Forum Final Response
Every American president since Roosevelt has sought to keep the United States in power.
July 2, 2012
With Responses From
We must get the broad outlines right.
I am gratified that each of these distinguished scholars agrees with at least some of what I wrote. Given space constraints, I focus my response on the most salient areas of disagreement rather than the many issues on which we are in accord.
The enduring role of states (and realism). A recurring theme in the responses is the claim that the realist perspective on which I rely is no longer a reliable guide to world politics. This theme is especially evident in the comments by Daalder and Lindsay, Falk, Kaldor, and Slaughter, although traces are apparent in the comments by Abrahamian, Chazan, and Nye. The problem as they see it is that realism focuses primarily on the interests and activities of states. This they deem inappropriate for a world in which sovereignty has been (somewhat) eroded and various transnational phenomena (HIV/AIDS, terrorism, pollution, etc.) occupy part of the global agenda. My critics agree with many of my policy recommendations, but they don’t like the premises upon which I base them.
Yet the alternatives they offer are unconvincing. Yes, markets are spreading, transnational crime is a problem, terrorism is deeply troubling, and the problems of the global commons defy unilateral solution. But these are not new phenomena and do not herald a fundamental transformation in the basic ordering principles of world politics. Far from being obsolete, the nation-state remains the most robust and important political form on the planet, and nationalism is still the dominant political ideology. The number of states has risen steadily over the past 200 years, and national groups from the Palestinians to the Chechnyans to the Kurds to the people of Aceh continue to clamor for states of their own. After September 11, Americans did not turn to Amnesty International, Microsoft, or the United Nations for security against al Qaeda; they turned instead to the American government. International institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the United Nations play useful roles in today’s world, but their powers are limited to what their member states have conferred upon them. The relief agencies that are now grappling with the catastrophic effects of the December 2004 tsunami are doing so primarily with resources provided by—guess who?—states. And so on.
Is it possible that the much-maligned, state-centric realist paradigm remains a surer guide to foreign policy than the vague alternatives offered by others? If, as Slaughter says, my prescriptions are “sound and compelling,” might this be at least partly due to the founding principles upon which they rest? Daalder and Lindsay declare my world view to be obsolete and akin to George Bush’s, but hasn’t realism been a better guide to policy than their own ill-defined globalism? After all, Slaughter, Daalder, and Lindsay all endorsed the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (a war that most realists opposed, and on grounds that now seem prophetic). Those who oppose the Bush administration’s foreign policy would be better served if they embraced the realist perspective instead of a liberal idealism that is all too easily co-opted into Bush’s grandiose plan to spread “liberty” around the world.
The consequences of American primacy. Several respondents (especially Chazan, Falk, Kaldor, and Slaughter) chide me for endorsing American primacy and complain that I adopt a triumphalist, America-centric tone. I did not intend to sound like a flag-waving jingoist, and I certainly regret it if I did. But tone aside, we have a more fundamental disagreement about primacy and its implications.
The dictionary defines primacy as being “first in order, importance, or authority” or holding “first or chief place.” Primacy does not mean that the United States controls every aspect of world politics; it merely signifies that the United States is more powerful and influential than any other country. This condition is simply a fact, and none of my critics offers a serious argument to the contrary.
Equally important, the quest for primacy did not begin with the 2002 National Security Strategy. Every American President since Roosevelt has sought to keep the United States at the pinnacle of world power, because each believed the United States would be safer if it were stronger than any other state and because each recognized, as Harry Truman put it, that “peace must be built upon power, as well as upon good will and good deeds.” Primacy does not solve all problems, of course, but would they be easier to address if the United States were weaker?
I cannot tell if my critics agree with this view or not. Falk, Kaldor, and Mamdani seem the most uncomfortable with primacy, but is it American power that they dislike or simply the uses to which American power is sometimes put? If the latter, we do not disagree; if the former, they need to explain why the world would be better off with a weaker America. Slaughter also criticizes my endorsement of primacy, but does she want the United States to become one of several equal powers, or would she prefer it another state were number one? In fact, liberal internationalists like Slaughter, Daalder, Lindsey, and others want the United States to remain strong enough to oppose proliferation, prevent large-scale human-rights abuses, expand the reach of international law, and provide the political stability on which global integration depends. They want the United States to remain dominant; they just don’t like to admit it.
For the record, I think both the United States and the rest of the world are better off if the United States remains the strongest world power, for the reasons outlined by William Wohlforth and others. (See Wohlforth’s “The Stability of a Unipolar World” in the summer 1999 issue of International Security.) But these benefits depend on the United States using its power with wisdom and restraint, and the central purpose of my essay was to sketch what a wiser foreign policy would be.
Both Kaldor and my colleague Joseph Nye also challenge my emphasis on the material elements of power. Kaldor correctly notes that American power does not enable it to run the world, but I never said it did. American power does mean that its actions have greater impact (on average) than the actions of other states, which is why we should try very hard to make correct policy decisions. Nye is equally correct in pointing out that I emphasized “hard power” rather than his concept of “soft power,” but I did so because it is America’s hard power (and how we are using it) that is causing most of the troubles we now face. Nye defines “soft power” as “the power to attract,” and the United States remains a very attractive society for others. As Khalil Shikaki notes in his own response, people around the world admire the American economy, its scientific and technological achievements, its popular culture, and even its core values. What they don’t like is U.S. policy, and especially the ways that America’s hard power is being used in certain regions. Soft power is neither the problem nor the answer; the real solution is to get the policy right.
Specific recommendations. Finally, several respondents take issue with my policy recommendations, based on alleged sins of commission or omission. Slaughter thinks I ignore the importance of domestic legitimacy and says that I “can’t be serious” in advocating a more evenhanded policy in the Middle East. She then argues that “there is no need for the Bush administration to change course,” because she thinks the Sharon government is moving towards a viable peace and lots of other promising developments have recently occurred.
This argument is sadly mistaken. The first task of a scholar is to figure out what the right policy would be, and then consider how to bring it about. Slaughter knows this, of course, which is why she has advocated policies (such as membership in the International Criminal Court) that are opposed by many Americans and have no prospect of being ratified by the Senate any time soon. Second, the American people might be more amenable to a policy shift than she thinks: a May 2003 poll by the University of Maryland found that over 60 percent of Americans would be willing to withhold aid to Israel if it resisted U.S. pressure to settle the conflict, and the number rose to 70 percent among “politically active” Americans. The real problem is not domestic legitimacy; rather, it is the fact that this entire subject has become so taboo that even well-connected experts like Slaughter cannot imagine how U.S. policy might change. Finally, her belief that peace is just around the corner is misplaced. The maps now circulating in Israel do not depict a viable Palestinian state, and there is no evidence that Sharon intends to offer them one. As his close advisor and former chief of staff Dov Weisglas told Ha’aretz in October 2004, Sharon’s withdrawal scheme “supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians. . . . when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. . . . Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state . . . has been removed from our agenda indefinitely.” Why, then, does she believe that no “change of course” is needed?
Lastly, Robert Vickers and John Tirman challenge certain elements of my recommendations, but we do not really disagree. A rogue state like North Korea might provide WMDs to terrorists if we were about to attack it, which is yet another reason why preventive war is a poor solution to this problem. The danger that nuclear weapons will be sold to terrorists is remote, because the seller could never be sure that the sale would not be traced. My proposal for a “grand bargain” to limit the spread of WMDs may not work, but it is more promising than the alternatives. Tirman identifies a series of issues—HIV/AIDS, international development, and global economic policy—that I did not address both for reasons of space and because they lie outside my expertise. I would only note that our ability to address these problems (either on our own or in partnership with others) depends heavily on getting other aspects of American foreign policy right. When we get bogged down in places like Iraq, when we alienate potential partners with our arrogance, and when we waste billions of dollars on follies like a national missile defense, we are left with fewer resources, less political capital, and less political will to devote to these (and other) issues.
So no matter which issues one regards as most important, getting the broad outlines of American foreign policy right remains an essential prerequisite for global progress. Whatever our other disagreements, my critics and I do agree on that.
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