Poised on the cusp of a new millennium, American power and influence in world affairs have never been so resplendent. Since the demise of the Soviet Union a decade ago, the United States stands unchallenged by a single state or any foreseeable league of states. Its powerhouse economy, unrivaled military forces, technological prowess, and even the sway of its popular cultural all bear testament to America’s ascendancy. Great prosperity at home and peace abroad enshrine the current period as a golden age in the nation’s history.
This preponderance of power has, in fact, perplexed politicians, pundits, and academicians as to what international course the United States should set. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the United States confronts a radically altered international landscape with neither a clear goal nor a compass for foreign affairs. Lacking a superpower rival for the last decade, the United States has had trouble defining its international role.
The United States ought to help alleviate natural and man-made calamities in far-off lands. International passivity is no virtue in a world where weapons proliferation, international terrorism, and geostrategic realignments are afoot.
This essay lays out a case for measured global activism. There is no other realistic option than an internationalist role for the United States. Such advocacy is cognizant of America’s historical role and its future interests. Withdrawal or even "realist" prescriptions designed to reject moral guidelines in favor of a self-interest-only foreign policy will not guarantee American interests. During the 1920s and 1930s, the United States slid into isolationism to avoid world problems only to pay a heavy price when it belatedly had to confront militarized and expansionist states in World War II. America has a vested interest in peaceful change and broadly shared prosperity overseas. A major European or Asian war at the least would affect America’s well-being and at worst would draw the United States into the conflict.
The United States ought to help alleviate natural and man-made calamities in far-off lands. International passivity is no virtue in a world where weapons proliferation, international terrorism, and geostrategic realignments are afoot. But our foreign policy must not become a prisoner to the Haitis and Somalias of the world. Action ought to be undertaken only when costs can be kept in check. And, just as in wars, coalition intervention should be embraced, as much to share burdens as to deflect charges of American hegemony.
For more than a hundred years, influential Americans have believed that the road to world peace could be paved with economic development, commercial integration, and international treaties. Before and after World War I, American policymakers and many public intellectuals gave voice to this vision. In the 1920s, this idealism led to the League of Nations, an arms control agreement to limit the size and number of warships, and even a treaty—the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928—to outlaw war itself. Neither these legalistic formulas nor the moralistic sentiments inspired by them sufficed to spare the world from a second global conflict. They did contribute to a false sense of security, however. As a consequence, Americans awoke to an ominous world in the late thirties.
During the last decade, we have seen spectacular displays of American techno-warfare–without decisive political victories.
In today’s post–Cold War era, America is again pushing free trade and economic integration as a means to worldwide harmony. Globalization is this age’s shibboleth. Although prosperity and interdependence are important dimensions of international cooperation, they alone cannot ensure peaceful relations among states. Trade does not occur in a vacuum.
An internationalist posture is all the more imperative as the United States grapples with the evolving multipolar world. The geopolitical vacuum of the immediate post–Cold War years is now giving way to a resurgence of great-power politics amid extreme nationalistic and religious fervor. Evidence of this reconfiguration is seen in the policies of a neoimperializing Russia, an ascending China, an emerging India, a widening restiveness within the European Union, and a rising militant form of Islam. Each of these political entities is reaching out to states in their respective geographic spheres and beyond. During the 1990s, the United States had the luxury of choosing between international engagement or disengagement without worrying about the consequences among the world’s major players. The chessboard now has more determined pieces in the game. The new circumstances also permit secondary powers—Japan, Germany, and Iran—more latitude than they had during the Cold War. Pawns as well as queens can now influence the game.
No period in its history has offered the United States more opportunities for shaping international politics for American ends than the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even after World War II, the United States enjoyed much less freedom, for its postwar plans soon bumped up against the Soviet Union’s Central European dominance and, later, its global ambitions. But over the past decade Washington has considered economic globalization and political self-determination as ends themselves rather than as a means to larger ends.
On the face of it, the United States has been hyperagressively exercising power abroad since the Soviet Union’s breakdown. Washington kicked off the decade of the 1990s with the deployment of more than a half million ground troops in the Persian Gulf and ended it by unleashing significant air power to the Kosovo campaign. It fired missiles at Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for terrorist attacks. It ousted the Haitian military junta and steamed warships into Taiwanese waters to put the Chinese on notice for launching rockets during the island’s first direct presidential election.
But none of these operations succeeded in disarming a superweapons threat. Iraq and North Korea persist in their dangerous course of furtively developing weapons of mass destruction. Nor have any peacekeeping missions secured a durable political order without an ongoing U.S. military presence. When the United States has made use of its awesome military prowess, it has been applied so tentatively that it has hobbled its impact—just look at predemocratic Serbia, post–Gulf War Iraq, or the nest of terrorist networks in the Middle East. As a result, there have been spectacular displays of techno-warfare without decisive political victories.
A vacillating diplomacy is unlikely to impress determined rulers in China or Russia, just as it failed to impress in Milosevic’s Serbia, Iraq, or various terrorist cells. This brand of internationalism should be discredited as ineffective and cosmetic posturing. America serves as the key guarantor of an open global framework. Washington must work within the international system to ensure a fellowship of free nations and to prevent a major conflict. But in the final analysis, the United States must look to its own devices, not trust in foreign princes or fanciful diplomacy. Its leadership, nevertheless, can be translated through collective bodies and coalition approaches, as has been the case with NATO.
The Road Ahead
The post–Cold War era—characterized by the lessening of major power politics—is ending. We have begun to move to another, as yet unnamed, period. The early post-Soviet years witnessed a strategic imbalance resulting from the sudden implosion of Moscow’s vast empire. This disequilibrium no longer pertains.
There is no other realistic option than an internationalist role for the United States. Withdrawal or even "realist" prescriptions designed to reject moral guidelines in favor of a self-interest-only foreign policy will not guarantee American interests.
Neither Russia nor China views itself as solely a regional power. Both seek to compete globally with the United States. Both export arms and advanced technology to worrisome states like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Pakistan. They sidled up to each other so as to give reality to a reemerging Sino-Russian entente that suggests a great-power triangle. India asserts itself diplomatically and militarily in adjoining areas. The EU hungers for a greater international role on the international stage. The post–Cold War strategic vacuum is filling with political crosscurrents and new ambitions.
India is also fast assuming a larger geopolitical role. The economic, demographic, and democratic significance of India has only begun to be noted in Washington. India’s location in South Asia, proximity to China, growing economy, and respected military capacity make it an appealing U.S. partner. In the next decade, the United States must establish a closer relationship with New Delhi. India’s troubled relations with China should also give it standing with a United States concerned about China’s ambitions.
Weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles during the East-West standoff were confined largely to a small number of major powers, which looked to international agreements to maintain a nuclear balance. Today, the proliferation of rockets and nuclear components to unfriendly regimes poses a grave threat to the United States and many other countries and demands a reconsideration of policy options. Atomic weapons capacity is becoming a global reality. India and Pakistan, neither of which are rogue states, joined the membership of declared nuclear states by testing devices in 1998. The United States must recalibrate its policies to take account of these changing realities. Arms control treaties, created for the symmetrical Cold War power relationship, are no longer as effective against big-power-supplied rogues, who ignore legal niceties. This emerging threat makes some sort of missile shield a categorical imperative.
When dealing with Russia and China, Washington must redouble its diplomatic exertions to halt their patronage of rogue dictators. It is not enough just to engage Moscow and Beijing commercially with the aim of guiding them toward free markets, democracy, and peaceful relations among big powers. Stopping the export of missile and nuclear technology must be part of the negotiation process. Washington must also pursue forceful diplomacy that divides patrons from rogue regimes, thus neutralizing such regimes.
Because circumstances differ with each rogue, the steps to be taken against them can vary from muscular covert actions that topple dictators to economic and diplomatic engagement. One minimalist but long-term approach entails diplomatic and material aid to shadow governments either inside or outside the rogue regimes. But whatever the course of action, it must be sustained beyond the poll-driven photo-op approach so characteristic of the Clinton presidency.
With respect to failed states that implode, causing misery and death for their inhabitants, the past is prologue. There will probably be more of these, particularly in Africa. Colombia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and post-Castro Cuba could also join the ranks of catastrophic human tragedies. While the United States cannot make lambs lie down with lions, it has to intervene in some civil disorders, such as the Balkans, because they adjoin regions central to American interests. If the United States always stood aside, its cherished values would be discredited; damage to American prestige and credibility will undercut U.S. interests. Extravagant crusades for democracy or human rights cannot be sustained but neither can a policy of blanket nonintervention. It behooves America, however, not to become bogged down in the aftermath of direct military interventions. Mundane police duties are best left to others.
The United States must distinguish between the muscular internationalism of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, on the one side, and the utopian multilateralism of Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, on the other. Practical internationalism is critical to preventing war, expanding trade, and promoting democracy and respect for human rights. This leadership can be translated through collective security arrangements and regional frameworks, but it cannot be solely reliant on them in all circumstances.
The promotion of democracy and human rights serves American interests in ways that realpolitik can never accomplish alone.
Sticking up for our values does not harm the pursuit of our vital interests, for our values are not distinct from our interests. The realistic promotion of democracy and human rights serves American interests in ways that realpolitik can never accomplish alone. Obviously, the United States cannot ignore the balance of power or the emergence of a power capable of dominating the Eurasian continent. This overriding objective demanded large-scale U.S. politico-military intervention in European affairs three times in the past century. Worst-case scenarios mounted by China or Russia would foreclose American humanitarian endeavors. Until Beijing or Moscow threatens this traditional strategic imperative, Washington has some latitude to pursue other less-vital interests.
America represents ideals of freedom, individual rights, and nonaggression. So, when these principles are violated, other states look to the American response. The United States cannot react in every case where its principles are flouted. But failing to act is not without cost—doubt is cast on whether the United States will defend its interests as well as its principles.
This does not represent a strategy for hegemony. The charge of American hegemonism is spurious and motivated by power envy. The United States cannot hide its power. Nor should it. The exercise of American power from time to time will not lead inexorably to a law of political physics whereby states always coalesce against the top dog in antihegemonist entente. This is because the United States, unlike Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, is not bent on endangering others’ independence or freedom.
Trade, human interchange, information flows, and international bodies can facilitate peace in many circumstances; these conditions alone, however, do not preserve American interests or guarantee a war-free planet. America’s global engagement undergirds the international system.
The global activism advocated here cannot be undertaken with the current shrunken military forces. General Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently declared that during the past decade, spending and resources had been reduced 40 percent and U.S. military commitments expanded 300 percent. Current expenditures for defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and foreign assistance amount to slightly more than $325 billion—a large sum, but only 3 percent of our gross domestic product. The Defense Department’s budget is about 15 percent of the total federal budget—the great bulk of the budget is allocated for Social Security, Medicare, and other nondefense domestic programs.
In rebuilding its defenses, the United States ought not to prepare solely for the humanitarian and peacekeeping operations of the past decade. It must instead look to potential rivals. The western Pacific demands strategic attention. Ships and planes capable of negotiating the vast oceanic distances are a first priority. The sea lanes around Japan and Indonesia and in the Middle East must be kept open.
Preserving America’s preeminent standing is not an end in itself. But the longer the United States holds fast to its position, the longer the world will be hospitable to free markets, political pluralism, and the rule of law. Together, these political currents do as much for averting a global war as they do for extending American principles.