Empire or Leader?
AT THE DAWN of the new millennium, the United States .is enjoying a preminence unrivaled by even the greatest empires of the past. From weaponry to entrepreneurship, from science to technology, from higher education to popular culture, America exercises an unparalleled ascendancy around the globe. During the last decade of the twentieth century, America's preponderant position rendered it the indispensable component of international stability. It mediated disputes in key trouble spots to the point that, in the Middle East, it had become an integral part of the peace process. So committed was the United States to this role that it almost ritually put itself forward as mediator, occasionally even when it was not invited by all the parties involved--as in the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan in July 1999. The United States considered itself both the source and the guarantor of democratic institutions around the globe, increasingly setting itself up as the judge of the fairness of foreign elections and applying economic sanctions or other pressures if its criteria were not met.
As a result, American troops are scattered around the world, from the plains of Northern Europe to the lines of confrontation in East Asia. These way stations of America's involvement verge, in the name of peacekeeping, on turning into permanent military commitments. In the Balkans, the United States is performing essentially the same functions as did the Austrian and Ottoman empires at the turn of the last century, of keeping the peace by establishing protectorates interposed between warring ethnic groups. It dominates the international financial system by providing the single largest pool of investment capital, the most attractive haven for investors, and the largest market for foreign exports. American popular culture sets standards of taste around the world even as it provides the occasional flash point for national resentments.
The legacy of the 1990s has produced a paradox. On the one hand, the United States is sufficiently powerful to be able to insist on its view and to carry the day often enough to evoke charges of American hegemony. At the same time, American prescriptions for the rest of the world often reflect either domestic pressures or a reiteration of maxims drawn from the experience of the Cold War. The result is that the country's pre-eminence is coupled with the serious potential of becoming irrelevant to many of the currents affecting and ultimately transforming the global order. The international scene exhibits a strange mixture of respect for--and submission to--America's power, accompanied by occasional exasperation with its prescriptions and confusion as to its long-term purposes.
Ironically, America's pre-eminence is often treated with indifference by its own people. Judging from media coverage and congressional sentiments--two important barometers--Americans' interest in foreign policy is at an all-time low.1 Hence prudence impels aspiring politicians to avoid discussions of foreign policy and to define leadership as a reflection of current popular sentiments rather than as a challenge to raise America's sights. The last presidential election was the third in a row in which foreign policy was not seriously discussed by the candidates. Especially in the 1990s, American pre-eminence evolved less from a strategic design than a series of ad hoc decisions designed to satisfy domestic constituencies while, in the economic field, it was driven by technology and the resulting unprecedented gains in American productivity. All this has given rise to the temptation of acting as if the United States needed no long-range foreign policy at all and could confine itself to a case-by-case respons e to challenges as they arise.
At the apogee of its power, the United States finds itself in an ironic position. In the face of perhaps the most profound and widespread upheavals the world has ever seen, it has failed to develop concepts relevant to the emerging realities. Victory in the Cold War tempts smugness; satisfaction with the status quo causes policy to be viewed as a projection of the familiar into the future; astonishing economic performance lures policymakers to confuse strategy with economics and makes them less sensitive to the political, cultural, and spiritual impact of the vast transformations brought about by American technology.
Coinciding with the end of the Cold War, the combination of self-satisfaction and prosperity has engendered a sense of American destiny that expresses itself in a dual myth: On the left, many see the United States as the ultimate arbitrator of domestic evolutions all over the world. They act as if America has the appropriate democratic solution for every other society regardless of cultural and historical differences. For this school of thought, foreign policy equates with social policy. It deprecates the significance of victory in the Cold War because, in its view, history and the inevitable trend toward democracy would have by themselves brought about the disintegration of the Communist system.
On the right, some imagine that the Soviet Union's collapse came about more or less automatically as the result of a new American assertiveness expressed in the change in rhetoric ("the Evil Empire") rather than from bipartisan exertions spanning nine administrations over almost half a century. And they believe, based on this interpretation of history, that the solution to the world's ills is American hegemony--the imposition of American solutions on the world's trouble spots by the unabashed affirmation of its pre-eminence.
Either interpretation makes it difficult to elaborate a long-range approach to a world in transition. Such controversy on foreign policy as takes place is divided between an attitude of missionary rectitude on one side and a sense that the accumulation of power is self-implementing on the other. The debate focuses on an abstract issue: whether values or interest, idealism or realism, should guide American foreign policy. The real challenge is to merge the two; no serious American maker of foreign policy can be oblivious to the traditions of exceptionalism by which American democracy has defined itself. But neither can the policymaker ignore the circumstances in which they have to be implemented.
The Changing International Environment
FOR AMERICANS, understanding the contemporary situation must begin with the recognition that its disturbances are not temporary interruptions of a beneficent status quo. They signal instead an inevitable transformation of the international order resulting from changes in the internal structure of many of its key participants, and from the democratization of politics, the globalization of economies, and the instantaneousness of communications. A state is by definition the expression of some concept of justice that legitimizes its internal arrangements and of a projection of power that determines its ability to fulfill its minimum functions--that is, to protect its population from foreign dangers and domestic upheaval. When all these elements are in flux simultaneously--including the concept of what is foreign--a period of turbulence is inevitable.
The very term "international relations" is, in fact, of relatively recent vintage, since it implies that the nation-state must inevitably be the basis of its organization. However, this is a concept that originated in Europe only in the late eighteenth century and was spread around the world largely by European colonialism. In medieval Europe, obligations were personal and traditional, based neither on common language nor on a single culture; they did not interpose the bureaucratic machinery of a state between the subject and the ruler. Restraints on government derived from custom, not constitutions, and from the universal Catholic Church, which preserved its own autonomy, thereby laying the basis-quite unintentionally--for the pluralism and the democratic restraints on state power that evolved centuries later.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this structure collapsed under the dual impact of the Reformation, which destroyed religious unity, and of printing, which made the growing religious diversity widely accessible. The resulting upheaval culminated in the Thirty Years' War, which, in the name of ideological--at that time, religious--orthodoxy; killed 30 percent of the population of Central Europe.
Out of this carnage emerged the modern state system as defined by the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, the basic principles of which have shaped international relations to this day. The treaty's foundation was the doctrine of sovereignty, which declared a state's domestic conduct and institutions to be beyond the reach of other states.
These principles were an expression of the conviction that domestic rulers were less likely to be arbitrary than crusading foreign armies bent on conversion. At the same time, the balance of power concept sought to establish restraints by an equilibrium that prevented any one nation from being dominant and confined wars to relatively limited areas. For over two hundred years--until the outbreak of World War I--the state system emerging from the Thirty Years' War achieved its objectives (with the exception of the ideological conflict of the Napoleonic period, when the principle of nonintervention was, in effect, abandoned for two decades). Each of these concepts is under attack today, to a point where it is forgotten that their purpose was to limit, not expand, the arbitrary use of power.
Today the Westphalian order is in systemic crisis. Its principles are being challenged, though an agreed alternative has yet to emerge. Noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states has been abandoned in favor of a concept of universal humanitarian intervention or universal jurisdiction, not only by the United States but by many West European countries. At the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York in September 2000, it was endorsed as well by a large number of other states. In the 1990s, the United States undertook four humanitarian military operations--in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo; other countries took the lead in two, in East Timor (led by Australia) and Sierra Leone (led by the United Kingdom). All of these interventions except Kosovo had United Nations sanction.
Simultaneously, the heretofore dominant concept of the nation-state is itself undergoing metamorphosis. True to the dominant philosophy, every state calls itself a nation but not all are such in terms of the nineteenth--century concept of a nation as a linguistic and cultural unit. Of the "great powers" at the turn of the new millennium, only the democracies of Europe and Japan fulfill that definition. China and Russia combine a national and cultural core with multiethnic attributes. The United States has increasingly equated its national identity with multi-ethnicity. In the rest of the world, states with mixed ethnic composition are the rule, and the cohesion of many of them is threatened by subject ethnic groups seeking autonomy or independence on the basis of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century doctrines of nationalism and self-determination. Even in Europe, falling birthrates and growing immigration are introducing the challenge of multi-ethnicity.
Historic nation-states, aware that their size is insufficient to play a major global role, are seeking to group themselves into larger units. The European Union represents the most sweeping expression of this policy thus far. But similar transnational groupings are emerging in the Western Hemisphere in such institutions as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Mercosur in South America, and in Asia in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The idea of a rudimentary free trade area has made its appearance in Asia under joint Chinese and Japanese sponsorship.
Each of these new units, in defining its identity, is driven, sometimes subconsciously, often deliberately, to do so in distinction to the dominant powers in its region. For ASEAN, the foils are China and Japan (and, in time, probably India); for the European Union and Mercosur, the foil is the United States, creating new rivalries even as they overcome traditional ones.
In the past, transformations of far lesser magnitude have led to major wars; indeed, wars have occurred with considerable frequency in the present international system as well. But they have never involved the current great powers in military conflict with each other. For the nuclear age has changed both the significance and the role of power, at least as far as the relationship of the major countries to one another is concerned. Until the beginning of the nuclear age, wars were most often sparked by disputes over territory or access to resources; conquest was undertaken to augment a state's power and influence. In the modern age, territory has lost much of its significance as an element of national strength; technological progress can enhance a country's power far more than any conceivable territorial expansion. Singapore, with literally no resources other than the intelligence of its people and leaders, has a much higher per capita income than much larger and more favorably endowed countries. And it uses t his wealth in part to build up--at least locally--impressive military forces to discourage the designs of covetous neighbors. Israel is in a similar position.
Nuclear weapons have rendered war between countries possessing them less likely--though this statement is unlikely to remain valid if nuclear weapons continue to proliferate into counties with a different attitude toward human life or unfamiliar with their catastrophic impact. Until the advent of the nuclear age, countries went to war because the consequences of defeat and even of compromise were deemed worse than those of war; this kind of reasoning led Europe to consume its substance in the First World War. But, among nuclear powers, this equation holds true in only the most desperate circumstances. In the minds of most leaders of major nuclear powers, the devastation of nuclear war is likely to appear more calamitous than the consequences of compromise, and perhaps even of defeat. The paradox of the nuclear age is that the growth in nuclear capability--and hence the acquisition of vast total power--is inevitably matched by a corresponding decline in the willingness to use it.
All other forms of power have been revolutionized as well. Until the end of the Second World War, power was relatively homogeneous; its various elements--economic, military, or political--complemented one another. A society could not be militarily strong without commanding a similar position in other fields. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, the various strands seemingly began to diverge. Suddenly a country could become an economic power without possessing a significant military capacity (Saudi Arabia, for example) or develop vast military power despite an obviously stagnant economy (witness the late Soviet Union).
In the twenty-first century, these strands are likely to merge again. The fate of the Soviet Union demonstrated that one-sided emphasis on military power is impossible to sustain--especially in an age of economic and technological revolution linked by instant communications that bring the vast gaps in the standards of living into living rooms worldwide. In addition, in a single generation, science has made leaps that exceed the accumulated knowledge of all previous human history. The computer, the Internet, and the growing field of biotechnology have invested technology with a scope unimaginable by any past generation. An advanced system of technological education has become a prerequisite for a country's long-term power. It supplies the sinews of a society's strength and vitality; without it, all other types of power will wither.
Globalization has diffused economic and technological power around the world. Instantaneous communications make the decisions in one region hostage to those in other parts of the globe. Globalization has produced unprecedented prosperity, albeit not evenly. It remains to be seen whether it accelerates downturns as efficiently as it did global prosperity, creating the possibility for a global disaster. And globalization--inevitable as it is--also has the potential of giving rise to a gnawing sense of impotence as decisions affecting the lives of millions slip out of local political control. The sophistication of economics and technology is in danger of outrunning the capacities of contemporary politics.
THE UNITED States finds itself in a world for which little in its historical experience has prepared it. Secure between two great oceans, it rejected the concept of the balance of power, convinced that it was either able to stand apart from the quarrels of other nations or that it could bring about universal peace by insisting on the implementation of its own values of democracy and self-determination.
As well as that, the United States is confronted by a world of unparalleled complexity, in which at least four international systems are existing side by side:
* In relations between the United States and Western Europe and within the Western Hemisphere, America's historic ideals have considerable applicability. Here the idealist version of peace based on democracy and economic progress demonstrates its relevance. States are democratic; economies are market-oriented; wars are inconceivable except at the periphery, where they may be triggered by ethnic conflicts. Disputes are not settled by war or the threat of war. Military preparations are a response to threats from outside the area; they are not aimed by the nations of the Atlantic region or the Western Hemisphere at one another.
* The great powers of Asia--larger in size and far more populous than the nations of nineteenth-century Europe--treat one another as strategic rivals. India, China, Japan, Russia--with Korea and the states of Southeast Asia not lagging far behind--consider that some of the others, and certainly a combination of them, are indeed capable of threatening their national security. Wars among these powers are not imminent, but they are not inconceivable either. Asian military expenditures are rising, and they are designed principally as protection against other Asian nations (though some of China's military effort includes as well the contingency of a war with the United States over Taiwan). As in nineteenth-century Europe, a long period of peace is possible--even likely--but a balance of power will necessarily play a key role in preserving it.
* The Middle East conflicts are most analogous to those of seventeenth-century Europe. Their roots are not economic, as in the Atlantic region and the Western Hemisphere, or strategic, as in Asia, but ideological and religious. The maxims of the Westphalian peace diplomacy do not apply. Compromise is elusive when the issue is not a specific grievance but the legitimacy--indeed, the existence--of the other side. Therefore, paradoxically, attempts to bring about a definitive resolution of such conflicts have a high potential for backfiring, as President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak discovered in the aftermath of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. For an attempt to "compromise" on the question of what each party considers to be its holy place was bound to bring home to them the irreconcilable aspect of their positions.
* The continent for which there is no precedent in European history is Africa. Though its forty-six nations call themselves democracies, they do not conduct their policies on the basis of a unifying ideological principle. Nor are African politics dominated by an embracing concept of balance of power. The continent is too vast, the reach of most of its countries too short, to be able to speak of an African balance of power. And, with the end of the Cold War, the great power rivalry over Africa has largely disappeared as well. Moreover, Africa's legacy of colonial rule endows it with explosive potential, ethnic conflict, serious underdevelopment, and dehumanizing health problems. Borders drawn to facilitate colonial rule divided tribes and ethnic groups and assembled different religions and tribes in administrative subdivisions that later emerged as independent states. Hence Africa has produced savage civil wars that spread into international conflicts, as well as epidemics that rend the human conscience. In t his continent, there is a challenge to the democracies to compensate for their histories in finding a way to help Africa to participate in global growth. And the world community has an obligation to end, or at least to mitigate, the political and ethnic conflicts.
The very range and variety of international systems renders much of the traditional American debate about the nature of international politics somewhat irrelevant. Whether it is values or power, ideology or raison d'etat that are the key determinants of foreign policy in fact depends on the historical stage in which an international system finds itself. For American foreign policy, ever in quest of the magic, all-purpose formula, the resulting need for ideological subtlety and long-range strategy presents a special and as yet unsolved challenge.
Unfortunately, domestic politics is driving American foreign policy in the opposite direction. Congress not only legislates the tactics of foreign policy but also seeks to impose a code of conduct on other nations by a plethora of sanctions. Scores of nations now find themselves under such sanctions. Successive administrations have acquiesced, in part as a compromise to gain approval for other programs, in part because, absent an immediate outside danger, domestic politics has become more important to political survival than the handling of foreign policy. What is presented by foreign critics as America's overweening quest for domination is very frequently a response to domestic pressure groups, which are in a position to put the spotlight on key issues by promising support or threatening retribution at election time and which support each other's causes to establish their own claims for the future.
Whatever the merit of the individual legislative actions, their cumulative effect drives American foreign policy toward unilateral and occasionally bullying conduct. For unlike diplomatic communications, which are generally an invitation to dialogue, legislation translates into a take-it-or-leave-it prescription, the operational equivalent of an ultimatum.
Simultaneously, ubiquitous and clamorous media are transforming foreign policy into a subdivision of public entertainment. The intense competition for ratings produces an obsession with the crisis of the moment, generally presented as a morality play between good and evil having a specific outcome and rarely in terms of the long-range challenges of history. As soon as the flurry of excitement has subsided, the media move on to new sensations. At their peak, the Gulf and Kosovo crises or the Camp David summit were covered twenty-four hours a day by print and television media. Since then, except during occasional flare-ups, they have received very little day-to-day attention, even though the underlying trends continue, some of them becoming more unmanageable the longer they remain unresolved.
But the deepest reason for Americas difficulty in the 1990s with developing a coherent strategy for a world in which its role is so central was that three different generations with very different approaches to foreign policy were disputing America's role. The contending forces were: veterans of the Cold War strategy of the 1950s and 1960s seeking to adapt their experience to the circumstances of the new millennium; stalwarts of the Vietnam protest movement seeking to apply its lessons to the emerging world order; and a new generation shaped by experiences which make it hard for them to grasp the perceptions of either the Cold War generation or those of the Vietnam protesters.
The Cold War strategists sought to manage the conflict of the nuclear superpowers by the policy of containment of the Soviet Union. Though far from oblivious to the nonmilitary issues (after all, the Marshall Plan was as important as NATO to the overall design), the Cold War generation insisted that there was an irreducible element of power involved in international politics and that it was measured by the ability to prevent Soviet military and political expansion.
The generation of Cold War strategists reduced and, for a while, nearly eliminated the historic tension in American thinking between idealism and power. In the world dominated by the two superpowers, requirements of ideology and equilibrium tended to merge. Foreign policy became a zero-sum game in which the gains of one side translated into losses for the other.
Beyond containment, the major thrust of American Cold War diplomatic foreign policy was to return the defeated enemies, Germany and Japan, to the emerging international system as full-fledged members. This task, unprecedented in respect to nations on which unconditional surrender had been imposed less than five years earlier, made sense to a generation of American leaders whose formative experience had been overcoming the Great Depression of the 1930s. The generation that organized resistance to the Soviet Union had experienced Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which had restored political stability by closing the gap between American expectations and economic reality. The same generation had prevailed in World War II, fought in the name of democracy.
It was Vietnam that broke the fusion of ideology and strategy that characterized the thinking of what is now termed "the greatest generation."2 Though the principles of American exceptionalism continue to be affirmed by all participants in the domestic discussions of foreign policy, their application to concrete cases became subject to a profound and continuing dispute.
Shaken by disillusionment with the Vietnam experience, many erstwhile intellectual supporters of Cold War policies either retreated from the field of strategy or, in effect, rejected the essence of postwar American foreign policy. The administration of President Bill Clinton--the first staffed by many individuals who came out of the Vietnam protest--treated the Cold War as a misunderstanding made intractable by American intransigence. They recoiled from the concept of national interest and distrusted the use of power unless it could be presented as being in the service of some "unselfish" cause--that is, reflecting no specific American national interest. On numerous occasions and on several continents President Clinton fell to apologizing for actions of his predecessors that, in his view, stemmed from what he derogatorily described as their Cold War attitudes. But the Cold War was not a policy mistake--though some mistakes were, of course, made in the pursuit of it; profound issues of survival and national p urpose were involved. Ironically, that claim to unselfishness was interpreted as a special kind of unpredictability, even unreliability, by nations that have historically treated diplomacy as a reconciliation of interests.
Obviously the United States cannot--and should not--return to the policies of the Cold War or of eighteenth-century diplomacy. The contemporary world is far more complex and in need of a much more differentiated approach. But neither can it afford the self-indulgence or self-righteousness of the protest period. These schools of thought, in any event, mark the end of an era whose disputes seem to the generation born after 1960 as abstruse and academic.
That generation has not yet raised leaders capable of evoking a commitment to a consistent and long-range foreign policy. Indeed, some of them question whether we need any foreign policy at all. In the globalized economic world, the post-Cold War generation looks to Wall Street or Silicon Valley in the same way their parents did to public service in Washington. This reflects the priority being attached to economic over political activity, partly caused by a growing reluctance to enter a calling blighted by relentless publicity that all too often ends in destroying careers and reputations.
The post-Cold War generation is concerned very little with the debates over the war in Indochina, being largely unfamiliar with its details and finding its liturgy nearly incomprehensible. Nor does it feel guilty about professing a doctrine of self-interest which it pursues strenuously in its own economic activities (though it sometimes enlists appeals to national unselfishness as a sop to the conscience). As the product of an educational system that puts little emphasis on history, it often lacks perspective about foreign affairs. This generation is subject to being seduced by the idea of riskless global relations as compensation for the intense competitiveness of its private lives. In this environment, the belief comes very naturally that the pursuit of economic self-interest will ultimately and almost automatically produce global political reconciliation and democracy.
Such attitudes are possible only because the danger of general war has largely disappeared. In such a world, the post-Cold War generation of American leaders (whether graduated from the protest movements or the business schools) finds it possible to imagine that foreign policy is either economic policy or consists of instructing the rest of the world in American virtues. Not surprisingly, American diplomacy since the end of the Cold War has turned more and more into a series of proposals for adherence to an American agenda.
But economic globalism is not a substitute for world order, though it can be an important component of it. The very success of the globalized economy will generate dislocations and tensions, both within and between societies, which will exert pressures on the world's political leaderships. Meanwhile, the nation-state, which remains the unit of political accountability, is being reconstituted in many regions of the world on the basis of two seemingly contradictory trends: either by breaking down into ethnic components or by dissolving itself into larger regional groupings.
So long as the post-Cold War generation of national leaders is embarrassed to elaborate an unapologetic concept of enlightened national interest, it will achieve progressive paralysis, not moral elevation. Certainly, to be truly American, any concept of national interest must flow from the country's democratic tradition and concern with the vitality of democracy around the world. But the United States must also translate its values into answers to some hard questions: What, for our survival, must we seek to prevent no matter how painful the means? What, to be true to ourselves, must we try to accomplish no matter how small the attainable international consensus, and, if necessary, entirely on our own? What wrongs is it essential that we right? What goals are simply beyond our capacity?
1 The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations polls purport to show continuing interest in international engagement. But other indices, such as media coverage and congressional interest, suggest otherwise.
2 Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998).
Henry Kissinger is chairman of Kissinger Associates, Inc. [c] 2001 by Henry Kissinger. From his forthcoming book Does America Need a Foreign Policy? to be published in June 2001 by Simon & Schuster. Printed by permission.