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At War With Ourselves

Is America squandering its chance to improve the future of the globe?

June 22, 2003

Is America squandering its chance to improve the future of the globe?

For Americans, reaching a national consensus that the global system is in our vital national interest is the main imperative of the 21st century. Uncomfortable though it may be, we must get over the idea that our unprecedented power is a panacea.

As a nation, we Americans can oversee global stability from the skies — apart, removed and nearly omnipotent.

But as individuals, we need everyone's help on the ground, where we are as fragile and vulnerable as other people — indeed, more so, since we are Americans.

For some countries, such as the states of the European Union, navigating the divide between sovereignty and global interests is an easier problem. They have already given up considerable sovereignty.

For other peoples, such as the Taiwanese and Kosovars, the sovereignty they treasure has not even arrived yet — and they still want it.

Such struggles mean that history has not ended yet, not by a long shot. There are too many terror groups, too much economic discontent, too many disenfranchised groups. Such as the Palestinians and Kurds — who still seek a better deal.

The "free world" is no longer just the West: Today it spans the globe. That does not mean the U.S. leader has to become President Pothole, intervening in every civil war or regional dispute.

But it does mean that, in practical terms, the President must talk forthrightly about the international system that benefits all. He must systematically support its institutions even if he doesn't always agree with them. And he must dwell somewhat less on what is purely good for "America."

The debate we face today is no longer over American engagement versus American withdrawal. Isolationism is long dead.

The issue is whether what was once heresy will become orthodoxy to Americans in the 21st century: The idea that the norms and institutions of this global system are now as critical to securing our freedom as our own domestic laws and institutions.

Does that, in turn, mean that the American president must always seek a multilateral solution at the WTO, UN and other forums? And that he must bow to their every wish?

No, of course not, just as he doesn't bow to every whim of Congress. But he must accept these forums as part of the American system.

Presidents will accept this new orthodoxy only if the American people force them to. And yet the American people scarcely seem aware of these issues.

We need a national consensus that is at least as solid as the Cold War consensus in which "the yahoos of the right and the softies of the left" are once again marginalized. This is not up to our leaders, but to us who elect them.

Just as it is all too easy for an American president to scapegoat the UN and other institutions, other nations — even our closest allies — have found America to be a too-easy target in a one-überpower world.

That, too, may be an inevitable cost of being the hegemon. Given the disparities in power and the nature of global leadership, some American unilateralism is inevitable.

By the same token, foreign resentment of American power is not going to go away, but it too must be moderated through greater awareness.

Few previous empires ever willingly gave up a colony or a conquest. America has made this a habit, indeed a national mission.

There is no precedent for what America did after World War II, handing Germany and Japan back their countries, replenished.

There is no precedent for what America did in the Gulf War, restoring Kuwait's rulers to their rule and then going home.

Or during the 1990s, in Bosnia or Kosovo, where the U.S. national interest, as traditionally defined, was next to nil.

And yet, an American president staked his and NATO's credibility in order to save Muslims — not that al-Qaeda appreciated this. Britain and France gave up their colonies — but only under American and local pressure.

The key point is this: Our exceptional behavior has nothing to do with American munificence or goodness — just as the ravages brought on by previous empires had little to do with rulers who were intrinsically more evil than we. It is simply that this behavior defines who we are.

America began as a nation of people escaping imperialism. This has meant, in practice, that we Americans cannot help it but wish freedom on others.

America will almost certainly be engaged abroad more robustly for a long time to come, occasionally with guns blazing. But it will remain a nonimperial hegemon — a stabilizing power.

On the other hand, we certainly should be preparing for the possibility of American decline.

True, America's dominance in the world today is such that we have a lot of geopolitical capital to play with, a lot of room for error.

While there will assuredly be terrorist breakouts, and more Americans will die in them, we will remain unthreatened by full-scale war for decades. But if we treasure our heirs, we should recognize that this status quo is a fool's paradise.

At some point, in the 21st century, that power shift will probably take place. No matter how much we pour into defense, our unparalleled power — the power represented by stealth bombers and a world-dominating economy — will likely decline relative to other countries.

This is so, ironically, because of the very global system we are creating, one that is marked by open markets and the free flow of information.

I believe we must build this system — as opposed to an old-fashioned empire — because openness and democracy define who we are and because we Americans feel more secure and at home within such a system.

But we must expect that this system will someday lead to more of a global equilibrium in knowledge and power — a spreading of the wealth.

For America, this will be the ultimate challenge posed by ideological blowback.

The question now is this: Do we allow this global system to become our undoing — because we are scarcely paying attention to its maintenance, while it may be creating future great-power rivals such as China?

Or will we ensure that this system will be sustained, strengthened and applied — by wise American leadership to co-opt great power rivals into it, perhaps permanently?

From “At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build A Better World” by Michael Hirsh, copyright – 2003 by Michael Hirsh.
Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.,