Beyond American Hegemony

May/June 2007 |
If the Iraq War is seen as merely a bad application of a fundamentally sound U.S. grand strategy of hegemony, the United States will set itself up for other self-inflicted disasters in the future.
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Beyond American Hegemony

That the foreign policy of George W. Bush has been a catastrophic failure is disputed by none today except for a dwindling number of diehards on the neoconservative right. But there is no consensus on the scope of the failure. Has a sound global grand strategy been poorly implemented, at the operational and tactical level, in Iraq and elsewhere? Or is the failure much deeper than that? Is the grand strategy the Bush Administration has pursued inherently flawed?

This matters because what has become known as the "Bush Doctrine" did not originate with George W. Bush. Rather, it is rooted in a bipartisan consensus that America’s temporary Cold War hegemony in Western Europe and east Asia should be converted into permanent U.S. global hegemony. True, the elder Bush and Bill Clinton viewed the United States as a status quo power whereas the younger Bush has been more inclined to use U.S. power to revise and change the international order, especially in the Middle East. Nevertheless, all three administrations shared the same essential strategic goal of consolidating U.S. global hegemony by averting the "renationalization" of German and Japanese military policy and preventing Russia and China from competing with the United States as "peer competitors." The perpetual "dual containment" of Germany and Japan, coupled with the not-so-secret containment of Russia and China, means that U.S. post-Cold War strategy represents less a break with U.S. Cold War strategy than a continuation of it, in a subtler form.

Hegemony’s Descensus Avernus

During the Cold War, the United States was the stronger of two superpowers in a bipolar world. The anti-Soviet alliance was not a traditional alliance of equals, but a hegemonic alliance centered on the United States. West Germany, Japan and South Korea were semi-sovereign U.S. protectorates. Britain and France were more independent, but even they received the benefits of "extended deterrence," according to which the United States agreed to treat an attack on them as the equivalent of an attack on the American homeland. America’s Cold War strategy was often described as dual containment -- the containment not only of America’s enemies like the Soviet Union and (until the 1970s) communist China, but also of America’s allies, in particular West Germany and Japan. Dual containment permitted the United States to mobilize German and Japanese industrial might as part of the anti-Soviet coalition, while forestalling the re-emergence of Germany and Japan as independent military powers.

The Cold War officially ended in Paris in 1990, but the United States has continued to pursue a dual containment strategy based on three principles: dissuasion, reassurance and coercive non-proliferation.

Dissuasion -- directed at actual or potential challengers to the United States -- commits the United States to outspend all other great military powers, whether friend or foe. This policy’s goal -- in the words of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance draft leaked from then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s Pentagon -- is the dissuasion or "deterring [of] potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."

By the end of the 1990s, as Charles Krauthammer noted in these pages four years ago:

"The result is the dominance of a single power unlike anything ever seen. Even at its height Britain could always be seriously challenged by the next greatest powers. Britain had a smaller army than the land powers of Europe and its navy was equaled by the next two navies combined. Today, American military spending exceeds that of the next twenty countries combined. Its navy, air force and space power are unrivaled."

This approach flies in the face of the strategy usually adopted by traditional status quo great powers, which sought to ensure that they belonged to alliances with resources that exceeded those of potential challengers. It is no surprise that, despite the absence of any threat to the United States equivalent to that of the Soviet Union, our defense spending today, as a share of our total GDP, is nearly at the Cold War average.

High levels of defense expenditures are not merely to overawe potential challengers. (In outlining possible competitors, Krauthammer noted, "Only China grew in strength, but coming from so far behind it will be decades before it can challenge American primacy -- and that assumes that its current growth continues unabated.") To again quote from the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, "we must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order." Reassurance, the second prong of the hegemonic strategy, entails convincing major powers not to build up their military capabilities, allowing the United States to assume the burdens of ensuring their security instead.

In other words, while outspending allies like Germany and Japan on defense, the United States should be prepared to fight wars on behalf of Germany and Japan, sparing them the necessity of re-arming -- for fear that these countries, having "renationalized" their defense policies and rearmed, might become hostile to the United States at some future date. For example, even though the threats emanating from the spillover of the Balkan conflicts affected Germany and its neighbors far more than a geographically far-removed United States, Washington took the lead in waging the 1999 Kosovo war -- in part to forestall the emergence of a Germany prepared to act independently. And the Persian Gulf War was, among other things, a reassurance war on behalf of Japan -- far more dependent on Persian Gulf oil than the United States -- confirmed by the fact that Japan paid a substantial portion of the United States’ costs in that conflict. Today, the great question is whether or not two other Asian giants -- India and China -- will eschew the development of true blue-water navies and continue to allow the United States to take responsibility for keeping the Gulf open.

Finally, the global hegemony strategy insists that America’s safety depends not on the absence of a hostile hegemon in Europe, Asia and the Middle East -- the traditional American approach -- but on the permanent presence of the United States itself as the military hegemon of Europe, the military hegemon of Asia and the military hegemon of the Middle East. In each of these areas, the regional powers would consent to perpetual U.S. domination either voluntarily, because the United States assumed their defense burdens (reassurance), or involuntarily, because the superior U.S. military intimidated them into acquiescence (dissuasion).

American military hegemony in Europe, Asia and the Middle East depends on the ability of the U.S. military to threaten and, if necessary, to use military force to defeat any regional challenge-but at a relatively low cost. This is because the American public is not prepared to pay the costs necessary if the United States is to be a "hyperpower."

Given this premise, the obsession with the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) makes perfect sense. WMD are defensive weapons that offer poor states a possible defensive shield against the sword of unexcelled U.S. conventional military superiority. The success of the United States in using superior conventional force to defeat Serbia and Iraq (twice) may have accelerated the efforts of India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran to obtain nuclear deterrents. As an Indian admiral observed after the Gulf War, "The lesson is that you should not go to war with the United States unless you have nuclear weapons." Moreover, it is clear that the United States treats countries that possess WMD quite differently from those that do not.

So proliferation undermines American regional hegemony in two ways. First, it forces the U.S. military to adopt costly and awkward strategies in wartime. Second, it discourages intimidated neighbors of the nuclear state from allowing American bases and military build-ups on its soil.

With this in mind, proponents of the hegemony strategy often advocate a policy of preventive war to keep countries deemed to be hostile to the United States from obtaining nuclear weapons or WMD. Preventive war (as distinguished from pre-emptive attack to avert an impending strike) is not only a violation of international law but also a repudiation of America’s own traditions. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all ruled out preventive wars against the Soviet Union and China to cripple or destroy their nuclear programs, and President Ronald Reagan, along with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, denounced Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. Yet, by 2002, a bipartisan majority in the Congress authorized President George W. Bush to wage the first -- and to date the only -- preventive war in American history against Iraq. Although it turned out to be a disaster, it was perfectly consistent with the radical neoconservative variant of U.S. global hegemony strategy.

A Dirty Little Secret

Precisely because the hegemony strategy is so alien to American and international foreign policy traditions, and so potentially costly in its open-ended strategic and budgetary commitments, many of its supporters have suggested that it should be kept secret from the wider American public, since it is so at odds with what most Americans think. In the January/February 2007 issue of The National Interest, Daniel Drezner summed up the general public’s view:

To be sure, Americans are comfortable with the idea of America as a superpower. This does not mean, however, that the public endorses unilateral American leadership... .[I]n every Pew survey since 1993, fewer than 15 percent of Americans endorsed the idea that America should be the "single world leader"... .Americans do not shrink from uses of force to advance security interests, but it is far from the first resort for the public. When acting abroad, polling demonstrates robust American support for acting in concert with allied countries and, to some extent, multilateral institutions."

Michael Mandelbaum concedes, in his book The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century, that the case for U.S. global hegemony might not "persuade the American public, which might well reject the proposition that it should pay for providing the world with government services. American citizens see their country’s foreign policy as a series of discrete measures designed to safeguard the interests, above all the supreme interest of physical security, of the United States itself. They have never been asked to ratify their country’s status as the principal supplier of international public goods, and if they were asked explicitly to do so, they would undoubtedly ask in turn whether the United States ought to contribute as much to providing them, and other countries as little, as was the case in the first decade of the twenty-first century."

So he concludes that it may be necessary to keep the American public in the dark because "the American role in the world may depend in part on Americans not scrutinizing it too closely."

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, noted in a recent issue that "America is a global power with global reach and responsibilities" and that, as a result, "the United States inevitably will be called upon to act." Yet, unwilling to explain the actual reasons for military interventions flowing from America’s hegemonic strategy of reassuring allies, dissuading potential peer competitors and preventing proliferation, American presidents and their allies have relied on misleading public rationales: rogue states, terrorists, WMD and genocide.

"Rogue state" is a term of emotional propaganda, not sober analysis. The rogue-state rationale is employed when American leaders wish to rally support for a policy whose actual purpose -- increasing or reinforcing American military hegemony in its European, Asian or Middle Eastern sphere of influence -- cannot be explained to the public. Instead, the American public is told that this or that rogue state -- North Korea, Iran or Iraq -- is a direct threat to the American people and the American homeland, as it will be able to lob missiles at the United States or to give terrorists nuclear bombs or other WMD for use on American soil.

In the case of North Korea, for example, U.S. policy is motivated largely, although not solely, by the fear that if Japan loses confidence in America’s willingness to protect it, Japan may obtain its own nuclear deterrent and renationalize its foreign policy, emerging from the status of a semi-sovereign U.S. protectorate to that of an independent military great power once again. But no president can tell the American public that the United States must be willing to lose 50,000 or more American lives in a war with North Korea for fear that Japan will get nuclear weapons to defend itself. Therefore the public is told instead that North Korea might give nuclear weapons to non-state actors to use to destroy New York, Washington and other American cities, or that North Korean missiles can strike targets in North America.

If Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, its purpose almost certainly would be defensive -- to deter the United States, Israel or any other state from attacking it. The American public would not support a preventive war against Iran on the lunatic theory that it would cheaper to attack Iran before it gets nuclear weapons than to attack Iran after it gets them. Therefore, neoconservative hawks seek to persuade the public that Iran, like North Korea, might either bombard Kansas or give nuclear weapons to Islamist terrorists, or that Iran’s viciously anti-Semitic leadership might use nuclear weapons against Israel. (Annihilating Israeli Arabs and Palestinians alongside Israeli Jews would seem to be an odd way to promote the Palestinian cause -- but then, Iran’s leaders, like the leaders of any country that opposes the United States, are said to be "insane.")

In the Balkans, a major strategic goal of the Kosovo war was reassuring Germany so it would not develop a defense policy independent of the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance. But Milosevic’s Yugoslavia could not be accused of developing WMD, so it had to be accused of something else if the American public were to support the war. In fact it was guilty of a war crime -- ethnic cleansing. But the Clinton Administration and supporters of intervention talked about "genocide", a much more serious charge. Needless to say, criminal as it is, ethnic cleansing -- using terror to frighten an ethnic group into leaving a country -- is the opposite of genocide, the extermination of an ethnic group, which requires that they be trapped, not expelled. When the Nazis settled on the Final Solution, they took measures to prevent Jews from escaping Europe.

The point is not to argue that ethnic cleansing should not be discouraged and punished by the international community, or that proliferation is not a problem or that the regimes called rogue states are not threats to their neighbors and world order. The point is rather that these phenomena have been used as public rationales for recent wars and threatened wars whose real purpose was either the reassurance of regional allies like Germany and Japan or the dissuasion of potential enemies like Russia and China (Kosovo, North Korea), or the removal of regimes that threatened America’s military freedom of action as the post-Cold War hegemon of the Middle East (the Iraq War). The genocide in Rwanda was real, but the United States did not intervene because -- unlike America’s would-be permanent protectorates in Europe, Asia and the Middle East -- Africa contains no great powers or critical power resources, and therefore is marginal to the U.S. hegemony strategy. Pakistan fits the definition of a rogue state, but it is a U.S. ally -- and as long as it remains friendly to the United States, it can be permitted to retain nuclear weapons.

This kind of hypocrisy is made inevitable by the hegemony strategy itself. Because the American public would not support wars and threats of war in the interest of reassuring allies, dissuading competitors and preventing proliferation, its supporters have a choice between abandoning the strategy or deceiving the public about the true ends of U.S. foreign policy. For the last 15 years, they have chosen the latter.

Beyond Hegemony

It is possible that U.S. foreign policy will continue to be guided by the post-Cold War hegemony strategy. If the United States eventually withdraws from Iraq, and the costs of U.S. foreign policy decline significantly, then the public might be as willing to defer to the bipartisan foreign policy elite that supports the hegemony strategy as it was in the 1990s, when the costs were low.

In the long run, however, the rise of China -- and possibly other new powers like India -- is certain to create a multipolar world. At some point the cost of out-spending all other great powers combined will become prohibitive, if it is not already. At that point the hegemony strategy, always unwise, will be unaffordable, and even its proponents will be forced to seek an alternative.

One might be a balance-of-power strategy that takes the form of an alliance including the United States in a bipolar or multipolar world. Thomas Donnelly, a neoconservative associated with the Project for a New American Century, suggests that a less expensive alternative to U.S. hegemony would be an alliance of the United States, Japan, India and Britain, which he describes as "the de facto plan of the Bush administration, though officials dare not speak its name." The inclusion of Britain cannot conceal the fact that this is a plan for a U.S.-Japanese-Indian alliance against China. As a response to genuine aggression by China, such an alliance might be necessary. But to create an anti-Chinese alliance merely as a response to the gradual growth of Chinese wealth and power, without any provocation on China’s part, would be to launch -- if I may coin a phrase -- a "cold war of choice." Britain is no longer an east Asian power, and India, by cultivating ties with China as well as the United States, has shown no interest in the role assigned to it by some American neoconservatives as America’s junior partner in the encirclement of China.

Another option favored by some realists and libertarians, an offshore-balancing strategy, is unlikely to be adopted and would be unwise. The offshore-balancing strategy would have the United States intervene only at the last moment to "tip the balance" against one side in a contest among Eurasian great powers -- China versus Japan, or Russia versus Germany or the European Union. It would be far better for the United States to maintain a role in diplomacy and security in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, in the hope of defusing conflicts and deterring aggressors, rather than to intervene belatedly, as it did in the two world wars.

The option that seems to be the best way to preserve America’s global leadership without committing the United States to pursue global hegemony would be a concert-of-power strategy. A concert of power is a coalition of great powers that lack deep divisions among themselves and are willing to cooperate to promote shared security and other common interests. The members of a great-power concert need not be warm friends, but they would not view each other as enemies.

A concert-of-power strategy would permit the United States to continue to play a role in Eurasian power politics, without any need to treat some Eurasian great powers as allies and others as de facto or formally identified enemies. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, along with thinkers like Edward House and Walter Lippmann, all saw a concert of power as an alternative to recurrent world wars among rival alliances (they did not imagine that U.S. global hegemony was possible). FDR’s hope for a post-World War II concert of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and nationalist China was thwarted. But the conditions are more promising today than they have ever been. The conflicts of interest among the United States, China, Russia, Japan, India, Germany, France and Britain are limited, and they share common interests in combating terrorism, anarchy and aggression by lesser states.

The concert-of-power strategy is not a magic cure for all problems. Some problems cannot be cured, only ameliorated. And aggression on the part of one or more great powers would make a balance-of-power strategy necessary, if only until the aggressor was defeated or changed its policy.

It goes without saying that the concert-of-power strategy places limits on U.S. discretion. Unlike the UN Security Council, informal regional concerts of power need not be paralyzed by the recalcitrance of one member. Two or more great powers could cooperate in common efforts, even if others chose not to take part. And America would reserve the right to act unilaterally in unusual circumstances. For the most part, however, the United States should prefer to act in partnership with other military great powers. The sacrifice in flexibility this might entail would be more than compensated for by America’s ability to share the burden of international security in regions outside of North America with non-aggressive regional powers that have a far greater stake in the outcome than the United States itself. Even better, the concert-of-power strategy would permit the United States to maintain its role as a major Asian power, a major European power and a major Middle Eastern power, without the need to wage reassurance wars on behalf of allies, to bankrupt itself on unilateral arms races, to dissuade potential rivals or to pursue coercive non-proliferation in the interests of regional U.S. military hegemony by means of invasions, as in Iraq, or air attacks, like a possible strike against Iran.

The Debate America Needs

The potential for high costs has always been implicit in the strategy of U.S. global hegemony. The first Bush and Clinton were lucky, in that the cost of the Panama invasion, the Gulf War, the Balkan interventions and the invasion of Haiti were relatively minor. It was the misfortune of George W. Bush that the Iraq War proved to be the most costly debacle since Vietnam. The Iraq War was a war of choice, and might have been avoided by another president committed to another version of the hegemony strategy. But sooner or later the United States would have been confronted with the need to abandon the hegemony strategy, or pay the full costs of it. Sooner or later there would have been an "Iraq," if not in Iraq itself.

That is why the present moment is so crucial in the life of the American republic. Unfortunately, at present the debate among the 2008 presidential hopefuls focuses narrowly on the Iraq War, rather than on the larger hegemony strategy that produced it. And to make matters worse, criticism of the Bush Administration’s handling of the occupation of Iraq tends to narrow the debate even further, by changing the subject from the decision to invade Iraq.

If the consensus emerges that U.S. hegemony remains a sound strategy, and is not discredited by the regrettable and avoidable Iraq adventure, which might be justified in retrospect as a good idea tragically bungled by the incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, then the country will be on the road to similar disasters in the future. This moment, then, is very important indeed. If the Iraq War is seen as merely a bad application of a fundamentally sound U.S. grand strategy of hegemony, the United States will set itself up for other self-inflicted disasters in the future. If, on the other hand, the Iraq War is seen as the predictable outcome of a fundamentally flawed grand strategy, then there will be an opportunity for debate about alternative grand strategies, in particular the concert-of-power strategy, that can achieve U.S. security and world-order goals at far less cost. Much depends on whether the debate about the Iraq War becomes a long-overdue debate about American grand strategy as a whole.

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