The option that seems to be the best way to preserve America's global leadership without committing the United States to pursue global hegemony would be a concert-of-power strategy. A concert of power is a coalition of great powers that lack deep divisions among themselves and are willing to cooperate to promote shared security and other common interests. The members of a great-power concert need not be warm friends, but they would not view each other as enemies.
A concert-of-power strategy would permit the United States to continue to play a role in Eurasian power politics, without any need to treat some Eurasian great powers as allies and others as de facto or formally identified enemies. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, along with thinkers like Edward House and Walter Lippmann, all saw a concert of power as an alternative to recurrent world wars among rival alliances (they did not imagine that U.S. global hegemony was possible). FDR's hope for a post-World War II concert of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and nationalist China was thwarted. But the conditions are more promising today than they have ever been. The conflicts of interest among the United States, China, Russia, Japan, India, Germany, France and Britain are limited, and they share common interests in combating terrorism, anarchy and aggression by lesser states.
The concert-of-power strategy is not a magic cure for all problems. Some problems cannot be cured, only ameliorated. And aggression on the part of one or more great powers would make a balance-of-power strategy necessary, if only until the aggressor was defeated or changed its policy.
It goes without saying that the concert-of-power strategy places limits on U.S. discretion. Unlike the UN Security Council, informal regional concerts of power need not be paralyzed by the recalcitrance of one member. Two or more great powers could cooperate in common efforts, even if others chose not to take part. And America would reserve the right to act unilaterally in unusual circumstances. For the most part, however, the United States should prefer to act in partnership with other military great powers. The sacrifice in flexibility this might entail would be more than compensated for by America's ability to share the burden of international security in regions outside of North America with non-aggressive regional powers that have a far greater stake in the outcome than the United States itself. Even better, the concert-of-power strategy would permit the United States to maintain its role as a major Asian power, a major European power and a major Middle Eastern power, without the need to wage reassurance wars on behalf of allies, to bankrupt itself on unilateral arms races, to dissuade potential rivals or to pursue coercive non-proliferation in the interests of regional U.S. military hegemony by means of invasions, as in Iraq, or air attacks, like a possible strike against Iran.
The Debate America Needs
THE POTENTIAL for high costs has always been implicit in the strategy of U.S. global hegemony. The first Bush and Clinton were lucky, in that the cost of the Panama invasion, the Gulf War, the Balkan interventions and the invasion of Haiti were relatively minor. It was the misfortune of George W. Bush that the Iraq War proved to be the most costly debacle since Vietnam. The Iraq War was a war of choice, and might have been avoided by another president committed to another version of the hegemony strategy. But sooner or later the United States would have been confronted with the need to abandon the hegemony strategy, or pay the full costs of it. Sooner or later there would have been an "Iraq", if not in Iraq itself.
That is why the present moment is so crucial in the life of the American republic. Unfortunately, at present the debate among the 2008 presidential hopefuls focuses narrowly on the Iraq War, rather than on the larger hegemony strategy that produced it. And to make matters worse, criticism of the Bush Administration's handling of the occupation of Iraq tends to narrow the debate even further, by changing the subject from the decision to invade Iraq.
If the consensus emerges that U.S. hegemony remains a sound strategy, and is not discredited by the regrettable and avoidable Iraq adventure, which might be justified in retrospect as a good idea tragically bungled by the incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, then the country will be on the road to similar disasters in the future. This moment, then, is very important indeed. If the Iraq War is seen as merely a bad application of a fundamentally sound U.S. grand strategy of hegemony, the United States will set itself up for other self-inflicted disasters in the future. If, on the other hand, the Iraq War is seen as the predictable outcome of a fundamentally flawed grand strategy, then there will be an opportunity for debate about alternative grand strategies, in particular the concert-of-power strategy, that can achieve U.S. security and world-order goals at far less cost. Much depends on whether the debate about the Iraq War becomes a long-overdue debate about American grand strategy as a whole.
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is author of The American Way of Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2006), from which some of this essay is adapted.
1 Daniel W. Drezner, "Mind the Gap", The National Interest, No. 87 (Jan./Feb. 2007).
2 Michael Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century (New York: PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 223-224.
3 Thomas Donnelly, "Rising Powers and Agents of Change", AEI Online, posted January 5, 2006.