An American Empire

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Of the geopolitical intellectuals who have been pondering American foreign policy from this new, unipolar perspective, the most interesting is Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy, the quarterly published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In its spring 1995 issue, Maynes contributed "Rethinking Intervention," an important assessment of American power and how little of it we can make use of now that we are king of the hill. Where the Gulf War led to the surmise that we could use our unchallenged might to stamp out brush fires around the globe, the experience since has been the opposite:

As advanced countries have repeatedly learned, in a struggle between the technically sophisticated and unsophisticated, there is often a mismatch in political determination just as large as there is in technical capability. The West in general has a high capacity to kill but a low capacity to die. The equation is often reversed among the targets of the West’s wrath. America learned about the differences between capacity and determination in Vietnam, the French learned in Algeria, and the Russians in Afghanistan. And that is the overlooked lesson of U.S. involvement in Somalia. The task the United States set for itself was not infeasible, but the Clinton administration grossly underestimated the price others were willing to pay to stop the U.S. Marines. CIA officials privately concede that the U.S. military may have killed between 7,000 and 10,000 Somalis during the engagement. America lost only 34 soldiers. Notwithstanding that extraordinary disparity, the decision was to withdraw.

In his 1978 book, Shattered Peace, the best single volume on the origins of the Cold War, Daniel Yergin recounted how little our possession of the atomic bomb counted as a diplomatic weight in our post-war negotiations with the Soviets, inasmuch as they knew we could not threaten its use over mere political disagreements. The wartime alliance between the U.S. and USSR unraveled, he demonstrates, according to this axiomatic observation:

In a system of independent states, all nations live rather dangerously. Therefore, the reduction of dangers becomes a nation’s objective in international politics. A country will take actions and pursue policies that it considers defensive, but which appear ominous, if not threatening, to rivals. And so a dialectic of confrontation develops.

Yergin’s book is most useful in understanding how easy it might be to promote a hostile relationship with China, which had been an ally in the last years of the Cold War with the USSR. If there is any single nation state that has the capacity to break loose from a Pax Americana and assemble a new hostile power pyramid, it is China. It is up to the United States to prevent that from happening, but neither U.S. political party has put forth the kind of creative diplomacy required. It will take an American foreign policy that the Chinese people can confidently see is one that truly wishes them well.

By that we should understand that there are optimists and pessimists in Beijing, as there are in every national capital including ours. If we cause China’s optimists to be defeated in their internal debates with the pessimists who argue that Uncle Sam wishes them ill, we will have turned China into a perpetual adversary. Joseph W. Nye, Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration and soon to be director of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, earlier this year noted the debate between those who wish "constructive engagement" with China and those who propose "containment." He argued for the former: "If you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have a policy of containment toward China now, you’ve written off the chance [that China won’t become an enemy]." If Beijing believes the world’s superpower is actively preparing for an adversarial relationship, it of course has no choice but to prepare for that eventuality itself. It is not sufficient for Washington to insist that China "behave itself" before we treat it with generosity of spirit. We are in the most powerful, secure position of any nation in the history of the world. If we cannot now be patient and understanding of those who were on the losing side of history’s great experiment with communism, we never will be. On the central issue of Beijing’s relationship with Taiwan, it seems obvious that it is only a matter of time before there is reunification, on terms acceptable to both. The United States should allow that process the widest possible latitude, intervening only when asked by one party to assist in a positive diplomacy with the other party.

The same attitude should apply to the rest of the world. In the Cold War chess game of Great Powers, there were pawns on both sides that were either captured or sacrificed. These populations are now scattered helplessly around the world, still not quite sure what hit them. They include most of the countries of the developing world which tried to stay out of the crossfire, but also those nation-states that really had little choice but to choose sides for the sake of survival. This group includes North Korea, Libya, Iraq and Iran, Cuba and fractured Yugoslavia. The people of each wish to have the Cold War behind them too, as long as it does not require their abject humiliation. We should treat them all as we did the Japanese stragglers on the Pacific islands, who surrendered some years after the armistice, only when they saw it was honorable to do so. In this spirit, we should consider declaring a general amnesty, a clean slate, which would initially involve lifting all the economic embargoes we have in place. In this fresh start, we should count all nations most favored, as a mother does all of her children. It would be up to each to respond as they might. A supreme act of confidence and generosity of this kind could easily unlock parallel impulses in every community on earth.

With a clean slate, our global political leadership is immediately liberated from the complex task of settling old scores that are still tied to the Cold War alliances. Many of us suspect that the crisis in the old Yugoslav federation has more to do with settling old scores with the Russians, our adversaries in Afghanistan, and the Muslims, our allies in that Cold War battle, than with the Wilsonian concept of self-determination. Our indecisiveness whether to intervene is simply a reflection of this ambiguity among our political leaders. If the Serbs were truly the aggressors, the Bosnian Muslims would have little trouble rallying the world to their cause, in a repeat of the alliance assembled against Iraq in the Gulf War.

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