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A State of Mind

December 1, 1994 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: Baltic SeaCold WarSuperpowerSuez CrisisGulf War

A State of Mind

Mini Teaser: It is now possible to discuss the domestic political scene very adequately with no, or only the most cursory, reference to foreign policy.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

At a recent National Review seminar, appropriately held in the well-conserved town of St. Michaels on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, I had the pleasure of listening to Bill Kristol analyzing the current state of American politics. It was masterfully done--thoroughly informed, judicious, full of interesting connections and distinctions, even witty. But one thing was striking: in a thirty-minute talk, he found it necessary to make only one passing reference to foreign policy.

True, what he had been asked to speak about was domestic politics. But it is also true that anyone given the same task between 1949 and 1989 would have found it impossible to proceed without repeated references to foreign policy and the way it impacted on the domestic scene. In the 1950s, McCarthyism, the implications of Sputnik for American education, and the "missile gap" (phoney, as it turned out, but crucially important in the presidential elections of 1960) would have been essential topics. Throughout most of the 1960s there was, of course, Vietnam. After that came OPEC and the oil crisis, ping pong diplomacy, detente and the hostages in Iran, all of which intruded seriously into internal politics. And in Reagan's 1980s the greatly increased defense budget, "Star Wars," the rise of Japan and the decline of America that it allegedly foreshadowed, and "Irangate" would all have had to be woven into the sort of review that Bill Kristol gave.

Such references to foreign and security policies would have been inescapable during those Cold War years for the same reason that they would have been inescapable in a discussion of Napoleon's France, or Great Britain in the late Victorian era: because the country involved was a superpower, and because the external policies of a superpower are so extensive and compelling, so essential to its entire sense of itself, that they have a pervasive influence on its internal political life.

But that is not true of present day, post-Cold War America. As Kristol demonstrated, it is now possible to discuss the domestic political scene very adequately with no, or only the most cursory, reference to foreign policy. And that, it seems to me, is clear evidence that it no longer makes much sense to think of the United States as a superpower--that, indeed, it is seriously misleading and potentially dangerous to do so.

In a recent article (The New Republic, October 10), I argued that the term "the sole remaining superpower" that is constantly applied to the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union is a contradiction in terms. I shall exert an editor's privilege and quote myself:

The superpower game is a relational one, not solitaire, and it takes at least two to play it. If
you have two superpowers and you take away one, what is left is something less than a superpower. For being a superpower involves more than having certain capacities in the abstract, certain potentials (if it did not, after all, the United States would have been a superpower as long ago as the 1920s). It involves being fully energized, motivated and focused to mobilize and deploy those capacities and potentials--and it's very unlikely that a state can achieve that condition without the galvanizing presence of at least one rival superpower, to provide the needed sense of urgency and danger. The United States has ceased to be a superpower, not because it has 'declined' but because its circumstances and its interests no longer require or permit it to be one.

The point is that superpowerdom is more about a state of mind than it is about objective criteria and indices of power. America in the interwar years demonstrated, and Japan today demonstrates (and may it long continue to do so!) that it is possible to possess the objective requirements for superpower status without being one. Conversely, Great Britain briefly demonstrated in the years between the end of World War II and the Suez Crisis, and the Soviet Union demonstrated in the 1980s, that, given the will and habit of mind, it is possible to behave like a superpower for awhile even when the objective requirements are not present. But maintaining that will almost always depends on the existence of a serious rival, and that is what the United States lacks today.

At the same National Review seminar, Charles Krauthammer disagreed with my argument that it takes at least two to play the superpower game by posing the telling question: If the Soviet Union had won the Cold War instead of the United States, would it not have continued to behave like a superpower and impose its will on the world? The answer to that question, of course, is, yes, it almost certainly would have. What that means, however, is not that my original argument was wrong but that it needs qualification. It should be applied only to normal states and not to cancerous ones like Napoleon's France or Hitler's Germany or the Soviet Union. In the latter the will to prevail and predominate is self-generating and insatiable, and does not require a rival or a threat; but in other states, including the United States, it does.

Is it worth arguing in this way about a phrase? Does it matter one way or another? Surely it does, because phrases reflect states of mind, and states of mind go a long way towards determining policies and actions. The phrase "The sole remaining superpower" is one that encourages a state of mind which sees other countries of the world as so many children who can not be left to cope with any problem on their own, without the intervention of the United States--the only properly adult actor in the affairs of the world. To identify a problem therefore becomes equivalent to advocating intervention: all problems are America's problems. It is a foolish state of mind in that it underestimates the ability of others while exaggerating both the competence and the enthusiasm of one's own country. It is also a dangerous state of mind in that it threatens an overextension of one's own powers, while at the same time discouraging the assumption of responsibility for their own affairs by others.

Essay Types: Essay