regarded the outbreak of the First World War as a fit of European madness and sent his confidant and adviser, Colonel Edward House, to search for a compromise settlement.
Wilson was at the same time saying that "there is such a thing as a man too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right." The latter proved to be untrue. Although he appealed for a "peace without victory" in January 1917, he went to war in April after the Germans extended their submarine campaign. He did so, he said, to fight a war to end all wars, to make the world safe for democracy, and to terminate "power politics."
When victory arrived, and with it the opportunity to realize his vision, Wilson declared that America's role in the war was a product of divine agency: "It was of this that we dreamed at our birth. America shall in truth show the way." His faith was confirmed by the response of the exhausted Europeans to his peace proposals. When he arrived in Paris for the Versailles negotiations, the crowds greeted him with what one observer called "inhuman ... superhuman" cheers. He said the world turned "to America for those moral inspirations which lie at the base of all freedom. ... [A]ll shall know that she puts human rights above all other rights, and that her flag is the flag not only of America, but of humanity." He thanked God that Americans were not like other people.
It is hard to explain why Wilson's fundamentally sentimental, megalomaniacal, and unhistorical vision of world democracy organized on the American example should continue today to set the general course of American foreign policy under both Democrats and Republicans. Wilson's legacy, for whatever reason, continues to inspire enthusiasm among policymakers and analysts for an American global hegemony that would bear little resemblance to the assemblage of nations that Wilson imagined: the Tennysonian "Parliament of man, the Federation of the world."
Wilsonian sentimentality has led to disastrous consequences over the past 80 years, yet these fiascoes seem to have left no trace on the minds of Wilson's modern followers. His naiveté about universal national self-determination contributed to the conditions in central and eastern Europe that, in the 1930s and 1940s, invited Hitler's intervention. His influence on Franklin Roosevelt led the latter to oppose Winston Churchill's efforts to use "power politics" in central Europe to secure it from postwar Soviet control. Wilson's legacy was also responsible for Roosevelt's belief that a new League, the United Nations, could resolve postwar geopolitical problems. Even U.S. policy in the Vietnam War was a confused amalgam of anticommunism and Wilsonian sentimentality: Lyndon Johnson justified his foreign policy as a means to give others what they "want for themselves -- liberty, justice, dignity, a better life for all."
Few in Washington, since Wilson's time, have seemed interested in speaking softly while carrying the big stick, as the first Roosevelt recommended. Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in 2000 promised to overthrow the regimes of "rogue states," rally laggard allies, and promulgate American-style democracy everywhere within reach. They differed only on pace and method. Whether public opinion accompanied them in these extravagant ambitions may be questioned, but the rhetoric was automatic. They knew no other. The country is still in the intellectual thrall of this self-righteous clergyman-president who gave to the American nation the blasphemous conviction that it, like he himself, had been created by God "to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty."
The United States will undoubtedly remain the world's military and economic superpower during the early years of the new century. During the Cold War, it built up a system of military bases and integrated alliances that its allies accepted as legitimate and indeed desirable because of the real threats of the period. When the threats were removed, however, by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evolution of communist China into a rationally authoritarian state that observed more or less normal rules of international relations, the alliance system lost what had been its compelling rationale, along with, potentially, its legitimacy. The system was nonetheless maintained and extended because of institutional and conceptual momentum; maintaining the apparatus of the outmoded policy became the policy itself.
The former Warsaw Pact countries, which had never been U.S. allies, were eager to have an American guarantee extended to them, even though Russia had already conceded their independence. The history of their proximity to a powerful Russia made a NATO link to the United States a precious one. But old allies in western Europe and the Far East increasingly came to see the American military presence as a potential infringement on their sovereignty, insisted on by the United States with less and less evident reason.
Lacking a clear enemy, Americans themselves grew confused about whether expanding their costly global engagement was really necessary. New theories of external threat to the United States were thus developed: wars of civilization, generalized Islamic assault on the West, global terrorism, resurgent Chinese or Russian imperialism, international crime, the drug trade. Wretched "rogue nations" were promoted to the front rank of those threatening the United States. None of this possessed much convincing intellectual or political warrant. The postulated threats were fragile structures built on speculation and worst-case scenarios, and some of them -- the rogue missile threat and a drug danger from Colombia that supposedly required indirect military intervention -- were influenced by the commercial interests of military manufacturers. All reflected the natural survival instincts of both the Cold War government bureaucracies and their civilian auxiliaries, whose raison d'être had been thrown into question by the Soviet collapse.
America's European allies, berated in the past for not doing enough to defend themselves, suddenly found themselves being censured for creating a "fortress Europe" when they launched a common defense project that might weaken American influence and privileges in Europe. Their interest, normal enough, in rationalizing and developing their own arms industry rather than buying from America was criticized as undermining transatlantic cooperation.
In East Asia, too, Washington continues to insist on the need for a permanent American military presence, even though it has friendly relations with China, accords it normal trading privileges, and speaks of its strategic relationship with that country as a "partnership." Madeleine Albright recently made a much-feted visit to North Korea (suddenly dispensed from its status as a "rogue nation") in anticipation of a possible visit by Bill Clinton, thereby annoying long-time U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.
The United States seems unable (or unwilling) to seriously reassess its actual strategic interests in Asia. Its primary interests there are economic and commercial, not military. Meanwhile, Japan, the true great power of the region, spends more than $40 billion annually on the most advanced military establishment in Asia (and one of the largest) -- a defense budget more than three times larger than China's.
Washington defends the Asian deployment because it exists, and because it is seen as part of a developing global strategic system. But some in Asia now ask if it has not become an instrument of intimidation. As in Europe, America's status there risks being transformed from that of welcome defender to burdensome intruder. Washington does not seem to understand that its power can become a destabilizing force.
Americans and foreigners alike usually take the United States to be invulnerable, but why should this be so? A stable and seemingly fulfilled European society, enjoying the most prosperous economy in the contemporary world, fell overnight in 1914 into a series of sanguinary calamities. In 1900, the British Empire was the sole superpower. It had rivals in Europe, as the United States today has one rival in the European Union, another in Russia, and still others in Asia. But the conventional belief a century ago, as Norman Angell would express in his 1910 globally best-selling book The Great Illusion, was that the interests of the great powers -- above all, their economic interests -- were so closely linked that war no longer made sense. The existence of empires and the gold standard had made the world's economies more "globalized" than they are today. The Polish banker Ivan Bloch had argued the same thing in 1899 but drew the opposite conclusion in The Future of War, which predicted the catastrophe of industrial war.
In 1900, the destructive forces that were to dominate most of the twentieth century either had no influence or did not yet exist. Marxism as a political movement was a marginal affair. Lenin was 30 years old, concluding a period of political internment in Siberia and about to go into foreign exile. Hitler was 11 years old. Benito Mussolini was 17, a budding pacifist and socialist. Fascism and Nazism were unimagined, perhaps unimaginable.
The empires of Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands dominated Asia and Africa. The United States was constructing its own empire from the Spanish possessions it had seized in the Caribbean and the Far East. The Hapsburg system was troubled by nationalism in the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire was in decline, but all that seemed manageable.
The twentieth century began in circumstances of apparent security more reassuring than those of today. No one in 1900 could have imagined the events that only 14 years later would destroy the existing international system and unleash the wave of totalitarianism that would dominate world affairs for most of the rest of the century. Responsible political and economic leaders and scholars at the time would undoubtedly have described the coming century in terms of continuing imperial rivalries within a Europe-dominated world, lasting paternalistic tutelage in Europe's colonies, solid constitutional government in western Europe, steadily growing prosperity, increasing scientific knowledge turned to human benefit, and so on. All would have been wrong.
The future, strictly speaking, cannot be predicted. But history has taught a few general lessons: that hegemonic power invites opposition; that political entities seek to aggrandize their power and wealth; that a vacuum of power will be filled; that evil exists, and reason is not its master; and that an unforeseen rupture can change everything.
The American position and the prevailing system will be challenged in the future. The identity of that challenger is unforeseeable today, but it is in the nature of a hegemonic system to generate opposition, as well as its own eventual replacement. Napoleon's domination of Europe, for example, prompted a coalition of opponents led by Britain that eventually defeated the French Empire at Waterloo. And Britain's nineteenth-century imperial domination provoked a fateful challenge from Wilhelm II of Germany.
History has shown that domination can endure for long periods only when an advanced civilization controls backward ones, as was the case in the Roman Empire. The challenge to American hegemony will come from societies that are equally advanced. It will also come from entropy, the natural tendency toward the degradation of a hegemon's energy. The Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires were all ultimately the victims of internal decline.
The American investments in present policy -- intellectual, institutional, and financial -- are too great to be easily reversed. The most that can reasonably be hoped for today is an acknowledgment that a different conception of the nation's role is legitimate and that the present course may be less well founded than conventionally believed: a concession of the possibility of danger ahead.
Revolt against even the limited international hegemony America now exercises is inevitable. Eventually a pluralism of power will reestablish itself, whether the United States resists it or not. This could come in a constructive way, leading toward an international system in which the major powers recognize, define, and respect their differences of interest and look for equitable resolutions. Or it could come in conflict and bitterness, with unpredictable consequences.
At every stage of political history there is ordinarily one system that the elites view as the most advanced and that the others emulate. Until 1914 it was the liberal representative republic or the constitutional monarchy. After the First World War, the magnetism of the liberal model was not restored until the Second World War and the Cold War had revealed the nihilism of the alternatives. Given a populist cast by the ascendance of the United States, Western democracy then presented itself to the world as the most authentic and humane form of representative government that history had known. It entered the twenty-first century with that reputation intact, but again, as in the period before 1914, under attack for its spiritual sterility.
The world crisis of 1914-89 ended with the collapses of Nazism and Marxism, but the utopian impulse underlying them was not exhausted in the United States, where it has always been an element of national identity. Europeans, after their experience in the last century, have been content with a modest and prudent program to integrate their national economies and political policies in the hope that this might permanently end their destructive national rivalries of the past. The United States, by contrast, has pursued what it has considered its mission to reform the world, a pious and unrealistic hope turned into a foreign policy.
America's optimism about such world transformation has yet to be broken. It underpins the case for hegemony and prevails on virtually every side of the orthodox policy debate. The idea that history is tragedy is not to the American taste. This is why the United States is a dangerous nation while remaining a "righteous" one. The puritanism of its cultural origins was intolerant of sinners and impatient with God's roundabout and unhurried ways. The United States is still impatient for progress. Its vision of reform expresses its conviction of singular virtue and national exception, which by happy coincidence reinforce national economic interest and the extension of national power. The risk to the United States is a classical one: self-destructive hubris, leading to barren tears.