Indispensability

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POLITICS FEBRUARY 1, 2010

Indispensability

Follies of Power: America’s Unipolar Fantasy
by David P. Calleo
Cambridge University Press, 188 pp., $30

As damaging as many of George W. Bush’s specific foreign policies were to America’s stature and security, it was his administration’s drive to lock in Washington’s world dominance that will be longest remembered. For academics and strategists and pundits, certainly, those pretensions are the gift that keeps on giving. For what else could provide a political scientist, in this case the distinguished scholar David Calleo, with the rationale to write a sentence such as this one: “The United States of the Bush administration appeared a startling reincarnation from Hobbes’s dread seventeenth century—a rogue Leviathan on the loose?" As if the rest of the planet during the past decade would have preferred to live in not Hobbes’s world but Kant’s.

Calleo’s book is yet another effort to extrapolate the dangers emanating from an American foreign policy premised on the perpetual pursuit of hegemonic power. True enough, at the height of their hubris in 2003 and 2004, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld were obsessed with just such a worldview, based above all on American military superiority and its enduring (or so they ardently wished) status as sole superpower. But the historical truth is that this attitude barely survived the wreckage of the war in Iraq. The Republican candidate in 2008, John McCain, largely rejected it. And Barack Obama thoroughly repudiated it with his call for partnerships with most countries and dialogue with remaining adversaries and enemies. He owed his astonishing electoral success not least to this repudiation.

Although the Cheney school still survives in a weakened Republican Party, and most purely in the chatterbox Cheney himself, most of the country has moved on. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has succeeded in restoring a significant measure of respect for the United States—not the end of anti-Americanism, much of which is out of our hands—through a series of straightforward reversals of Bush policy on climate change, the treatment of prisoners, the cancellation of missile defenses in Eastern Europe, the restoration of arms control treaties, and the importance of international law. Bush’s Leviathan—with its “shock and awe” strategic bombing, disgrace of Abu Ghraib, waterboarding at secret prisons, unaccountable National Security Agency wiretapping, un-signing of treaties, Paris-Berlin-Moscow-Beijing anti-Iraq war axis at the United Nations, and the idea of the “axis of evil”—seems more and more like a bad case of post-September 11 fury than a reflection of permanent, deep-seated American attitudes. We have recovered our perspective on our place in the world, though some of the strategic rewards of that recovery have not yet been achieved.

But Calleo disagrees. He regards the Bush years not as a unipolar moment, but rather as the reflection of a unipolar tradition. Accordingly, his book charts longstanding aspirations throughout American history for American hegemony, which he calls “the recurring obsession of our official imagination, the idée fixe of our foreign policy.” Beginning with Alexander Hamilton’s push for “America’s global hegemony,” followed by Abraham Lincoln’s faith in “America’s global destiny” and the “imperial tastes” of Teddy Roosevelt, this tradition reached its inexorable conclusion when Franklin Delano Roosevelt “melded Wilsonianism and the geopolitical enthusiasms of his cousin, Theodore, into the vision of a global Pax Americana.” In Calleo’s view, Bush’s hubris was not the aberration, but rather the norm.

Calleo’s European sensibilities become apparent as he recounts British and French reactions to Franklin Roosevelt’s grand foreign policy goals. In the case of France, he quotes De Gaulle’s charge that FDR’s vision was, in fact, a power grab “cloaked in idealism.” In Britain’s case, he describes how after the war “Lend-Lease was brutally terminated, despite Britain’s devastated finances. [italics added]” Washington’s generosity only turned around when Stalin’s intentions became clear in 1947, transforming Roosevelt’s “triumphal vision” into Truman’s “defensive vision, which included 'containment' of the Soviets, above all, in Europe.” Wasn’t Truman’s defensiveness in fact based on a real need for defense?

In the Cold War that followed, Calleo argues, Europe constituted the third pole in a tripolar world. This was all to the good, in his view—it was a kind of civilizing influence—as Washington’s dangerous tendencies were checked by the need to "show attentiveness to the European allies." There is more than a hint of Cold War nostalgia evident in Calleo’s telling. The nuclear arms race and the reality of mutual assured destruction restrained Washington and Moscow, forcing a focus on “carefully-tended balances” to ensure a peaceful and stable world. But all that stability was lost with the fall of communism in 1990-1991, when America’s “unipolar vision ... returned with a vengeance.” And after the American victory in the first Gulf war a year later, he concludes, “a sort of Hegelian nationalism arose to convince Americans that all modern history had been incubating America’s global leadership.” From Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” under the first President Bush, it is only a short step to the second President Bush’s call for America to sit atop a unipolar world, free to launch military invasions to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East. The effect, Calleo writes, is “the United States thereby transformed itself from the world’s favorite protector into its leading disturber of the peace.”

Here lies the essence of his argument. The implications arising from the invasion of Iraq are what arouse Calleo’s fears. He still regards the war in Iraq as a demonstration war for a broader American effort to transform the Middle East through the use of American military power—with subsequent targets to include Syria, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia. Tying together Bush’s preventive war doctrine, huge defense budgets, the war in Iraq, and the “freedom agenda," Calleo sees a coherent narrative, with American dominance or unipolarity as the desired outcome. For him, the war on terrorism was simply the latest construct for America’s historical aim of world hegemony.

Calleo’s thesis—this is just the latest book to portray the United States as imperial—is that hegemony is a fantasy built on four popular American myths. Those myths—that American military power will remain superior indefinitely, that American power is inherently legitimate, that American soft power is irresistible to the rest of the world, and that American economic power is not subject to imperial "overstretch”—are then systemically analyzed and rejected. Having discredited hegemony, Calleo turns to the European model for an alternative method to create the long-sought aspiration of a rules-based international system, what he calls a "Pax Europea." Unlike America’s obsession with hegemony, the states of the European Union understand the values of cooperation and compromise. With its model of perpetual compromise, Calleo writes, “the EU is the most promising political achievement of our time.”

Yes, the EU is an important institution, and yes, compromise is critical for any sophisticated society and any successful world order. But no rational strategist really believes that the primacy America held after World War II can be fully replicated given growing Chinese economic power, the political and economic rise of the world’s largest democracy in India, and a European Union that can play a larger and larger economic and political role in international affairs. Ironically, the net effect of the Bush years may have not only been structural economic damage caused by an unexpected explosion of trillions of dollars of debt due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and attendant military spending, but also the damage done to perceptions of American military superiority caused by the difficulties in achieving victory in Iraq, not to mention the very real strains on the military services. In short, American dominance is a lot harder to envisage after the Bush administration than it was before President Bush took office—a time when France’s foreign minister was describing the United States as the world’s “hyperpower.”  

It is also not serious to suggest that Europe, which failed so disastrously to stop the slaughter in Bosnia, and is hopelessly divided in dealing with Russia, and is anxious to resume selling advanced weapons systems to China, is the right model for leadership of the international community. Calleo avoids many of the hard questions that have paralyzed Europe’s decision-making. His glowing analysis of Europe’s advanced historical wisdom most egregiously neglects the crucial challenge of its growing and increasingly alienated Muslim population. And more important to the purpose of his book, he fails to consider the realistic alternative to unipolarity for the United States—what other state does he think is ready and willing and able to assume the role of the indispensable leader of a rules-based international system?

According to Calleo, “[s]o long as this unipolar mindset predominates... [t]he U.S. will remain an imperial power” in the Middle East. It is worth pointing out against this rather banal claim that many Americans—and many Europeans—do not believe that the United States has acted as an “imperial” power in the Middle East or anywhere else since World War II. We have left the countries we occupied during the war, and our global relationships are based on voluntary associations in which countries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) freely choose to host American forces or join NATO or enter into military defense treaties (Japan and South Korea). That is not imperialism. Moreover, in the election of 2008, and indeed throughout the post-Cold War period, the public has voted for alliances and partnerships, not hegemony. For good or ill, there is no consensus for hegemony in American politics. On the contrary, as the recent turmoil over the decision to finish the mission in Afghanistan by increasing troop deployments showed, there is a growing trend towards insularity in the Democratic Party and the country at large.

Still, a consensus could emerge for the far more realistic, but still challenging, vision of America as the senior partner leading a growing group of responsible major and minor powers. Such a vision is neither primacy nor unipolarity; it is nothing other than leadership. (Is all leadership hegemonic?) Calleo himself acknowledges that American leadership was “indispensable” in the case of Bosnia and Kosovo. That was the model that President Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had in mind when they articulated the idea of America as the “indispensable nation.” And what, precisely, was wrong with that model?

Consider the wrenching case of Kosovo. An international crisis demanded an international response. America, with the full support of NATO’s nineteen democratic nations, as well as many Muslim countries in the Middle East and around the world, acted to prevent the mass murder and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians. The United Nations Security Council was paralyzed because of the opposition of communist China and Russia. Yet it seems fair to say the “international community” regarded the Kosovo war as legitimate, if not legal. As a result, Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia capitulated. The Kosovars won their freedom and their lives. Milošević himself was soon on his way to the UN war crimes tribunal. Serbia became a functioning democracy. And with the help of UN, NATO, and EU peacekeeping efforts, Europe finally became whole, free, and at peace. Messy as it may have been, America was indeed acting as the indispensable nation on behalf of a rules-based international system.

The same is true of Afghanistan. In this case, all the world’s major powers support the American-led military mission. In the war to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban and their brand of terrorism, American and NATO troops are acting in defense of the fundamental rules of a civilized world. President Obama is of course left to finish this lengthy, costly, and difficult mission because the Bush administration, having started out with the support of the world, including Security Council authorization and the invocation of the NATO treaty’s provision for collective self-defense, diverted American military, intelligence, economic, and diplomatic power to Iraq beginning in 2002, shortly after the war in Afghanistan began.

Iraq, sadly, is the issue that causes consensus in America to break down. Surely the international rules against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are just as important to a rules-based international system as those against terrorism, massive violations of human rights, military aggression, unfair trading practices, or even the treatment of prisoners. But as a result of the failed diplomacy before the war and the gross mismanagement of Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, the invasion is now the nightmare scenario for liberal internationalists. Could it have been different? Could more effective, patient diplomacy have led to Security Council authorization for military action to uphold the norms of non-proliferation in Iraq? Could an American administration that upheld the Geneva Conventions rather than calling them “quaint,” that pushed for international action to prevent global warming rather than opposed the Kyoto Protocol Treaty, that pursued partnership rather than primacy, that signed new arms control agreements rather than unsigning them–could such an administration have united the international community against Saddam Hussein?  

It was possible for the United States to synchronize military force and diplomacy in the Iraq war, but that was the road not taken. Still, it is worth remembering that the containment of Iraq, as opposed to the invasion of it, also required the use of military force. Indeed, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, and a perennial hero among the opponents of the Iraq war, and even former French President Jacques Chirac, have said that without the deployment of U.S. forces to the region in 2002, Iraq would never have allowed UN inspectors to return. No inspectors, no containment. My point is that for a rules-based international system to work, sometimes difficult decisions must be made to enforce those rules—and often that is where Washington comes in.

For the truth is that China and India and Russia are not prepared to accept their responsibilities as major powers. Whether it is compelling Iraqi compliance, or insisting that Iran follow the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or pressuring Sudan to comply with the International Criminal Court, or deterring Russia from invading its small neighbors, or demanding that China abide by international rules on trade and human rights—the list, alas, goes on—it falls to the United States to lead if a rules-based system is going to work in the hard cases. Critics of the Iraq war, such as David Calleo, rightly focus on the Bush administration violations of international norms, but they leave unanswered the question of who will enforce the rules of the international system in which they believe so fervently. One thing is certain: it will not be the European Union.

America’s “unipolar moment” (2003) is over. Except on Fox News, Dick Cheney is mostly a subject of ridicule in the United States. And while it is America’s responsibility to turn away from the temptations of hubris and hegemony, others have responsibilities too. China must stop demanding rights without shouldering the responsibility of preventing nuclear proliferation, abiding by international trade rules, allowing Internet freedom, stopping global warming, and upholding human rights treaties. Russia must be a responsible neighbor and not a bully. Europe must be responsible for resisting its turn inwards. (And too many Americans are also turning inwards, at our peril). Whatever the conceptual or historical difficulties with American primacy and American unipolarity, there is no getting around the duty, and the reality: American leadership is indispensible.  

James P. Rubin, an adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University, was an Assistant Secretary of State from 1997-2000.

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