The Present Opportunity

The Present Opportunity

Mini Teaser: We still live in a dangerous world, but the tenure of U.S. primacy depends less on reacting to threats than on pursuing the opportunities before us.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

The impressive depth of insight that has abounded on the pages of The National Interest since its inception is due to its many talented authors and to Owen Harries, the master editor who alternately welcomed and summoned those authors to his designs. After several years away from Mr. Harries' tutelage, all but kidnapped by a retired four-star Air Force general, I have been chosen to carry on his work. Having paid close attention to the magazine's progress in my recent captivity, I want to use the present opportunity of writing in this space to illustrate what can come of a careful reading of these pages. Here, then, is a sketch of the international circumstances in which the United States now finds itself, and what those circumstances suggest for American strategy; it derives in the main from the labors of others, nearly all of them published in The National Interest.

As several commentators have observed, the period since the end of the Cold War has taken its most commonly applied name--the post-Cold War era--from what it is most prominently not: It is not the Cold War. For obvious reasons, this is not a very satisfying state of affairs for describing the affairs of state, but it has led to an edifying game played by a coterie of policymakers, analysts and journalists to "name that era".

The early frontrunner in this contest was the "new world order", a candidate still in vogue in academia, particularly outside the United States. But being merely a rubric for a series of three speeches, only one of which was ever delivered by President George Bush père, and having so little actual content that it left far too much to the imaginations of cloistered college professors and deadline-panicked newspaper columnists, this contender soon fell out of the running in serious circles.

In due course the field narrowed to three claimants. The first is the "era of globalization", a popular term--as James Kurth argues in this issue--because it points to a cluster of U.S.-promoted technology-driven phenomena that have imposed themselves on international reality in recent years. But much like "new world order" it is variously used and often abused. Not only are many different and sometimes inconsistent meanings attached to it, but reality threatens to tarnish its generally positive gloss. Some thoughtful observers fear that the acceleration in global economic activity wrought by more integrated financial and trade networks may also work in a negative direction, not least because a previous epoch of globalization turned out to come equipped with a powerful reverse gear. So "globalization" has not yet won the competition outright.

The second serious contender is "the unipolar moment" of American primacy, introduced by Charles Krauthammer in 1989. A member of TNI's editorial board, Krauthammer has lately returned to this theme, proclaiming a Bush Administration doctrine of unilateralism. It is not clear if, or to what extent, Krauthammer himself favors this approach to U.S. foreign policy, or whether he is merely describing what he sees. (He has promised to clarify the matter in a future issue of The National Interest.) Also unclear is whether the second Bush Administration has such a doctrine, or whether Krauthammer simply presented it with one as he did in the case of the first. Perhaps he will illuminate this question, too.

Either way, this choice of locution--less sonorous variations include "Pax Americana" or "American hegemony"--is very much in the running. Again, however, it is more popular abroad than it is in the United States because, in practical terms, American policymakers do not feel hegemonic. They know that, despite America's preponderance of power in the world as a whole, they cannot easily have their way anywhere--not even in the Western Hemisphere. This is partly because the balance of interests can be as important as the balance of power, so that U.S. preponderance is offset in particular regions by the larger stakes and more focused attention spans of local protagonists.

It is also partly because American primacy is a function of its capacity to provide common security goods and, by so doing, to reassure others of its generally benign intentions. That being the case, as Josef Joffe points out, U.S. attempts to impose itself on others are frequently self-negating. As another TNI board member, Samuel Huntington, has explained more broadly: The superpower's efforts to create a unipolar system stimulate greater effort by the major powers to move toward a multipolar one, resulting, for the time being at least, in a "uni-multipolar system". This means thatht settlement of key international issues requires action by the single superpower but always with some combination of other states; the single superpower, can, however, veto action on key issues by combinations of other states. In this formulation, American primacy is real enough, but American unipolarity or hegemony is not.

The third candidate is, of course, Francis Fukuyama's declaration of "the end of History". After an initial spasm of mass misunderstanding, it became clear that Fukuyama was no apocalyptic. He was referring to a philosophical legacy, that of Hegel, and he meant something roughly similar to what Daniel Bell had suggested nearly thirty years earlier: the "end of ideology", the end of serious practical argument over first principles of political philosophy. In the 1960s, however, many otherwise intelligent people believed that a homogenizing technological juggernaut would bring about the convergence of capitalist and socialist systems and, in so doing, reduce all questions of value in politics to mere techniques of management. Fukuyama argued in 1989 not that technology had produced political convergence, but that a struggle of titans had left only one system standing, with the result that liberal institutions were in incipient triumph worldwide.

Even understood properly, the end of History thesis has been very controversial. But then so have versions of globalization and assertions of a unipolar moment. Beyond controversy, perhaps there has been a reluctance to choose among the candidates because all three carry a certain appeal.

Indeed, there is an element of truth in the underlying logic of all three propositions. Each hints at a defining characteristic of our time, but a characteristic whose full significance emerges only in relation to the other two. This is perhaps because each of the three bases itself in a different ultimate source of causation in world affairs. Globalization fixes on economic dynamics, American primacy on power politics, the "end of History" on the sway of ideas. Since we know upon reflection that all three sources are in play all the time, perhaps we may synthesize a winner by bringing them together.

In its basic, unadorned definition, globalization is merely a description of how new information technology has stimulated the integration of world financial markets, the refinement of production and marketing techniques, and the expansion of international trade. But it is globalization-as-ideology that accounts for its underlying attraction. As ideology, globalization is the phoenix of functionalism. The idea that economic rationality could, and one day would, overturn the more muscular logic of power politics has maintained a tight grip on the imaginations of Western intellectuals and idealists of all stripes. From Richard Cobden to Norman Angell to John Foster Dulles, the belief that free trade, and the prosperity it would create, was the solvent of war could barely be dislodged from its pedestal despite accumulating and well nigh overwhelming empirical evidence that it was just not so.

It is almost too easy to ridicule globalization-as-ideology as the flip-side of Marxism. Whereas Marxism was a form of economic determinism derived from a combination of 19th-century positivism and Rousseauean ambition, globalization-as-ideology has been described as a form of economic determinism based on the present macroeconomic consensus as contained in the country analyses of the International Monetary Fund. Though glib, such a description is not that far off the mark, and ridicule is not an entirely inappropriate reaction to those who believe that the "golden straightjacket" of Thomas Friedman's imagination will do for global peace in mere decades what thousands of functionalist-minded revolutionaries, preachers and world federalists have been unable to do for centuries.

But to ridicule globalization-as-ideology is to overlook a more fundamental development of which globalization is just a reflection. That development is the emergence of advanced forms of knowledge-based economic systems in which science is harnessed institutionally to market-driven technological innovation. These systems have transformed the very basis of wealth. While one can exaggerate the "de-materialization" of the post-modern economy--and many do exaggerate it--it is nonetheless true that knowledge, social trust and institutional arrangements that knit them to the market have become more important to the overall success of an economy than sheer size, brawn and the mass of physical resources. Just look at places like Singapore and Israel, and then at places like Russia and Congo, and the point becomes clear enough.

As with the "post-Cold War" label, we lack a good term for this transformation--New Economy is the best we have so far. Be that as it may, these structural changes, uneven and gradual as they have been, bear enormous political implications. They have much weakened the historic bond between possession of territory and physical resources on the one hand and national power and military strength on the other. In the past, serious and protracted economic competitions almost invariably led to security competitions--and those competitions led often enough to war. But at least in the advanced parts of the world, national elites no longer credit this bond. Indeed, in those places where economic vitality and competition are defined by the cybernetic age, major war among such countries has become unthinkable--a state of mind that helps to bring about its own reality.

A defining characteristic of the present era thus flows in part from this economic transformation and the growing sense of what it means: the "deep peace", the very low prospect of a hegemonic war that convulses the entire edifice of international security. The unipolar sway of American power contributes to the deep peace (we come to this just below), as does the existence of wildly destructive weapons, but the qualitative transformation of economic (and social) structures--to which John Lukacs alludes above--is a more important source of it.

This recognition, in turn, allows us to see globalization in a proper light. As description rather than as ideology, globalization is enabled by this transformation, which preceded it and gives it its content, so to speak. Since New Economy structures can empower states as well as weaken them, depending on the talents and political institutions of those who govern, major states are not helpless in the face of onrushing economic integration, nor is their sovereignty being significantly eroded by it. The leaders of such states have not become mere economic ciphers; they are as relentlessly political as ever. It is just that they see no security-based reason to resist such integration, while they recognize several economically self-interested reasons to promote it.

The second characteristic of the present era is American primacy, a condition that elides significantly with the environment of deep peace which, as Coral Bell has argued, is likely to persist for at least several decades. The United States is often referred to as a status quo power, and that is true in the sense that it is not revisionist when it comes to global political or security affairs. Certainly, an environment of deep peace appeals to the United States. But while U.S. primacy will tend to reinforce stability at the structural level defined by the interactions of the major powers, it will tend to generate instability at most every level below that. This is because the uneven spread of advanced knowledge-based economic systems bear revolutionary implications for much of the planet. New forms of market-based economics are liable to be even more disruptive of traditional relationships than older incarnations. A certain level of convulsion is to be expected, too, from the introduction of the ideas of self-determination and genuine pluralist politics to societies that have not known them. That the United States is the primary power, and that, in the face of enormous resistance, it supports by word, example and deed the spread of such systems and ideas, suggests general implications that are anything but status quo.

The third characteristic of our age can be summed up with the observation that Fukuyama, whatever second thoughts he himself has had, was more right than wrong. An alternative way of describing the triumph of Western liberal values, as Michael Mandelbaum has done, is as the triumph of Wilsonianism. Mandelbaum argues that the eclipse, by the end of the 19th century, of pre-modern conservatism--support for political absolutism, economic aristocracy, and rigid social hierarchy--and then the defeat of fascism in 1945 and of communism in 1991, has produced a near consensus on what constitutes international "best practice": self-determined national independence grounded in law-based democratic governance, free markets and free trade, and a security regime defined by agreed limits, informal and formal, on the use of force. The sway of such values may be uneven and, in many cases, may be invoked hypocritically, as La Rochefoucauld wrote, as the homage that vice pays to virtue; but no alternative now operates on a global scale. Therefore, as Mandelbaum put it, the name of the current age has been hiding in plain sight: It is the age of Wilson.

The ascendance of Wilsonian values to near universal best practice over the last century, however, would have been inconceivable without the ascendance of the United States as a great power. Similarly, the near monopoly power of those values today is, or ought to be, indistinguishable from the fact of American primacy. As is evident, too, both Wilsonian norms and American primacy reinforce, and are reinforced by, the weakening of the link between economic and security competitions. The unthinkability of major war among advanced democratic countries flows not only from underlying economic changes and from the assurance that American power supports the deep peace; Wilsonian premises work as a powerful cognitive complement to both.

Taken together, these three facets of the contemporary environment define the age of New-Economy American Wilsonianism. Admittedly, the phrase is aesthetically deficient, but it captures what neither globalization nor the unipolar moment nor the end of History can convey by itself. It serves to remind us, too, that economic, power-political and philosophical elements always combine (in varying mixes) to shape an era.

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