Guide Americas Failing Empire: U.S. Foreign Relations Since the Cold War (Americas Recent Past)

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  1. See a Problem?
  2. The Promises and Perils of American Hegemony - Persée
  3. America's Failing Empire: U.S. Foreign Relations Since the Cold War

What many in Europe and elsewhere see as arrogance and bullying may be just irritability born of weariness. If fatigue is setting in, then those nations and peoples who have long benefited, and still benefit, from the international order created and upheld by American power have a stake in bolstering rather than denigrating American hegemony.

After all, what, in truth, are the alternatives? Whatever America's failings, were any other nation to take its place, the rest of the world would find the situation less congenial. America may be arrogant; Americans may at times be selfish; they may occasionally be ham-handed in their exercise of power. But, excusez-moi, compared with whom? Can anyone believe that were France to possess the power the United States now has, the French would be less arrogant, less selfish, and less prone to making mistakes? Little in France's history as a great power, or even as a medium power, justifies such optimism.

Nor can one easily imagine power on an American scale being employed in a more enlightened fashion by China, Germany, Japan, or Russia. And even the leaders of that least benighted of empires, the British, were more arrogant, more bloody-minded, and, in the end, less capable managers of world affairs than the inept Americans have so far proved to be.

If there is to be a sole superpower, the world is better off if that power is the United States. What, then, of a multipolar world? There are those, even in the United States, who believe a semblance of international justice can be achieved only in a world characterized by a balance among relative equals.

See a Problem?

In such circumstances, national arrogance must theoretically be tempered, national aspirations limited, and attempts at hegemony, either benevolent or malevolent, checked. A more evenly balanced world, they assume, with the United States cut down a peg or two, or three would be freer, fairer, and safer. A distant, though unacknowledged cousin of this realist, balance-of-power theory is the global parliamentarianism, or world federalism, that animates so many Europeans today, particularly the French apostles of European union.

It is little recalled, especially by modern proponents of foreign policy "realism," that Hans Morgenthau's seminal work, Politics Among Nations , builds slowly and methodically to the conclusion that what is needed to maintain international peace is a "world state. If Europe is erasing borders, what need is there for an overbearing America to keep the peace? America's military power is archaic in a world where finance is transnational and the modem is king. We need not enter here into the endless and so far unproductive debate among international-relations theorists over the relative merits of multipolar, bipolar, and unipolar international "systems" for keeping the peace.

We should also not forget that utopian fancies about the obsolescence of military power and national governments in a transnational, "economic" era have blossomed before, only to be crushed by the next "war to end all wars. But let's return to the real world. For all the bleating about hegemony, no nation really wants genuine multipolarity. No nation has shown a willingness to take on equal responsibilities for managing global crises. No nation has been willing to make the same kinds of short-term sacrifices that the United States has been willing to make in the long-term interest of preserving the global order.

If Europeans genuinely sought multipolarity, they would increase their defense budgets considerably, instead of slashing them. They would take the lead in the Balkans, instead of insisting that their participation depends on America's participation. But neither the French, other Europeans, nor even the Russians are prepared to pay the price for a genuinely multipolar world. Not only do they shy away from the expense of creating and preserving such a world; they rightly fear the geopolitical consequences of destroying American hegemony.

Genuine multipolarity would inevitably mean a return to the complex of strategic issues that plagued the world before World War II: in Asia, the competition for regional preeminence among China, Japan, and Russia; in Europe, the competition among France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia. What France, Russia, and some others really seek today is not genuine multipolarity but a false multipolarity, an honorary multipolarity. They want the pretense of equal partnership in a multipolar world without the price or responsibility that equal partnership requires.

They want equal say on the major decisions in global crises as with Iraq and Kosovo without having to possess or wield anything like equal power. They want to increase their own prestige at the expense of American power but without the strain of having to fill the gap left by a diminution of the American role. And at the same time, they want to make short-term, mostly financial, gains, by taking advantage of the continuing U.

The problem is not merely that some of these nations are giving themselves a "free ride" on the back of American power, benefiting from the international order that American hegemony undergirds, while at the same time puncturing little holes in it for short-term advantage. The more serious danger is that this behavior will gradually, or perhaps not so gradually, erode the sum total of power that can be applied to protecting the international order altogether.

The false multipolarity sought by France, Russia, and others would reduce America's ability to defend common interests without increasing anyone else's ability to do so. In fact, this erosion may already be happening. In the recent case of Iraq, America's ability to pursue the long-term goal of defending the international order against President Saddam Hussein was undermined by the efforts of France and Russia to attain short-term economic gains and enhanced prestige. Both these powers achieved their goal of a "multipolar" solution: They took a slice out of American hegemony.

But they did so at the price of leaving in place a long-term threat to an international system from which they continue to draw immense benefits but which they by themselves have no ability to defend. They did not possess the means to solve the Iraq problem, only the means to prevent the United States from solving it.

This insufficiency is the fatal flaw of multilateralism, as the Clinton administration learned in the case of Bosnia. Those nations that lack the power to solve an international problem cannot be expected to take the lead in demanding the problem be solved. The United States did chafe, however, at being excluded from the commercial opportunities in the European empires. In some cases, like the Spanish Empire, the United States took direct action and fought a war to open up Cuba and the Philippines to American economic interests.

In other cases, like the Open Door Note in , the United States simply asserted the right of open and free commercial activity without taking action to break apart the colonial empires. Opposition to the British hegemony on the part of other states, however, was strong, and the assault on the institutions of representative democracy was led by the fascist states of Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain.

The Promises and Perils of American Hegemony - Persée

Market capitalism came under attack only by the Soviet Union but, for most of its early history, it was generally too weak to threaten seriously the institutions of private property and market exchange. The United States assured the continuation of representative democracy by occupying and re-writing the constitutions of Germany and Japan. But the defense of market capitalism became an open question, which urgently seized the attention of the United States.

Thus, for the first time, the United States decided to become actively engaged in world affairs, a dramatically different response than it had in when it decided to revert to its characteristic isolation. And, also for the first time, the United States had a clear foreign policy other than simple vague commitments to democracy and capitalism. We call that foreign policy, containment. I think that it is important to note that the US made two decisions that were related but actually quite distinguishable.

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The first, made by Franklin Roosevelt in , was that the US would not repeat its mistake of In the Atlantic Charter, the US announced that it would take on the role of a world power, albeit in combination with the British. This decision was formally institutionalized in The US staked its political claim to great power status by its support of the United Nations. The American vision for the world after World War II was clear: it was to be a world safe for representative democracy and market capitalism. While the vision was clear, political support for the enterprise was thin.

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  4. It was this last consideration that pulled the United States out of its traditional isolationism. Only after the war was over did it become apparent to many in the United States that the Soviet Union was going to emerge as the principal contender to the US vision. In the years from , the Soviet Union articulated its security interests in ways the US found directly challenging. Thus, the US made a second decision: to oppose the expansion of Soviet power.

    This decision was politically powerful, and justified the prior decision to become a world power. History will judge whether the Soviet Union collapsed primarily because of internal flaws in its system or because of the policy of containment. From a political point of view, the policy of containment was inevitable.

    is for Students.

    It is difficult to pass over the Cold War so quickly, but that complicated story is not directly pertinent to my argument. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the US without a clear focus for its foreign policy. It was still committed to democracy and capitalism but the bright lights of Soviet opposition to those values and objectives dimmed making it more difficult to define their practical implementation. In other words, the US is back to the situation it was in in a great power with powerful isolationist tendencies and no central opponent to override the isolationism. The central problem of American foreign policy is to determine how the country can stay engaged in world affairs without the catalyst of a clear and threatening enemy.

    The American people are reverting to their familiar role of isolationism at a time when the forces of globalization are making that policy singularly foolish. Much of American economic activity is directed to, and generated by, international economics. These economics are, in turn, heavily influenced by political forces that are often at odds with the American conceptions of democracy and human rights.

    I want to take two examples of the current difficulties in the exercise of American leadership which reflect these concerns. The first example is the situation in Bosnia, truly one of the great tragedies of the 20 th century. Bosnia is not a traditional security threat to the United States, and, historically, the US would never have involved itself in the Balkans.

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    When President Clinton was elected in , it was clear that he wished to intervene in the area for humanitarian reasons. He was unable to do so, however, because the American people would not have supported the intervention. The United Nations was never effective in the dispute because of Russian opposition to decisive action; NATO was unwilling to act because of the opposition of the French and the British.

    And so, thousands died simply because they were Croats, Muslims, or Serbs.

    America's Failing Empire: U.S. Foreign Relations Since the Cold War

    The NATO intervention, however, makes no pretense about its objectives: the troops are there to keep order, not to make peace. NATO merely hoped that a period of relative calm would allow the forces in Bosnia favoring a settlement to gain strength so that they could create conditions for an ultimate peace. All sides in the conflict have taken advantage of the lull in fighting to rearm themselves and make the prospects of renewed conflict more devastating than before. Bush, the United States became a redeemer nation, invading and seeking to reconstruct countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Even Barack Obama, the sober-minded Nobel Peace Prize laureate elected on an anti-war platform, dabbled in liberal interventionism as president, disastrously so in Libya. Are Americans prepared to do their fair share once the United States no longer calls the shots? The Cato trio make a strong case. As John Mueller and Micah Zenko observe, the United States has never been more secure, thanks to its enviable geographic position and vast power. The prominent neoconservative Robert Kagan has argued that without U. Surely, if China and Russia throw their weight around, formerly free-riding Asian and European countries will band together to counterbalance the would-be hegemons.

    Finally, the authors dispute the notion that the United States is a disinterested global policeman.