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What Is America’s Place In the World Now?

Here’s a test:

What lessons should America’s policymakers take from the complex whirl of events that followed Sept. 11?

A) The need to fight terrorism requires working with other nations.

B) The quick victory in Afghanistan shows that only go-it-alone action gets results.

C) Potential threats in the world’s troubled regions call for the United States to become a new kind of imperialist power.

D) The targeting of America proves the dangers of playing the world’s policeman.

E) Terrorism is best met with hard, military power.

F) Terrorism is best fought through the ”soft power” of economic growth and cultural values like democracy and human rights.

If the choices seem confusing or mutually exclusive, so do the opinions of the experts. Ask the most prominent strategic thinkers around, and they will all agree that pretty much every cherished notion about America’s role in the world must be revised — except, of course, their own.

Clearly, the world has changed. Developments in technology have given small groups of people the kind of destructive power once available only to national governments. Distant problems that could previously be ignored have suddenly popped up in America’s backyard. ”National security always meant protection against external threats,” said John Gaddis, a professor of history at Yale University. ”The idea that national security is national, or homeland security, is a revolution in strategic thinking.”

But just where does this revolution lead?

For some strategic thinkers, it leads to what might be considered an antique and antidemocratic proposal: empire. ”A new imperial moment has arrived,” the British journalist Sebastian Mallaby writes in a forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs. ”The chaos out there in the world is too threatening to ignore, and the existing tools for dealing with chaos have been tried and found wanting.”

The logic for a new kind of imperialism, Mr. Mallaby argues is this: the decolonalization of the 1940’s and 1950’s left a power vacuum in much of the world. The principal mechanisms the world has devised to deal with them — foreign aid, nongovernmental institutions, the World Bank, the United Nations — have not succeededin dealing with the most troublesome and difficult cases. ”The problem isn’t going away,” Mr. Mallaby said in a telephone interview. ”World population is going to go from six to eight billion. All that growth is going to happen in poor countries. You are going to get more state failures. They do threaten our interests: drugs in Columbia and Afghanistan, the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, with the criminal elements that come from clandestine trade. After Sept. 11, these are not things we can simply ignore.”

While Mr. Mallaby and other neo-imperialists do not foresee a return to the British Raj, they do see a world in which readiness to send troops to distant parts of the world to maintain or re-establish order becomes increasingly common. In some sense, they argue, this has already begun to happen, in Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. ”In Sierra Leone, the local population welcomed the arrival of British troops,” he said, as did people in Afghanistan.

This idea isn’t simply a product of recent events. Two years ago, Mr. Gaddis came to similar conclusions in an article in The Atlantic, as did the British historian Niall Ferguson in his recent book, ”The Cash Nexus.” ”Whatever else you can say about empire, it had the advantage of maintaining order and suppressing anarchy,” Mr. Gaddis said. ”We may need some kind of structure — we wouldn’t call it empire, call it spheres of influence, to deal with these problems.”

But other thinkers argue that extending American power is precisely the problem. ”We need to come to grips with an ironic possibility: that the very preponderance of American power may now make us not more secure but less secure,” Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne wrote not long ago in of The Atlantic. Recent foreign policy — based on the idea of maintaining the United States as the most powerful nation and de facto policeman of the globe — is, they wrote, precisely what has made it the target of terrorist attack.

Therefore, the United States should adopt a minimalist foreign policy, they wrote, using diplomacy and proxies whenever possible, getting involved abroad only as a last resort: ”The less America does, and the less others expect it to do, the more other states will do to help themselves.”

But to Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, the minimalists are unrealistic. ”One of the principal lessons of Sept. 11 is that failed states are not just a humanitarian problem, they are a national security problem,” he said. States that have virtually collapsed, he went on, like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Somalia, are breeding grounds of instability, mass migration and murder as well as terrorism.

The neo-imperialists also have it wrong, Mr. Walt said. ”In the era of great European overseas empires, there was nothing that the people who were subjects could do,” he explained. ”The people who didn’t like the British Empire couldn’t come to London and blow up Westminster Abbey. The capacity of the people affected by our actions to inflict pain is much greater. In order to do that, you have to be willing to put your own forces on the ground. You can’t just bomb from 15,000 feet. There are going to be limits to this.”

Mr. Walt believes the answer is not more imperial control, but more international cooperation. His colleague at the Kennedy School at Harvard, Joseph Nye, said, ”The fact that information technology decentralizes power and puts it in the hands of individuals scattered around the world means you are going to need a lot of people who will cooperate with you.” Mr. Nye just published a book whose title suggests its main point: ”The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Superpower Can’t Go It Alone.”

Of course, even enthusiastic multilateralists now concede that international entities like the United Nations, NATO, the European Union and nongovernmental health and environmental organizations have all been relegated to the sidelines in recent months.

”All the most important agreements were made on a state-by-state basis,” said Christopher Hill, a lecturer in international affairs at Yale, pointing to assistance offered the United States after Sept. 11 by Britain, Italy, Germany, Russia, Pakistan and other nations. ”Pick any problem out there — AIDS, the environment or terrorism,” he added, ”if the state isn’t effective in its jurisdiction, then the problem isn’t going to get solved.”

Such thinking runs counter to what has been the fashion in academic circles. Since the end of the cold war, many people have argued that the nation-state is an outmoded concept inadequate to the borderless world of electronic information and international commerce. ”In the 1990’s, the forces of globalization and fragmentation were hitting states pretty hard,” Mr. Gaddis said, and the emergence of an international terrorist network like Al Qaeda seemed like a textbook example of a powerful stateless entity. ”Sept. 11 was an attack on the notion of the state itself.”

But the response to the attacks, Mr. Gaddis said, actually reaffirms the value of state power. ”It suggests that reports of the death of states have been exaggerated,” he said. ”The whole reason we have states is protection against anarchy — 9-11 shows that states are rather good things to have around.”

Indeed, for scholars like John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, Sept. 11 shows that old-fashioned power politics still operates in this new world.

Countries must singlemindedly pursue their interests, Mr. Mearsheimer said, no matter what anybody else thinks. And that’s just what the Bush administration is doing, he said.

”We told all those states that were not allied with us, ‘You are either with us or against us and if you are against us you will pay a price,’ ” he said. ”That’s unilateralism.”

Power is the currency of the international system, Mr. Mearsheimer argues, and the United States should use it when it sees fit. To Mr. Nye, that definition of power is too narrow. American influence in the world, he argued, rests as much on culture — democracy, human rights, feminism, movies, consumerism — as on military hardware. After all, he said, what the terrorists ”really object to is American ideas, American culture.”

Ultimately, the differences between the multilateralists the unilateralists, the neo-imperialists, the minimalists and all the others ”ists” may not be as sharp as many make out. People like Mr. Gaddis and Mr. Hill who emphasize traditional power politics and vital interests both acknowledge that democracy in the third world has emerged as a major diplomatic issue. ”It’s increasingly clear that the failure of the Arab states to improve the lives of their citizens has created a great fund of discontent and the solution is ultimately democratization,” Mr. Gaddis said. ”Realism and idealism have come together.” Meanwhile, those who favor cooperation, like Mr. Walt, say they do so out of self-interest: ”I remain a multilateralist on very selfish grounds,” Mr. Walt said. ”It’s a way for the U.S. to make its extraordinary power acceptable to others. ”

If theoretical boundaries are blurring, it may be because policies have done the same. The Clinton administration was multilateralist, stressing the use of ”soft power” but using military force in Bosnia and Kosovo in a way that struck European allies as unilateral.

The Bush administration has done its own brand of mix-and-match. After showing isolationist instincts — withdrawing from an active role in the Israel-Palestinian negotiations and dismissing the idea of nation-building — it has been sampling from the theoretical buffet.

Washington acted unilaterally in Afghanistan but worked hard to create international consensus around its objective. It made decisive use of military power, but sent troops in to do some nation-building and has spoken of the importance of democracy and women’s rights in the Islamic world. It has even done something the minimalists would applaud: getting a local proxy, the Northern Alliance, to do the bulk of the fighting.

So when it comes to taking the test, don’t worry.

The answer is all of the above.

– January 12, 2002

Published at The New York Times

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