Policy Review Banner

How America Should Lead

Thursday, August 1, 2002

The end of the twentieth century has been characterized by the exceptional strength of American power in the international system. In all of the major indices of power — economic, military, and political strength — the United States weighs in the heaviest, although the European Union as a whole now holds a slightly larger share of the world’s social product than the U.S. The U.S. has the largest and most dynamic economy, the most fearsome and adaptive military, and a public opinion surprisingly cohesive in supporting the government’s choices about America’s role in the world. While the country doesn’t lack political schisms or divisive social issues, it is fundamentally centripetal in its character. These advantages were all likely to reinforce American power in the international system as globalization advances. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States provided a grim but important test of the resilience of American power across these sectors.

America’s economic, military, and political reaction to the attacks has strengthened U.S. dominance of the international system. The strengths of the U.S. are oddly self-reinforcing in all three aspects of power and have demonstrated a resilience and sturdiness in reaction to the challenges since September 11. However, international responses to the acceleration of American power, while largely positive, suggest the possibility of an anti-American backlash. Outside the U.S., a feeling of dependence combined with uncertainty over the motivations of American power breeds reservations and resistance. It can be difficult even for well-intentioned foreign leaders, operating within their own political systems, to guarantee full-scale allegiance.

For the U.S., the question is how best to use and to preserve its near-hegemonic power; for others, how to deal with a degree of U.S. dominance that is reminiscent, on a global level, of America’s role within the West after 1945. No other nation but the United States would have been able to give a similarly forceful, coherent, and successful answer to the existential challenge of September 11. As world reaction demonstrates, American leadership is not only valued but actively sought in response to the severe threats to national and international security that have become apparent in recent months.

We believe that American power could be most effectively perpetuated and expanded, and the interests of America’s allies best served, by engaging in the construction of international institutions and practices more closely aligned to emergent security challenges. Current alliances and institutions are not ideally suited to the task. At the same time, the expanse of American power and the constraining efforts of allies are leading America to forgo international cooperation — to its own detriment. The critical tests of American power in the twenty-first century will be whether the U.S. has the vision to lead the design of an international architecture that fosters American interests and the interests of other states, as did the post-World War ii architecture, and whether it can do so in ways that share the burden of sustaining this order so that it becomes self-reinforcing.

Economic power

Expectations of a widespread and deep global recession were the conventional wisdom among economic forecasters on September 11. The prospect of a “perfect storm” seemed conceivable: a fragile American economy tilting into recession, weakness in other major g-7 economies, capital flight from the U.S., insufficient liquidity to assure settlements, impediments to the freedom and efficiency of commerce brought about by increased security measures, and clumsy leadership all combining catastrophically to damage confidence in the U.S. economy, extending and deepening the global recession. An economic blow to the American economy seemed, from the targeting of the World Trade Center, an important objective of the terrorists and one with reasonable prospects of success.

Masterful orchestration by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, and Wall Street very effectively minimized the economic impact of the attacks. The Fed issued a statement on September 11 assuring that it remained open and would “meet liquidity needs” of the global financial system, echoing the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (comprised of the chief financial regulators from the Fed, Treasury, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Commodity Futures Trading Commission). In the four days that the U.S. stock markets remained closed, the Fed introduced more than $100 billion of liquidity into financial markets and coordinated an additional $80 billion from other g-7 countries, effectively acted as a lender of last resort to finance uncleared transactions, arranged innovative temporary currency swaps, reduced the overnight rate to the lowest level since 1994, and initiated unusual repurchase operations (short-term loans) to 25 primary banks to ensure the federal funds rate remained near its target of 3.5 percent. Regulators at the sec temporarily eased restrictions on companies buying back their own shares. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency encouraged banks to relax credit in order to buffer customers from problems related to the attacks. No major problems were reported in the banking system, and coordination between the government and private-sector firms demonstrated the constructive fluidity of the American economic approach. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill concluded that “the financial system functioned extraordinarily well, and I have every confidence that it will continue to do so in the days ahead.” It was a magisterial performance of resilience by the American economic system.

When markets reopened on September 16, 2001, the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced its busiest trading day on record and the largest point loss in history: 684 points, or 7.1 percent of value — roughly matching Wall Street estimates and demonstrating an “orderly” sell-off that did not trigger the market circuit breakers to suspend trading. As a percentage of market value, the September 17 losses did not even qualify in the top 10 most significant days of loss, prompting New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso to conclude that “They [the terrorists] have lost.”

Moreover, the American economy is, to a greater extent than most other developed economies, driven by consumer spending and market performance. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic activity; the U.S. economy therefore has much greater exposure to variations in consumer confidence. The American economy had been in a “rolling recession” across various industries for about six months and was already fragile — consumers were beginning to have concerns about the stability of their employment and sufficiency of savings even before the attacks. Business investment and working capital had been diminishing, stocks and exports had been declining, while at the same time unemployment was rising.

Consumer confidence and thus spending had been the float for the American economy. Even a small diversion from spending to consumer savings would dull the prospect of an economic recovery, absent major revivals in restocking business inventories or corporate earnings. If consumer savings were to rise even slightly (from zero to perhaps 3 percent), it would substantially reduce the likelihood of a recovery in the near term. Reassuring Americans was therefore a paramount objective in minimizing the economic impact of the September 11 attacks. While the president’s repeated instructions to Americans to go shopping if they wanted to do something useful for the country in the aftermath of the attacks sounded strange, they acknowledged the fundamental importance to the U.S. economy of consumer spending and appear to have softened the shock effect on consumers.

The administration resisted the temptations of fiscal stimulus and shielding companies (other than airlines) from bankruptcy, and Congress failed to approve an immediate stimulus package. The economy seemed nonetheless to begin pulling out of the recession relatively quickly, fueled in part by slumping oil prices, a mild winter, and flat inflation. The Bush administration even capitalized on congressional support to enhance chances of passing fast-track trade promotion authority to negotiate future multilateral deals. In less than two months, the Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassed the September 11 mark and was again hovering around 10,000; the nasdaq was also rebounding to pre-attack levels of around 2,000.

The impressive agility of the American economy beyond the scope of governmental activity will also reinforce American dominance of the international economic order. Investments made by U.S. firms in anticipation of y2k problems allowed redundancy of data and communications, reducing the loss in productivity due to the attacks. American firms aggressively used the pretext of the September 11 attacks to reduce earnings expectations and jettison employees no longer affordable in the recessionary environment, spiking unemployment in the near term but quite possibly accelerating the recovery. In March 2001 (the generally accepted onset of the recession) the U.S. unemployment rate was an historically low 3.9 percent; that grew to 5.3 percent in October and 5.7 percent in November 2001, with 8.2 million Americans seeking work.

By the end of January 2002, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was confident enough of impending recovery to testify to the Senate that the economy was “just at this point turning, as best as I can judge,” and that there were “signs recently that some of the forces that have been restraining the economy over the past year are starting to diminish and that activity is beginning to firm.” By Greenspan standards, those are shimmeringly positive comments.

Statements by central bankers from the g-7 countries were also consistently calming and helpful in the aftermath of the attacks. The Group of Seven finance ministers committed themselves to “ensuring that this tragedy will not be compounded by disruption to the global economy.” The European Central Bank injected $63.4 billion into financial markets and committed to “unlimited funds” should they become necessary. Despite initial dismissals of coordinated interest rate cuts by both eu central banker Wim Duisenberg and uk Bank of England Governor Eddie George, the eu states did, in fact, reduce interest rates in conjunction with the Americans to limit incentives for capital flight from the U.S. These actions demonstrate not only the extent of shared strategic perspective on challenges and the range of solutions by central bankers, but also the degree to which economic elites from the g-7 countries consider the health of the U.S. economy integral to their own economic prosperity. The economies of the g-7 countries are largely linked to the performance of U.S. financial markets and monetary policy. This suggests that the dynamism of the American economy is self-reinforcing in the international economic order. That is, the bases of U.S. economic power will continue to buttress American power in the international system because American success is essential to the economic success of other states in the system.

Military power

There was little doubt prior to September 11 that the U.S. military had the means to defeat any organized military fielded against it; operations in Afghanistan added a demonstration of the effectiveness of U.S. forces against asymmetric challenges. Operation Enduring Freedom, while not complete or completely successful, has been an example of the American military’s ability to innovate rapidly in response to demanding but unexpected risks in a very inhospitable political and military environment. The U.S. alone in the international system is able to bring focused power to bear with minimum risk of failure and unintended casualties at great distances from support infrastructure. This contrasts sharply with the trends in other leading militaries, further lengthening the imposing shadow of American military power.

The yawning gap in capabilities between America and even the most advanced European militaries — which constitute at least five of the most powerful armed forces in the world — has been evident since the Kosovo operations, during which Europeans convinced themselves that they could not have succeeded without the U.S. in the coalition. That European militaries would have failed to coerce Serbia is untrue: It would have looked different from operations in which the U.S. was integral, with riskier prospects, a longer duration, and larger numbers of both combatant and civilian casualties, but Europeans could have imposed their will on Serbia. What is most significant is that European states, even Britain, would have been unlikely to engage with force had the Americans not participated. Europeans have come to measure their military abilities in connection with the United States in nato rather than relative to potential enemies they would fight. As a result, they have become dependent on the U.S. for some key elements of military power. On their own, they feel weak because they cannot produce the high-intensity juggernaut of American military power; they therefore fail to realize the extent to which their combined military forces would suffice to defeat any potential adversary except the United States.

The gap in capabilities between the U.S. and all other military forces is also growing, and rapidly. Technologies largely based on advances in the collection and processing of information have been percolating into U.S. forces for more than a decade and are just now beginning to affect organization and doctrine in ways that may well “revolutionize” American military operations — and certainly will accelerate the rate of change within U.S. forces. The economy of scale in U.S. defense spending, which stood at about $340 billion prior to September 11 and has been increased to $383 billion in programmed spending for fiscal year 2003, provides a natural advantage. The U.S. now spends more money on defense than the next 10 states combined — and eight of those states are allied or closely aligned with the United States. Commitment of a full third of the defense budget to research, development, and purchase of weapons has provided a panoply of advances (such as night-vision rangefinders, all-weather precision-guided munitions, and unmanned aircraft) that permit U.S. forces to engage enemies from greater distances with greater precision and less risk. Congressional oversight in the 1980s imposed requirements for cooperation among military services and institutionalized a healthy competition among interests within the American military. Moreover, the transition to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s (a process currently underway in most European countries and not yet undertaken in Russia or China) allows the U.S. substantial morale advantages, both in the force itself and in terms of public support.

At its best, the U.S. military is now a laboratory of innovation in warfare, taking advantage of this once-in-a-century opportunity. Key advances during Afghanistan operations have resulted from webbing together information that permits small numbers of forces to work across traditional military boundaries (e.g., with Special Forces identifying targets for U.S.-based bombers to drop precision weapons). As a measure of the pace of advance, during the Gulf War, U.S. forces flew roughly 3,000 sorties per day, attacking the same number of targets that 200 sorties per day achieved in Afghanistan operations. Whereas 10 aircraft would be assigned to attack a single target during the Gulf War, in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, a single aircraft would usually be tasked with two targets per sortie. It’s as if the world’s other major militaries are playing classical music while the U.S. is beginning to play improvisational jazz — which permits greater freedom with the composer’s score, changes the relationship of authority between the conductor and the orchestra, increases the demands for virtuosity, sensibility, and flexibility among musicians, and requires the ability to innovate and synchronize simultaneously.

These military advances have enormous political consequences, both for the U.S. and other states, because America can now actually achieve its military objectives more efficiently acting unilaterally than with the assistance of even the closest allies. Other states may be less willing to use force against the U.S., but friendly states may also be less willing to participate in military coalitions in which the U.S. will garner all the credit for success and be at much less risk than other participants. And if other states are unable to make a meaningful contribution to the conduct of military operations, the U.S. is likely to be less interested in accommodating their concerns about how and when to use force.

Political power

Probably no other statesman in the West would have attempted the overtly religious appeal that President Bush did in his September 20, 2001, speech to a joint session of Congress, asserting that “God is not neutral” in this struggle. And few other publics, especially constituted of such diverse religious affiliations, would have embraced it as enthusiastically as did Americans. Mosque visits, engaging American Islamic leaders, appealing to Americans to live their principles by not judging others by ethnic background or religion, and committing to aggressive law enforcement to protect Muslim and Arab Americans prevented linkages of terrorism with broader Islam and reaffirmed the inclusiveness of American society, reminding people both in the U.S. and abroad of the fundamental virtues of the American way of life.

Americans contributed more than $1 billion in charity to the victims of the attack and managed to draw greater national solidarity from the tragedy. They did not make the connection others did between U.S. policies regarding the Middle East and the attacks, nor did they accept the connection between poverty and terror often asserted by non-American commentators, nor were there calls for isolationism. Americans overwhelmingly reacted to the attacks with compassion for the victims, solidarity with the president, and ease with the aggressive U.S. military response. Subsequent to the attacks, President Bush garnered a 90 percent public approval rating, the highest ever recorded for an American president. Moreover, the American public seems committed to fighting terrorism, with 76 percent of the public, according to a September 2001 USA Today poll, willing to support a campaign against terrorism even in the expectation of further attacks against the U.S. homeland and estimates of 5,000 U.S. soldiers killed in the campaign. Americans tend to “rally around the flag” in times of crisis, but the intensity of American patriotism in the aftermath of the attacks is an enormous political asset for the U.S., especially with its grounding in the political values of individual freedom, diversity, and tolerance. It demonstrates an enduring resoluteness in the political culture. It also suggests that Americans continue to be willing to shoulder the burdens of their paramount role in the international system, despite its costs.

International reaction to the September 11 attacks will also likely reinforce American willingness to remain dominantly engaged in the international order. nato’s invocation of its mutual defense pledge for the first time in the alliance’s history, hundreds of thousands of people holding vigils of sympathy and solidarity around the world, votes of support (even among states wary of American power and motivations) for a U.S. retaliation in the United Nations, and even Le Monde’s headline “We Are All Americans Now” were important reassurances to a grieving superpower. Americans were genuinely touched by the support. While the U.S. might have chosen the same course of action with or without international support, it was a timely reminder of the value of other states and of the major international institutions voluntarily supporting American power in the international system.

As the dominant power in the system, the U.S. tends toward unilateral action or action in small coalitions focused on solving specific problems: the defense of South Korea, ensuring free passage of commerce in the Straits of Hormuz, restraining proliferation. Most other states in the system are unable to protect and advance their interests unilaterally, and therefore tend toward international regimes and binding treaty restraints to diminish the value of power. However, the obligations the U.S. undertakes for vulnerable states and in enforcing the desired international order give it a different perspective on security regimes like the ban on land mines and the creation of the International Criminal Court, as well as different risk portfolios for low-end military missions like peacekeeping.

The existence of differences in approach is not particularly problematic; they are natural results of the disparities in power and responsibility. However, efforts to stigmatize U.S. unwillingness to be constrained by international regimes raise the important issue of preserving the effectiveness with which the U.S. is able to lead the management of the international order. After September 11, they would signal an alienation from American strategic perspectives that is worrisome, given how beneficial the existing international order is to the interests of the vast majority of states, particularly America’s closest allies.

Challenges to U.S. dominance

With so much positive in the equation of American economic, military, and political power, what could go wrong? Given the expanse and dynamism of American power in the international system at this moment, it is unlikely that any state, collective of states, or non-state actors could actually disrupt the American international order. Any potential destruction of American power is likely to be self-inflicted. Just as the American military is now so far superior to other fighting forces that the preponderance of U.S. casualties are incurred in training and by self-committed errors, any diminution of American power in the international system is likely to result from America’s own mistakes in managing that power. What should the U.S. avoid doing at this time of its nearly unbounded power? Our analysis suggests six important mistakes to prevent.

First, Americans should not forget that the existing order that produced U.S. dominance is based on the salutary principle that other states advance their own interests by voluntarily supporting the approaches the U.S. advocates, usually on the basis of proper consultation. After 1941, the U.S. worked with its allies to design the post-World War ii order such that the vast majority of states that adhered to the political and economic rules benefited from them, achieving both peace and prosperity. By designing the rules carefully, the U.S. created an order that was largely self-enforcing and therefore sustainable at an acceptable price to the United States. States did what was in their interests and furthered U.S. interests at the same time. The voluntary nature of participation reduced the burden on America of sustaining the order. In designing the post-September 11 order, the U.S. should think carefully about how to cement the foundations for sustainable American leadership in ways that benefit others and reduce the current burden on the U.S. for maintaining the international order. While unilateral action is a necessary option for the U.S., enshrining it as an end rather than a usually suboptimal means of achieving American objectives will erode the voluntary commitment of other states to the common aims they share with the U.S.

An example of the potentially catastrophic effects of other states choosing not to foster such common interests can be seen in the potential for an avalanche of U.S. bond selling. America’s net foreign liabilities stand at a staggering $2.5 trillion, equivalent to 25 percent of the country’s gdp. The viability of U.S. government operations is predicated on foreign holders’ willingness to continue financing the U.S. current account deficit. While a coordinated multinational effort is extremely unlikely — especially after the self-interested propping up of the U.S. economy demonstrated by major central banks after September 11 — precipitous selling could occur. If foreign holders of U.S. Treasury bonds were to lose confidence in the American government’s management of the economy, an avalanche of bond selling could begin. If Japan’s banking system were to repatriate large holdings of U.S. bonds, investor confidence could be rattled. It remains essential to American interests for others in the international system to foster U.S. success.

A second mistake would be for America to retreat into isolationism. Such a posture would be self-defeating, not only rewarding terrorists for the attacks but also encouraging other challenges to American power because enemies would perceive a diminished willingness to assert and advance American interests. Fortunately, there are few signs that Americans are having an isolationist reaction. Much of the credit for this goes to solid presidential leadership: As Jeremy Rosner has noted, polls of American public opinion routinely demonstrate that the strongest factor affecting attitudes is the quality of leadership by the president in explaining a situation and outlining a sensible program for solving the problem at a cost commensurate with its importance.

The third mistake to avoid would be permitting into the longer term the impediments the U.S. is currently experiencing in homeland defense. In September, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, “we can either change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or change the way they [the terrorists] live, and we chose the latter.” And while the U.S. has retaliated against the al Qaeda terrorists and established a doctrine of imposing regime change on any states that harbor or foster terrorism, protecting the U.S. has indeed changed the way Americans live. Those changes should and can be temporary, but making them so will require pushing out the perimeter of defenses beyond the U.S. homeland. The current burden of defending the American homeland at close range is an unacceptable impairment to America’s people and businesses. Support for the government is currently high, and the federal and state governments need to show they merit that confidence by finding better solutions than are currently being employed.

A fourth mistake that could diminish the strength and value of American dominance would be to think too narrowly about the sources and means available to protect and advance American interests. There is a tendency to think about power as equivalent to either force or those tools directly in the control of the U.S. government. Gen. Hugh Shelton, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, nicely characterized the problem by saying “the American military is a terrific hammer. But not every problem is a nail.” It breaks trust with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to send them into harm’s way without a broader political, economic, and military strategy. Moreover, it dramatically reduces their effectiveness in achieving the political goals for which force was judged necessary. Military force alone cannot, and never could, solve the challenges to American power that will develop in the American centuries. As Edmund Burke said, “the use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again: and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered.” It only adds poignancy that it was in his 1775 Second Speech on Conciliation with America that he cautioned against equating power and leadership. A broader range of tools must be engaged for the U.S. to maximize the political and economic benefits of establishing an international order.

The U.S. government remains rudimentary in its ability to use the Treasury Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service, the fbi, the cia, the Agency for International Development, the Export-Import Bank, and other directly governmental tools in a coordinated manner. This is unsatisfactory. The American government needs to orchestrate the use of a much wider range of tools with the speed and efficiency with which it employs the military — as its adversaries certainly will. And it needs to engage Hollywood, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and other engines of creativity and power that characterize American society in ways that the government cannot and should not control but can encourage and facilitate.

The fifth error that would impinge on American dominance would be the traditional route to ruin for hegemonic powers: imperial overstretch — committing the U.S. to security and financial obligations that overtax the vitality of the country. Agreeing to defend too many costly perimeters, placing an inhibiting burden on the economy through tax rates or externalities, sinking too much of the national treasury into military power, overinvesting scarce political attention on countries and issues that do not pose central challenges, failing to creatively engage the central challenges with a sophisticated mix of policy tools, underinvesting in the sustenance of human capital — these have traditionally been the means of eroding the strength of great powers. Balancing the competing requirements of domestic and international well-being and making the decisions about which crises merit a committed intervention will remain a difficult issue for American leaders. The likelihood of imperial overstretch can be greatly lessened by sharing the burden of responsibility with countries and institutions that have similar interests and are designed to facilitate common action. Effectively, the U.S. has an interest in encouraging the active co-management of the international order with other nations, even being clear about respecting and supporting the lead of others, for example in regions that are not high on the U.S. priority list and are therefore not given sufficient attention and resources by the U.S. itself.

The sixth error that the U.S. should avoid is allowing itself to become convinced that others will always choose to advance their own respective interests rather than trying to prevent the U.S. from advancing its interests. Americans have a tendency to believe the liberal premise that good things go together: Foreign students educated in the U.S. will return home advancing market democracy and individual freedoms; engagement with the U.S. will lead to cooperation; individuals and states are rational decision makers who will seek to maximize their self-interest. While usually true, the breadth and visibility of American power also breed resentment from those not benefiting from its order. Moreover, rationality is not always linear or easy to discern, except in retrospect. The 1973 Egyptian attacks on Israel provide an instructive example: They were a tactical failure, quickly beaten back by the Israeli military, but a strategic victory for Egypt by demonstrating Israel’s vulnerability. The U.S. and its allies should be alert for signs of states and organizations willing to sacrifice their own interests in order to harm the U.S. and the U.S.-dominated international system. Ignorance and hubris would prevent the kind of careful analysis of others’ motives that responsive maintenance of American leadership requires.

Managing and perpetuating
U.S. leadership

If the american-led Century is to become the American-led Centuries, the U.S. needs to foster and promote the sources of American power: the legitimacy and quality of leadership ensured by America’s democratic institutions and rule of law, the dynamism of the global economy, the innovative juggernaut of the American military, international respect for U.S. analysis and diplomacy, the sparkling generosity of individual Americans and their charities, the magnetic attraction for immigration that enriches diversity and expands the talent pool, the good sense of the American people, the belief in progress and harnessing technology, the prospect of more capable webbing together of the instruments of power. All the things that have made the U.S. strong show every likelihood of making it stronger — and while America certainly doesn’t have all the answers, as a society it is open to finding right answers and correcting its course. The U.S. could very likely sustain the current American-dominated international order unilaterally, shedding the constraining and frequently aggravating alliances and institutions. However, that would be a costly way to dominate, and one with which the American public is likely to be uncomfortable. An international order in which other states did not want U.S. dominion and regulation would be a much more burdensome and hostile international order — one much more likely to make American taxpayers feel isolationist, with all the damaging consequences for American well-being.

The genius of the American-designed order established after World War ii, which continues to regulate the international system, is that it is both in America’s interests and in the interests of other states. The U.S. created an international order that is a positive-sum game: States that accept the rules fostering American power grow richer, safer, and more powerful as well. The nato alliance, Bretton Woods monetary regulation, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the g-7, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (whose successor is the World Trade Organization), and networks of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements established American leadership and created venues for influence and enrichment by others.

The U.S. is the strongest power in the international system, and getting stronger. The question is not whether the U.S. will remain the strongest power in the system — it most likely will. A more important question for the U.S. is what kind of international order it wants to preside over. Rousseau says in The Social Contract that “the strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.” While it would be decades before even extreme negligence by the U.S. and dedicated efforts by potential challengers could erode the U.S.-dominated international order, much less establish a functioning alternative to it, it is in the American interest to think seriously about whether the existing patterns are sufficient.

What would be the alternatives to the current international order, characterized by U.S. dominance and an alliance framework largely inherited from the Cold War? One alternative, traditionally favored by America’s European allies, is a global treaty-based multilateral order building on the United Nations Charter and the general principles of international law. In this order, rules binding on all states would be accepted and norms of cooperation fostered. This approach has the benefit of treating all states equally and, in theory, protecting the weak from the strong. In recent years, however, examples such as the convention on banning land mines and the establishment of an International Criminal Court have proved controversial. From the U.S. viewpoint, two drawbacks make American support unlikely. First, as the effective custodial power of the international system, the U.S. continues to have obligations that make it unlike other countries — e.g., to defend the weak from the strong when international law is insufficient to the task. Second, some international treaties proved frustratingly insufficient in verification and enforcement (e.g., the advance of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs despite Iraq’s membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency) and are considered insufficiently robust vehicles with which to trust American interests to the exclusion of other means.

The extension of the existing international order would employ existing alliances to new purposes in order to get current allies to bear a greater share of the burden for new problems. An example of this would be the Clinton administration’s enthusiastic but ultimately unsuccessful effort to create a “globo-nato,” engaging America’s European allies in a joint effort to enforce shared interests under U.S. leadership throughout the world. This approach has several benefits: America’s closest allies are the wealthiest and strongest states in the international system and therefore have much to contribute; they are also those states that have historically most benefited from the U.S.-dominated international system and therefore should be expected to bear a greater burden in advancing common interests. Utilizing existing alliances precludes the difficult architectural work of building new alliances that would be more closely tailored to the current international order. The drawbacks are also substantial: Former colonial powers from Europe and Asia are still unwelcome leaders in many parts of the world and therefore are not optimal as the management team for non-European contingencies; most allies have narrower strategic horizons than the U.S. and are less likely to substantially engage their power beyond their own backyard; and militarily, they often have little to contribute in contingencies far from their home territory.

Another alternative international order would require the construction of new alliances that are more closely tailored to the emerging security challenges and incorporate the states important to managing those challenges. Such an order would require the U.S. to identify those countries critical to the success of efforts to master new security challenges like proliferation and terrorism and commit them to a common approach and set of obligations. For example, an anti-terrorism alliance would need to incorporate those countries of greatest strategic importance facing terrorist challenges (such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, India, possibly Russia and Colombia) and commit to common action along agreed lines (clarifying obligations to each other; assisting states that want help; imposing regime changes on states outside the alliance that harbor or foster terrorists; developing better political, economic, and military tools to combat terrorism; coalition training for use of all the means with which the problem would be engaged; building public support for common action). Given how little most of the key states have in common, their geographic distance from each other, and their difficulties in managing their own domestic challenges, it would require a huge investment of American effort to foster a sense of alliance and create a common approach. However, an international order of functional alliances focused on emerging security problems has four nontrivial benefits: 1) it clearly transmits U.S. security priorities; 2) it provides routine interaction among allies that will facilitate multilateral action during operations and crises; 3) it gives countries with the highest stakes in solving common problems the greatest leverage over American choices; and 4) it allocates American resources much more efficiently — especially that scarcest resource, political attention.

A related but distinct alternative to standing functional alliances dedicated to specific problems would be a la carte multilateralism, as advocated by State Department Policy Planning Director Richard Haass. This approach would erode existing alliances but not formally construct replacement structures. Instead, it would have states function like citizen militias or posses, coming together for a limited time with little prior planning to respond to a particular problem. A la carte multilateralism has the advantage of not requiring the large investment in architecture that constructing new alliances would necessitate, and allows exclusion of those states that lack the ability or willingness to contribute to the solution. However, the approach has the substantial disadvantage of being pick-up ball. Without deliberate planning, the U.S. will always find itself bearing a disproportionate share of the burden and responsibility for solving the problem. Moreover, multilateral operations will be more burdensome to make work during a crisis and have less efficiency for being speedily pulled together. Also, non-U.S. leaders will often find it more difficult to muster support at home for such ad hoc missions that do not rest on tested, institutionalized channels of consultation and representation.

The final option would be a primarily values-based international order, gathering countries with common approaches to the responsibilities of government, the liberties and rights of populations, and the basic rules of international behavior. Such a values-based order would function like a collective security forum, in which every state would commit itself to come to the defense of other states that were at risk from any country that did not share the common values. This approach would have the benefit of making commitments only to those states most similar in constitution and outlook, and could increase public support in many countries for the use of force beyond self-defense. The problem with a solely values-based approach is that it would exclude some states with common interests if they lack a common basis of values — for example, Saudi Arabia. And an exclusionary strategy denying U.S. assistance may not be the best inducement to nudge states toward American values. An exclusively values-based international order would unduly constrain America’s ability to advance its interests and maintain international security by requiring a strict consistency in application.

None of the options is perfect, nor is any of them likely to be adopted to the complete exclusion of alternatives. The world is undoubtedly uncertain enough that the United States and the international system would benefit from a mixed U.S. strategy of expanding the potential solution set without foreclosing alternative options for as long as possible. The exploration of other types of international order serves to highlight the fact that current international institutions are not optimally designed for the management of the current international order. This is not an argument against international institutions, just against the simple perpetuation of the ones that exist now. International regimes and institutions share the burden of advancing American interests and give less powerful states a means of expressing their concerns and affecting the choices, consistent with rules the U.S. voluntarily adopts to regulate the system.

At this time of such a preponderance of American power in the international system, the United States can and should build alliances and international regimes that address its central security concerns and commit to common action with those states that share its interests and willingness to address problems. The time has come to pivot the international system from one that served the interests of the United States and the vast majority of other states well in the post-World War ii environment to one that will perpetuate and advance American interests into the next American-led Century. It is manifestly in the U.S. interest to attract and bind other states into voluntarily supporting this international agenda. Americans may not like all those other states wringing their hands with concern about America’s behavior in the world and complaining that they are essentially supporting the U.S. agenda. Imagine how much less attractive an international order would be in which the U.S. had to force the other states into going along with U.S. choices. Far better that participating states benefit from a system of accepted leadership and see that they can best advance their interests by working with a United States advancing its own.