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The Lonely Superpower

How to bear America's New World Burden


A Marxist-led rebel coalition overthrows a Soviet satellite regime in Ethiopia. Whom do both sides call upon to mediate, to arrange terms of the rebel takeover, and to support the new government? The United States. Boris Yeltsin becomes the first freely elected leader of Russia in 1,000 years. What is his first destination? Washington. Chinese students, Kurdish rebels, Bangladeshi disaster victims seek aid and succor. To whom do they turn? America.

We live in a unipolar world. The old bipolar world of the cold war has not given birth to the multipolar world that many had predicted and some insist exists today. It has given birth to a highly unusual world structure with a single power, the United States, at the apex of the international system. Multipolarity will come in time. But it is decades away. Germany and Japan were to be the pillars of the new multipolar world. Their paralysis in the face of the Gulf crisis was dramatic demonstration that economic power does not inevitably translate into geopolitical power. As for the other potential pillar, “Europe,” its disarray in response to the Gulf crisis made clear that as an international player it does not yet exist.

We have today no lack of second-rank powers. Germany and Japan are obvious economic powers. Britain and France are able to deploy diplomatic and, in some cases, military assets around the world. The Soviet Union possesses several elements of power — military, diplomatic, and political — but all are in rapid decline. There is no prospect in the immediate future of any power to rival the United States. This situation is almost unknown in the history of the modern nation-state: 1815 and 1945 come to mind, but even then the preeminent power was faced with at least one rival of roughly equal strength.

The world’s unipolarity became blindingly clear this year when, with a prodigious act of will, the United States turned history in the Arabian peninsula. But the new structure of the international order has nothing to do with the Persian Gulf. It is a direct result of the collapse of the Soviet empire. One might place the birth of the unipolar world at Stavropol last July where, at the Kohl-Gorbachev summit, the Soviet Union ceded to NATO the jewel of its European empire, East Germany.

The end of the cold war changed the structure of the world. The Gulf war merely revealed it. And in doing so it exploded two myths about the current international system. Some have misinterpreted the war as reinforcing the first myth, the myth of multilateralism. That victory is said to be an example of a new era of collective security, of the indispensability of coalition politics, of the resurgence of the U.N. This is pious nonsense. The Gulf war was an example of pseudo-multilateralism. The United States recruited a ship here, rented a brigade there, bought (with skillfully deployed sticks and carrots) the necessary U.N. resolutions to give its actions a multilateral sheen. The Gulf was no more a collective action than was Korea, still the classic case of pseudo-multilateralism.

The only people who willingly acknowledge today’s pseudo-multilateralism are those rather indisposed to the United States. Former French Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement (forced to resign because of his pro-Iraqi sentiments) charges that the United States has never considered the Security Council anything other than “a blessing and a guarantee for its own actions.” But of course. Would not any great power? Would not France if given the chance?

But Americans insist on the multilateral pretense. A large segment of American opinion doubts the legitimacy of unilateral American action, but accepts action taken under the rubric of the “world community.” Why it should matter to Americans that their actions receive the Security Council blessing of Deng Xiaoping and the butchers of Tiananmen Square is a mystery to me. But to many Americans it matters. It is thus largely for domestic reasons that American political leaders make sure to dress up unilateral action in multilateral clothing. The danger, of course, is that they may ultimately come to believe their own pretense.

The second myth most recently exploded is the myth of American decline. Before the Gulf crisis American declinists were lamenting America’s fall from its perch atop the world in — their favorite benchmark year-1950. Well, in 1950 the United States engaged in a war with North Korea. It lasted three years, cost 54,000 American lives, and ended in a draw. Forty-one years later the United States engaged in a war with Iraq, a country of comparable size. It lasted six weeks, cost 143 American lives, and ended in a rout. If the Roman empire had declined at that rate, you would be reading this in Latin.

But, say the declinists, you cannot compare the two wars. In Korea, did not the United States have to contend with China as well as North Korea? That is precisely the point. In the 1950s our adversaries had strategic depth. They had the whole Communist world behind them. That is why we were not able to prevail in Vietnam and Korea. In 1991, with the cold war won, our great adversaries are in retreat. The enemies we do encounter today, like Saddam, have to face us on their own. Because of that, they don’t stand a chance. The difference between Korea and Iraq lies in the fact that in the interim the cold war was won and the world became unipolar.

Now, the response of Americans to this extraordinary state of international affairs is decidedly unenthusiastic. Americans do not enjoy their hegemony. They can rouse themselves for a one-day parade to celebrate the most lopsided military victory since Agincourt, but even that merriment, which elicited considerable editorial grumbling about hubris and expense, seemed a bit forced. Of all the great imperial powers, America is probably the least imperially minded. Britain and France, at their height, would have stayed in the Gulf after such an extraordinary military victory to rearrange the map and establish themselves as hegemons. The United States, in contrast, could not wait to get out and go home.

That is the American way. Hence our evacuation of Europe after World War I and our mass demobilization after World War II. Americans are endlessly resourceful in trying to escape the responsibilities that history has placed on their shoulders. The most notable example, of course, is the isolationism of the ‘20s and the ‘30s. But even during the years of cold war engagement, a significant element, sometimes a majority, of the American intelligentsia counseled abdication. Indeed, for years, until the revolutions of ‘89, “cold warrior” was a term of abuse.

When the cold war was won the first response was euphoria, coupled with the demand for a “peace dividend,” i.e., unilateral disarmament. Having won the latest war to end all wars, there were calls in Congress for huge and immediate cuts, up to 50 percent, in defense expenditures. The mood was best caught at a press conference at the White House early last year when a celebrated correspondent, disturbed by the president’s “out of sync” $300 billion defense budget, asked Bush skeptically, “Who is the enemy?”

Six months later we got our answer. It took Saddam to remind us that the world is a nasty place, even without the Soviet threat. Americans do not appreciate the reminder. Hence the determined search for evasions to escape our superpower responsibilities.

There are two principal modes of evasion. The first, on the rise before the Gulf war, and now in embarrassed but only temporary retreat, is old-style isolationism. With the end of the cold war, native American isolationism, always a powerful political undercurrent, is beginning to reassert itself openly. This neoisolationism, like its interwar forebear, has two factions. The more well known, left isolationism, is a child of Vietnam. The newer phenomenon (for this generation) is right isolationism, which has its roots in the ‘20s and ‘30s but which took a holiday during the cold war when it gave itself over to a passionate anti-communism. The holiday is over. The return of right isolationism as a respected intellectual stance might be dated to Russell Kirk’s notorious Heritage Foundation speech (October 1988) attacking neo-conservatives, which included a thrust at their “fanciful democratic globalism.” Pat Buchanan has followed up in the popular press, leading the charge for a foreign policy of “America first” and declaring, “When this cold war is over, America should come home.”

“America first” is a deliberate echo of a right-wing isolationist slogan of the ‘30s. “Come home America” is a deliberate echo of McGovern’s anti-Vietnam slogan of 1972. This overt borrowing is a clear sign that left and right strains of isolationism will produce alliances that will confound ideological distinctions. It is true that left isolationism refuses to engage the world because it fears that America will corrupt the world, whereas right isolationism refuses to engage the world because it fears that the world will corrupt America. But as the Soviet threat recedes into history, ideological lines among isolationists will blur. Conservatism, however, will be isolationism’s great new growth area. After all, on the left, those who were propelled toward isolationism by Vietnam (much of the Democratic Party) are already there. New converts to isolationism will come from the right, now that the anti-Communist emergency is over.

Isolationism is the first and the most obvious means of escape from the burdens of the new world order. The other, more subtle, means is multilateralism. Rather than say, Come home America, the multilateralist says, Stay engaged but let someone else do the real work. That someone else is the Organization of American States, collective security, the Security Council, or some other multilateral invention. Let them police the world. We want out.

Multilateralism is fine. It provides cover for what are essentially unilateral American actions. But it carries two dangers. The first is that we will mistake the illusion — world opinion, U.N. resolutions, professions of solidarity — for the real thing, which is American power. And that we will assume that if we dispense with the real thing, the illusion will get us where we mean to go. It will not.

The second danger is that multilateralism will become a fetish. If it becomes an end in itself, the need to nurture it can become a hindrance to the exercise of real power. Before the war, for example, many in Congress argued against undertaking any military actions on the grounds (among others) that it might jeopardize the grand coalition that the president had assembled. But the whole point of the coalition was to get Iraq out of Kuwait. If the coalition stood in the way of that end, it had to yield. To do otherwise would be to confuse ends and means.

The ultimate problem with multilateralism is that if you take it seriously you gratuitously forfeit American freedom of action. You invite China and the Soviet Union, countries indifferent when not hostile to our interests, to have a decisive say and even a veto over our interests and those of our friends. Why should the preeminent power on the globe invite such a needless constraint on its action?

Multilateralism is the isolationism of the internationalist. Those who would like to appear internationalist but have tired of real engagement know that if they tie themselves up in enough coalitions and international structures they will quite effectively be taken out of the game. And that, of course, is the point.

But both the multilateral dodge and the isolationist abdication are no answer to the dilemmas of a unipolar world. There is no escape. If we want stability and tranquillity in the world, we will have to work for it, impose it, sometimes on our own. It will not come as a gift from the Security Council. It will not come of itself. It will come only from an America working to shape a new world order.

The phrase “new world order” is George Bush’s. He likes it so much that, since last August, he has been using it constantly. He would like New World Order to be as much his legacy as New Deal is FDR’s. What exactly is it? The departed Minister Chevenement charges that the only thing new about the new world order is that it is an American order. Right again. If the new world order means anything (as yet, not a certain proposition) it is as an assertion of American interests and values in the world.

What interest and what values? Here we can see contradictory strains developing within the administration itself. One vision of the NWO, a conservative vision, was offered by the president on April 13 in a speech at Maxwell Air Force Base. For the first time Bush set out the principal elements of his NWO: “Peaceful settlements of disputes, solidarity against aggression, reduced and controlled arsenals, and just treatment of all peoples.”

Now, peace, collective security, arms control, and justice are fine goals. But the list provocatively omits the values that have been traditionally invoked by the modern presidency to justify intervention abroad: self-determination (Wilson); freedom (FDR, Truman, and Kennedy); human rights (Carter); democracy and the democratic revolution (Reagan). Bush did invoke justice, but last and least. His principal passion is something quite different: “The quest for the new world order is, in part,” he said at Maxwell, “a challenge to keep the dangers of disorder at bay.” For Bush, the new world order is principally about order.

Order is indeed a high value. But maintaining order is a rather pinched vision of America’s mission in the world. Under this NWO, the United States does the work of the Congress of Vienna. The international system becomes a club of existing nation-states, acting together if necessary, to maintain the status quo. Under this NWO, the United States expresses a preference for Yugoslavia over its republics; is most tepid in support of Baltic independence (to say nothing of that of Georgia, Armenia, or Moldavia); deals with Deng Xiaoping of Tiananmen Square in the name of stability; saves Saddam after the Gulf war rather than risk the dissolution of the Iraqi state.

This is a highly constrained vision of the world. Order is the watchword, stability the goal, sovereignty the most sacred principle. The president favors this conservative vision. But even he does not completely embrace it. Some of his actions suggest a far more expansive, morally self-confident, indeed, radical NWO II.

Three days after the Maxwell speech, the president, despite himself, gave a glimpse of this unarticulated NWO II. Having finally been persuaded that the Kurds needed saving, the president intervened, almost unilaterally, to save them. Together with the British and the French, he sent thousands of troops to occupy a faraway piece of sovereign territory.

The legal basis for what he did is, to be generous, thin. As The New York Times put it none too subtly: “Helicopter teams moved into Iraq against a backdrop of confusion over the diplomatic and legal foundations of the American plan.” Not that we could not round up the usual international lawyers to mine Security Council resolutions for retrospective legal justification for our action. That, after all, is what international lawyers are for. But let us be honest. We acted unilaterally in Kurdistan because it was the right thing to do. A couple of allies did join us. But we did not occupy northern Kurdistan in the name of international legality. We did so in the name of right, self-evident right.

Hence the fundamental law of NWO II: when, as in Kurdistan, the existing international rules conflict with basic American values, to hell with the rules. And the corollary: the new world order should be an assertion of American interests and values in the world, if necessary asserted unilaterally. Where possible, we should act in concert with others. Where not, we should proceed regardless.

Of the two versions of the new world order, the president is clearly more comfortable with NWO I. But NWO I will not do. First, because it cannot command domestic support. The idea of being involved in the world in defense of a desiccated notion of international stability or a subtle maintenance of the balance of power is extremely uncongenial to Americans. Americans will venture abroad to do right things, but only to do right things. Otherwise they would rather stay home. In the Gulf, for example, the Kuwait policy commanded support when presented not as an issue of oil and jobs but as a war of liberation. In contrast, the postwar policy of allowing Saddam to stay in power as a way of maintaining a delicate balance of power in the region engendered dismay and disgust.

Second, NWO I is too weak an idea to deal with the crises of the post-cold war world. Specifically, it is not flexible and bold enough to confront the two looming revolutionary developments in the international system that will haunt it — and us — for the next decades.

First among these is a technological revolution: the advent of the age of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. According to the Pentagon, by the year 2000, now only nine years away, there will be two dozen developing nations with ballistic missiles, thirty with chemical weapons, ten with biological weapons, and almost as many with nuclear weapons. Iraq is the prototype of this kind of threat; tomorrow perhaps it will come from North Korea, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, South Africa.

It is banal to say that modern technology has shrunk the world. But the obvious corollary is rarely drawn: in a shrunken world the divide between regional superpowers and great powers is radically narrowed. Missiles shrink distance. Nuclear (or chemical or biological) devices multiply power. Both can be bought at market. Consequently, the geopolitical map is irrevocably altered. Fifty years ago, Germany had to be centrally located, highly industrial, and heavily populated to pose a threat to world security and to the other great powers. It was inconceivable that, say, a relatively small Middle Eastern state with an almost entirely imported industrial base could do anything more than disturb its neighbors. The central truth of the coming era is that this is no longer the case: relatively small, peripheral, and backward states will be able to emerge rapidly as threats not only to regional but to world security.

The second great challenge of the coming era is geopolitical: the breakup of the great multinational states (the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, perhaps India) and possible emergence among the rubble of raw, aggressive, perhaps virulent nationalism. The Sikhs and Kashmiris, the Croats and Georgians, the Russians too, enlist our sympathy today when they are down. When they are up, they and others now struggling to be free may act in ways that elicit horror.

These two challenges will have to be met by the new world order or the term has no meaning. There are no magic answers to how to deal with them. But any answers will likely involve breaking international rules and making new ones, a boldness that requires the radicalism of NWO II rather than the deep, almost paralytic conservatism of NWO I.

For example, in dealing with the threat of weapons of mass destruction it will become essential to confront and deter and, if necessary, disarm states that brandish and use these weapons. Doing so may violate current norms of international legality. It will certainly infringe on cherished ideas of sovereignty. Today, in the case of Iraq, we get international support for breaking these rules. (In fact, the “international community” sitting in the Security Council makes up the rules as it goes along.) Tomorrow we may not be so lucky. In which case, the United States will have to act alone, backed by as many of its allies as will join the endeavor. There may not be many.

As for the second threat, the rise of aggressive nationalisms, here too the United States will have to try to create new norms and rules. To satisfy small national groups seeking independence without totally fracturing the world, we will need to invent some concept of subsovereignty — a kind of autonomy that grants peoples an intermediate status between subservience and full statehood. Subsovereignty might offer some way out of the Soviet, Yugoslav, Indian, even the Palestinian conundrum. Our unplanned intervention in Kurdistan may actually show the way: a new world order that does not just enforce rules, but breaks old rules and makes new ones.

As in 194649, it is the United States that will create a new world order. The only question is, what kind? Bush seems to prefer the merely orderly order of NWO I. The coming crises, heralded by the minicrisis in Kurdistan, will require the boldness of NWO II, a more American order.

I say this with little enthusiasm. I find these challenges stirring but at the same time deeply dismaying. I would much have preferred that after the long twilight struggle America enjoy the respite from toil and danger to which it is richly entitled. Alas, there is no end to toil, and it is not just naive but dangerous to pretend otherwise. Even after the defeat of the Soviet threat, we face a highly dangerous new world from which there is no escape. Our best hope for safety in such times, as in difficult times past, is in American strength and will: the strength to recognize the unipolar world and the will to lead it.