January 15, 2016
Foreign Policy: The Irony of American Power
Framers of US Foreign Policy of recent vintage- Bush Sr., Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter
The overarching theme of twentieth-century geopolitics has been America’s success in prevailing over its competitors for global power. A century ago, the United States was a continental power exercising only a peripheral influence on international politics. Today, having outlasted, exhausted, or crushed its rivals, the United States dominates world affairs. The millennium ends with the world’s foremost democracy holding sway as Great Power without peer.
America’s rivals, to be sure, contributed mightily to their own demise. Besotted with ambition, empires in our age have betrayed an astonishing propensity for self-inflicted wounds. Choosing war in 1914, Wilhelm II wrecked German aspirations to Weltpolitik. Ransacking Africa in search of easy conquest, Mussolini laid bare the fraudulence of his new Roman empire. Plunging into the morass of endless war with China, Japan doomed its vision of East Asian hegemony. Craving Lebensraum to the East, Hitler bled his armies to death and destroyed his Thousand-Year Reich. Ordering their legions into Afghanistan, the sclerotic lords of the Kremlin exposed the flimsiness of Soviet authority and the bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism. Thus the history of the past hundred years offers a moral lesson to complement the geopolitical theme of America’s rise to preeminence. Of the dangers that threaten a Great Power, the most insidious come from within.
This great moral lesson of imperial hubris sounds a warning that Americans today should heed. To sustain the favored position to which the United States has risen, they must succeed where others have failed-devising a grand strategy that permits the responsible exercise of power while steering clear of the shoals of arrogance and vainglory. This is a tall order. Filling that order requires first a proper understanding of the situation in which the United States now finds itself.
That situation is replete with irony. A nation born of the first great anti-imperial revolution, the United States finds itself today wielding authority and influence in every corner of the globe. A state that once spurned interference by outsiders has acquired a well-documented reputation for instructing others on how to conduct themselves on matters ranging from human rights to environmental regulation. A people once profoundly suspicious of militarism tacitly embrace military power as a central element of national identity. How are we to account for the paradoxes to which America’s emergence as the world’s foremost power has given rise?
The traditional narrative of American history dodges that question, suggesting that the outcome was not of our doing: greatness was thrust upon us. This orthodox view of history asserts that the United States did not advance purposefully to center stage in world affairs; it was drawn there reluctantly, contrary to its traditions and the preferences of its people. According to this interpretation, America’s transformation from unassuming republic to global superpower was unforeseen and unintended. The United States assumed a paramount role in world affairs only under duress, prodded by malevolent forces that became in the end too monstrous to ignore.
Thus, evil has provided warrant for action. The all-but-forgotten war with Spain now a hundred years past set the pattern. For years, Americans had watched as Cubans suffered abuse at the hands of a decadent and incompetent imperial regime. Finally, in 1898, further Spanish control of Cuba became intolerable. When the smoke of the ensuing conflict cleared, the United States had indeed ejected Spain from Cuba, but had acquired in the process an insular empire of its own, stretching from the Caribbean across the Pacific. In the decades to follow, the recurrence of wickedness in various guises-the militarism of Imperial Germany and Japan, the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler and Stalin, more lately the tinhorn depredations of Saddam Hussein-would offer impetus and justification for the further expansion of American power.
This interpretation of the nation’s rise to globalism-the United States reacting to peace disrupted, rights defiled, and freedom jeopardized-is one that most Americans have found persuasive. It is reassuringly familiar and morally satisfying. For the average citizen, the standard historical narrative has provided a convenient map for navigating through the perilous and deceptive terrain of twentieth-century politics. But a map only approximates reality. Sketched in response to the press of events, the historical map charting the progress of the Reluctant Superpower has never been completely accurate. Of late, it has become increasingly misleading. Most of all, with the end of the Cold War, it is no longer useful. Indeed, to cling to that map is to misapprehend the hazards that lie just ahead.
If Americans have vigorously defended their way of life against external threat, it is also true that they have sought to imprint that way of life on others. No people on earth have been more eager to see the world remade in their own image. The whole trajectory of Western history, pointing toward an expansion of freedom, equality, and opportunity, only served to validate this belief in American mission, even fostering the notion that the United States possessed a providential mandate to spread the blessings of liberty. Thus, even before leading the nation into war to make the world safe for democracy, Woodrow Wilson could declare with certainty that “God [had] planted in us the vision of liberty” and that the United States had been “chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”
Wilson’s purpose was not simply to defend American principles, but to secure their extension on a universal basis, a breathtakingly radical proposition. Nor did that proposition die with Wilson. Once revived by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the spirit and grandeur of the Wilsonian project animated the policies and the rhetoric of subsequent administrations as dissimilar as those of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. “If we judge events by their consequences,” John Lukacs has observed, “the great world revolutionary was Wilson rather than Lenin.” Indeed, if we judge the age of revolutions by its outcome, the United States has been the most successful revolutionary power of them all.
To posit the United States as an ascendant revolutionary power is to pose uncomfortable questions that the narrative of the Reluctant Superpower has heretofore allowed Americans to evade. What is the motive force underlying the growth of American revolutionary power? What will it cost the United States to maintain the order in which the American revolution has culminated? What are the moral dilemmas to which the triumph of this revolution is likely to give rise?
The American foreign policy establishment would prefer, for the most part, that citizens remain oblivious to these questions. Indeed, foreign policy professionals in general have a strong preference for citizens who don’t ask questions, believing that in a democracy the conduct of foreign policy is most effective when the people are compliant-as was the case in the United States through most of the postwar era.
To be sure, the collapse of communism threatened momentarily to remove the basis for that compliance. Scrambling to check the erosion of popular support for American globalism-an erosion made painfully evident by the humiliating electoral defeat of a “foreign policy President” in 1992-the foreign policy establishment threw itself into the task of devising a new formula to justify America’s role in the world. Much as the promulgation of an “official” interpretation of the Cold War’s origins in the late 1940s had helped forge a broad anti-Communist consensus, so an authoritative interpretation of the Cold War’s “lessons” might lay the foundation for a post-Cold War consensus. By limiting the boundaries of permissible discourse, foreign policy professionals hoped to minimize any discontinuity of American policy caused by the disappearance of the Evil Empire that had provided the primary rationale for that policy.
The exhilarating-and rightly celebrated-culmination of the Soviet-American rivalry provided an ideal point of departure for this undertaking. Thus, the premise of the new orthodoxy was simplicity itself: We Won. As applied to future policy, the implications of winning were twofold. First, the outcome of the Cold War affirmed the wisdom, capacity, and continuing imperative of “American leadership” exercised on a global scale. Second, the fresh circumstance to which that success had given way presented the United States with a “strategic opportunity” to create a peaceful and prosperous international order enduring far into the future.
As a result, throughout the 1990s the national “conversation” about foreign policy has focused obsessively on a single issue: will the United States grasp the opportunity that beckons? Or, as it has on earlier occasions, will the Reluctant Superpower give in to irresponsibility and backsliding, with all the dire results that will ensue as a consequence?
Thus, to judge by the atmospherics surrounding the foreign policy crises of the past several years, the world’s “indispensable nation” (a phrase favored by President Clinton) teeters on the brink of headlong retreat. Americans, we are led to believe, may at any moment turn their backs on the world. Such ostensibly precarious circumstances have encouraged advocates and interest groups to advertise their favorite issue as the crucial test of America’s willingness to stay the course. In this way, the Bosnian civil war, awful enough on its own terms, gets inflated into Sarajevo 1914; reluctance to ratify NAFTA points directly to the reimposition of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff; and NATO enlargement becomes the all-or-nothing equivalent of the Versailles Treaty.
Thus refurbished and renewed, the narrative of the Reluctant Superpower retains its potency: hand wringing over the supposed American penchant for fecklessness retains undeniable tactical utility. Yet in a larger sense this mythic version of U.S. diplomacy is counterproductive and even dangerous. The proposition that on any given issue the United States faces a stark choice between Engagement or Abandonment is simply spurious. Whether intended or not, the real effect of portraying U.S. foreign relations as a succession of crises, each posing a critical test of national resolve, is to divert attention from the actual dilemmas awaiting the United States as a triumphant sponsor of revolution.
We have entered radically different terrain. We need a new map. We need a new narrative.
The new narrative would incorporate material heretofore deemed extraneous or distracting. It would set aside notions that the United States is innocent and the world corrupt. It would not pretend that America’s abiding aspiration has been simply to live in peace that others obdurately deny to us. Rather than purporting to disdain power, it would allow instead that power in all of its dimensions-political, military, economic, and cultural-has been central to America’s revolutionary purposes. It would emphasize the positive as distinguished from the defensive or reactive role of power. It would accept as fact that the United States acquires and exercises power in order to enable American society to flourish and to extend the sway of American values. It would acknowledge that those twin objectives are inextricably linked.
In short, the new narrative would both recognize and ratify the grand enterprise in which the United States has been engaged, off and on, for a century. That enterprise spans administrations, transcends party and ideology, and persists-as has become apparent since the demise of the Soviet Union-independent of any immediate threat to American security. The historian John Lewis Gaddis has characterized the result as “an empire by invitation.” If so, the invitation is one to which those presiding over U.S. foreign policy have long since given collective assent. As a direct result of that enterprise, the United States has ascended to the status of global hegemon, with far-flung interests and responsibilities and without a challenger worthy of the name. The implicit, if officially unacknowledged, grand strategy of the United States today is to consolidate and preserve its world supremacy, with the clear understanding that doing so may well require the further extension of American influence.
Both the neoliberals and the neoconservatives who together preside over the contemporary political scene endorse that enterprise. Both camps happily credit American leadership with whatever good has emerged from an otherwise disastrous century, from the democratization of Germany and Japan to the final collapse of communism. Both agree that military power undergirds the effectiveness of that leadership. Both, therefore, are committed to maintaining world-dominant military capabilities, a sharp departure from traditional American practice when the passing of crisis meant reverting to a minimalist establishment. They are united in opposing critics, coming from the right or the left, who express reservations about a strategy of global preeminence, whether on practical or moral grounds. They denounce such critics as timid, fretful, pessimistic, defeatist-and, predictably, tag them as Isolationists. In other important respects, however, the neoliberals and neoconservatives differ in their vision of American hegemony. Those opposing visions-and the peculiar contradictions that each entails-define the real fault lines in the glacis of present-day U.S. foreign policy.
The administration of President Bill Clinton embodies contemporary neoliberalism. Yet the prefix “neo” is misleading. Apart from promoting a trendy Global Agenda that purports to incorporate environmental issues, population control, and women’s rights into the foreign policy mainstream, little about the neoliberal perspective deserves the appellation “new.” In public pronouncements, neoliberals affirm their commitment to human rights. They recite clichés about the United States leading a “community of nations” engaged in “multilateral” efforts to alleviate the world’s problems. But the essence of neoliberal thinking derives from old-fashioned liberal economics. In President Clinton’s succinct formulation, “trade, investment, and commerce” will produce “a structure of opportunity and peace.” For neoliberals, cutting trade deals, reducing tariffs, protecting property rights, and running interference for American private enterprise-the entire package gilded with the idiom of globalization and earnest professions of America’s abiding concern for democracy and human rights-constitute the heart of foreign policy.
Clinton Administration officials tout this emphasis on the economic dimension of foreign policy as a remarkable innovation. Thanks to Bill Clinton, then Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor bragged in 1996, “trade and international economics have joined the foreign policy table.” In fact, such claims to originality-if standard fare for this uniquely self-absorbed administration-are without merit. The Clinton White House has simply revived themes already much in evidence a century or more ago and never entirely absent from U.S. foreign policy since. The expectation that securing a world open to trade and investment will enable America to do good even as it does well fits squarely in the hoary tradition of Herbert Hoover and Cordell Hull.
If the prospect of creating structures of peace provides the ostensible inspiration for the neoliberal preoccupation with trade and investment, anxiety reinforces that hope. American well-being, neoliberals believe, depends upon continuous economic growth. Economic expansion, in turn, depends on increasing the American share of the global economy, especially in rapidly developing regions such as Latin America and the Asia-Pacific. Thus, according to then Secretary of State Warren Christopher speaking in 1996, “We’ve passed the point where we can sustain prosperity on sales within the United States.” Current Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agrees: “Our own prosperity depends on having partners that are open to our exports, investment, and ideas.” Without sustained expansion of trade and investment in these “emerging markets,” the American economy is likely to falter, with potentially disastrous consequences. To President Clinton himself, the issue is axiomatic: “Without growth abroad, our own economy cannot thrive.”
For neoliberals, there is literally no alternative to growth. Abundance mutes tensions and papers over contradictions, in many cases the byproducts of past liberal experiments. Thus, behind the Clinton Administration’s acknowledgment of economic interdependence lies the fear that any substantial lapse in economic expansion could well ignite a crisis for which modern liberalism, bereft of fresh ideas, will be without response. Failure to secure expansion abroad invites calamity at home.
When it comes to military affairs, neoliberals strike appropriately progressive attitudes, professing to look forward to the day when economic forces will render military power obsolete. In the meantime, the imperative of maintaining the order required of a highly interdependent world economy prods them to use force with notable frequency. The emphasis is on using military forces not to win wars but as an international constabulary. Yet a fully effective implementation of this approach would anticipate and forestall rather than merely react. Thus, for neoliberals, the lure of using American military power not simply to quell disorder but to prevent it in the first place can become irresistible. In this regard, although hardly noticed by the American public, a recent military exercise provides the best illustration to date of the evolving neoliberal paradigm for the role of U.S. forces after the Cold War.
In September 1997, when a contingent of American troops, after twenty exhausting hours in Air Force transports, parachuted into Kazakhstan, one of five new Central Asian republics, they went where no U.S. forces had gone before. American soldiers did not venture into this remote corner of the former Soviet Union to support and defend the Constitution or to protect the United States against enemies foreign and domestic. Instead, according to the general in command, they deployed to demonstrate America’s “global capability” and, by participating in exercises with local armies, to signal that the United States has important interests in this desolate, but energy rich, region. State Department officials and Pentagon planners look to a periodic American military presence in Central Asia to create a climate of stability, putting in place political rules of behavior and giving potential rule-breakers pause. Henceforth, he who threatens the stability of Central Asia invites confrontation with the world’s only superpower. Thus, even in an era of no overt enemies, does neoliberalism’s preoccupation with order give rise to new security commitments in distant places about which the average American knows little and cares less.
Neoliberals pursue American hegemony by indirection. Neoconservatives make no effort to conceal their intentions. Leading neoconservative writers have no problem acknowledging the paramount status of the United States as the world’s only superpower. Indeed, they revel in it. Thus, for example, when William Kristol and Robert Kagan write unblushingly about an American “responsibility to lead the world,” the style of leadership they have in mind bears little resemblance to pussy-footing multilateralism. Kristol and Kagan want the United States to place itself unambiguously in charge, exercising a “benevolent global hegemony” based on “moral supremacy and moral confidence.”
Nor do neoconservatives flinch at the prospect of America therefore assuming the role of global policeman. Indeed, writes Joshua Muravchik, “it must be more than that.” A policeman enforces laws set by others; he gets orders from higher authority. In today’s world, however, “there is no higher authority than America.” Hence the need, according to Muravchik, for the United States to serve not only as policeman but also as global mediator, teacher, and benefactor-and, by implication, magistrate, disciplinarian, nanny, and crusader.
Acutely conscious of the disarray into which American culture has fallen, neoconservatives remain intensely nationalistic. (Indeed, neoconservative writers sometimes hint that a glorious crusade in a noble cause might be just the thing to reinvigorate the flagging sense of American identity.) They admit to no limits on what the forceful exercise of American leadership can accomplish. For writers like Michael Ledeen, the United States has a “historic mission” to animate “a worldwide mass movement against all forms of tyranny.” Does China persist in opposing the rising tide of democratization? The solution, according to the columnist George Will, is simple: the policy of the United States “should be to inoculate China with the American spirit,” thereby “melting . . . the Chinese regime’s apparatus of social control.”
To back up their faith in the American spirit, neoconservatives look to armed force. “The bedrock of America’s global leadership,” writes Muravchik, “is military might.” Although Pentagon spending currently exceeds the combined defense budgets of the next several largest powers (most of them longstanding U.S. allies), neocons are not content. Kristol and Kagan, for example, want to increase military spending by $60-80 billion per year, essentially restoring the American defense budget to Cold War levels.
Neoconservatives justify the need for a robust military establishment not to support the sort of ventures that neoliberals pursue under the guise of peacemaking, but to deter or preempt the rise of a peer competitor. In the neoconservative view, “chaos” in the underdeveloped world, “rogue states,” the spread of ethnic violence and religious fundamentalism-candidates in the competition to devise a new paradigm for international security-are matters of no more than secondary importance. They do not directly threaten American security. If the United States cannot altogether ignore, say, violence in the Balkans or anarchy in a failed sub-Saharan state, neither should Americans allow such matters to mask far more serious if less immediate dangers. One danger in particular gives neoconservatives pause: the prospect of a resurgent Russia or an affluent and technologically sophisticated China-or both-ten or twenty years hence mounting a serious challenge to American dominance.
Neoconservatives do not relish the prospect of a future showdown between competing superpowers. Although more hawkish in their rhetoric than neoliberals, they tend to be considerably more circumspect when it comes to the actual use of force. To avert military confrontation, neoconservatives look ultimately to a process of transformation, converting prospective adversaries to democratic capitalism, whether by example, cajolery, or coercion.
Preserving the leading position of the United States, therefore, demands ideological rather than economic expansionism. This linkage of American interests with the spread of American ideals underlies sharp differences between neoconservatives and neoliberals when it comes to trade policy and human rights. Unwilling to countenance the slightest disruption of American economic growth, the neoliberal Clinton Administration subordinates political and security considerations in order to reap short-term commercial benefits. One sees this most vividly in the eagerness with which the Clinton White House pursues expanded commercial relations with China even if that means sharing advanced technology adaptable for military purposes and ignoring the widespread violation of human rights. Neoconservatives are no less predisposed to favor free trade. But they view trade less as an end in itself than as an instrument to support the larger goal of securing the global adoption of American values. The principle of free trade can be compromised; the commitment of the United States to its fundamental ideals must not. Thus, when it comes to democracy and human rights, in contrast to the yawning gap between neoliberal talk and action (again, Clinton on China illustrates the point), neoconservatives are the custodians of American exceptionalism and the true heirs of Woodrow Wilson. Like Wilson, they aspire to a leadership that is at once universal in extent and thoroughly American in character.
Each of these competing visions of the American imperium will give rise to its own complications. In both, the pitfalls awaiting the United States are large. They alike contain large defects that call into question their prospects for success.
The neoliberal vision is unsustainable, a military-economic Ponzi scheme. With delicious irony, the Clinton Administration’s aggressive sponsorship of American commercial interests recalls the revisionist critique of American diplomacy devised a generation ago by the New Left. Back when the President and his friends were attending Georgetown and Oxford, writings by William Appleman Williams and other members of the “Open Door School” were all the rage. These historians argued that the beginning of enlightenment lay in ripping the mask off of U.S. foreign policy. New Left scholars declared that all the Cold War talk about defending the “Free World” was so much hokum. The record of American diplomacy amounted to ill-disguised economic imperialism, aimed at penetrating and dominating foreign markets. Making ceaseless economic expansion abroad the sine qua non of prosperity and stability at home condemned the United States to perennial conflict-Vietnam was a case in point-and would undermine democracy at home. Thirty years later, with pronouncements by senior Clinton Administration officials seemingly cribbed from Chamber of Commerce propaganda, the Open Door thesis-at least in this one respect-deserves a second look.
Thus, it is a safe bet that Professor Williams would find the military adventurism of the singularly unmilitary Clinton Administration unsurprising. By asserting that American well-being is contingent upon access to an orderly and expanding global economy, neoliberal dogma makes it imperative that the United States guarantee that order. When Mr. Clinton sends rangers to take out General Aideed in Somalia, occupies Haiti, launches punitive strikes against Saddam Hussein, intervenes in Bosnia, or sails a carrier task force into the middle of a dispute between China and Taiwan, he invites charges of using force with little apparent strategic consistency. According to its own lights, however, the administration’s record of using force makes all the sense in the world. In the neoliberal view, to permit instability is to put the international economy and by extension the U.S. economy at risk-hence the alacrity with which President Clinton dispatches American soldiers to police, punish, and pacify.
The likelihood that these constabulary burdens are likely to prove permanent, not to mention enormously costly in material and human terms, is the dirty little secret of neoliberalism’s furtive hegemony. As Benjamin Schwarz has observed, the very “logic of economic interdependence leads to a proliferation of American ‘security’ commitments in what all agree is an unstable world order.” This, writes Schwarz, leads to the “dismal conclusion” that “America’s worldwide security commitments are a truly permanent burden.”
Furthermore, the heightened military activism and new security obligations undertaken by the Clinton Administration and its immediate predecessor (not untainted by neoliberalism) suggest the contradictions that this approach to policy invites. Thus, in the Persian Gulf, where an American-led coalition intervenes to punish one autocrat for disrupting the status quo, U.S. forces remain to protect other autocrats committed to preserving it, with our friends in the region hardly more interested in human rights or democracy than our adversaries. In Somalia, where American soldiers arrive to succor the starving, they stay on to kill women and children in bloody street fighting. In Haiti, where the United States intervenes to restore democracy, despots in tropical suits supplant despots in uniform and democracy remains nowhere to be seen. In Bosnia, where genocide creates a moral imperative for action, the United States and its allies deem it inexpedient even to detain the perpetrators of ghastly war crimes. Then there are the Kurds: having led an emergency effort to rescue them in 1991, the United States of late turns a blind eye as Turks and Iraqis take turns pummeling the erstwhile subjects of American solicitude. Finally, there is the matter of proliferation: standing in the forefront of global efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, the United States simultaneously floods the international market with top-quality conventional weapons, far outselling all other rivals as arms merchant to the world.
Further compromising the integrity of this neoliberal version of American hegemony is the character of modern liberalism itself. The compensatory rewards that neoliberals proffer to those who abide by the rules of the United States are as likely to inspire loathing as to command respect. In its favor, as Irving Kristol notes, the Pax Americana “lacks the brute coercion that characterized European imperialism. But it also lacks the authentic missionary spirit of that older imperialism.” At most, continues Kristol, the American empire promises the world “a growth economy, a ‘consumerist’ society, popular elections, and a dominant secular-hedonistic ethos. It is a combination that is hard to resist-and equally hard to respect in its populist vulgarity. It is an imperium with a minimum of moral substance.” While the people of the world may find the allure of American popular culture momentarily irresistible, “one wonders how soon they will weary of it.”
Not, one hopes, before the American people weary of it first. Indeed, the inadequacies of neoliberalism, particularly as a response to any but the basest human aspirations, loom so large as to offer at least some solace: in the end, neoliberalism will discredit itself. When that occurs, Americans may well disenthrall themselves of the diplomatic formula that neoliberals have devised to prop up their dubious endeavor.
By comparison, contemporary American conservatism, whatever its idiosyncrasies and wayward tendencies, at least sees the human person as something more that the sum of his or her appetites. Recognizing the fact of original sin, conservatives are also certain that a profound discontent forms an indelible part of human nature. At its best, the conservative movement seeks to restore to the United States the ordered liberty that permits citizens to address that discontent by aspiring to genuinely worthy pursuits.
Yet neoconservatives believe in the possibility of greatness not only for individuals, but for nations as well. Viewing (with considerable justification) the outcome of the Cold War as a matter of personal vindication, neoconservatives remain dazzled by the results of their exertions. Success against communism has fostered the belief that for America the mantle of greatness lies in underwriting the world’s progress toward democracy everywhere. There is, in this self-prescribed obligation to light the lamp of liberty around the globe, vaulting ambition, no small amount of arrogance, and real potential for jingoism. But there is also idealism and high-mindedness. For these very reasons the neoconservative prescription for American hegemony cannot be dismissed lightly. For those same reasons, it may prove to be a singularly reckless proposition.
The neoconservative prescription for American hegemony is defective on two counts. First, it overstates the impact of democratization on the character of peoples and the behavior of nations. Second, it underestimates the obstacles that an American-sponsored campaign of global democratization must overcome. Ironically, in the latter case, neoconservatives-righteous combatants in the ongoing culture war-err because they misconstrue the true extent of the cultural crisis that has befallen the West.
For neoconservatives, democratization comprises the Big Scorecard of foreign policy, the authoritative measure of America’s progress in setting the world right. A nation that adopts popular government takes its place among the elect. Nations languishing in tyranny or wallowing in disorder remain on the wrong side of the ledger. Yet only for the moment: neoconservatives assume that progress toward democracy-given a generous American nudge-is virtually inevitable. Once having become democratic, a nation is presumed also to become peaceful, with the expectation that it will conform thereafter to the rules of behavior prescribed by the benign hegemon.
This curiously generic view of democracy admits to little variation in the actual practice of self-government among different countries. Furthermore, it implies that particular habits of political practice diminish or seal the wellsprings of collective disenchantment, antipathy, and ambition, feeding the idea that the citizens of democratic nations are inherently given to living in peace with their neighbors. The history of the United States itself would suggest that this bit of conventional wisdom does not stand up to close scrutiny. As Fareed Zakaria has observed in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, democracies can, in fact, be “illiberal.” In certain circumstances, the concomitance of newly formed democratic governments is likely to be “hyper-nationalism and war-mongering.”
More specifically, the frequently heard assertion that democracies do not wage war against one another is dubious in the extreme. One need not be a diehard believer in the Lost Cause to acknowledge that the Confederate States of America constituted a genuine, if deeply flawed, democracy, pitted in one of the fiercest of modern wars against another genuine (although imperfect) democracy. Similarly, if universal manhood suffrage, an elected legislature exercising real authority, and adherence to the rule of law are marks of democracy, then in 1914 Germany no less than France or Great Britain deserved to be classified as democratic. Furthermore, the historical record includes several confrontations in which democracies narrowly averted war-the escape having nothing to do with common devotion to democratic practice. Consider, for example, the Fashoda incident of 1898 involving Britain and France or the Ruhr crisis of 1923 involving France and Germany. In short, neoconservative predictions that a democratic world will culminate in a Kantian perpetual peace, with the costs of sustaining American hegemony being correspondingly slight, deserve to be treated skeptically.
Moreover, if neoconservatives overstate the benefits that will flow from democratization, they likewise tend to exaggerate the ease with which democracy will expand its hold. Without doubt, people around the world thirst for freedom and authentic self-government. Equally without doubt, the obstacles to satisfying that thirst loom large. When it comes to nurturing the spread of democratic institutions, none of the three areas in which the United States today is especially dominant-military might, mastery of the so-called information revolution, and the “soft power” of pop culture and lifestyle-are likely to be decisive. In the end, values will count most.
Yet as conservatives above all understand, the United States has a problem with values. Americans are no longer quite sure what they ought to believe or what their nation stands for. As the sludge of multiculturalism seeps from the academy into everyday life, national identity becomes a cause for remorse or self-flagellation rather than a source of inspiration, collective self-confidence lapses, and moral certitude gives way to doubt and bewilderment. The politics of race, gender, and ethnicity demolish claims regarding the dignity of the individual, distorting beyond recognition the traditional American concept of equality. The insistence upon unfettered self-gratification tears at the basic structure of the family, sowing confusion about the most intimate human relationships.
In other words, the challenge that neoconservatives face in constructing their benign global order is that they must do so in the teeth of an intellectual climate that is deeply and resolutely hostile. Derisive of everything that conservatives hold dear, those who control our key cultural institutions will bitterly oppose any enterprise that assigns to the United States the “moral supremacy and moral confidence” that William Kristol and Robert Kagan identify as the essential underpinnings of American hegemony. After the crimes of slavery and racism, they say, after the mistreatment of Native Americans, the systematic oppression of women, the cruelties inflicted on gays and lesbians, who are Americans to pronounce judgment? Who are we to censure others? Sadly, the longer we ingest the fumes of cultural and moral relativism, the more difficult it becomes to persuade even ourselves that we can rightfully claim-indeed, at times ought to assert-such prerogatives.
Elsewhere in the world, those hostile to democracy (and to American hegemony) delight in our confusion and turn it to their own advantage. Their arguments seemingly legitimized by Western intellectuals contemptuous of the West and all its works, proponents of radical Islam and of “Asian values” mock American presumptuousness in admonishing others on matters such as community or respect for human life.
Thus, neoconservative advocacy of a campaign for global democratization implies a struggle fought on two fronts, one external and one domestic. A two-front war is a fundamentally risky venture, inviting over-extension, exhaustion, and premature decline. In this instance, with the people perplexed and our adversaries deeply entrenched and cunning, the correlation of forces is hardly promising. Thus, however insistent the neoconservative demand that the United States seize this particular moment to embark upon a democratic crusade, conditions for doing so are not especially auspicious. When facing multiple adversaries, sound strategy requires the designation of a main effort. Prudence dictates attending to the more dangerous foe first-which is why conservatives would do well to defer any new crusades abroad until they have turned the tide in the culture war at home.
However much neoliberals and neoconservatives may monopolize the current foreign policy debate, the schools of thought that they represent do not exhaust the range of possibilities available to the United States. Realism offers a third-and in every respect preferable-approach for guiding the policies of the world’s only superpower.
Herbert Butterfield once observed that realism tends to be a boast rather than a philosophy. More commonly in American political circles, realism has been an epithet. To the extent that it conjures up images of Machiavelli or Metternich, Americans dismiss realism as amoral and cynical. Yet the United States can draw on a specifically American realist tradition that is not synonymous with realpolitik. It is this American tradition-the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, and Hans Morgenthau-that offers an alternative to the flawed visions of neoliberals and neoconservatives.
Realism is not a cover for isolationism. The realist acknowledges the existence of an American imperium, although perhaps viewing it as, at best, a mixed blessing. If doubtful that empire-even “empire by invitation”-is entirely conducive to the well-being of American democracy, the realist nonetheless recognizes that the issue of whether or not to accept hegemonic responsibilities is moot. For the United States, there is no going back. Having mounted the tiger, we cannot easily dismount.
The American realist tradition in fact furnishes the surest guide for enabling the United States to sustain its preponderant position while avoiding the vanity and hubris that Morgenthau has identified as “the poisonous fruits of power.” Realism does not provide a formula for policy prescription, but it does offer criteria for analyzing policy alternatives. In contrast to the tawdriness and dishonesty of neoliberalism, realism offers directness and consistency. In place of the illusions and improvidence to which neoconservatism is prone, it requires the careful calibration of means with ends. Realism guards against a nation’s reach exceeding its grasp, precluding the “insolvency” that Lippmann cited as the defect to which American statecraft in this century has been peculiarly susceptible. It recognizes the wisdom of Lippmann’s dictum that sound policy “has been formed only when commitments and power have been brought into balance.” Above all, for conservatives who believe that the character of a nation counts for more than the expanse of its empire, realism allows for the responsible exercise of power abroad while accepting the primacy of efforts to revitalize the culture at home.
The realist vision is modest in scope and ambition. Wilson’s ultimate triumph over Lenin has revived American dreams of “managing history.” Niebuhr’s call for Americans to disavow such dreams, voiced nearly a half century ago, has today acquired renewed relevance. “The course of history cannot be coerced,” he warns, “in accordance with a particular conception of its ends.” That our own particular conception of politics has prevailed over various perverse alternatives is cause for celebration, but the realist knows that even that large success leaves much unsettled. Tying up history’s loose ends does not lie within the power of the United States, however energetically it may exert itself. Democratic capitalism, as it has evolved in the American setting, is unlikely to respond fully to the aspirations of peoples around the world. Understanding that, in Niebuhr’s words, “the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension,” realism accepts the imperative of humility.
Thus, for the realist, the obligation of a great power is not to embark upon crusades but to pursue its interests. If defined with sufficient breadth and imagination, those interests will likewise respond to the minimal requirements of others, permitting the creation of an equilibrium that, however precarious, may approximate peace. Indeed, only then can the expenditure of power be said to satisfy the truest interests of the United States itself.
The realist knows that the exercise of power involves moral hazards. For an imperial republic in particular, charting a course of action that is both responsible and moral will provide a source of continuing challenge. The realist accepts Niebuhr’s maxim that for a great nation “it is not possible to be both pure and responsible.” In the formulation of policy, observes Morgenthau, “moral principles can never be fully realized, but must at best be approximated.” Knowing this, the realist shoulders the burdens of power with more resignation than enthusiasm. “Power,” advises Niebuhr, “ought always to be exercised with a certain uneasiness of conscience.”
Wary of claims of American exceptionalism, the realist understands that the United States is intrinsically neither more nor less virtuous than other nations that have wielded great authority in the past. As a result, for a democratic hegemon, the crucial function of those outside of government is to challenge claims by agencies of state power that their motives and actions are intrinsically righteous. “Powerful men and nations,” warns Niebuhr, “are in greater peril from their own illusions than from their neighbors’ hostile designs.” For the world’s only superpower, the most pernicious illusion may well be to cling uncritically to the myth of its own uniqueness, innocence, and moral superiority. Taken not only as an explanation for past success but as a “permanent quality,” writes Morgenthau, that alleged moral superiority seemingly “justifies the national claim to be the lawgiver and arbiter of mankind.” The unhappy result may be to lure an overconfident and unsuspecting people “to jump into the abyss as if it were the consummation of their dreams.”
A century-long effort to secure acceptance of American revolutionary ideals has culminated in spectacular vindication. Having labored so assiduously to make its imprint on the world, the United States cannot withdraw from the leading role it has taken on in international affairs. Indeed, those who prattle about the dangers of isolationism only divert attention from more pressing concerns. Yet if the United States cannot divorce itself from the world, neither can it indulge in utopian dreams that fuel expectations of sustaining American dominance on the cheap. Neither the process of economic globalization nor continuing efforts to spread democracy will free the United States from its vexing and morally perilous responsibilities. The position to which America has ascended demands that we shed our outmoded pretensions of republican innocence and accept the necessity henceforth of living with an uneasy conscience.
Andrew J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.