Can America Be the World's Umpire?
Even poor and weak countries routinely defy the American umpire. How many presidents have tried to throw the Kim family regime out of North Korea? When an MLB umpire tells a quarrelsome manager “You’re outta here”—he’s out of there; the skipper doesn’t get to stick around in the dugout.
The sort of underbalancing that we have seen in the world is also problematic for primacy. U.S. security guarantees to like-minded allies, from Germany and Poland to Japan and South Korea, have likely discouraged these countries from spending more on their defenses. The U.S. alliance has also factored into the decision by many of these countries to eschew nuclear weapons. In that sense, however, U.S. foreign policy can be said to have done a decent (though not perfect, see, e.g. the United Kingdom, France and Israel) job at discouraging nuclear proliferation among its allies, but a lousy job of stopping bad actors from wanting nukes (see Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea).
Ten years ago, two different authors stumbled upon this central problem of primacy, or benevolent hegemony—the myth of disinterest—though neither chose to dwell on it. Their intellectual paths had crossed in interesting ways. One was a reformed neoconservative who began to have doubts once the Iraq mission turned south. The other had been a harsh critic of Bill Clinton’s relatively activist foreign policy in late-1990s, but by 2005 was making the case for more activism.
In America at the Crossroads, Francis Fukuyama doubted the staying power of benevolent hegemony which contained “a number of structural flaws and contradictions.” In addition to its misplaced faith in the “competence” of the hegemon to manage world affairs, the theory also rested:
on a belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible. The idea that the United States behaves disinterestedly in the world stage is not widely believed because it is for the most part not true and, indeed, could not be true if American leaders fulfill their responsibilities to the American people. The United States is capable of acting generously in its provision of global public goods, and has been most generous when its ideas and self-interest have coincided. But the United States is also a great power with interests not related to public goods.
The American people’s limited tolerance for paying the high costs of U.S. foreign policy would be severely tested, Fukuyama explained, if overseas projects “do not have clear benefits to U.S. interests.”
“Americans are not, at heart, an imperial people,” he continued:
Even benevolent hegemons sometimes have to act ruthlessly, and they need a staying power that does not come easily to people who are reasonably content with their own lives and society.
Michael Mandelbaum sensed this, too. In his book, The Case for Goliath, Mandelbaum anticipated that the United States’ ability to police the world would depend on how much it cost and Americans’ willingness to pay those costs.
On that final score, however, he was not optimistic. He noted, as Fukuyama had, that for Americans, our own national interests “have priority.” This, he went on, “does not bespeak unusual financial stinginess or moral callousness: Americans approach the world as much as other peoples do....For the American public, foreign policy, like charity, begins at home.” If they sensed that playing the global cop delivered clear benefits, and served U.S. national interests, and at reasonable cost, it might continue in its hegemonic role. But he worried that most Americans wouldn’t see it that way. Thus, Mandelbaum predicted “the American role in the world may depend in part on Americans not scrutinizing it too closely.”
But then Americans started noticing. Iraq didn’t help, but the biggest factor may have been the financial crisis in 2008. The tone and substance of Mandelbaum’s next book, The Frugal Superpower, suggested that fiscal realities would constrain Washington’s adventurism. His latest offering is more pessimistic still. The title, Mission Failure, speaks for itself.
Americans might have gone along with costly foreign adventures, often fought on behalf of others who came off as ungrateful, so long as such excursions didn’t cut into popular domestic spending, or lead to higher taxes. Less able to hide the costs of war through debt, and sensing the public’s fickle mood, but reluctant to shed primacy entirely, Washington has opted for war on the cheap: the light footprint and remote-control warfare. Think baseball umpires calling games from a video control room in New York. (Wait, that happens...)