Strategic Horizons

Strategic Horizons

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

by Author(s): J. Peter Pham

While this last point has been made by others, Lieber takes the argument one step further by posing this question: "The United States possesses the military and economic means to act assertively on a global basis, but should it do so, and if so, how?" The author observes that while it is true that in the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't paradox of international relations, withdrawal from foreign commitments might lessen some of the hostility towards the United States, the consequences of such a retreat "would almost certainly be harmful to regional stability and to U.S. national interests." Because, at the end of the day, whether to defend allies, alleviate a humanitarian crisis or prevent another outside power from stepping in, the United States would almost certainly find itself being drawn back into the very areas that a strategy of disengagement would have taken it away from. Missing, unfortunately, from Lieber's otherwise well-articulated account is a normative standard with which to distinguish between those occasions when the United States must supply "global governance" and those when it ought to refrain.

"A Decent Respect . . ."

OF COURSE, just because the alternative to unipolarity is frightening-British historian Niall Ferguson, for one, has painted an apocalyptic nightmare of "an anarchic new Dark Age of waning empires and religious fanaticism; of endemic plunder and pillage in the world's forgotten regions; of economic stagnation and civilization's retreat into a few fortified enclaves"-does not mean that other countries will necessarily respond with any greater enthusiasm to America's continuing dominant global position. In the view of most Americans, both policymakers and ordinary citizens, Lieber is correct in holding that U.S. primacy is beneficial to both the country and the rest of the world by guaranteeing global peace and security. That this optimistic assessment is not shared overseas is the subject of Harvard Professor Stephen M. Walt's magisterial volume, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy.

In international affairs, mass opinion polls are notoriously inaccurate and more than occasionally downright irrelevant in areas such as statecraft-especially when one considers that not even a majority of the world's states are authentic democracies whose rulers care what their subjects think about foreign policy. Nonetheless, one should not lightly discount the overwhelmingly negative reactions abroad to American power like the data in the Pew survey last year that found the citizens of Western nations like Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain holding more favorable views of the People's Republic of China than of the United States. Depending on where they fall on the political spectrum, American policymakers and scholars have adopted differing responses to this development.

Although the Bush Administration has toned down the rhetoric somewhat in its second term, on the Right there is the tendency to reflexively portray any distrust of the United States to be the product of either an existential loathing for American values or simple jealousy of the country's predominance. As the Pentagon's 2005 National Defense Strategy matter-of-factly observed, "Our leading position in the world will continue to breed unease, a degree of resentment, and resistance." While admitting that there is some truth in this argument, others attribute America's lack of popularity to what is essentially a communications problem that will be solved by redoubling efforts at public diplomacy. Still others, on the further-left fringes of the political spectrum, respond with knee-jerk antipathy to U.S. power in general, regardless of the modalities of its exercise.

Walt accepts none of these explanations. After carefully acknowledging the importance of American primacy-especially in the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton-in preventing the spread of WMDs, liberalizing the world economy, and promoting democracy and human rights, Walt questions whether the current Bush Administration's willingness to "go it alone" by using U.S. power-especially military power-to achieve those same goals might not have been counterproductive, since "this new approach to foreign policy alarmed many other countries and sparked a steady decline in the U.S. image abroad." The author is quick to emphasize that foreign dissent from U.S. policy does not ipso facto render a given policy wrong from the point of view of American interests and values, but it does underscore that the costs of that particular tact have increased-a factor that policymakers must then take into account.

Perhaps most importantly, Walt's thesis is that for all the novelty of the primacy that the United States enjoys-an asymmetry of power across every dimension that is unprecedented since the emergence of the international system-interstate relations remain, like the human nature on which they are based, unchanged in their fundamental characteristic of self-interest. As Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr argued half a century ago, the root cause of friction on the international stage is the nature of states run by imperfect humans colliding into each other in the absence of a central authority to direct them. Given the realities of U.S. power-including economic dominance, military supremacy, institutional influence and cultural impact-some states will choose to advance their interests by aligning themselves with Washington, whether because of American pressure (Libya), fear of regional adversaries (Poland), or hope of influencing U.S. policy (Britain). Here Walt raises his most controversial point, suggesting that other nations may take advantage of the unusual openness of the American political system, where "special-interest groups often wield political weight far exceeding their actual size", to entice policymakers into "adopting policies that do not serve the broader U.S. national interests", citing the Israel lobby, the Indian diaspora and the Armenian groups. While the general point that lobbies may influence policies in ways that appear inimical to "objective" national interests is well taken, one could have more than a few quibbles with Walt's contention that these groups actually "impose costs on U.S. citizens that they would not otherwise choose to bear." After all, the raison d'ˆtre of lobbies is to influence public discourse, and perhaps some advocacy groups-one thinks of the pro-Israel organizations that Walt almost obsesses about-are successful precisely because their sense of external threat resonates with the preoccupations of the American public.

Other countries, however, cannot achieve their goals by accommodating their interests to, or allying themselves with, the United States. Since they cannot directly oppose the sole superpower, these states have developed strategies of opposition that are adapted to the realities of the contemporary distribution of power. According to Walt's taxonomy, some countries have sought to achieve a modest balancing, either in collaboration with others (the d‚marche that China and Russia obtained from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, last year calling for a withdrawal of "outside forces" from Central Asia) or by themselves through the cultivation of asymmetric niche capabilities (state sponsorship of terrorism being the example par excellence). Another strategy is to balk at U.S. demands, thus hindering the advance of American interests while still avoiding an overt clash (such as South Korea's uncooperativeness when the Clinton Administration briefly considered a preventive strike against North Korean nuclear installations in 1994).

Other states try to constrain U.S. power through institutions and norms that restrict the superpower's freedom of action, an especially effective tactic in areas such as economic affairs where the American advantage is not so overwhelming (the World Trade Organization's dispute-resolution mechanism being one of the few instances where the United States is subject to binding international legal processes). Still other countries attempt to blackmail the United States into granting concessions by threatening some undesirable action, as the North Korean regime has been notoriously successful in doing. Finally, some states-and a whole host of non-state actors-have challenged the legitimacy of the global position and policies of the United States, hoping that "by encouraging more and more people to question America's global leadership, this strategy seeks to make it harder for the United States to win support, while simultaneously encouraging self-doubt among Americans themselves."

A New Concert?

SINCE STATES are inherently self-interested and few would be safer or more prosperous if the United States actually withdrew into isolationism, such a retreat can be ruled out as undesirable. Simply put, whatever criticisms can be leveled against specific U.S. policies, international society remains heavily invested in America's maintenance of the avenues of global commerce, from the Internet to sea lanes, its campaign for greater security (whether against terrorism or the proliferation of WMDs), and its subsidies for a host of multilateral institutions from the United Nations to the World Bank. What, then, are the options for dealing with threats to the global order if one finds the prospect of American primacy discomfiting? One possible way forward is suggested by Hall Gardner, head of the International Affairs and Politics Department of the American University of Paris, in American Global Strategy and the "War on Terrorism."

Gardner's approach, which he characterizes as "non-traditional, or alternative, realism", takes on-despite the limiting nature of the second part of the book's title-quite a number of the troubling issues that the world faces in the wake of the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, U.S. global power, and the weaknesses of international institutions and norms. In particular, he makes the case for devolving some of the responsibilities currently shouldered by the American hegemon to a "new global concert" centered on regional security communities and, ultimately, a restructured and reinvigorated United Nations. That proposal can be applied to regimes that Washington has habitually labeled "rogue states" or "outposts of tyranny", like Kim Jong-il's North Korea or Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Gardner argues that the issues that these countries raise can only be effectively dealt with through a dialogue that determines the precise nature of their interests and concerns and those of their neighbors in the region, as well as distinguishes those issues that are truly "legitimate" or "vital." While such dialogue results in regime recognition rather than regime change, it can be carried out without ignoring the need for regime reform. The option that exists is that of designing conditional security assurances, possibly leading to stronger security guarantees, which can only be resolved in a multilateral context. The distinction that Gardner strives to make is that "multilateral security accords appear to legitimize the regime, but they do not preclude the possibility of evolutionary reforms-or even the possibility of radical political change coming from within." Gardner illustrates with the case of North Korea:

Essay Types: Book Review