Courtesy Reuters

The Future of the American Pacifier

PASSING THE BUCK

The central aim of American foreign policy has traditionally been to dominate the western hemisphere while not permitting another great power to dominate Europe or Northeast Asia. The United States has not wanted a peer competitor. In the wake of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers remain firmly committed to this goal. An important Pentagon planning document stated in 1992, "Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a new rival ... that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. ... Our strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor."

In pursuit of this goal, the United States has behaved as an offshore balancer, committing troops to Europe and Northeast Asia only when there was a potential hegemon in those neighborhoods that the local powers could not contain by themselves. In effect, the United States has followed a "buck-passing" strategy -- remaining on the sidelines while getting others to bear the burden of deterring or fighting aggressors -- until it could no longer do so safely. Unless this realist pattern of behavior changes radically, the future of the U.S. military commitments to Europe and Northeast Asia can thus be expected to hinge on whether a potential hegemon emerges in either region that can be contained only with American help. If not, the more than 100,000 U.S. troops based in each region will probably leave in the first decade or so of the new century.

Europe and Northeast Asia are stable and peaceful today. Many attribute this quiescence to regional integration, or democracy, or the replacement of militaristic strategic cultures with pacific ones. In fact, however, the current peace and stability are based largely on auspicious distributions of power that make war highly unlikely.

But if the power structures that are now in place in Europe and Northeast Asia are benign, they are not sustainable for much longer. The most likely scenario in Europe is an eventual

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