Imperial by Design

Imperial by Design

Mini Teaser: Like his two most recent predecessors, President Obama is embarking on a disastrous foreign policy bent on global domination.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

This grand strategy is “imperial” at its core; its proponents believe that the United States has the right as well as the responsibility to interfere in the politics of other countries. One would think that such arrogance might alienate other states, but most American policy makers of the early nineties and beyond were confident that would not happen, instead believing that other countries—save for so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea—would see the United States as a benign hegemon serving their own interests.

There is, however, an important disagreement among global dominators about how best to achieve their strategy’s goals. On one side are the neoconservatives, who believe that the United States can rely heavily on armed force to dominate and transform the globe, and that it can usually act unilaterally because American power is so great. Indeed, they tend to be openly contemptuous of Washington’s traditional allies as well as international institutions, which they view as forums where the Lilliputians tie down Gulliver. Neoconservatives see spreading democracy as a relatively easy task. For them, the key to success is removing the reigning tyrant; once that is done, there is little need to engage in protracted nation building.

On the other side are the liberal imperialists, who are certainly willing to use the American military to do social engineering. But they are less confident than the neoconservatives about what can be achieved with force alone. Therefore, liberal imperialists believe that running the world requires the United States to work closely with allies and international institutions. Although they think that democracy has widespread appeal, liberal imperialists are usually less sanguine than the neoconservatives about the ease of exporting it to other states. As we set off to remake the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall, these principles of global dominance set the agenda.


BILL CLINTON was the first president to govern exclusively in the post–Cold War world, and his administration pursued global dominance from start to finish. Yet Clinton’s foreign-policy team was comprised of liberal imperialists; so, although the president and his lieutenants made clear that they were bent on ruling the world—blatantly reflected in former–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s well-known comment that “if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future”—they employed military force reluctantly and prudently. They may have been gung ho about pushing the unipolar moment onward and upward, but for all their enthusiasm, even these democracy promoters soon saw that nation building was no easy task.

During his first year in office, Clinton carelessly allowed the United States to get involved in nation building in Somalia. But when eighteen American soldiers were killed in a firefight in Mogadishu in October 1993 (famously rendered in Black Hawk Down), he immediately pulled U.S. troops out of the country. In fact, the administration was so spooked by the fiasco that it refused to intervene during the Rwandan genocide in the spring of 1994, even though the cost of doing so would have been small. Yes, Clinton did commit American forces to Haiti in September 1994 to help remove a brutal military regime, but he had to overcome significant congressional opposition and he went to great lengths to get a UN resolution supporting a multinational intervention force. Most of the American troops were out of Haiti by March 1996, and at no time was there a serious attempt at nation building.

Clinton did talk tough during the 1992 presidential campaign about using American power against Serbia to halt the fighting in Bosnia, but after taking office, he dragged his feet and only used airpower in 1995 to end the fighting. He went to war against Serbia for a second time in 1999—this time over Kosovo—and once again would only rely on airpower, despite pressure to deploy ground forces from his NATO commander, General Wesley Clark, and then–British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

By early 1998, the neoconservatives were pressuring Clinton to use military force to remove Saddam Hussein. The president endorsed the long-term goal of ousting the Iraqi leader, but he refused to go to war to make that happen. The United States under Bill Clinton was, as Richard Haass put it, a “reluctant sheriff.”

Although the Clinton administration made little progress toward achieving global hegemony during its eight-year reign, it at least managed to avoid any major foreign-policy disasters. It seemed to understand the inherent difficulties of nation building and devoted neither much blood nor much treasure in its pursuit.

Nevertheless, given the American public’s natural reluctance to engage in foreign adventures, by the 2000 presidential campaign, many were unhappy with even this cautious liberal imperialism. George W. Bush tried to capitalize on this sentiment by criticizing Clinton’s foreign policy as overzealous—and as it turns out, ironically, especially for doing too much nation building. The Republican candidate called for the United States to scale back its goals and concentrate on reinvigorating its traditional Cold War alliances. The main threat facing the United States, he argued, was a rising China; terrorism was paid little attention. In effect, Bush was calling for a grand strategy of selective engagement. Not surprisingly, his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, called for pursuing global dominance, albeit in a multilateral guise.

When Bush won, it appeared that the United States was about to adopt a less ambitious grand strategy. But that did not happen because the new Bush administration drastically altered its approach to the world after 9/11.

There was never any question that Washington would treat terrorism as its main threat after that horrific day. But it was not clear at first how the administration would deal with the problem. Over the course of the next year, Bush turned away from selective engagement and embraced global dominance. Unlike his predecessor in the White House, however, he adopted the neoconservative formula for ruling the world. And that meant relying primarily on the unilateral use of American military force. From the early days of Afghanistan onward, America was to enter the age of the “Bush Doctrine,” which was all about using the U.S. military to bring about regime change across the Muslim and Arab world. It is easy to forget now, but Iraq was supposed to be a step in the remarkably far-reaching plan to sow democracy in an area of the world where it was largely absent, thereby creating peace. President Bush put the point succinctly in early 2003 when he said, “By the resolve and purpose of America, and of our friends and allies, we will make this an age of progress and liberty. Free people will set the course of history, and free people will keep the peace of the world.”

By pursuing this extraordinary scheme to transform an entire region at the point of a gun, President Bush adopted a radical grand strategy that has no parallel in American history. It was also a dismal failure.

The Bush administration’s quest for global dominance was based on a profound misunderstanding of the threat environment facing the United States after 9/11. And the president and his advisers overestimated what military force could achieve in the modern world, in turn greatly underestimating how difficult it would be to spread democracy in the Middle East. This triumvirate of errors doomed Washington’s effort to dominate the globe, undermined American values and institutions on the home front, and threatened its position in the world.


WITH THE attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush administration all of a sudden was forced to think seriously about terrorism. Unfortunately, the president—and most Americans for that matter—misread what the country was dealing with in two important ways: greatly exaggerating the threat’s severity, and failing to understand why al-Qaeda was so enraged at the United States. These mistakes led the administration to adopt policies that made the problem worse, not better.

In the aftermath of 9/11, terrorism was described as an existential threat. President Bush emphasized that virtually every terrorist group on the planet—including those that had no beef with Washington—was our enemy and had to be eliminated if we hoped to win what became known as the global war on terror (GWOT). The administration also maintained that states like Iran, Iraq and Syria were not only actively supporting terrorist organizations but were also likely to provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Thus, it was imperative for the United States to target these rogue states if it hoped to win the GWOT—or what some neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz called World War IV. Indeed, Bush said that any country which “continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Finally, the administration claimed that it was relatively easy for groups like al-Qaeda to infiltrate and strike the homeland, and that we should expect more disasters like 9/11 in the near future. The greatest danger for sure would be a WMD attack against a major American city.

Image: Pullquote: The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight.Essay Types: Essay