Strategic Horizons

Strategic Horizons

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

by Author(s): J. Peter Pham

"The concept of overlapping U.S., Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and South Korean security assurances leading to stronger security guarantees, plus economic incentives for Pyongyang, in exchange for a pledge not to develop nuclear weapons, appears to be moving in the right direction. . . . In order to achieve full North Korean compliance on the nuclear question, and convince it to put its nuclear program under international safeguards, the U.S. may need to engage in confidence-building measures and incentives, as well as conditional security assurances that ultimately lead to stronger security guarantees for Pyongyang through some form of a "non-aggression pact." North and South Korea can then work toward a confederal solution that would avoid an expensive and provocative "buy-out" of the North by the South, and that would likewise allay Chinese fears of possible U.S. military expansion north of the Yalu. At the same time, Washington will need to engage in real dialogue concerning North Korean violation of human rights and support for "terrorist" activities-much as it has done in the case of Libya."

American Global Strategy is one of the most interesting and creative volumes among the recent plethora of books on American grand strategy. Gardner is especially attuned to the complexity of the underlying dynamics shaping foreign policies abroad. He rejects, for example, the pedestrian clich‚ that the United States and the European Union, despite holding common values, may continue to clash over foreign policy, noting frankly that "a clash in perspectives appears to be developing precisely because the U.S. and EU rank their values and interests very differently, and because their governmental structures, processes and goals are very different as well." Gardner argues that contrary to Francis Fukuyama's notion of the "end of history", which posited the triumph of the liberal democratic idea, Americans and Europeans have very different ideas of democracy, which, in turn, influence the ways they interact. The recognition of this reality is the prerequisite for the formulation of multilateral "concerts" where larger clashes are headed off and core national interests can be advanced through political and economic trade-offs.

He deserves credit also for advancing some intriguingly unconventional proposals, like dusting off the 1948 Vandenberg Resolution (which sought to initiate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization while simultaneously strengthening the UN's security capacities) and adopting it to today's circumstances. Where his case falters, however, is in its failure to explain how the new concert is going to come about. First, America's global position rests on a remarkable combination of economic, military, political and cultural power. So far, no other power has emerged that can treat with the United States on anything approaching a near-parity level across America's several dimensions of power, much less challenge its overall position. Second, hegemon though it might be, the United States does have its limits, one of which happens to be that it cannot force other countries into a concert, the very institution of which implies the consent of all those concerned, as the young Henry Kissinger pointed out five decades ago in A World Restored, his study of the post-Napoleonic European concert. The coming into existence of a "new global concert" is necessarily dependent upon the interests of other states and the strategies they adopt to pursue them. And if Washington and Brussels are, as Gardner suggests, "in the process of developing very different 'ideas' of democracy, which will strongly influence the ways in which they interact", what hope is there that the two will arrive at a consensus on a concert, much less that the regimes in Beijing and Moscow-to say nothing of those in Tehran and Pyongyang-will subscribe to such a Western-orchestrated concert?

Realism and Grand Strategy

ALTHOUGH ANY generalized conclusions must be tempered by the realization that the current international order is unprecedented in the scope of the global power that the United States wields within it-given the relative stability of the global commons that America, however clumsily at times, assures, as well as the uncertainties of any alternative arrangements-there is good reason to believe that with wisdom and moderation, the "unipolar moment" is sustainable for the foreseeable future. A long-term grand strategy worthy of that name will have to look beyond the immediate strategic aim of "winning" the current War on Terror, with its implicit assumption that military victory assures peace-a presumption contrary to the experience of history. B. H. Liddell Hart's observation that "pure military strategy needs to be guided by the longer and wider view from the higher plane of grand strategy" still holds true, as does his counsel about what that grand strategy ought to concentrate on:

While the horizon of strategy is bounded by war, grand strategy looks beyond the war to the subsequent peace. It should not only combine the various instruments, but so regulate their use to avoid damage to the future state of peace-for its security and prosperity. The sorry state of peace, for both sides, that has followed most wars can be traced to the fact that, unlike strategy, the realm of grand strategy is for the most part terra incognita-still awaiting exploration, and understanding.

That such an understanding has not been reached explains why America, its unmatched global strength notwithstanding, has so far failed to define-much less achieve-a realistic victory in Iraq, and why its leaders from both parties improvise from crisis to crisis with nary a thought about what "the future state of peace" ought to resemble. However late the hour may be, it is not too late.

The present international system has not reached such a nadir that the United States has driven other countries into a destabilizing counter-balancing process. The existential danger posed by terrorism and WMDs, on the one hand, and the threat of international anarchy should America abdicate its unparalleled command of the global commons, on the other, have bought the United States a window of opportunity to engage in a national conversation about the long-term goals of its foreign policy and to seek a new defining principle to replace the now-retired grand strategy of containing its Cold War adversary. Despite the missteps made in recent years, the United States still enjoys considerable power and global influence-and it will maintain its unprecedented primacy so long as its huge margin of superiority is matched by an equal reservoir of prudence in selecting those battles where its vital interests and core values are truly at stake.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and author, most recently, of Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (2005).

Essay Types: Book Review