Hubs, Spokes and Public Goods

What has really changed since last September 11? Not very much.

What has really changed since last September 11? Not very much. Cataclysmic as it was, that event was more like a bolt of lightning that illuminated the essential contours of the international landscape than like an earthquake that reconfigured it. It dramatized, but did not shape, some profound transformations of world politics in the making for at least a decade. These transformations have to do with the nature, distribution and hierarchy of global power. Paradoxically perhaps, September 11 has dramatized the centrality of the United States in the international security system.

The real watershed event, in retrospect, was not September 11, 2001 but Christmas Day 1991 when the Russian Empire-a.k.a. the Soviet Union-committed suicide by self-dissolution. Suddenly, the world was no longer bipolar but unipolar, no longer defined by the titanic U.S.-Soviet struggle but by the presence of a virtually unchallenged No. 1: the United States. Because the Soviet collapse unfolded without war and revolution-unlike the cases of the Czarist, Ottoman, Habsburg, Hitlerian and colonial empires throughout the 20th century-the consequences of this drama took some time to sink in. Act one took place in 1990-91 when the United States masterminded the global coalition that laid low Saddam Hussein-unopposed by the Soviet Union, Europe and China. Acts two and three followed in 1995 and 1999 when the United States took the lead in bombing campaigns against Serbia-again, virtually unopposed. In the most recent act the United States harnessed a global coalition once more, this time against Terror International sited in Afghanistan. The moral of this tale that stretches from Baghdad to the Balkans to Tora Bora is simple: No. 1 in 1992 has become even more so in 2002.

The war in Afghanistan is in some ways a special case, for it exemplifies a revolution in warfare that has thrust American power into a category all of its own. The war was prosecuted from 7,000 miles away, from Central Command in Florida, in almost "real time." It dramatized force projection, logistical, and command, control and intelligence capabilities that no nation has ever before come close to deploying. So novel and effective was the campaign that it might have foreshadowed the end of the post-Hiroshima age, which is to say that so powerful were some of the "conventional" weapons deployed there (like thermobaric bombs) that the function of nuclear devices may be relegated, really once and for all, to deterrence alone.

Though a new twist in the history of warfare, the war in Afghanistan underscores an old point: the United States is not strong because it has nuclear weapons; it is mighty because it can do without them. Indeed, the power gap between No. 1 and the rest keeps growing. The United States now spends on military capabilities ($377 billion for this fiscal year) almost as much as the rest of the world combined. If the Bush Administration adds to the defense budget every year as planned so that, by 2007, the United States will allocate $450 billion, then, ceteris paribus, the United States will outspend all others combined. Not since the days of the Roman Empire has such a power gap between No. 1 and the rest existed.

This was bound to have consequences, and the best shorthand description of the most important of these is the Rumsfeld Doctrine. That doctrine proclaims that "the mission determines the coalition, and not the other way round", and its first victim was nato. Indeed, nato as we have known it for half a century, as an anti-Soviet alliance, is dead. That was nato i, in essence a unilateral American guarantee binding the United States to the defense of Europe. It has been replaced by nato ii, best defined as a collection of states, now including Russia, from which the United States draws coalition partners ad hoc. nato ii, in other words, is a pool, not a pact; accordingly, in nato ii's first war, (some) members acted as chosen handmaidens, not as foreordained beneficiaries, of American might.

This represents a momentous and still insufficiently appreciated change in Atlantic relations, and to grasp the full scope of American pre-eminence the point must be pushed still further. The aftermath of September 11 has certified America's global primacy in terms of both structure and process. No. 1 in the hierarchy of power, the United States is also the foremost impresario of the world's major politico-strategic relationships. America's Cold War alliances with Western Europe and Japan (and briefly cento and seato) were once the single axis around which American grand strategy revolved. They still play prominent roles, but in a system that is now tous azimuts. The proper metaphor is that of "hub and spokes", with America as the hub and players 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on representing the spokes. Who are they?

"Europe" remains a founding member of the system, but as a set of ad hoc participants rather than as a single entity, be it nato or the eu. A privileged European player is Britain, another, though more ambiguously so, is Germany. France is simultaneously an active ally (as in the Balkans or in Afghanistan) and a quondam object of containment. Poland-and indeed all the beneficiaries of the American-led enlargement of nato-as well as Turkey, are useful counterweights against the larger continentals. Europe itself is a regional version of the hub-and-spokes system, with the United States ever so subtly playing some against others, or recruiting posses for the intervention du jour.