Beyond American Hegemony

Beyond American Hegemony

Mini Teaser: The United States should abandon its futile attempt to secure global hegemony in favor of a concert-of-power foreign-policy strategy.

by Author(s): Michael Lind

THAT THE foreign policy of George W. Bush has been a catastrophic failure is disputed by none today except for a dwindling number of diehards on the neoconservative right. But there is no consensus on the scope of the failure. Has a sound global grand strategy been poorly implemented, at the operational and tactical level, in Iraq and elsewhere? Or is the failure much deeper than that? Is the grand strategy the Bush Administration has pursued inherently flawed?

This matters because what has become known as the "Bush Doctrine" did not originate with George W. Bush. Rather, it is rooted in a bipartisan consensus that America's temporary Cold War hegemony in Western Europe and east Asia should be converted into permanent U.S. global hegemony. True, the elder Bush and Bill Clinton viewed the United States as a status quo power whereas the younger Bush has been more inclined to use U.S. power to revise and change the international order, especially in the Middle East. Nevertheless, all three administrations shared the same essential strategic goal of consolidating U.S. global hegemony by averting the "renationalization" of German and Japanese military policy and preventing Russia and China from competing with the United States as "peer competitors." The perpetual "dual containment" of Germany and Japan, coupled with the not-so-secret containment of Russia and China, means that U.S. post-Cold War strategy represents less a break with U.S. Cold War strategy than a continuation of it, in a subtler form.

Hegemony's Descensus Avernus

DURING THE Cold War, the United States was the stronger of two superpowers in a bipolar world. The anti-Soviet alliance was not a traditional alliance of equals, but a hegemonic alliance centered on the United States. West Germany, Japan and South Korea were semi-sovereign U.S. protectorates. Britain and France were more independent, but even they received the benefits of "extended deterrence", according to which the United States agreed to treat an attack on them as the equivalent of an attack on the American homeland. America's Cold War strategy was often described as dual containment-the containment not only of America's enemies like the Soviet Union and (until the 1970s) communist China, but also of America's allies, in particular West Germany and Japan. Dual containment permitted the United States to mobilize German and Japanese industrial might as part of the anti-Soviet coalition, while forestalling the re-emergence of Germany and Japan as independent military powers.

The Cold War officially ended in Paris in 1990, but the United States has continued to pursue a dual containment strategy based on three principles: dissuasion, reassurance and coercive non-proliferation.

Dissuasion-directed at actual or potential challengers to the United States-commits the United States to outspend all other great military powers, whether friend or foe. This policy's goal-in the words of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance draft leaked from then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's Pentagon-is the dissuasion or "deterring [of] potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."

By the end of the 1990s, as Charles Krauthammer noted in these pages four years ago:

The result is the dominance of a single power unlike anything ever seen. Even at its height Britain could always be seriously challenged by the next greatest powers. Britain had a smaller army than the land powers of Europe and its navy was equaled by the next two navies combined. Today, American military spending exceeds that of the next twenty countries combined. Its navy, air force and space power are unrivaled.

This approach flies in the face of the strategy usually adopted by traditional status quo great powers, which sought to ensure that they belonged to alliances with resources that exceeded those of potential challengers. It is no surprise that, despite the absence of any threat to the United States equivalent to that of the Soviet Union, our defense spending today, as a share of our total GDP, is nearly at the Cold War average.

High levels of defense expenditures are not merely to overawe potential challengers. (In outlining possible competitors, Krauthammer noted, "Only China grew in strength, but coming from so far behind it will be decades before it can challenge American primacy-and that assumes that its current growth continues unabated.") To again quote from the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, "we must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order." Reassurance, the second prong of the hegemonic strategy, entails convincing major powers not to build up their military capabilities, allowing the United States to assume the burdens of ensuring their security instead.

In other words, while outspending allies like Germany and Japan on defense, the United States should be prepared to fight wars on behalf of Germany and Japan, sparing them the necessity of re-arming-for fear that these countries, having "renationalized" their defense policies and rearmed, might become hostile to the United States at some future date. For example, even though the threats emanating from the spillover of the Balkan conflicts affected Germany and its neighbors far more than a geographically far-removed United States, Washington took the lead in waging the 1999 Kosovo war-in part to forestall the emergence of a Germany prepared to act independently. And the Persian Gulf War was, among other things, a reassurance war on behalf of Japan-far more dependent on Persian Gulf oil than the United States-confirmed by the fact that Japan paid a substantial portion of the United States' costs in that conflict. Today, the great question is whether or not two other Asian giants-India and China-will eschew the development of true blue-water navies and continue to allow the United States to take responsibility for keeping the Gulf open.

Finally, the global hegemony strategy insists that America's safety depends not on the absence of a hostile hegemon in Europe, Asia and the Middle East-the traditional American approach-but on the permanent presence of the United States itself as the military hegemon of Europe, the military hegemon of Asia and the military hegemon of the Middle East. In each of these areas, the regional powers would consent to perpetual U.S. domination either voluntarily, because the United States assumed their defense burdens (reassurance), or involuntarily, because the superior U.S. military intimidated them into acquiescence (dissuasion).

American military hegemony in Europe, Asia and the Middle East depends on the ability of the U.S. military to threaten and, if necessary, to use military force to defeat any regional challenge-but at a relatively low cost. This is because the American public is not prepared to pay the costs necessary if the United States is to be a "hyperpower."

Given this premise, the obsession with the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) makes perfect sense. WMD are defensive weapons that offer poor states a possible defensive shield against the sword of unexcelled U.S. conventional military superiority. The success of the United States in using superior conventional force to defeat Serbia and Iraq (twice) may have accelerated the efforts of India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran to obtain nuclear deterrents. As an Indian admiral observed after the Gulf War, "The lesson is that you should not go to war with the United States unless you have nuclear weapons." Moreover, it is clear that the United States treats countries that possess WMD quite differently from those that do not.

So proliferation undermines American regional hegemony in two ways. First, it forces the U.S. military to adopt costly and awkward strategies in wartime. Second, it discourages intimidated neighbors of the nuclear state from allowing American bases and military build-ups on its soil.

With this in mind, proponents of the hegemony strategy often advocate a policy of preventive war to keep countries deemed to be hostile to the United States from obtaining nuclear weapons or WMD. Preventive war (as distinguished from pre-emptive attack to avert an impending strike) is not only a violation of international law but also a repudiation of America's own traditions. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all ruled out preventive wars against the Soviet Union and China to cripple or destroy their nuclear programs, and President Ronald Reagan, along with Britain's Margaret Thatcher, denounced Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak. Yet, by 2002, a bipartisan majority in the Congress authorized President George W. Bush to wage the first-and to date the only-preventive war in American history against Iraq. Although it turned out to be a disaster, it was perfectly consistent with the radical neoconservative variant of U.S. global hegemony strategy.

A Dirty Little Secret

PRECISELY BECAUSE the hegemony strategy is so alien to American and international foreign policy traditions, and so potentially costly in its open-ended strategic and budgetary commitments, many of its supporters have suggested that it should be kept secret from the wider American public, since it is so at odds with what most Americans think. In the January/February 2007 issue of The National Interest, Daniel Drezner summed up the general public's view:

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