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On the Sustainability of U.S. Power

Is the United States pursuing a neo-imperial foreign policy?

September 12, 2002

Is the United States pursuing a neo-imperial foreign policy?

The real secret behind the United States' long and brilliant run as the world's leading state was its ability and willingness to exercise power within alliance and multinational frameworks.

That mode of operation made its power and agenda more acceptable to allies and other key states around the world. Unfortunately though, this achievement has now been put at risk by the Bush Administration's new thinking on global issues.

The most immediate problem is that the present way of thinking — which can only be viewed as a neo-imperialist approach — is unsustainable. Going it alone might well succeed in removing Saddam Hussein from power.

But it is far less certain to offer a path toward success for other, at least equally big issues — such as a strategy of counter-proliferation.

There are in fact good reasons why the Bush Administration has elevated the threat of weapons of mass destruction to the top of its security agenda. But it has done so without investing its power or prestige in fostering, monitoring, and enforcing nonproliferation commitments.

That is a curious choice. True, the tragedy of September 11 has given the Bush Administration the authority and willingness to confront the Iraqs of the world.

But that will not be enough when even more complicated cases come along. When that happens, it is not the use of force that is needed — but concerted multilateral action to provide sanctions and inspections.

Nor is it certain that a preemptive (or preventive) military intervention against Iraq will go well. It might even trigger a domestic political backlash to American-led and military-focused interventionism — right at home in the United States.

In short, America's present emphasis on pursuing an outright imperial strategy could undermine the principled multilateral agreements, institutional infrastructure and cooperative spirit needed for the long-term success of non-proliferation and other big foreign policy/military security goals.

Resorting to a path of preemptive action — as is now contemplated by the President in the case of Iraq — poses a related problem. Once the United States feels it can take such a course, nothing will stop other countries from doing the same.

Does the United States want Pakistan — or even China or Russia — to use interventions as a foreign policy tool?

After all, this approach would not require the intervening state to first provide evidence for its actions. The United States argues that to wait until all the evidence is in — or until authoritative international bodies support action, is to wait too long. And yet, that approach is the only basis that the United States can use if it needs to appeal for restraint in the actions of others.

But there is more to be concerned about. In fact, there is a big paradox. Overwhelming U.S. conventional military might — combined with a policy of preemptive strikes — could lead hostile states to accelerate programs to develop something the United States really does not wish for.

But that "something" represents the only way in which those countries can obtain their only possible deterrent to the United States: weapons of mass destruction.

Another problem follows. The use of force to eliminate weapons of mass destruction capabilities or overturn dangerous regimes is never simple. This is true, whether it is pursued unilaterally — or by a concert of major states.

After the military intervention is over, the target country has to be put back together. Thus, peacekeeping and state-building activities are inevitably required.

In addition, long-term strategies need to be in place that bring the UN, the World Bank and the major powers together to orchestrate aid and other forms of assistance. This is not heroic work, but it is utterly necessary.

Peacekeeping troops may also be required for many years, even after a new regime is built. Regional conflicts inflamed by outside military intervention must also be calmed. In short, there truly is a "long tail" of burdens and commitments that comes with every major military action.

When these costs and obligations are added to the present level of commitment and resources required by America's imperial military role, it becomes even more doubtful that the neo-imperial strategy can be sustained at home over the long haul. This is exactly the classic problem of imperial overstretch.

The United States could keep its current military predominance for decades — if it is supported by a growing and increasingly productive economy. But the indirect burdens of cleaning up the political mess in terrorist-prone failed states levy a hidden cost that is currently not sufficiently appreciated. If anything, it is glossed over by the Bush Administration.

A third problem with U.S. imperial grand strategy is that it cannot generate the cooperation needed to solve practical problems at the heart of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. In the fight against terrorism, the United States needs cooperation from European and Asian countries — in the crucial areas of intelligence, law enforcement and logistics.

Outside the security sphere, realizing U.S. objectives depends even more on a continuous stream of amicable working relations with major states around the world.

It needs partners for trade liberalization, global financial stabilization, environmental protection, deterring transnational organized crime, managing the rise of China — and a host of other thorny challenges.

But it is impossible to expect would-be partners to acquiesce to America's self-appointed global security protectorate and then pursue business as usual in all other domains.

The key policy tool for states confronting a unipolar and unilateral America is to withhold cooperation in day-to-day relations with the United States. One obvious means is trade policy.

The European response to the recent U.S. decision to impose tariffs on imported steel is explicable in these terms.

This particular struggle concerns specific trade issues. But it is also a struggle over how Washington exercises power. The United States may be a unipolar military power, but economic and political power is more evenly distributed across the globe.

The major states may not have much leverage in directly restraining U.S. military policy. But they can make the United States pay a price in other areas.

Finally, the neo-imperial grand strategy poses a wider problem for the maintenance of American unipolar power. It steps into the oldest trap of powerful imperial states: self-encirclement.

When the most powerful state in the world throws its weight around — unconstrained by rules or norms of legitimacy — it risks a backlash. Other countries will bridle at an international order in which the United States plays only by its own rules.

Meanwhile, the proponents of the new grand strategy have assumed that the United States can single-handedly deploy military power abroad — and not suffer untoward consequences. Relations will be coarser with friends and allies, they believe — but such are the costs of leadership.

But history shows that powerful states tend to trigger self-encirclement by their own over-estimation of their power. Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon and the leaders of post-Bismarck Germany sought to expand their imperial domains — and impose a coercive order on others.

Their imperial orders were all brought down when other countries decided they were not prepared to live in a world dominated by an arrogant, coercive state.

True, America's imperial goals and modus operandi are much more limited and benign than were those of age-old emperors. But a hard-line imperial grand strategy — as now proposed by some of the President's top advisors — runs the risk that history will repeat itself.

That is certainly not an outcome Americans should wish for. But it may well be what is upon them — unless there is a reconsideration of the present inclination in Washington for imperial overreach.