Strategic Horizons

Strategic Horizons

Mini Teaser: Despite predictions to the contrary, America's superpower status remains uncontested.

by Author(s): J. Peter Pham

Hall Gardner, American Global Strategy and the "War on Terrorism" (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2005), 239 pp., £45.

Robert J. Lieber, The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 267 pp., $28.

Ralph Peters, New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy (New York: Sentinel, 2005), 292 pp., $24.95.

Stephen M. Walt, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 320 pp., $27.95.

AFTER THE collapse of the Soviet Union, some observers were quick to recognize a "unipolar moment" of unprecedented American power and influence. Others were just as quick to predict that the moment would be short lived, with the extraordinary relative status of the U.S. triggering a movement to counter-balance it that would result in the rapid emergence of a multipolar international system. A decade and a half later, despite the wide resentment that American foreign policies-including some quite unnecessary missteps-have engendered abroad, the countervailing trend against the world's predominant power that traditional balance of power theorists had been predicting has yet to occur.

Notwithstanding the heavy toll that the interrelated challenges of terrorism, the war in Iraq and nuclear proliferation (to say nothing of maladroit public diplomacy) have exacted on its global standing, America will for some time to come continue to occupy its paramount position in the international system because of what Barry Posen of MIT has called the "command of the commons"-command of sea, space and air. What remains to be settled, however, is what the United States does with this primacy.

The sheer number of recent books with "power", "strategy", or whatnot in their titles-including the selection examined in this essay-attests to the fact that policymakers, scholars and others increasingly share the consensus that post-Cold War America, even after 9/11, lacks a "grand strategy" in the mold of NSC 68's blueprint for the Cold War policy of containment and acts instead on an ad hoc basis. If America is to preserve its standing on the international stage-let alone its commanding pinnacle-it requires an appropriate grand strategy that, beyond the obvious necessity of winning the War on Terror, best advances its interests as well as its values.

Indispensable Gulliver

RETIRED MILITARY intelligence officer and author Ralph Peters is unabashed in his enthusiasm for America's current position in the world and for the opportunity that it presents for developing a new grand strategy that not only preserves that position of power, but expands upon it to create a revolutionary "new world order." While Peters neither refrains from criticizing the shortcomings of U.S. intelligence nor from warning about the dangers of America's overstretched military, New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy nonetheless outlines an ambitious vision for what its author calls "the greatest-and most virtuous-power in history." Despite its off-putting, strident tone (the just-quoted description of the United States comes in the work's very first paragraph), the book is well worth reading, not so much for its abundance of deliciously wicked one-liners aimed at both sides of the partisan aisle-for example, "in the Clinton years . . . diversity was good, even when it was deadly", and, "the Rumsfeld cabal envisioned The Lord of the Rings and delivered Lord of the Flies"-but especially because some of its insights are essential to any American strategy for the 21st century that aims to be both realistic and global.

Unfortunately, the very real flashes of brilliance between the covers of New Glory are obscured almost irremediably by two problems with the work. The first is that the author's delivery is so overburdened with his sense of self-importance that the truths within his message risk being dismissed as the products of delusion. Something is clearly not right if you must tell your reader that you are "a visionary strategist" and "a renowned strategist" who "worked in our intelligence system for two decades, from the grinding tactical level at which intel meant a radio and a map to levels of access whose existence is classified"-and then turn around and piously assure him or her that you "have no ax to grind beyond desiring the sharpest possible blade for our country." The second difficulty flows from the first: Peters tries to weave his clearly important insights into a geopolitical version of grand unification theory. His book's self-declared purpose is no less than to "advance the debate over American strategy" by "addressing, in turn, the non-traditional sources of our power, our recent military endeavors, the deficiencies of our intelligence system and obsolete diplomacy, the challenges and opportunities with which the world presents us and unconventional strategies we might pursue to increase our security and well-being", with a text that "ranges from social revolution and military reform to a plea for a grand strategic realignment." Predictably, the result falls short of the promises.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, New Glory is not without some prescient analyses. While Peters admits that the United States would be better off if it could turn away and ignore the ferment in the Islamic heartlands of the Middle East, he is correct that engagement is now unavoidable, if only because globalization has rendered containment impossible. While there may have been a time when U.S. policymakers might have responsibly entertained a strategy of "offshore balancing", reducing America's direct "footprint" in the Middle East, that moment has long past. Today such a recourse would probably backfire, being interpreted as a retreat likely to embolden America's foes to engage in more mischief. Peters's conclusion about the limits of the Bush Administration's democratization policy in the Middle East in general and the significance of Iraq in particular is remarkable for its sober succinctness and deserves to be quoted in full:

"In the course of our . . . engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan we have done all that a foreign culture could do to create opportunities for damaged societies to repair themselves. We will not know the true value of our interventions for at least another decade, perhaps much longer. For all of our investment of blood and treasure, we operate at the margins. Our military efforts have been worthy and necessary, but we provide, at most, a catalyst. Success in building a future, rather than wallowing in a reimagined past, is up to the people of the Middle East. The longer they and their governments resist the necessity of reforming not only their societies but fundamental patterns of social behavior, the graver their failure will be. Because of our efforts, Iraq may become the Middle East's beacon of liberty. Or it may end as another Arab pyre. The Iraqis, not us, will determine their ultimate fate. Their choices will shape civilization's future."

One can, of course, argue at the margins, but the general thrust is true. Likewise, while Peters cannot resist repeating the usual gratuitous caricatures of "Old Europe", he breaks with other critics of the Continent by holding out hope that it will pull through its current malaise: "Europe will not deal with its multiple looming crises by simply surrendering. . . . Europe will accept the need to change because change will be forced upon it." Nonetheless, he argues correctly that there is little prospect of restoring American influence in Europe to the position it enjoyed during the Cold War. Instead, Peters emphasizes in his most persuasive chapters that the strategic partnerships that the United States ought to be forging in the new century lie in the global south. Beginning with India, the world's largest democracy, and passing over to nearby Latin America and on to all-too-often-forgotten Africa, Peters sketches the panorama of what he calls "the last strategic frontier", a new theater of strategic competition where intelligent U.S. foreign policy, commitment and patience-and, one might add, a little respect-could reap tangible rewards in mutually beneficial alliances that enhance America's global security and power.

If there is a difficulty with Peters's sweeping vision of the strategic reorientation of the future, it is that he not only fails to prescribe specific policies for getting there, but also does not really make the positive case for the United States continuing to maintain the web of global commitments that his favored strategy outcome would entail. Georgetown University Professor Robert J. Lieber takes up the challenge from there, providing an argument in favor of an assertive American foreign policy in The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century, based on three premises. First, 9/11 fundamentally altered the strategic landscape in a way that can neither be wished away nor dealt with by treating "root causes." The lethal combination of Islamist terrorism and weapons of mass destruction poses a threat of new magnitude requiring a robust policy that includes pre-emptive and even preventive use of force. Second, while the United Nations and other international organizations retain their importance as sources of perceived legitimacy, the reality is that "on the most urgent and deadly problems, they are mostly incapable of acting or [are] inadequate to the task." Third and perhaps most importantly, in an international system with no true central authority and in which the United States enjoys a preponderance of power, no other state is likely to have the will, much less the capacity, to take the lead in confronting perils.

Essay Types: Book Review