Contending Schools

March 1, 2001 Topics: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: Bosnian WarSuperpowerYugoslavia

Contending Schools

Mini Teaser: Three distinct schools of thought shape the debate on how America should best pursue its post-Cold War interests in the world.

by Author(s): Charles William Maynes

Vocal in expressing the conservative side of this viewpoint have been
William Kristol and Robert Kagan of The Weekly Standard. The case
they make can be traced back to arguments advanced by Hans Morgenthau
in his seminal book on power politics, Politics among Nations,
published in the early 1950s. According to Morgenthau, "Human nature,
in which the laws of politics have their roots, has not changed since
the classical philosophies of China, India, and Greece endeavored to
discover those laws." If this statement is true, then it is a chimera
to expect much better behavior from modern states than the recorded
behavior of ancient states. The wars, massacres and betrayals will
continue unless a hegemon emerges to force other states into a
structure that makes it impossible for them to threaten the hegemon,
or one another.

From such a pessimistic view of human nature, guidelines for policy follow:

* The United States should seek hegemony because, if it does not,
someone else will. Better America dominating others rather than
others dominating America.

* The international system, inherently anarchic, needs someone in
control. Today, the United States is the only power able to impose
control on the international system. If America does not exercise
control, there will be either control by others or chaos.

* Others will strive to displace America from its position of
superiority, and some of them may be dangerous. Precisely for that
reason, America must use its superiority to retard others in their
effort to develop the ability to challenge the United States.

* Though no one likes a hegemon, America will be a much better
hegemon than others would be. On balance, America will exercise its
power with some restraint. American hegemony will be relatively
benign and therefore perhaps more tolerated.

* Whoever dominates the international system militarily will, to a
significant extent, be able to dictate to it politically and
economically. This presents the United States with an opportunity to
"fix" in place the system, at least temporarily, to its own benefit.

Though the "controllers" acknowledge that ultimately other powers
will rebel against American hegemony, and at some point will coalesce
to attempt to pull America from its perch, it is in the U.S. interest
to delay that moment as long as possible. Doing so will be expensive.
The editors of The Weekly Standard call for a sharp increase--as much
as $80 billion yearly--to the already large American defense budget
(a budget that is currently larger than the combined military
expenditures of all the other major powers).

There is also a liberal or progressive answer to the question of what
to do with America's enormous and essentially unchallenged military
power in a post-Cold War world that similarly favors American
control. Progressives typically distrust a foreign policy based on the cold, traditional definition of national interest, an approach to
international affairs that they associate with war and conquest. As a
rule, they are also more optimistic about the human condition,
rejecting the belief that human nature is unchanging.

At the same time, many progressives believe profoundly that, properly
used, the power of government is capable of bettering the human
condition. They also mourn the fact that the international system,
though much safer since the demise of the Soviet Union, is not
sufficiently benign in character. There are still states governed by
evil people. There is still much suffering and unrealized human
potential. Since America enjoys such military superiority, they
argue, why not use that power, not to hold down friends, but to
eradicate evil and to do good?

These "hegemonic liberals", then, accept that international affairs
involve some harsh realities, but contend that, through democratic
governance, America and probably all of its democratic allies have
risen above them. As the world consists, then, of the civilized and
the uncivilized, it is the duty (and in the interest) of the former
to impose order on the latter.

Authors like David Rieff, deputy editor of World Policy Journal, thus
urge the United States to exploit its military superiority, not to
impose a world hegemony over states (such as China or Germany) with
the inherent potential to challenge America some day, but to impose
order over currently distasteful, uncivilized powers like the Balkan
states, Sierra Leone and Haiti. In Rieff's stark words, "Our choice
at the millennium seems to boil down to imperialism or barbarism."
In the last century, people talked of the "white man's burden." In
this century, the hegemonic liberals urge America to assume a decency
burden. America should use its power to compel others to behave

The very disparity between America's military power and that of the
rest of the world imparts tremendous emotional force to this call for
decency. The disparity, it is maintained, implies an obligation to
act. In these terms, America in the international system begins to
resemble the adult in a school playground who witnesses a large
teenager beating up on a five year-old. Does that adult not have an
obligation to step in to stop the abuse?

Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, of course, it would have been
impractical and dangerous for America to act in the way either branch
of controllers--conservative or liberal--wishes it to act. But given
the preponderance America now enjoys, the controllers maintain that
it would be a dereliction of national interest or moral duty not to
do so.

The Shapers

The Question arises: Do the American people have the taste for empire
that such a project of control would entail? Do Americans have either
the will or the skill to lord over foes, allies or the "uncivilized"?
George Kennan, the historian and diplomat, cautions his fellow
Americans not to be mesmerized by their own power. In humanitarian
interventions that would require taking over the powers of other
governments to the point of engaging in a form of neocolonialism,
"neither dollars nor bayonets" will assure success, he warned in an
interview with the New York Review of Books.

In light of such considerations, another school of thought has risen
up: the "prudent realists", or shapers, as I shall call them. Its
adherents argue that, rather than engage in a futile and dangerous
quest for hegemony, America should work with others to try to shape
the international environment in a manner that serves not only its
national interest, but that of the others as well.

Former officials of the Clinton administration's Department of
Defense occupy the conservative wing of this school. William Perry,
Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and Ashton Carter have asserted that the United
States in recent years has lost sight of its true national interest,
which is protection of the heartland. The vagaries of press interest
and coverage have redirected the nation's attention and energies away
from core issues toward areasof concern that are not critical to the
nation's future. What is more important: a better government in Haiti
or guarding against a backlash in Russia similar to the reaction in
Weimar Germany that led to Hitler's rise? Should the nation's top
diplomats be spending most of their time on the Balkans, or trying to
assist China in a peaceful transition from communist renegade to
reliable regional partner?

These analysts have classified threats to the United States into
three categories:

* Threats that could affect America's core security; e.g., a wayward
Russia, a hostile China, widening acquisition of weapons of mass

* Regional conflicts that might involve the United States because of
treaty commitments or balance of power considerations; e.g., a war in
the Persian Gulf.

* Problems at the periphery that capture the headlines; e.g., Kosovo,
Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia and Haiti.

Another conservative shaper is Richard Haass, until recently director
of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and now head
of policy planning in the Bush State Department. U.S. primacy, he
cautions, cannot last forever. Hence, America's goal should be to
persuade other centers of power to support "constructive solutions"
to the issues that the world will face. America should attempt to
build an international order based on four premises: less of a
reliance on force to resolve international disputes; reducing the
number of weapons of mass destruction; settling for a limited
doctrine of humanitarian intervention; and maximum feasible economic
openness. Could there be a better agenda for a prudent realist?

The categories we have discussed thus far help to clarify the Clinton
administration's foreign policy record. Overall, the administration
proved to be more cautious than a "hegemonic liberal" might hope. It
stopped short of such ventures as engaging in nation-building in
Africa, for example. But it proved to be more adventuresome than a
prudent realist might prefer. It did, after all, establish a U.S.
protectorate in the Balkans, under a NATO flag, that will in all
likelihood last for decades.

The Clinton administration's preference, however, was to assume a
more benign world than that which exists in the Balkans. In so far as
it is possible to discern a clear, primary concern over the past
eight years, it has been one of trying to assist history's "invisible
hand" to spread democracy and free markets. The belief was that this
hand was already at work, but that it needed the application of
American diplomacy to accelerate its progress.

Essay Types: Book Review