Imperial Understretch

Sunday, July 30, 2000

My thesis is straightforward—the United States should be an imperial power. "Imperial" is not meant as "imperialist." I do not mean it in the sense of exploitation or in a nineteenth-century, territorial context. None of those things would be viable, desirable, or necessary. Nor would they be compatible with who we are as a nation-state. By "imperial" I mean that the purpose of the United States should be to set rules so that international relations are not simply a Hobbesian jungle.

The goal of American foreign policy should be to help construct an international society in which the main actors operate and conform themselves to principles that are to our liking. This would be the best and cheapest way—and possibly the only way—to bring about what the United States seeks and needs in the world. Americans want prosperity, open trade, peace, a world of reduced threats to ourselves, and a world with a measure of justice. The only way to bring this about in a sustainable way at an affordable cost is if many others in the world buy into this concept.

The United States approaches the world not as an imperial power in the nineteenth-century mode but as a mature democracy with a divided government and with a society that has many other priorities in addition to shaping the world. The only way we can sustain a foreign policy that will bring about the measure of prosperity, order, and justice we want is to reduce the cost.

The Options

First, though, it is necessary to ask a fundamental question: Are there alternatives to an imperial foreign policy that essentially tries to set rules of the road?

One alternative is isolationism, a philosophy in which there is not much of a foreign policy on the grounds that it is not needed. The problem with isolationism is that the United States is affected by almost everything that goes on in the world. The idea that there are discreet baskets called "foreign affairs" and "domestic affairs" is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was. Increasingly, there are spillover effects, whether what is at stake involves drugs, immigration, trade, ideas, or e-mail. Terrorism can come to our shores. So, too, can missiles. Fortress America, even if it were desirable, is simply not doable.


There is no invisible hand that will suddenly make the world a better place–which is why the visible hand of the United States is so critical.


What about a foreign policy designed simply to promote exports? Exports are one key to economic growth and jobs. The problem is that trade does not take place in a vacuum. We cannot have an export-dominated foreign policy in a world of instability. If there were a war on the Korean peninsula—something still in the realm of possibility—it would have enormous consequences for U.S. exports and economic relations in that part of the world. Or what would happen if Mexico were to become a failed state like Haiti? Mexico is now our second-largest trading partner after Canada; the idea that trade with Mexico could be sustained amid such instability is simply wrong. A trade-only or trade-dominant foreign policy simply is not viable.

What about a foreign policy that aims principally to alleviate the world’s ills? This would be a foreign policy of Haitis, Kosovos, Somalias, and Rwandas. To some extent, the United States can and should help in this way, but we do not have the luxury of doing only that. Consider how fundamentally American life would be affected by a breakdown of world trade or the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction or by a major war in the Middle East or Europe or Asia. Any of those would affect our vital national interests. Humanitarian concerns simply do not affect our way of life and do not normally constitute a vital U.S. national interest.

What about a foreign policy whose primary objective is to promote democracy? There are several problems with this emphasis. One is that it is hard to bring about. Democracy does not always take. To reengineer another society is an ambitious task. In addition, countries that are in the process of becoming democratic are not necessarily peaceful. Democratizing countries—immature democracies—actually turn out to be some of the most dangerous societies. Fully mature democracies can be quite stable and peaceful in their relations, but democratizing countries tend to be particularly susceptible to being hijacked by nationalism and demagoguery. The former Yugoslavia was a democratizing country; yet look at the wars that have developed in the last decade alone. The point is that we should not see democracy as a panacea or promote it above all else.


The United States is spending less on national defense than at any time since World War II. We are living on the cheap at a time when we are trying to shape the entire world.


What about the realist argument—that we should worry most about power relations between states? In its extreme form, realism suggests we should forget about both democracy and humanitarianism and simply make sure that states do not make war with one another. But this vision is simply too narrow, too pinched. Americans want their foreign policy to have a purpose other than simply maintaining a balance of power. It is too sterile to have a foreign policy without a moral purpose. Where genocides are taking place, we should try to stop them where it is possible to do so at an affordable cost to ourselves. Where countries can be helped economically or politically, we should do what we can to assist so long as the costs are kept in check.

Ultimately, a desirable foreign policy is one that draws on many of these traditions, not just one. My preference is for an imperial foreign policy—one that seeks to promote open trade and rules of the road for trading; one that tries to discourage the spread of weapons of mass destruction; one that tries to discourage the use of weapons of any sort as a means of settling disputes; and one that tries to improve the lot of people within countries.

None of this will just happen, though. There is no invisible hand that is suddenly going to make these positive developments occur. It will require the visible hand of the United States, which is the only country in a position to lead the world in this direction.

Building an International Society

What would such an imperial foreign policy require? First, it will require an intense set of consultations. During the Cold War, the most dramatic moments of diplomacy were often negotiations, where adversaries sat down and tried to narrow their differences. In the post–Cold War world, the United States has few relationships that are purely adversarial. Yet neither are many relationships purely allied or friendly. Instead, there are relationships that fall somewhere in between and often depend on context. In one situation a certain country might be a partner; in another, more of a competitor. Consultations—intense conversations with the leadership of these other countries—are going to be the hallmark of post–Cold War foreign policy and diplomacy.


As long as the great powers–notably China and Russia–have such different agendas, we cannot depend on the United Nations to resolve most international problems.


Second, this is all going to take much more effort and attentiveness from the American people. The Cold War was relatively simple. There were good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. Containment gave us a first-order approximation of what to think and do about any issue. In reality, it was not as simple as many make out—there was more than a slight debate about Vietnam and a few other issues. But now the Cold War is over. There is no longer a superpower rival. There is no longer great ideological competition. There is a sense in this country that we have earned a respite. This is, after all, the American tradition—after both world wars there was a tendency to withdraw from foreign entanglements. It is the same after the Cold War, the third great war of the twentieth century. The United States is not an isolationist country, if only because to be isolationist foreign policy must be important enough for people to openly oppose it. The American people, though, for the most part are uninterested in foreign policy. The media both feed into this and reflect it, as does the Clinton administration. When a president comes to Washington and says "it’s the economy," and devotes on the order of 10 percent of his first six State of the Union speeches to foreign policy, it sends a message that foreign policy does not matter. Similarly, only a tiny percentage of the Republican Contract for America was dedicated to foreign policy.


In many international crises, the best option for the United States is to assume the role of "sheriff" and forge coalitions or "possees" of states and others willing and able to work with us in pursuit of shared aims.


Third, it will take adequate resources. Right now U.S. spending on national security is at a post–World War II low. Spending on defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and foreign aid adds up to just over $300 billion. This is a lot of money, but it is small in terms of percentage of federal spending or percentage of GDP. We are living on the cheap at a time we have the opportunity to shape the world.

Fourth, there needs to be a commitment to multilateralism. There is very little the United States can do in the world by itself. This is an unfashionable point of view in some quarters, but it happens to be true. If the United States imposes unilateral sanctions on another country because of what it is doing at home or abroad, some here may feel better, but the policy itself will not be effective. In a global economy, unilateral American sanctions count for almost naught. The United States cannot single-handedly stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction if governments can shop elsewhere for the necessary technology or material. Nor can one country deal with all the world’s humanitarian problems. Any efforts to maintain an open world trading system will not succeed if others refuse to sign on.

Multilateralism and Compromise

So the real debate over American foreign policy is not unilateralism versus multilateralism but over what form of multilateralism to adopt. How should the U.S. government organize itself and pool its efforts to deal with the problems of the post–Cold War world? If the United States wants to persuade the other major centers of power—including Europe, Japan, China, India, and Russia—to sign on to the same vision for the post–Cold War world, it must be willing to compromise in some areas.

Let me suggest some things that might have to be done. In order to work out a lasting relationship with China, for instance, an agreement would have to be reached on Taiwan. Taiwan could be allowed tremendous space internationally, but a ceiling would have to be placed on its political status short of sovereign independence. And in response to a situation similar to the October 1999 military coup in Pakistan, the United States would have to be willing to work with the new rulers in an attempt to prod them to undertake economic reforms and enter into stabilizing agreements with India, rather than just cut off all assistance.


The danger is that the United States will succumb to "imperial understretch"–that it will squander this extraordinary opportunity to build an international society that for decades to come would give us most of what we want in the world at a reduced cost to ourselves.


In terms of military strategy, what worked during the Cold War will not necessarily work today. In the strategic (nuclear) realm, the United States should place a greater emphasis on defense coupled with a smaller emphasis on offense. A national missile defense system will likely be a key component of this new strategy. A ceiling will need to be imposed on our defensive capabilities at a level that would be sufficient to meet threats from rogue regimes but would not necessarily threaten Russian offensive capabilities. Such a willingness to compromise might provide a way to get Russia involved in a cooperative transition from an offense-dominant world to a world of mixed offense and defense.

Compromise, or at least some care, is also needed in the tone and style of U.S. diplomacy. Constantly preaching to others that the United States is the world’s indispensable nation is not an effective way to forge cooperative alliances with other nations. If the United States is going to be effective in building a functioning trading system, maintaining successful regimes against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and coordinating effective international responses to humanitarian nightmares, other nations must be on board. The United States must be willing to make certain compromises in order to foster partnerships with others who share our aims and are willing to pool their resources.

So is all this doable? In a word, "yes."

Building Blocks and Pitfalls

It is encouraging that a significant degree of international cooperation already exists. In the sphere of trade, for instance, consider the World Trade Organization. The WTO has established a rules-based system with mechanisms to resolve trade disputes. It is an organization that is not in any way incompatible with or hostile to our interests. The goal should be to expand and deepen the WTO—to get China and other countries in and playing by the same rules—and to have the WTO cover services as well as all aspects of agricultural trade so that the European Union ultimately removes some of its barriers to American exports. It may mean forfeiting the use of unilateral sanctions in the trading area, but a more comprehensive WTO would still be a good deal for the United States.

There is also greater acceptance in the world today for the norm that states should not use military force against other countries. When Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990, the United States was able to form a unique international coalition based on Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. It was helpful then to have numerous Security Council resolutions, but they were not needed. President Bush was prepared to act the way he did to liberate Kuwait—even without explicit Security Council authority—based on the degree of consensus he had built around the norms that countries have the right of self-defense and that other countries have the right, indeed the obligation, to pitch in when sovereignty is violated in this way.

Despite the progress that has been made in expanding international cooperation, it will be impossible to achieve it everywhere. The idealistic notion of a world where everyone agrees on everything is improbable to say the least. Indeed, this is the reason we cannot depend on the United Nations in most situations. There is simply a lack of consensus among the great powers, notably China and Russia. As a result, in many situations the best option for the United States will be to assume the role of "sheriff" and forge coalitions of states and others willing and able to work with us in pursuit of shared aims. Such coalitions or "posses" are inevitably ad hoc and reactive and lack the legitimacy of more formal arrangements, but they will often be the best mechanism for effective action in a world in which great power consensus does not exist.

In all that the United States does, however, three dangers will need to be avoided. One is unilateralism. It simply is not sustainable. The second is Wilsonianism, the idea that the purpose of American foreign policy is to right all the world’s wrongs. This would lead to what historian Paul Kennedy has called "imperial overstretch." The third danger of "imperial understretch"—where the United States is an underachiever, not using the opportunity it has—will also have to be resisted. Otherwise, there is the likelihood that this extraordinary opportunity to build an international society that for decades to come would give us most of what we want in the world at a reduced cost to ourselves will be squandered.


In the post—Cold War era, the United States needs a foreign policy that has a positive purpose rather than one that is simply defined by resisting a threat.


The fact that the United States is the most powerful country in the world does not mean that it can become complacent. Primacy should not be confused with destiny. Influence does not simply happen because the United States possesses great absolute and relative power. The challenge for the United States is to figure out a way of using its power, exploiting it and institutionalizing it, because U.S. advantages will not last.

Two things will work against the United States if it does not do the sorts of things I am suggesting. Pockets of resistance will grow; indeed, there are elements of opposition now. Other great powers will begin to rise, and at times their purposes will be hostile to those of the United States.

What is of even greater concern, however, is the internal challenge to U.S. leadership. What is being advocated here does not come naturally to America. The idea of sustaining international effort in the absence of clear foes is awfully tough. I am advocating a foreign policy that is for something, rather than (as during the Cold War) a foreign policy that motivates the American people based on what it is against. We need a foreign policy that has a positive purpose rather than one that is simply defined by resisting a threat. Building support for such a foreign policy will take an extraordinary amount of effort by the next president. It is my hope that he comes to Washington saying, "It’s the world, stupid."

Bringing about such an orientation for this country will take a lot of work on the part of elites. Foundations will have to shift back some of their resources to international studies. Schools will have to teach relevant subjects. The one community in the United States that seems to understand this is business. But they and others are going to have to invest more in selling this vision to the American people.

Is it worth it? Again, the answer is yes. Only by having a world in which international society evolves can there exist the prospect of making the world safe for American society. But given the nature of American society—that it is democratic with divided government—this is also the maximum kind of foreign policy that can be sustained. Anything more ambitious, be it hegemony or unilateralism, is simply beyond reach. But anything less ambitious is simply a waste. It is rare that countries get the kind of opportunity that the United States has now. But opportunities, like windows, do not stay open forever. The challenge before the United States is to exploit this opening while it is still there.