What Happens When The Big Cheese Stands Alone?

by Jim Lobe
Reprinted from TomPaine.com.

Some call the present era one of U.S. "hegemony." Others, especially in Europe, call it "empire."

Either way, apart from the zealots of the Christian Right and pro-Likud neo-conservatives in and outside the administration of President George W. Bush, the growing consensus among foreign policy thinkers is that the more Washington indulges its unilateralist and military instincts, the faster its present hyperpower status will erode.

While the time when lesser powers could form the kind of coalition that seriously challenged American military power remains far in the past, Washington's ability to work its will on the rest of the world is still likely to diminish, particularly if it keeps rejecting the counsel of its closest allies. There is a sense that U.S. policy is operating on the premise: 'What choice [does the rest of the world] have?'

"The success of U.S. primacy will depend not just on our military and economic might, but also on the soft power of our culture and values and on policies that make others feel they have been consulted and their interests have been taken into account," said Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and one of the leading critics of Bush's unilateralist trajectory.

"The administration needs to be careful about denigrating alliances and institutions that may be helpful in the future," said Steven Miller, editor-in-chief of International Security, the most influential U.S. journal on global security issues.

Although Washington's tendency toward unilateralism was already growing under former President Bill Clinton, in part due to pressure from a Republican-controlled Congress, the pace has accelerated dramatically since Bush took over 18 months ago, and particularly since he launched his "war against terrorism."

In early 2001, his administration rejected the Kyoto Protocol to prevent global warming. Since September 11, it has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, launched construction of a national missile-defense system and undermined other international arms-control negotiations.

More recently, it has reaffirmed its determination to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein; approved a Nuclear Posture Review that targets five non-nuclear states for possible nuclear attack; proclaimed a strategic doctrine of pre-emption against suspected enemy states; "unsigned" the Rome Statute creating an International Criminal Court (ICC) to try war crimes; threatened to pull the plug on all U.N. peacekeeping operations if it did not get an exemption from the ICC's jurisdiction; and this week tried to derail a new U.N. treaty to prevent torture.

"The administration's worldview particularly favors the unilateral exercise of power," said Miller. "There is a sense that U.S. policy is operating on the premise: 'What choice [does the rest of the world] have?' We've created a set of rules and one of the rules is that rules are for others."

Not only is this implied in the administration's actions on Kyoto and the ICC; it is explicit with respect to Washington's attitude toward international arms-control regimes that would limit its own freedom of action.

"America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless," Bush declared in a little noticed, but highly significant passage of his recent address to the Military Academy at West Point.

This kind of imperial muscle-flexing evokes exultation among the champions of U.S. dominance, such as Charles Krauthammer, a neo-conservative columnist close to the hard-line civilian leadership in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

"People are now coming out of the closet on the word 'empire,'" Krauthammer chortled in April. "The fact is no country has been as dominant culturally, economically, technologically and militarily in the history of the world since the Roman Empire."

Most historians of international politics agree with his assessment. Yale Professor Paul Kennedy, the most prominent exponent of the "declinist" school of U.S. power 15 years ago, now admits that Washington has made a remarkable recovery from that time. Its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2000 reached 31 percent of the global GDP, up by almost 10 percent over mid-1980 levels; 46 percent of the world's Internet traffic originated in the United States; and almost two thirds of the world's Nobel Prize winners in the hard sciences and economics for the past few decades have been American. "I've gone back in world history and never seen anything like it."

As for military power, at almost $400 billion, The U.S. military budget will account for 45 percent of the world's military expenditures next year, or just about as much as all of its NATO allies, Russia, and China combined.

"I've gone back in world history and never seen anything like it," said Kennedy, who noted recently that one U.S. Navy aircraft carrier task force -- of which seven are deployed around the world at all times -- costs the equivalent of about two-thirds of Italy's total annual military budget.

Moreover, Washington is currently sustaining that budget at the relatively comfortable level of only three percent of total GDP, half of the defense burden on the U.S. economy during most of the Cold War.

Yet Kennedy remains skeptical of U.S. power today, particularly of its relevance. The major security challenges of the coming years will derive from massive demographic change and ever-growing gaps between the world's rich and poor countries, he said.

"Does having 14 of the world's most powerful aircraft carriers address these issues?" Kennedy asked at a recent seminar. "I think you have to be a really stupid conservative to think [such wealth gaps] will not make for a terribly insecure world for your children to grow up in."

Pointing to the sustained dive in technology stocks, the spectacular collapse of high-flying companies like Enron and WorldCom, the sharp slide in the dollar, and indications that the foreign capital that floated the U.S. economy and stock markets during the 1990s, may be heading for the exits, some experts argue that the economic assumptions on which a unilateralist policy and a monumental defense budget are based will prove unfounded.

In the current edition of Foreign Policy, Immanuel Wallerstein of Yale University cited a recent report that a Japanese laboratory, to the great surprise of U.S. engineers, has developed a computer 20 times more powerful than the fastest U.S. counterparts. "The Japanese machine is built to analyze climate change, but U.S. machines are designed to simulate weapons," according to Wallerstein. "This contrast embodies the oldest story in the history of hegemonic powers. The dominant power concentrates [to its detriment] on the military; the candidate for successor concentrates on the economy." "I think you have to be a really stupid conservative to think [such wealth gaps] will not make for a terribly insecure world for your children to grow up in."

But even those who believe that the military and economic roots of Washington's dominance remain strong warn that the country's supremacy may erode much more quickly if Washington continues along the triumphalist and imperious trajectory set by the hawks in the administration.

"Washington ... needs to be concerned about the level of resentment that an aggressive unilateral course would engender among its major allies," wrote Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth in the July-August issue of Foreign Policy. "After all, it is influence, not power, that is ultimately most valuable."

Wallerstein wrote that arrogance has its own negatives. "Calling in chips means leaving fewer chips for the next thing, and surly acquiescence breeds increasing resentment."

But according to Pierre Hassner of the Centre for International Studies and Research in Paris, American hegemony is inevitable. "But the question is whether it will be bound to law or not. Hegemony can be viable only if it has an element of multilateralism," he said.

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service, an international newswire, and for Foreign Policy in Focus, a joint project of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and the New Mexico-based Interhemispheric Resource Center.