Sign Up

The United States in the Global Concert of Powers

Should the United States move toward a more multilateral foreign policy?

October 4, 2006

Should the United States move toward a more multilateral foreign policy?

Theodore Roosevelt was in favor of it. So was his cousin Franklin — and his rival Woodrow Wilson. "It" was an alliance or "concert" of peace-loving,law-abiding great powers that would cooperate to maintain international security.

Ending the cycle of world wars by establishing a great-power concert was the goal of Americans in World War I and World War II and underlay the foundation of the League of Nations and later the United Nations.

After the Cold War, however, the bipartisan American foreign policy establishment — including Democrats as well as Republicans — changed its collective mind.

America's leaders tried to turn the temporary Cold War-era dominance of the United States over its protectorates in Western Europe and East Asia into permanent American world hegemony.

Under Presidents Clinton and Bush, the United States sought to obtain new spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

At the same time, the United States encircled and isolated China and Russia, while seeking to maintain the military dependence of Japan and Germany on the United States as long as possible.

Even as it expanded its commitments vastly beyond its Cold War protectorates, the United States shrank its military below Cold War levels. This was a formula for insolvency.

The United States wrote checks for which the American public was unwilling to pay. With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the checks began to bounce.

The goal of American strategy since the Cold War has been to prevent Japan, Germany, China and Russia from emerging as independent "peer competitors" or military great powers in a multi-polar world no longer centered on the United States.

The United States has offered them a bargain: If you allow us to monopolize most world military power, we will protect your vital national interests, in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans and elsewhere.

The problem with this bargain is that it has never been explained to the American people. It means, for example, that Americans must fight and die to secure the oil supplies of Japan and China (even though the United States receives less than a fifth of its oil and gas from the Persian Gulf).

The American people tolerated the Kosovo War, a war to turn the Balkans into a U.S./NATO protectorate rather than a Russian or German sphere of influence — because there were no American combat deaths.

But public opinion turned against the Iraq War after 2,000 American soldiers had died. Now, a majority of Americans think that the Iraq war was a mistake.

The hegemony strategy requires the United States to wage frequent small wars like the Kosovo War and the Iraq War, on behalf of the major industrial nations in Europe and East Asia, with little or no participation by other countries.

The American people, though, are unwilling to pay the cost for these "wars of choice" in tax dollars and dead soldiers. It's time for a different strategy.

That strategy can be found in the thinking of American statesmen in the first half of the 20th century.

In his 1905 annual address to Congress, Theodore Roosevelt had endorsed the idea of a concert of power: "Our aim should be from time to time to take such steps as may be possible toward creating something like an organization of the civilized nations, because as the world becomes more highly organized the need for navies and armies will diminish."

In his 1910 Nobel Prize Lecture, Theodore Roosevelt said, "It would be a masterstroke if those great powers honestly bent on peace would form a League of Peace, not only to keep the peace among themselves, but to prevent, by force if necessary, its being broken by others."

Woodrow Wilson agreed: "There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power — not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace."

In his address to Congress of January 22, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson announced the concert of power strategy that would replace America's earlier grand strategy of non-entanglement: "In every discussion of peace that must end this war, it is taken for granted that the peace must be followed by some definite concert of power which will make it virtually impossible that any such catastrophe should ever overwhelm us again."

Although Wilson's League of Nations failed, during World War II Franklin Roosevelt sought the same goal of a concert-governed international system in the form of the United Nations.

Mr. Roosevelt scoffed at the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928 that purported to outlaw war, on the grounds that "war cannot be outlawed by resolution alone."

In May 1942, Roosevelt outlined his plan for a new world organization with a general assembly and a security council of the major powers: "The real decisions should be made by the United States, Great Britain, Russia and China, who would be the powers for many years to come and that would have to police the world."

The provision of security by the great powers would permit the majority of the world's states to disarm and devote their resources to improving the standard of living of their people.

The Cold War paralyzed the UN Security Council. Following the Cold War, however, a great-power concert became possible. All of the permanent Security Council members, including China and Russia, at least tacitly supported the Gulf War and the U.S. invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.

These were traditional responses to international aggression. It is true that China and Russia refused to endorse the US/NATO war on Serbia in 1999 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But these two wars broke with international norms, even by prior U.S. standards. The Kosovo War was an intervention in a civil war, while the Iraq War was an unprovoked preventive war.

It was the United States, not China and Russia, that was rejecting the rules of the post-1945 system that America itself had created.

If the United States adopted a concert of power strategy, it would not have to rely primarily on the rigid UN security council. Instead, the United States could take part in regional great-power concerts.

The members need not be democratic internally, as long as they are not genocidal tyrannies and are committed to the norms of a peaceful international system.

The admission of Russia into NATO would turn that alliance into a pan-European great-power concert. The six-power talks about North Korea could become the basis of a great-power concert uniting the United States and Japan with China and Russia.

In the Middle East, a great-power concert is not possible, because of local rivalries. In North America, one is not possible because the United States is the only great power in the continent.

As a participant in regional concerts, the United States can play a constructive peacetime role between crises.

And, in the event that a hostile power seeks regional hegemony, the other members of the concert could rally around the United States to form an anti-hegemonic alliance, something they might hesitate to do without the certainty of U.S. participation.

By promoting regional concerts, the United States can maintain its influence in strategically important regions outside of North America — without risking a backlash by trying to impose unilateral American hegemony on all three.

The concert of power strategy, unlike the hegemony strategy, does not require the United States to assume the sole responsibility of policing the neighborhoods of all of the other great powers in the world while they watch from the sidelines.

The United States can take part in efforts to police Europe and Asia and the Middle East, when necessary. But U.S. security does not require the United States to wage wars like the Kosovo War and the Iraq War — which are almost entirely American efforts, camouflaged by the nominal participation of a few allies.

And the United States can save money by pooling its defense resources with the other great powers in the hegemonic concert.

The hegemony strategy is based on the fear that, if the leading European and Asian countries are strong enough to defend themselves against minor threats in their own neighborhoods, they will be so powerful that they threaten the United States.

But the notion that the United States can never be safe — unless every other great power is weak, passive and dependent on the United States in its own region — is absurd.

As long as other great powers are allied with the United States in regional concerts, it is in America's interest to encourage their strength, not to encourage their weakness.

Of the possible grand strategies the United States might adopt, the concert of power strategy is most likely to preserve American security at a minimal cost to the American way of life.

Working together with the other great powers of the world would cost less in terms of American taxes, American lives and American liberty than a misguided retreat into isolation or the doomed attempt to establish solitary United States world domination.