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Pax Americana or Primus Inter Pares?

Should the United States hold on to its notions of global hegemony?

July 13, 2007

Should the United States hold on to its notions of global hegemony?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the biggest superpower of all?” That is the question being asked by foreign policy pundits in Washington, D.C., these days, as they ponder the impact of the U.S. military quagmire in the Middle East on the global position of the United States.

The cover of a recent issue of The Economist, the British magazine that has always been bullish on U.S. power — it considers the United States to be the successor to the British Empire — is quite simple: “Still No. 1” it reads, next to a drawing of Uncle Sam standing in the boxing arena and ready to punch again despite his (minor) injuries.

The magazine calls the United States a “hobbled” hegemon and concludes that while the problems in Iraq may have weakened the United States, it is still likely to remain the “dominant superpower.”

Much of the support for the America-Is-Still-Number-One thesis — which not surprisingly is also very popular among members of the foreign policy establishment in Washington is based on numbers. After all, who really wants to be a member of an elite in charge of a declining power?

The United States has the largest and most advanced economy — and the largest and most powerful military. Even those who are doing a lot of cheerleading for China these days agree that that country will not become the world’s largest economy before 2050 — and even that proposition is very “iffy.”

And no one expects any of the United States’ potential global rivals (the European Union, Russia, China and India) to overspend the United States on defense and overtake it in the military sphere any time soon. It just ain’t gonna happen.

And notwithstanding the advances that the Chinese, Indians and the Europeans are making in science and technology, the United States’ open and dynamic free-market economy — as well as its impressive elite universities and research institutions — help it to maintain its status as the world’s center of scientific and technological creativity.

It can therefore be accepted as an axiom that there is no great power — or even a combination of powers — that is ready to challenge the United States for global supremacy at this time in history.

At the same time, one cannot deny that the U.S.-led wars in the “Arc of Instability” — ranging from the Middle East to South Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan — have overstretched the U.S. armed forces. In fact, it has reached a point at which the United States would find it very costly, if not impossible, to fight and win other military conflicts.

Indeed, one does not have to be a military expert to figure out that the decisions by North Korea and Iran to challenge the United States over the nuclear issue reflected their conclusion that the U.S. Army and Marines are not ready to fight in a ground war and do regime change à la Iraq in other parts of the world.

In order to maintain its position as a global cop by responding 24/7 to 911 international calls, oust “rogue regimes,” fight wars in several areas of conflict and deploy hundreds of thousands of troops to conduct counter-insurgency and do “nation building,” the United States would have to recruit many more soldiers.

However, given the Iraq experience, the American people are no longer ready to provide their government with the money and the manpower it needs to secure its hegemonic position.

Meanwhile, there are pundits who suggest that “if only” the Bush Administration had done this (deploying more troops) or that (doing more planning for the occupation), the United States would have been marching towards victory in Iraq.

What has undeniably emerged on this front is the huge gap between the pundits’ conception of U.S. national interest (that the United States has the right and the obligation to use its power to achieve “regime changes” and do “nation building”) — and the one shared by the general public.

The latter believes it has the right and the obligation to use its power to respond to a clear and present danger to its security — and preferably through short and relatively cheap wars).

If anything, costly interventions like the war in Iraq are only helping to erode the U.S. public’s willingness to support military engagements abroad and increase isolationist sentiments at home.

At the same time, the failure in Iraq is also making it more difficult for the United States to win support from likely allies — while playing into the hands of potential rivals. Ultimately, it is the application of the law of diminishing returns in the use of military power by a great power.

If one moves beyond the point of conducting a war of necessity and becomes engaged in a war of choice, rising costs in terms of casualties and money weaken the ability of the great power to maintain its dominant status.

The emerging consensus on the war in Iraq in Washington assumes that, even under the best-case scenario, the Americans would have no choice but to withdraw most of their troops from Iraq — while perhaps keeping a small number of troops in isolated military bases to provide limited support and training for the Iraqi forces.

More likely, the United States will have to redeploy its troops from Iraq and protect its interests in the Persian Gulf through a quick reaction force and over-the-horizon presence of the U.S. military.

Moreover, Washington would need to work in tandem with other regional actors, including Iran and Syria, and other global powers to maintain the stability in the Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East.

And if the United States wants other global powers to share in the burden of policing the Middle East and other parts of the world, it would need to share the process of decision-making with them.

It cannot continue to occupy the driver’s seat and ask the Europeans, Russians or Chinese to help in navigating from points A to point B and to check the tires and to change the oil.

These powers are going to demand to have more of a say on where points A and B are — and perhaps even insist on occupying the driver’s seat when it comes to their spheres of influence: China in East Asia, Russia in its “near abroad” — and Europe in the Middle East.

In fact, Washington has an interest in encouraging the Europeans to play a more activist diplomatic and military role in the Middle East — so as to discourage them from continuing to do “free riding” on U.S. power in that region.

All in all, while the United States will probably remain Number One for quite a while, it is becoming clear that domestic resistance and rising global challenges will make it more and more difficult for Washington to secure its military hegemony on its own.

As a consequence, the notion of a U.S. monopoly in the international system will be replaced with the concept of oligopoly.

The choice that Washington will face in the aftermath of Iraq is between continuing to strive for strategic dominance in a way that has ignited more opposition at home and resistance abroad — or working together with other powers to contain threats to the international system.

In that case, the United States will still be first among equals (or primus inter pares) — which is the next best thing to being Number One.