Delusions of Indispensability

March 1, 2013 Topic: Grand StrategyGreat PowersSecurity Regions: United States

Delusions of Indispensability

Mini Teaser: The notion that America is the world's "indispensable nation" is hardly questioned, even as it fosters strategic overreach.

by Author(s): Ted Galen Carpenter

Washington’s dominance was born in an era in which there were no credible challengers. Although the USSR had some ambitions in the western Pacific, its primary goals were elsewhere, largely in Eastern Europe and the emerging states of the Third World. China after the Chinese Revolution in 1949 was belligerent, but also weak and poor. Japan, utterly defeated in World War II and worried about Soviet and Chinese intentions, was content to maintain a pacifist image and rely heavily on the United States for defense. The rest of the region consisted of new, weak states arising out of rapidly decaying European colonial empires.

As in Europe, the situation today is totally different. Japan has the world’s third-largest economy, China is an emerging great power, and East Asia has an assortment of other significant economic and political players. It will be increasingly difficult for the United States, a nation thousands of miles away, to dominate a region with an ever-expanding roster of major powers.

Instead of frantically trying to prop up a slipping hegemony, U.S. policy makers must focus on helping to shape a new security environment. Among other steps, Washington should wean its principal allies in the region—especially Japan, South Korea and Australia—from their overreliance on U.S. defense guarantees. Not only should U.S. leaders make it clear that the United States intends to reduce its military presence, but they should emphasize that those allies now must take far greater responsibility for their own defense and the overall stability of the region.

The most likely outcome of such a policy shift would be the emergence of an approximate balance of power in East Asia. China would be the single strongest country, but if Japan, South Korea, and other actors such as Vietnam and Indonesia take the actions necessary to protect their own interests, Beijing will fall far short of having enough power to become the new hegemon. A balance-of-power system would be somewhat less stable than the current arrangement, but it would likely be sufficient to protect crucial American interests. And it may be Washington’s only realistic option over the medium and long term. Clinging to an increasingly unsustainable hegemony is not a realistic strategy.

Off-loading security responsibilities in other regions needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. In most instances, adverse developments in those regions affect other major powers more than they do the United States. It is a bit bizarre, for example, that Washington should take more responsibility for developments in the Middle East than do such NATO allies as Germany, France, Italy and Turkey. Or that Washington is more concerned about troubles in South and Southeast Asia than are major powers such as India and Indonesia. But other relevant actors have not had to step forward to deal with unpleasant developments that might undermine regional stability, because the self-proclaimed indispensable nation has usually taken on the responsibility. That is not sustainable.

In the all-too-rare instances in which the United States did not seek to take care of problems that mattered more to other powers, those countries did not inevitably sit back and watch the situation deteriorate. One example occurred when conflict broke out between rival factions in Albania in the late 1990s and Washington declined to lead yet another intervention in the Balkans. Faced with the U.S. refusal, Italy and Greece organized and led an ad hoc European military coalition that restored order before the turmoil could intensify and spread beyond Albania’s borders.

Various foreign-policy experts have presented detailed cases for options that would reduce the extent—and hence the costs and risks—of America’s security role. Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich, Texas A & M’s Christopher Layne and the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble are just some of the more prominent analysts who chart a course between the extremes of the current policy and Fortress America. All of them, to one extent or another, make the case for off-loading at least some of Washington’s security commitments onto other capable powers and adopting a new, more restrained posture of “offshore balancing.”

THE NOTION that the United States is the indispensable nation is a conceit bordering on narcissism. It had some validity during an era of stark bipolarity when a weak, demoralized democratic West had to depend on American power to protect the liberty and prosperity of the non-Communist world from Soviet coercion. But the world has been multipolar economically for decades, and it has become increasingly multipolar diplomatically and politically in recent years. Yet so much of the American political and foreign-policy communities embrace a security role—and an overall leadership role—for the United States that was born in the era of bipolarity and perpetuated during what Charles Krauthammer described as the “unipolar moment” following the collapse of the Soviet empire.

That moment is gone, and that is not the world we live in today. The United States needs a security strategy appropriate for a world of ever-increasing multipolarity. Very few critics of U.S. hegemony advocate an abandonment of all of America’s security commitments. But an aggressive pruning of those commitments is overdue. It is well past time for the EU to assume primary responsibility for Europe’s security and for Japan to emerge as a normal great power with appropriate ambitions and responsibilities in East Asia. It is also past time for smaller U.S. allies, such as South Korea and Australia, to increase their defense spending and take more responsibility for their own defense. While the off-loading of Washington’s obligations needs to be a gradual process, it also needs to begin immediately and to proceed at a brisk pace. And Washington ought to make it clear to all parties concerned that it is entirely out of the business of nation building.

Those who desperately try to preserve a status quo with America as the indispensable nation risk an unpleasant outcome. A country with America’s financial woes will find it increasingly onerous to carry out its vast global-security commitments. That raises the prospect of a sudden, wrenching adjustment at some point when the United States simply cannot bear those burdens any longer. That is what happened to Britain after World War II, when London had no choice but to abandon most of its obligations in Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean. The speed and extent of the British move created or exacerbated numerous power vacuums. It is far better for the United States to preside over an orderly transition to an international system in which Washington plays the role of first among equals, rather than clinging to a slipping hegemony until it is forced to give way.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to The National Interest, is the author of nine books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.

Image: Flickr/joewcampbell. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Image: Pullquote: A prominent feature of the indispensable-nation thesis is that its adherents adopt the “light-switch model” of U.S. engagement. In that version, there are only two positions: on and off. Essay Types: Essay