Beyond the Illusions

July 1, 2007 Topics: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: NeoconservatismSuperpowerHeads Of State

Beyond the Illusions

Mini Teaser: Wishful thinking is preventing the formation of a responsible American foreign-policy strategy.

by Author(s): J. Peter Pham

Steven Rosefielde and D. Quinn Mills, Masters of Illusion: American Leadership in the Media Age (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 568 pp., $34.00.

AS AMERICA's great experiment to refashion the greater Middle East appears to be floundering, swept by the currents of reality onto the shoals of ancient enmities, socio-religious pathologies and radicalized insurgencies, there is no shortage of scholars, journalists, retired military officers, out-of-office politicians and assorted pundits proffering "strategies" to the nation. The authors of these prescriptions, however, have largely forgotten the very useful distinction offered by Carl von Clausewitz, arguably the greatest strategic thinker Western civilization has ever produced:

The conduct of war is, therefore, the formation and conduct of the fighting. If this fighting was a single act, there would be no necessity for any further subdivision, but the fight is composed of a greater or less number of single acts, complete in themselves, which we call combats. . . . From this arises the totally different activities, that of the formation and conduct of these single combats in themselves, and the combination of them with one another, with a view to the ultimate object of the war. The first is called tactics, the other strategy. . . According to our classification, therefore, tactics is the theory of the use of military forces in combat. Strategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the war.

It follows from this that any "strategy" worthy of that name would go beyond tactics needed to prevail in particular circumstances-however intractable and pressing these may appear at a given moment-and survey a nation's context within the contemporary world. As Masters of Illusion: American Leadership in the Media Age argues, that critical examination leads to a rather discomforting reality: Even if the United States extricates itself from or somehow achieves "victory" in Iraq, and goes on to shield itself from the threat of global Islamist terrorism, the future is still not assured. This is the message, not surprisingly, of two accomplished practitioners of the "dismal science", Steven Rosefielde, professor of economics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and D. Quinn Mills, who holds the Weatherhead Chair at Harvard Business School. The former has authored or edited eleven books on Russia and the Soviet Union and served as an advisor to both the Pentagon and several directors of the cia. The latter has penned more than 25 books on leadership and management, but their joint effort is their first foray into what foreign-policy wonks would term geopolitical grand strategy. Coming from outside the mainstream of conventional political-science discussions, Rosefielde and Mills offer what might be called a post-neoconservative book: Rejecting both the Bush Administration's neoconservative foreign and defense policies and the liberal alternatives, the authors advocate a strategic posture which they argue is "best in future prospect for ourselves and the world."

In a disclaimer that is familiar to exponents of the realist tradition, the authors declare at the onset: "We are not focused on public relations (winning hearts and minds abroad) or on crusades for democracy abroad but, rather, on the combination of diplomatic and military activities that constitute a national security strategy." However, to achieve what the authors term strategic independence, "the ability to protect America without extraneous multilateralist constraints imposed by others", America must first get past its public culture, which they describe as the "set of socially approved attitudes, values, analytic procedures, and decision-making mechanisms transcending and encompassing partisan diversity that shape and often distort national perceptions of reality."

Applying modern managerial concepts of leadership to the presidency, Rosefielde and Mills contend that a president's success or failure is largely determined by his ability to master the illusions which the American public has created about the world and the role of the United States within it. How often, after all, do we hear the assertion that the specific terrorism that actually threatens America and her interests, carried out by transnational groups of Islamist radicals, will stop if its "root causes"-variably listed as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, poverty or even, in Dinesh D'Souza's recent fevered tome, "decadent" American culture-were redressed?

Bad enough by itself, when wishful thinking is married to partisan political interests and commercially driven media, the result is oversimplification, distortion and hype. This dysfunctional perspective of the world is responsible, in the authors' thesis, for the American public's two most deeply cherished illusions: "harmonism"-the "faith-based" notion that "most peoples and nations are well-intentioned and fair-minded and that as a result conflict among nations is almost always a result of misunderstandings"-and convergence-the equally dogmatic belief that "our system is the best, that it fits anywhere, that we have the obligation to extend it, and that if we extend it successfully, there will be peace and prosperity thereafter."

Needless to say, these illusions confuse reality on a massive scale, leading to an inability to perceive challenges to the national interest, much less to devise adequate responses to them. That national temptation to fashion societies in our own image is perhaps the biggest obstacle to embracing a mature and modest realist foreign policy of protecting ourselves, while recognizing our limits in doing so and helping others who voluntarily choose our path.

While Rosefielde and Mills marshal a wide array of evidence that Islamist terrorism is rooted in the contest for power (and the consequent spoils) within the Middle East-which they describe as "the Crescent of Fire"-they also argue that the War on Terror must be kept in proper perspective. Terrorists by themselves do not threaten America's national existence-at least not in the way that major conflict with other (nuclear armed) powers could. In what is-not surprisingly, given the background of the authors-one of the most compelling sections of Masters of Illusion, the authors argue that "the first quarter of the twenty-first century is most likely to be a period of global destabilization characterized by slow economic growth and radical reconfiguration of wealth and power as some nations fare better than others." The conflict trigger will thus be economic in character.

As China's economy continues to expand spectacularly, so will its inequitable development trends. Hence, to the global insecurity which any actor's emergence into great-power status brings, China adds the distinct risk of internal instability. Rosefielde and Mills argue that far from converging on a Western-style democracy as many wishful thinkers assert, China will opt for a nationalist authoritarianism that simultaneously combines two features that are considered mutually exclusive in the West: economic liberalism and political authoritarianism. While the authors eschew the determinism of John Mearsheimer, they nonetheless take the cautious line that "the best American policy with respect to China is a vigorous effort to persuade it to further integration into the world economic community, coupled with a strong defensive posture to persuade China against military adventures."

Russia's weak economy leaves less room for flexibility than China's robust one, the present hydrocarbon windfalls notwithstanding. In fact, the book predicts an overall economic decline relative to other major powers. But Rosefielde and Mills assert that "the odds are very high that America is going to have to deal with a resurgent and militaristic Russia." Even with constrained resources, Russian rulers can still harness the economy for military build-ups. Their announced intention to acquire a full-spectrum, fifth-generation nuclear capability undermines arguments that the great state straddling Eurasia abruptly and radically changed at the end of the Cold War. Rather, "it simply reorganized, changed its name to Russia, dropped its ideological orientation, embarked on a publicity campaign to persuade the rest of the world that the tiger had changed its stripes, and set out on a course of expediency in a changing world."

Finally, Rosefielde and Mills point to the EU as a significant challenge to the United States, especially when one considers the desire expressed by some Europeans that their political project should come to rival America's experiment. Despite formal similarities, the economic systems on the two sides of the North Atlantic are quite different due to underlying cultural differences. As a consequence of its preferences, the EU's economy will grow more slowly than that of the United States over the next twenty to thirty years. During this time America will consolidate its economic and military lead, while China will have risen to great-power status. Europeans, the authors argue, will thus seek economic and military growth through enlargement. Rosefielde and Mills counsel an American response based on prudence that deserves to be quoted in full:

There is no greater need for presidential leadership in American foreign policy than here. . . . American policy should be that we want the European nations to pursue their own welfare as they see it, so long as they cross no adversarial threshold with us. We should not care whether they prefer a loose confederation or a strong federation. Should they choose the latter, we prefer that they not select us as the ogre against whom the Continent will unite, lest this course unintentionally cross a threshold of antagonism that cannot be reclaimed. Furthermore, we should support Britain in staying outside, should it so wish. And we should prepare, while endeavoring to avoid it, for a long-time rivalry that at some point might worsen into the possibility of overt conflict.
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