Pax Americana. Is There Any Alternative to U.S. Primacy?

por Gary Schmitt, 27 de febrero de 2006

(From the book The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Centur by Robert Lieber. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 272 pp., $28. Published in The Weekly Standard,  February 20, 2006)
Distracted by the red-hot partisan debate over Iraq, one can easily lose sight of the underlying strategic imperative that now guides American foreign policy. Robert Lieber's The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century serves as an invaluable primer on the nature of that imperative, outlining in a comprehensive but accessible fashion the continuing need for American global leadership.
The core argument itself is not new: The United States and the West face a new threat--weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists--and, whether we like it or not, no power other than the United States has the capacity, or can provide the decisive leadership, required to handle this and other critical global security issues. Certainly not the United Nations or, anytime soon, the European Union. In the absence of American primacy, the international order would quickly return to disorder. Indeed, whatever legitimate concerns people may have about the fact of America's primacy, the downsides of not asserting that primacy are, according to The American Era, potentially far more serious. The critics 'tend to dwell disproportionately on problems in the exercise of [American] power rather than on the dire consequences of retreat from an activist foreign policy,' Lieber writes. They forget 'what can happen in the absence of such power.'
As clear as Lieber's core point is, his analysis is not a simple-minded account of the need for American primacy. He describes not only the elements that make up that primacy--military, economic, technological, and cultural--but also its limits. For instance, Washington can't force its allies always to agree with it. America's superiority on the battlefield provides no ready solution to the use of asymmetrical warfare by our adversaries. And American primacy cannot help but fuel the ideological and cultural animosities that inflame so many of our enemies. American primacy may be necessary, but it's not a free ride by any means. Even among our friends, a key dilemma of American power is that, when it is not used--as in Sudan or Rwanda--it draws almost as much criticism as when it is.
'There is,' Lieber remarks, 'a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't quality in the international reactions to U.S. interventions or the lack of them.' One is reminded here of the schizophrenia in Europe during the Clinton administration. At the very time the French were accusing the United States of being a 'hyperpower,' they were also worrying that the impeachment of Bill Clinton would result in a distracted Washington, incapable of playing its necessary role on the world stage.
But neither is American primacy a sure thing, according to Lieber. Although the American military has no peer, even it, when forced to handle serial major conflicts (as is the case today), would be hard-pressed to handle anything new. Moreover, over the longer run, the federal budget is filling up with the obligations of the now-retiring Baby Boomers, increasingly squeezing funds for national security into a smaller and smaller share of the public pie. And finally, there is no guarantee that Americans, whatever the intrinsic merits of U.S. global leadership, will necessarily continue to support that role in the face of its incompetent exercise.
Yet, whatever the limits and problems associated with American primacy, Lieber argues that there is no real alternative if we want a stable and prosperous world. And the heart of his book is an examination of how this fact of international life remains so for Europe, for the Middle East, and for Asia.
In the case of Europe, after examining both the sources of tension and cooperation in current transatlantic relations, Lieber argues that Europe has no choice but to depend on American leadership and power. Europe's lack of unanimity over foreign policies, and its own lack of hard power, leave it with little choice but to rely on the United States when it comes to maintaining the world's security blanket. As for the Middle East, after making the case for going to war with Saddam's Iraq--a case that ultimately hinges on the risks of not acting--Lieber notes that it still remains the case that 'only the U.S.' can deter regional thugs, contain weapons proliferation to any degree, keep the Arab-Israeli peace process afloat, and keep the oil supplies flowing to us and our allies. And in Asia, it is the United States that 'plays a unique stabilizing role . . . that no other country or organization can play.' Absent America's presence, the region's key actors would face a dramatically different set of security concerns, in which more overt, 'great power' competition would likely become the norm.
Lieber is not oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world is hardly happy with this state of affairs, even while at times reluctantly admitting its necessity. As he quotes one European parliamentarian, 'There are a lot of people who don't like the American policeman, but they are happy there is one.' Nor, Lieber admits, is this situation made any easier by the sometimes ham-handed way in which Washington works with its friends and allies.
Yet, whatever the discontent generated by American primacy, the most remarkable feature of the present international order is how little real reaction there has been to that dominance. Lieber's key evidence here is that there has been no sustained effort by the world's other great powers to check the exercise of American power by forming new coalitions. And even in the Middle East, the region where America is seemingly hated most, the region-wide anti-American uprising that was predicted to follow the invasion of Afghanistan, and then Iraq, has not taken place.
For all the bitching and moaning about America's hegemonic status, it has not actually produced a serious effort by the other powers to overturn it. Hedge a bit, perhaps; overturn it, no.
But for all the strength and clarity in Lieber's account of American primacy, two issues of note require fuller analysis.
The first has to do with China and its rise as a significant power. Lieber may be right to suggest that, at the moment, China is not interested in a precipitous withdrawal of the United States from the Asian region. On the other hand, as Lieber's own account implicitly suggests, closer relations among the United States and countries like Japan, India, and Vietnam indicate that something more is going on in the region than his own overview fully takes account of. If there is any counterbalancing going on, it's actually aimed not at the United States but at a rising China. And whether Washington's public rhetoric about U.S.-China relations admits it or not, China's rise includes the growth of Chinese nationalism and ambitions that can't help but see America's role as guarantor of the region's status quo as an obstacle.
In short, there is a great power game afoot in East Asia that is somewhat obscured by talks about trade relations and cooperation on North Korea but, nevertheless, will increasingly be a challenge to the idea of American primacy in at least this corner of the world.
The second issue has to do with the American public's own reaction to U.S. global primacy. Lieber, as noted earlier, is fully aware of the fact that 'a suitable grand strategy can . . . be undermined if it is poorly implemented.' But it is also true that, when American statecraft is exercised successfully, and the result is a seemingly safer and more pacific world, public support for continuing that leadership role can disappear as well. Certainly, this was a problem we faced in the 1990s, when budgets for the foreign and defense establishments were cut by Democrats and Republicans alike.
No doubt, sound leadership can help mitigate or even overcome this whipsawing tendency in public opinion. Yet, just as Lieber points out, while more might be done 'to win 'hearts and minds'' abroad, the fact remains that 'the beginning of wisdom' with respect to America's role in the world is to realize that 'contradictory reactions and accompanying anti-Americanism are inevitable.'
So, too, the beginning of wisdom at home is to recognize that, in the face of a clear threat, Americans are quite willing to adopt a strategic game plan that requires the use of American power to sustain a world that reflects our liberal, universal principles. This same liberalism--whose ultimate goal is a well-led private life--can make sustaining that role difficult. But sustain that role we must, since, as Lieber concludes, we continue to live 'in a world where the demand for 'global governance' greatly exceeds the supply.'

Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar at AEI.