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Defining America’s Role In A Unipolar World

ISSUE:  Autumn 2001

William Clinton’s chief foreign policy legacy was a nation more divided on matters of external affairs than at any time since the culminating isolationist-internationalist clash of 1941—one resolved quite conclusively by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The American public divided sharply over the war in Vietnam, but the bitter wartime debate, except for a deeply committed minority, would not outlast the termination of the war itself. Unlike the domestic conflict over Vietnam, the Clinton-inspired foreign policy debate was less pervasive, yet more fundamental. It was less pervasive because the country was not trapped in a perennial, largely inexplicable war. It was more fundamental because it addressed the country’s world relationships through a timeless and unpredictable future. At issue was the requirement of defining the role of the world’s lone superpower for as long as that unipolar condition persisted. The challenge was not unlike that which confronted the strongest boy on any city block, as he sought to maximize his sense of security, well being, and self-satisfaction. He could be anything from a benign source of strength and wisdom to a feared and hated bully. It was only the absence of immediate necessity that muted this inescapable choice for the government and people of the United States.

The world’s traditional mode of diplomatic behavior was long established in literature and practice. John Quincy Adams, America’s greatest diplomatist, was preoccupied with style as much as substance in his conduct of foreign affairs. Similarly, George F. Kennan observed that “manner of execution is always a factor in diplomacy of no less importance than concept.” Kennan recalled that during his long diplomatic career he was concerned less with what others “thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it.” For Kennan, as for Adams, good form in outward behavior was “a value in itself, with its own validity and effectiveness. . . .” Francois de Callieres, whose book, On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes (1716), remains the finest book ever written on diplomatic practice, emphasized the importance of courtesy and deportment in the conduct of diplomacy. For him, an open, genial, civil, and ingratiating manner was indispensable to the profession of diplomacy—as was, the capacity to listen. The more powerful the prince, Callieres observed, the more moderate and reassuring the diplomacy. Military power, generally recognized, could speak for itself; diplomacy, limited to the power of persuasion, responded to the pursuit of common interests, not the dictates of power. For Callieres, “all negotiated agreements rested on mutual advantage; diplomacy that failed that test was no diplomacy at all.”

Whatever its limited role in eliminating the 20th century’s Nazi and Communist assaults on Western civilization, the United States, between 1945 and 1989, provided most of the military power that stabilized the Cold War confrontation across Europe, even as its economic power underwrote an era of unprecedented prosperity. In the process, the United States set an admirable standard of international leadership. Such creations as the Marshall plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the West German State—all fundamental to the remarkable stabilization of continental Europe— were the product of months of imaginative diplomacy among the United States, Great Britain, and the powers of Europe. What underwrote much of the postwar American-led international order were such multilateral institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Together, these institutions, with the restraints they imposed, created a stable, agreeable environment which promoted the interests of all. At the same time, the rule-based structure of international cooperation minimized the possibilities of American hegemonic dictation. Historian Geir Lundestad aptly defined the American-led postwar order as “an empire of consent.” At least in its early years, it comprised the greatest diplomatic triumph in U.S. history.

In East Asia, unlike Europe, the United States had long demonstrated a propensity for unilateral involvement with little regard for consequences. Whereas Europe, after mid-century, was stable, East Asia faced powerful Communist-led revolutions in China and Indochina. Both revolutions were expressions of a burgeoning Asian nationalism, aimed primarily at the elimination of the region’s historic Western domination. But the American friends of China’s Nationalist regime, and eventually the entire government of the United States, adopted the notion that both East Asian revolutions were creations of the Kremlin and key elements in the alleged Soviet quest for world domination. This fundamental supposition quickly globalized the Cold War and prompted a series of decisions to confront a Communist danger in East Asia: the refusal to recognize the new government of China, with the concomitant goal of returning Chiang Kai-shek to the mainland; support of the doomed French cause in Indochina; the venture into Korea, including the crossing of the 38th parallel that brought China into the conflict; and, finally, the Americanization of the struggle for Vietnam. All of these decisions defied the persistent warnings of top American experts who predicted the full spectrum of the resulting East Asian diplomatic and military fiascos. But they exemplified the powerful unilateralist strain in American external relations.


Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the U. S. S. R. helped to check the power and ambitions of one another. As late as 1991, moreover, the United States faced powerful, competing economies in Japan and Germany. But with the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the unanticipated decline of the Japanese and German economies, the United States inherited a degree of unipolarity not seen since the high point of the Roman Empire. The explosive expansion of the U.S. economy in the 1990’s merely added to the world’s burgeoning disparities of power. America’s persistent rise to pre-eminence rested largely on new technologies, especially the internet and telecommunications, that produced a massive shift in the power of capital to generate unprecedented economic growth, mass consumption, and commercialism. Between 1990 and 1998, the U.S. economy grew by 27 percent, the European Union’s by 15, Japan’s by 9. The corresponding gap in military expenditures, as well as the country’s prodigious human resources, assured its ever-mounting military primacy. But the nation’s profound military advantage lay in new high-tech weaponry, inconceivably powerful, accurate, and destructive, all based on some 80 percent of the world’s military-related research. Australia’s Coral Bell, as well as other analysts, predicted that the American “unipolar moment” could last for many decades, perhaps even longer, depending on the country’s wisdom in choice of strategies.

Lacking any recognizable security role, U. S. power raised the inescapable challenge: how should the United States employ its unipolar dominance to its own and the world’s benefit? For American realists, the United States has long possessed the means, the institutions, as well as the experience to permit a continued stabilizing, cooperative, highly admirable leadership role. The passing of the Cold War, moreover, offered ample opportunity for the United States to abandon its habitual unilateralism in its relations with East Asia, and thereby create the foundations of a more satisfactory and enduring relationship. Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists, on the other hand, demanded a more pervasive U.S. role in world affairs. For them the country’s power had outstripped the established rules and limitations governing international behavior. They lamented the failure of the United States to exploit fully its unipolar power to establish a more commanding influence in global affairs. Only by actively pursuing Woodrow Wilson’s vision of universal peace and democracy, they argued, could the United States remain true to its birthright. Only by exercising a genuine hegemony, could it protect its favored international position from future rivals.

Triumphalists William Kristol and Robert Kagan took up the cause of American hegemony in the July-August 1996 issue of Foreign Affairs. They reminded their readers that the elimination of the U.S.S.R. had provided new opportunities for the United States to exercise a “benevolent hegemony” to promote democracy and free markets abroad. In the Spring 2000 issue of The National Interest, they renewed their assault on Washington’s neglect of a truly hegemonic role. To maintain the country’s alliances and military primacy, they advocated additional expenditures of $60—$100 billion a year above current defense budgets. Unless shielded from blackmail by nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, they warned, the United States could not “shape the international environment to suit its interests and its principles.” U.S. predominance alone could guarantee the future of Western financial institutions, security structures, and international norms. Any reduction of that influence would permit others, such as China or Russia, to configure the international system in accordance with their needs. A multipolar world, therefore, would be far less congenial to democracy and U.S. interests than an international order based on America’s hegemonic power.

For William Clinton’s Washington as well, the country’s economic and military predominance assigned it the obligation to refashion international society in the American image. During the Cold War, the United States had focused on military preparedness. After 1991, commerce and investment, not weaponry, had become the means of choice to expand American influence and serve the world’s masses. The country’s lone superpower status appeared to grant it the authority and the means to shape the burgeoning global economy. The expansion of democracy and free-market systems, moreover, seemed essential for the advancement and safety of the American way of life. Speaking at Tennessee State University, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that its economic power and principles placed the United States at the center of the emerging international order, prepared to lead the world to unprecedented levels of wealth, prosperity, and security. As she phrased it, “We stand tall, and therefore we can see further into the future.” For her, the United States had become the “indispensable nation,” obligated by its self-assigned leadership role to design, impose, and police what comprised the country’s “benevolent global hegemony.” Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott noted that the United States was the world’s hegemonic power and proud of it.

For its proponents, this would-be U. S. hegemony was globally acceptable simply because it was benign. “[U]nique in the history of Great Powers,” observed Talbott, “the United States defines its strength—indeed its very greatness—not in terms of its ability to achieve or maintain dominance over others, but in terms of its ability to work with others in the interests of the international community as a whole.” National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger averred that U.S. authority—the ability to lead—was not built on power, but on the force of its example and the willingness to listen and cooperate with others. Kagan and Kristol noted that it was “because the United States infuses its foreign policy with an unusually high degree of morality that other nations find they have less to fear from its otherwise daunting power.” Similarly Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute observed that other peoples “know that they have little to fear or distrust from a righteous [America].” For North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the United States, because it acted in the cause of liberty, possessed “unlimited authority, subject to no external control, to carry out military interventions.” Such advocates of hegemony presumed that strong leadership in Washington, by making its case loudly and persuasively, could dispose of any public or congressional doubts.


That the United States was a unipolar power, first among unequals, was a description, not a design for action. No country would deny the United States the right to control its environment and destiny in accordance with its power to do so. What the world expected of America was adherence to the historic principle that it pursue goals based on interests, not on power. Such constraints would define the self-proclaimed “benign hegemony.” Unfortunately, U.S. external relations were not so constrained. By the mid-1990’s, the external relations of the United States had lost whatever modesty and graciousness they once possessed. The ubiquitous claims to hegemony quickly, almost automatically, convinced much of the world that the United States had acquired a taste for dominance. Foreign officials and observers complained of American arrogance in its burgeoning efforts to dictate national and international behavior. Oscar Arias Sanchez, former president of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared in a U.S. News & World Report interview: “You are like the Romans of the new millennium.” In 1995, Madeleine Albright told a newspaper editorial board that “the U.N. is a tool for U.S. foreign policy.” Critics noted that the administration, joined by Congress, rated other states in terms of democracy, human rights, and drug trafficking. “Viewed from abroad,” declared one writer, “the United States was becoming as much a global nanny as a global policeman.”

This tendency of Washington officials to lecture resistant governments soon became the norm. It was especially apparent at the 1997 Denver economic summit when President Clinton and U.S. delegates chided others by boasting of the virtues of American capitalism. The resentment was so profound that one senior Clinton adviser acknowledged, “we all felt we had made a terrible mistake.” One State Department official observed that American economic triumphalism was creating a serious backlash of ill will. Sandy Berger admitted that the United States was “often seen abroad as an overbearing “hectoring hegemon.”” He excused such action by asserting that, given the disparities of power and influence, the United States could do little about it. Arousing resentment, apparently, was the price of being the world’s most powerful nation. Yet there was no need for the U.S. officials to tell other governments how to run their business, or to resort to various forms of abuse and coercion, especially when dealing with weak and troubled states. Arrogance, as a mode of behavior, presumed the freedom to demand, belittle, or insult. It was neither an expression of authority nor a source of power. It achieved nothing even as it undermined diplomacy and aroused unneeded antagonisms. For good reason, courtesy had always been the mark of proper diplomatic conduct.

Foreign observers noted that the growing divergence of power unleashed a disturbing unilateralism in American external behavior. The vastness of available economic and military power created an ambivalence in Washington toward restraints and commitments that no longer appeared necessary for the pursuit of American interests. To exploit its predominance, the United States withdrew from collective initiatives, exempted itself from international rules, shirked commitment to international organizations, and extended its domestic law extraterritorially. It unilaterally promoted U.S. arms sales abroad while attempting to prevent such sales by other countries; expanded NATO on American terms; bombed Iraq perennially with little international approval and no recognizable strategy or purpose; initiated the American-led bombing campaign against Serbia without U.N. Security Council approval; denied recognition to certain “rogue states” and excluded them from global institutions. It opted out of treaties that banned land mines and nuclear weapons tests. It scuttled international meetings by unilaterally clinging to positions or policies that defied world opinion. In its many efforts to overthrow foreign governments, Washington claimed sovereignty over those states exceeding that of their own indigenous governments. So often did the Clinton administration act defiantly and alone that critics wondered whether Washington had any interest in acting with others at all.

Similar alienation appeared in Washington’s relations with the United Nations, where it often voted alone or with an infinitesimal minority of two or three. The U.N. General Assembly, for example, condemned Washington’s long crusade to undermine Cuba’s Castro regime by a vote of 138 to three. America’s perennial pro-Israeli votes placed it at odds with the entire General Assembly. In defending such unilateralism, Jesse Helms, in January 2000, warned that a “United Nations that seeks to impose its presumed authority on the American people, without their consent, begs for confrontation and—I want to be candid with you—eventual withdrawal.” Even as the United States faced persistent opposition in the General Assembly, it maintained a tight grip on the United Nations’s power structure. The Clinton administration refused to support international U.N. initiatives in Africa and East Asia not under U.S. control. For years it withheld dues owed to the United Nations and forced one secretary-general out of office. It decided what countries could or could not join the organization. It perennially opposed the creation of an effective UN military structure. International resentment created by such unilateralist behavior became apparent when the European states, in May 2001, selected Austria, Sweden, and France over the United States for membership on the UN Human Rights Commission. Mark Thompson, head of Geneva’s Association for the Prevention of Torture, explained: “This is something that has built up over several years . . .a resentment of a certain arrogance to bully other countries into going along with them.” That judgment characterized Washington’s reaction, with its threats of retribution, revenge, and non-payment of dues.

Two American unilateral decisions that troubled much of the world were the pursuit of a missile defense system and the refusal to endorse the International Criminal Court (ICC). The American missile defense program, abrogating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and permitting the United States to deploy missiles in self-defense, faced universal condemnation. Allies as well as potential rivals—especially China, Russia, France, and Germany—opposed it as another unnecessary quest for strategic advantage and an invitation to further nuclear proliferation. Viewing international law a useful device to restrain or vilify inhumane behavior, the United States took the lead in creating tribunals to try individuals accused of crimes against humanity. But it opposed any application of international law to U.S. citizens. Joined by Iraq and China, it was one of six out of 120 countries that refused to endorse the creation of the ICC in 1998. Senator Jesse Helms introduced legislation, entitled the American Serviceman Protection Act, to isolate the ICC and then kill it. The Economist (London) asserted, in response, that the United States could better serve the cause of international law by acting as its champion, rather than by regarding its own behavior as above the law.


For much of Europe, Washington’s profound determination to have its way appeared hegemonic and frightening. Fritz Ermarth, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, complained that the constant designation of the United States as “the indispensable power” suggested that others were dispensable. William Pfaff, noted columnist residing in Paris, observed, in April 1999, that within another decade “this huge, politically profligate, and increasingly purposeless American global engagement risks becoming, itself, a subject of international alarm, and the United States the object of worldwide geopolitical concern.” A British diplomat noted, “One reads about the world’s desire for American leadership only in the United States. Everywhere else one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism.” One European foreign minister averred in the autumn of 1999 that his European Union colleagues regarded dealing with the United States their most serious problem. Felix Rohatyn, U.S. ambassador to France, illuminated such fears and resentments: “The anti-Americanism today encompasses . . .a feeling that globalization has an American face and is a danger to the European and French view of society. There is a sense that America is such an extraordinary power that it can crush everything in its way.” Much of Europe’s anti-Americanism was unquantifiable and subjective, but it was too pervading to be wished away.

Such distrust of American power penetrated the Third World as well. At a 1997 Harvard conference, scholars representing no less than two-thirds of the global population saw the United States as the single greatest danger to their societies. Harvard’s Samuel Huntington explained: “They do not regard America as a military threat but as a menace to their integrity, autonomy, prosperity, and freedom of action. They view the United States as intrusive, interventionist, exploitative, unilateralist, hegemonic, . . .with a foreign policy driven overwhelmingly by domestic politics.” For many Third World leaders, the collapse of the U.S.S.R. had created a grossly unbalanced world that left them vulnerable to American encroachments. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela observed that his country condemned American “arrogance to tell us where we should go or which countries should be our friends. . . . We cannot accept that a state assumes the role of the world’s policeman.” China’s top arms control negotiator, Sha Zukang, accused the United States of acting without regard to international law and international norms. Rather than inaugurating an era of peace, he complained, the passage of the Cold War had created an America “drunk with its own power and technological prowess.” Such statements defined both the pervasiveness of U.S. unilateralism and much of the world’s resulting fears and resentments.

Europe responded to American unilateralism with a quest for a renewed multilateralism to diminish U.S. dominance. France assumed the lead in the new pursuit. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine dwelled on the need for Europe to counterbalance the United States. He instructed the French International Relations Institute: “We cannot accept either a politically unipolar world, nor a culturally uniform world, nor the unilateralism of a single hyper-power. And that is why we are fighting for a multipolar, diversified and multilateral world.” He informed French ambassadors in August 1997: “Today there is one sole great power—the United States of America. . . . [T]his power carries in itself, to the extent that there is no counterweight, . . .a unilateral temptation [and] the risk of hegemony.” France, he assured the ambassadors, intended “to contribute . . .to the emergence of several poles in the world capable of being a factor of equilibrium.” Addressing the French Institute of International Relations, he wondered whether the United States could accept having real partners. Europe’s opposition to American unipolarism reached far beyond France to include spokesmen of Germany, the Netherlands, and other members of the European Union. Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok declared, in March 1998, that the EU should increase Europe’s power in the world and make it “a counterweight to the United States.”

That same drive to balance American power characterized Sino-Russian relations. Both countries had become strident antagonists of Washington. The object of their criticism, like that of Europe, was American unilateralism, and, with it, the perennial display of U.S. power and arrogance. As early as September 1996, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov advised the UN General Assembly that one basic condition for a durable peace was the world’s “emancipation from the mentality of “those who lead” and “those who are led.”” That mentality, he complained, rested on the supposition that some countries “emerged as winners from the Cold War, while others lost it. . . . [T]his mentality directly paves the way for. . . a unipolar world. Such a world order is unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of the international community.” Chinese leaders shared the Russian assault on unipolarity. During 1997, Liu Huaqiu, chief security adviser in the Chinese government, praised his country’s vanguard role in the quest for a multipolar world.

This pursuit of balance took specific form in the burgeoning collaboration between the two countries. Chinese Premier Li Peng and Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued a joint communique in December 1996: “The sides are unanimous that. . .a partnership of equal rights and trust between Russia and China aimed at strategic cooperation in the 21st century. . .promotes the formation of a multipolar world.” Despite U.S. scoffing at closer Sino-Russian ties, the drive for closer strategic cooperation continued, producing the Russo-Chinese announcement, of early January 2001, that the two countries intended to sign a treaty when Chinese leader Jiang Zemin traveled to Moscow at mid-year. Jonathan Pollack, chairman of the strategic research department of the National War College, observed that the Sino-Russian pact, if not an alliance, would provide momentum to the concept of strategic partnership and assure the modernization of China’s military structure. Shen Dingli, security expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University, asserted that the forthcoming treaty was fundamentally the product of U.S. behavior. James Mulvenon, security expert of the Rand Corporation, concurred. “The United States, through incompetence and ham-handed policymaking,” he charged, “has effectively driven China and Russia together.” What fueled the Sino-Russian rapprochement was the proposed U.S. missile defense system. If missile defense research, as Washington argued, was not targeted at Russia and China, why, some asked, would the United States spend so many billions to defend itself against North Korea and Iraq.


Global politics set a high potential price on unilateralist behavior. As The Economist warned in October 1999, “If America refuses multilateral entanglements, it may be blissfully free; but it will also be alone. It will be a leader with no one to lead. . . . This is sovereignty all right. But a superpower should be bigger, and wiser, than that.” This prospect of ultimate U.S. isolation presumed a unipolar hegemony, with its corresponding antagonisms, that did not exist. Official U.S. attitudes and unilateralist actions, in their displays of superior power and disapproval, struck only at the fringes, not the core of world politics. The perennial condemnation of human rights violations, the efforts to dominate the international agenda, the apparent goal of undermining the so-called rogue states—all arenas of bitter conflict and even threatening action—were never reflected in genuine policy. The United States was fundamentally a status quo power, as, in general, were all countries on the globe. Where it mattered, their interests were not in conflict. In such a world, the United States, despite its perennial condemnation of unwanted global realities, had little interest in change that required a price.

Opinion polls revealed that European fears of U. S. power ranged from 17 percent in France to 8 percent in Germany and Britain. Why should any Europeans have feared the United States, except for doubts conveyed by arrogant and unilateralist behavior? Washington had no designs on Europe. Unilateral U.S. sanctions and interventions elsewhere, when they occurred, demanded little of the country and were generally recipes for foreign policy disasters. On core issues—those that carried a price—the United States could scarcely afford the luxury of acting alone. To deal with any major global issue, it required the cooperation of one or more major powers. That cooperation required serious consultation and the guarantee that others would be treated as allies and partners, not satellites.

America’s highly satisfactory relations with the developed world were based on mutual interests, not hegemonic power. The country’s economic dominance, and the international arrangements that flowed from it, underwrote the security and welfare of the whole of Europe. U.S. and European productivity and wealth provided rewarding domestic markets on both sides of the Atlantic. By the mid-1990’s, the flow of commerce between the United States and the European Union became torrential. With heavy investments in one another’s economies, the total economic relationship reached almost $2 trillion a year. By offering such economic advantages, the United States protected itself from the consequences of its own preponderance and unilateralism. Enjoying such benefits, Europe’s foreign policy and business elites were reluctant to oppose Washington’s known preferences on international issues. Even as Europeans demanded a larger voice in NATO decision-making, they revealed little inclination to counterbalance U.S. military power. Detecting no dangers and conscious of America’s technological advantage, they were content to limit their defense expenditures to half those of the United States.

Hegemonic ambitions required unchallengeable military power and a predominant global presence. The U.S. military structure was larger than that of the next five major powers combined. It was more than adequate to defend the country’s interests. But whether that military predominance would translate into hegemony was far from certain. It depended on the ready support of allies as well as domestic readiness to bear the burdens and risks that hegemony demanded. Beyond that, U.S. predominance required the avoidance of major policy fiascos that would drain the country’s power and influence. The design of the nation’s defense structure added another impediment to genuine hegemony. U.S. military primacy rested on hightech weaponry, not manpower which the country had little desire to use. France’s General Philippe Morillon pondered the meaning of the public’s reluctance to accept casualties: “How can you have soldiers who are ready to kill, who are not ready to die?” Living in a relatively secure environment, the public had little interest in either larger defense budgets, foreign military commitments, or the country’s global presence. For years the United States had been closing down consulates, embassies, and aid missions. The American political system seemed to deny the country any hegemonic role in world affairs.

History demonstrated repeatedly that Washington gained public and congressional compliance with its military budgets and foreign commitments by proclaiming dangers and issuing threats in such profusion that Congress could not ignore them. For critic David Rieff, the repeated argument that national security and world peace depended on the country’s strategic dominance described a world that no longer existed. Rieff accused those who advocated hegemonic budgets of “constructing straw men, spinning scenarios as improbable as they were doom-laden, or, through the alchemy of certain words . . .turning relatively insignificant threats into central ones.” Washington had long found it easier to foster military predominance than to find reasons for doing so. Critics wondered what dangers demanded such vast expenditures for national defense. “No other generation in human history,” observed foreign policy analyst Jonathan Power, “has been so close to a worldwide peace. Why on earth at this moment,” he asked, “are we losing our nerve?” Triumphalists boasted that the United States could defeat much of the world combined, yet the country, with its Asian allies and vaunted naval superiority, could not defeat the North Vietnamese. Why, some asked, were none of the other Western powers arming against the world’s alleged dangers? Apparently the United States alone had enemies.

To be hegemonic, finally, a country required the will to dominate. The American people expressed no interest in that proposition. One poll suggested that only 7 percent of the Americans shared any concern for external affairs, much less foreign dangers. Another poll revealed that only 13 percent preferred a pre-eminent U.S. role in world affairs; 74 percent favored sharing foreign responsibilities with other nations. When asked to list the most important foreign issues confronting the country, more than one-fifth of respondents could not think of any. Large majorities, unconcerned with events abroad, agreed that what occurred in Europe, Latin America, Asia, even Canada, had little or no impact on their lives. The more the American role appeared hegemonic, the more domestic resistance it generated. Washington’s foreign policy elite might deplore it, but the country lacked a domestic political base to sustain even a unipolar world. This persistent absence of public support reduced the United States, in Samuel Huntington’s phrase, to “a hollow hegemon.”


If the concept of hegemony had no foundation or future, the United States required a model that better represented its interests, as well as the contribution that it could make to a still-troubled world. Through two centuries, the country presented a model that served much of the globe as a source of inspiration and guidance. That model was not assertive; it offered only an example to encourage emulation in others. The United States had long outgrown that passive role for improving the human condition. An active role that reflected its power and importance could embrace no less than the customary goals of stability and peace, accompanied by some promising course of conduct. That model of behavior would emphasize the importance of wisdom and generosity, requiring that the country exploit no advantages not clearly demanded by necessity. It would advocate strategic restraint, the country acting, as Callieres recommended, with far less power than it really possessed, and thereby achieve a comfortable and reassuring relationship with all. It would avoid distinguishing between the strong and the weak, the good and the evil, because any global system of peace and security would require the inclusion and fair treatment of all. The model’s ultimate goal would be the maximization of peace. The prevention of war among the world’s major powers seemed promising enough. Designating some Third World countries as rogues served no purpose, especially when their governments were labeled the world’s most dangerous. Such accusations failed perennially to achieve the elimination or reform of the accused, while it left them defiant of international norms. Global leadership required a model that promoted the interests of all; nothing less would diminish regional tensions and strife. The necessary model did not exist.

Any American-led order required acceptance at home and abroad. For Henry Kissinger, writing in The Washington Post of Jan. 10, 2000, the ultimate test of history would be whether the United States could convert its predominant power into an international consensus and its principles into widely accepted norms. Whatever the precise nature of such a promising American role, its creation required extensive modification of the established processes of national decision-making. “The problem,” declared U.S. News & World Report in January 2001, “is that the White House is by its nature an isolation booth, cocooning the occupant within layers of security, obsequiousness, and pomp.” Presidents claimed that they wanted give and take, but, in practice, they limited the give and take to insiders, usually few of those. One reason for this heavy reliance on secrecy was not the protection of national security, but the defense of questionable policies from too much public scrutiny. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York once observed, “[A]ny policy is good precisely to the degree that it is based on knowledge too precious to be dispersed.” Only when insiders, working in privacy, had framed their case, did the administration unveil its policy with the expectation of public and congressional support. In the process, controlling voices eliminated countering arguments, not only of doubting insiders, but also of outside analysts, scholars, experts, and allies who generally knew the issues better than did the framers of policy. The known, profound disagreements, and the serious national interests they engaged, required public debate and exposure beyond that carried on in scholarly journals and the national press.

Such hidden procedures crippled the country’s capacity to lead, to listen, or to demonstrate needed respect for those, at home or abroad, competent to contribute substantially to the creation of American policy. “Leadership,” as scholar Gary Wills defined it, “involves some common stake between the leader and the led, some basis for agreement on goals to be sought and prices to be paid.” Leadership depended simply on the willingness of others to follow. To that end, critics advocated the country’s return to its historic position as first among equals, recognizing that, without the cooperation, support, and wisdom of others, it could accomplish nothing of lasting value. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton regarded it desirable that “any particular plan or measure . . .should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy.” They advised as well that “the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.” For Madison and Hamilton, listening, not dictating, was the essence of leadership, especially when national officials possessed no recognized monopoly of wisdom on matters of foreign affairs. American decision-making required not only more attention to external opinion, but an increased domestic involvement as well. The latter would broaden the base of public approval and, more important, demonstrate some degree of open-mindedness within the government itself. Unsound policies, even those predictably doomed to failure, might satisfy responsible officials, but they scarcely served the interests of the country or the world.

Practically, it behooved the United States to recognize the peculiar nature of its rise to dominance. The country achieved its primacy, not through victorious wars, but through the accidents of history. Triumphalists might recall that the armies of the U.S.S.R. destroyed the bulk of Nazi military might on the Eastern Front. The U.S.S.R., in turn, was the victim, not of opposing forces, but of internal political and economic disintegration. Thereafter Japan and Western Europe entered a period of political and structural decline, leaving the United States totally pre-eminent. How it treated other countries would influence the world’s behavior when the wheel of fortune began to turn. The country could recall, secondly, that its post-1945 leadership, exercised successfully in a world of unequal power, rested on multilateral rules and procedures. Through greater consultation and cooperation, the country could reaffirm and strengthen its essential international relationships. Thirdly, because its dominance would not last forever, it could extend its ties to multilateral institutions, especially the United Nations, to build lasting institutional arrangements favorable to its interests and values. None of these actions, requiring primarily changes in attitudes, goals, and procedures, needed to be costly or demanding, but would perhaps entail some weighing of infringements on sovereignty against the gains of engagement in building an enlightened, less antagonistic, international order.


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