Strategic Fatigue

Strategic Fatigue

by Author(s): Graham E. Fuller

Abroad, the administration now faces widespread international resistance. The honeymoon of the early post-9/11 days gave way to international reconsideration of the full implications of the Global War on Terror, particularly American doctrines of unilateralism and strategic pre-emption. In the last few years, diverse countries have deployed a multiplicity of strategies and tactics designed to weaken, divert, alter, complicate, limit, delay or block the Bush agenda through a death by a thousand cuts. That opposition acts out of diverse motives, and sometimes narrowly parochial interests, but its unifying theme--usually unspoken--is resistance to nearly anything that serves to buttress a unipolar world.

Regrettably, that kind of resistance now seems nearly indiscriminate. For example, most reasonable people might have agreed that, whatever the merits of the invasion may have been, the overthrow of Saddam is now a fait accompli and that further deterioration of the Iraqi scene is in no one's interest. Nonetheless, most of the world has in fact preferred, sometimes almost petulantly, to watch the United States twist in the wind in Iraq, rather than to coordinate an international effort to stabilize a dangerously drifting situation. While the early, gratuitously abrasive American diplomacy contributed to European distancing from Iraq, the unspoken European goal has been to lessen the superpower's freedom of action and to work towards a more multipolar world. This global trend will stamp the character of global politics for a decade or more.

While Europe is more circumspect, other major powers, most notably Russia, China and even India, are more explicitly committed to ending a unipolar world. To be sure, they lack the power--economic, political, military, cultural--to create an alternative power polarity of their own, but they have acted subtly, or even not so subtly, to complicate or block many of Washington's major initiatives. They have worked with European powers to this same end on an ad hoc basis. Thus Moscow and Beijing have in one sense or another helped strengthen the ability of Iran, North Korea, Syria, Palestine's Hamas and even Venezuela deflect the broadsides of American power and impose a process-driven, compromising and consultative approach that frustrates American resolve--precisely the nightmare of the Bush unilateralists from the outset.

While no state--not even China--wishes to explicitly declare itself at odds with the United States, the common agenda, almost in principle, remains the ability to stymie Washington's will. As self-defeating, negative and unrealistic as these anti-unipolar tactics may appear to Washington, they happen to drive much of the rest of the world. Furthermore, we witness a growing body of foreign policy observers inside the United States who share that rising doubt: Is a unipolar world truly desirable, even for American interests?

Among the many risks emerging from such unfettered national power has been the growth of an unprecedented American arrogance in its diplomacy--widely discussed by most foreign states. Washington itself is still fiercely driven by the awareness that no alternative forces exist capable of offering an alternative global agenda, much less the capability to implement it. The expectation is that other countries should simply acknowledge the reality of the new world order and get on with it. This creeping arrogance of expectation contributes at a minimum to a kind of "passive aggressive" backlash across the globe.

Finally, the greatest casualty of all is the credibility of American ideology itself. For America as sole superpower, it takes only a short step to conflate our own interests with "universal" interests. Our goals--because of their global reach--seem to take on universal validity. It becomes harder, at least in our eyes, to differentiate between our national interests and the interests of the globe. By one more step of logic, perpetuation of the American imperium becomes openly justifiable in the name of universal values. But what happens when those values then become compromised on the ground?

We may perceive democracy as a universal good--and in principle it may well be. But the ideal now becomes transformed into an instrument of U.S. policies. And as a policy tool, the call for democratization in fact has become an instrument to intimidate, pressure or even overthrow regimes that resist the global American project. Yet for Americans, any resistance to democratization becomes an affront to the very principle itself, an irrational, petty act of resistance against the "forces of history." Democratization just might gain some international credence if truly applied across the board as the central principle of U.S. foreign policy. But to date, democratization has largely been a punishment visited upon our enemies, never a gift bestowed upon friends. Selectivity of application heavily undermines Washington's protestations of support for universal principle; in the eyes of others it merely becomes another superpower tool opportunistically employed for its own transient ends. And now even Washington is dismayed and hesitant as democratization fails to produce new governments ready to embrace the American project. This is especially true in the Muslim world, but also in a growing wave across Latin America as well. The administration's extremely spotty and inconsistent record on democratization has heavily damaged our case for democracy. Indeed, is democracy in fact the global ideology most conducive to a superpower's continuing maintenance of its own hegemony? The democratic process more often than not tends to empower nationalist-minded publics who resent and resist foreign hegemony. Here, the pliable dictators so valued in Washington in the Cold War may soon be on their way back as Washington's most useful instruments for running a U.S.-dominated globe.

Globalization as a "universal" value presents similar problems. History demonstrates that globalization is almost invariably the favored political value of dominant world states--and why not, for which but those states are best poised to benefit from globalization? Economists debate the upsides and downsides of globalization, and each position has its own ideological camp and true believers, but for better or for worse, globalization is now increasingly perceived as a particular American agenda designed to serve American interests. It is therefore held in suspicion by many.

The upshot is that the message, whatever its virtue, becomes fatally tainted by the messenger. George Bush could today proclaim his support for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate and he would be hooted down in Cairo, Riyadh and Islamabad because of deep suspicions now of any position adopted by the sole superpower. Such a situation over time saps our best intentions and our wisest steps taken in pursuit of foreign policy, as the audience becomes more obsessed with the messenger than the message.

Many states therefore resist the processes of democratization or globalization simply out of concern that they represent mere instruments in America's tool-kit for promoting the American agenda. Our inevitably selective record of implementation strengthens the perception of American double standards. These international reactions discourage and even embitter an American public and their policymakers who fail to understand how other peoples, except out of sheer perversity, would resist such patently commendable values.

This problem transcends the Bush Administration. The ultimate lesson is perhaps that no sole superpower can promote its "universal values" without tainting them. While not the first U.S. administration to operate in a unipolar world, this administration was the first to drive the logic of such unchecked power to its ultimate unilateral policy conclusions, thereby validating early global fears about a unipolar world.

The setbacks and disappointments for the United States--both in policy failures and their international backlash--are of course intense. Yet our national debate still revolves around only the tactical or the specific--Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Global War on Terror, the Patriot Act, even unilateralism--but there has been no serious discussion at all about the implications of a unipolar world in itself--except to celebrate it.

But by now there is not much celebration left. We are indeed confronted by strategic fatigue. We did not create all of the conditions that led to the emergence of a unipolar world; obviously the collapse of the USSR had much to do with it. But our strategic exhaustion will likely grow as more and more Lilliputians arise to tie new knots in the web of nets that hold down the superpower whose military power is ill suited to changing the existing political situation.

Of course, the United States cannot simply decide to cease being the sole global superpower. But it may have to reconsider the uncertain blessings that emerge from a unipolar world to avoid the costly and growing hostility that hinders American freedom of action as never before, especially at the hands of former friends. Indeed, our revealing national penchant for early and dogged identification of potential "threats" on the horizon that might challenge American hegemony has a strong tendency to create self-fulfilling prophecies. And maybe the emergence of additional great-power centers--dare I say some elements of "balance of power" politics?--might not be quite the disaster it appears, despite Rice's brush-off that we've been there and done that and it doesn't work. It's not as if the world is likely to rally around any of those new contenders, either--except perhaps right now, in an urgent quest for a more multipolar world.

Essay Types: Essay