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
To be sure, Americans are comfortable with the idea of America as a superpower. This does not mean, however, that the public endorses unilateral American leadership. . . .[I]n every Pew survey since 1993, fewer than 15 percent of Americans endorsed the idea that America should be the "single world leader". . . .Americans do not shrink from uses of force to advance security interests, but it is far from the first resort for the public. When acting abroad, polling demonstrates robust American support for acting in concert with allied countries and, to some extent, multilateral institutions.1

Michael Mandelbaum concedes, in his book The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century, that the case for U.S. global hegemony might not

persuade the American public, which might well reject the proposition that it should pay for providing the world with government services. American citizens see their country's foreign policy as a series of discrete measures designed to safeguard the interests, above all the supreme interest of physical security, of the United States itself. They have never been asked to ratify their country's status as the principal supplier of international public goods, and if they were asked explicitly to do so, they would undoubtedly ask in turn whether the United States ought to contribute as much to providing them, and other countries as little, as was the case in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

So he concludes that it may be necessary to keep the American public in the dark because "the American role in the world may depend in part on Americans not scrutinizing it too closely."2

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, noted in a recent issue that "America is a global power with global reach and responsibilities" and that, as a result, "the United States inevitably will be called upon to act." Yet, unwilling to explain the actual reasons for military interventions flowing from America's hegemonic strategy of reassuring allies, dissuading potential peer competitors and preventing proliferation, American presidents and their allies have relied on misleading public rationales: rogue states, terrorists, WMD and genocide.

"Rogue state" is a term of emotional propaganda, not sober analysis. The rogue-state rationale is employed when American leaders wish to rally support for a policy whose actual purpose-increasing or reinforcing American military hegemony in its European, Asian or Middle Eastern sphere of influence-cannot be explained to the public. Instead, the American public is told that this or that rogue state-North Korea, Iran or Iraq-is a direct threat to the American people and the American homeland, as it will be able to lob missiles at the United States or to give terrorists nuclear bombs or other WMD for use on American soil.

In the case of North Korea, for example, U.S. policy is motivated largely, although not solely, by the fear that if Japan loses confidence in America's willingness to protect it, Japan may obtain its own nuclear deterrent and renationalize its foreign policy, emerging from the status of a semi-sovereign U.S. protectorate to that of an independent military great power once again. But no president can tell the American public that the United States must be willing to lose 50,000 or more American lives in a war with North Korea for fear that Japan will get nuclear weapons to defend itself. Therefore the public is told instead that North Korea might give nuclear weapons to non-state actors to use to destroy New York, Washington and other American cities, or that North Korean missiles can strike targets in North America.

If Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, its purpose almost certainly would be defensive-to deter the United States, Israel or any other state from attacking it. The American public would not support a preventive war against Iran on the lunatic theory that it would cheaper to attack Iran before it gets nuclear weapons than to attack Iran after it gets them. Therefore, neoconservative hawks seek to persuade the public that Iran, like North Korea, might either bombard Kansas or give nuclear weapons to Islamist terrorists, or that Iran's viciously anti-Semitic leadership might use nuclear weapons against Israel. (Annihilating Israeli Arabs and Palestinians alongside Israeli Jews would seem to be an odd way to promote the Palestinian cause-but then, Iran's leaders, like the leaders of any country that opposes the United States, are said to be "insane.")

In the Balkans, a major strategic goal of the Kosovo war was reassuring Germany so it would not develop a defense policy independent of the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance. But Milosevic's Yugoslavia could not be accused of developing WMD, so it had to be accused of something else if the American public were to support the war. In fact it was guilty of a war crime-ethnic cleansing. But the Clinton Administration and supporters of intervention talked about "genocide", a much more serious charge. Needless to say, criminal as it is, ethnic cleansing-using terror to frighten an ethnic group into leaving a country-is the opposite of genocide, the extermination of an ethnic group, which requires that they be trapped, not expelled. When the Nazis settled on the Final Solution, they took measures to prevent Jews from escaping Europe.

The point is not to argue that ethnic cleansing should not be discouraged and punished by the international community, or that proliferation is not a problem or that the regimes called rogue states are not threats to their neighbors and world order. The point is rather that these phenomena have been used as public rationales for recent wars and threatened wars whose real purpose was either the reassurance of regional allies like Germany and Japan or the dissuasion of potential enemies like Russia and China (Kosovo, North Korea), or the removal of regimes that threatened America's military freedom of action as the post-Cold War hegemon of the Middle East (the Iraq War). The genocide in Rwanda was real, but the United States did not intervene because-unlike America's would-be permanent protectorates in Europe, Asia and the Middle East-Africa contains no great powers or critical power resources, and therefore is marginal to the U.S. hegemony strategy. Pakistan fits the definition of a rogue state, but it is a U.S. ally-and as long as it remains friendly to the United States, it can be permitted to retain nuclear weapons.

This kind of hypocrisy is made inevitable by the hegemony strategy itself. Because the American public would not support wars and threats of war in the interest of reassuring allies, dissuading competitors and preventing proliferation, its supporters have a choice between abandoning the strategy or deceiving the public about the true ends of U.S. foreign policy. For the last 15 years, they have chosen the latter.

Beyond Hegemony

IT IS POSSIBLE that U.S. foreign policy will continue to be guided by the post-Cold War hegemony strategy. If the United States eventually withdraws from Iraq, and the costs of U.S. foreign policy decline significantly, then the public might be as willing to defer to the bipartisan foreign policy elite that supports the hegemony strategy as it was in the 1990s, when the costs were low.

In the long run, however, the rise of China-and possibly other new powers like India-is certain to create a multipolar world. At some point the cost of out-spending all other great powers combined will become prohibitive, if it is not already. At that point the hegemony strategy, always unwise, will be unaffordable, and even its proponents will be forced to seek an alternative.

One might be a balance-of-power strategy that takes the form of an alliance including the United States in a bipolar or multipolar world. Thomas Donnelly, a neoconservative associated with the Project for a New American Century, suggests that a less expensive alternative to U.S. hegemony would be an alliance of the United States, Japan, India and Britain, which he describes as "the de facto plan of the Bush administration, though officials dare not speak its name."3 The inclusion of Britain cannot conceal the fact that this is a plan for a U.S.-Japanese-Indian alliance against China. As a response to genuine aggression by China, such an alliance might be necessary. But to create an anti-Chinese alliance merely as a response to the gradual growth of Chinese wealth and power, without any provocation on China's part, would be to launch-if I may coin a phrase-a "cold war of choice." Britain is no longer an east Asian power, and India, by cultivating ties with China as well as the United States, has shown no interest in the role assigned to it by some American neoconservatives as America's junior partner in the encirclement of China.

Another option favored by some realists and libertarians, an offshore-balancing strategy, is unlikely to be adopted and would be unwise. The offshore-balancing strategy would have the United States intervene only at the last moment to "tip the balance" against one side in a contest among Eurasian great powers-China versus Japan, or Russia versus Germany or the European Union. It would be far better for the United States to maintain a role in diplomacy and security in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, in the hope of defusing conflicts and deterring aggressors, rather than to intervene belatedly, as it did in the two world wars.

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