David’s Friend Goliath

The rest of the world complains that American hegemony is reckless, arrogant, and insensitive. Just don't expect them to do anything about it. The world's guilty secret is that it enjoys the security and stability the United States provides. The world won't admit it, but they will miss the American empire when it's gone.

Everybody talks about the weather, Mark Twain once observed, but nobody does anything about it. The same is true of America’s role in the world. The United States is the subject of endless commentary, most of it negative, some of it poisonously hostile. Statements by foreign leaders, street demonstrations in national capitals, and much-publicized opinion polls all seem to bespeak a worldwide conviction that the United States misuses its enormous power in ways that threaten the stability of the international system. That is hardly surprising. No one loves Goliath. What is surprising is the world’s failure to respond to the United States as it did to the Goliaths of the past.

Sovereign states as powerful as the United States, and as dangerous as its critics declare it to be, were historically subject to a check on their power. Other countries banded together to block them. Revolutionary and Napoleonic France in the late 18th and early 19th century, Germany during the two world wars, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War all inspired countervailing coalitions that ultimately defeated them. Yet no such anti-American alignment has formed or shows any sign of forming today. Widespread complaints about the United States’ international role are met with an absence of concrete, effective measures to challenge, change, or restrict it.

The gap between what the world says about American power and what it fails to do about it is the single most striking feature of 21st-century international relations. The explanation for this gap is twofold. First, the charges most frequently leveled at America are false. The United States does not endanger other countries, nor does it invariably act without regard to the interests and wishes of others. Second, far from menacing the rest of the world, the United States plays a uniquely positive global role. The governments of most other countries understand that, although they have powerful reasons not to say so explicitly.

Benign Hegemon
The charge that the United States threatens others is frequently linked to the use of the term "empire" to describe America’s international presence. In contrast with empires of the past, however, the United States does not control, or aspire to control, directly or indirectly, the politics and economics of other societies. True, in the post-Cold War period, America has intervened militarily in a few places outside its borders, including Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. But these cases are exceptions that prove the rule.

These foreign ventures are few in number and, with the exception of Iraq, none has any economic value or strategic importance. In each case, American control of the country came as the byproduct of a military intervention undertaken for quite different reasons: to rescue distressed people in Somalia, to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, to depose a dangerous tyrant in Iraq. Unlike the great empires of the past, the U.S. goal was to build stable, effective governments and then to leave as quickly as possible. Moreover, unlike past imperial practice, the U.S. government has sought to share control of its occupied countries with allies, not to monopolize them.

One policy innovation of the current Bush administration that gives other countries pause is the doctrine of preventive war. According to this doctrine, the United States reserves the right to attack a country not in response to an actual act of aggression, or because it is unmistakably on the verge of aggression, but rather in anticipation of an assault at some point in the future. The United States implemented the doctrine in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq.

Were it to become central to American foreign policy, the preventive war doctrine would provide a broad charter for military intervention. But that is not its destiny. The Bush administration presented the campaign in Iraq not as a way to ensure that Saddam Hussein did not have the opportunity to acquire nuclear weapons at some point in the future, but rather as a way of depriving him of the far less dangerous chemical weapons that he was believed already to possess. More important, the countries that are now plausible targets for a preventive war — North Korea and Iran — differ from Iraq in ways that make such a campaign extremely unattractive. North Korea is more heavily armed than Iraq, and in a war could do serious damage to America’s chief ally in the region, South Korea, even if North Korea lost. Iran has a larger population than Iraq, and it is less isolated internationally. The United States would have hesitated before attacking either one of these countries even if the Iraq operation had gone smoothly. Now, with the occupation of Iraq proving to be both costly (some $251 billion and counting) and frustrating, support for repeating the exercise elsewhere is hard to find.

America the Accessible
The war in Iraq is the most-often cited piece of evidence that America conducts itself in a recklessly unilateral fashion. Because of its enormous power, critics say, the policies that the United States applies beyond its borders are bound to affect others, yet when it comes to deciding these policies, non-Americans have no influence. However valid the charge of unilateralism in the case of Iraq may be (and other governments did in fact support the war), it does not hold true for U.S. foreign policy as a whole.

The reason is that the American political system is fragmented, which means there are multiple points of access to it. Other countries can exert influence on one of the House or Senate committees with jurisdiction over foreign policy. Or countries can deal with one or more of the federal departments that conduct the nation’s relations with other countries. For that matter, American think tanks generate such a wide variety of proposals for U.S. policies toward every country that almost any approach is bound to have a champion somewhere. Even Sudan, which the U.S. government has accused of genocide, recently signed a $530,000 contract with a Washington lobbyist to help improve its image. Non-Americans may not enjoy formal representation in the U.S. political system, but because of the openness of that system, they can and do achieve what representation brings — a voice in the making of American policy.

Because the opportunities to be heard and heeded are so plentiful, countries with opposing aims often simultaneously attempt to persuade the American government to favor their respective causes. That has sometimes led the United States to become a mediator for international conflict, between Arabs and Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis, and other sets of antagonists. That’s a role that other countries value.

The World’s Government
The United States makes other positive contributions, albeit often unseen and even unknown, to the well-being of people around the world. In fact, America performs for the community of sovereign states many, though not all, of the tasks that national governments carry out within them.

For instance, U.S. military power helps to keep order in the world. The American military presence in Europe and East Asia, which now includes approximately 185,000 personnel, reassures the governments of these regions that their neighbors cannot threaten them, helping to allay suspicions, forestall arms races, and make the chances of armed conflict remote. U.S. forces in Europe, for instance, reassure Western Europeans that they do not have to increase their own troop strength to protect themselves against the possibility of a resurgent Russia, while at the same time reassuring Russia that its great adversary of the last century, Germany, will not adopt aggressive policies. Similarly, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which protects Japan, simultaneously reassures Japan’s neighbors that it will remain peaceful. This reassurance is vital yet invisible, and it is all but taken for granted.

The United States has also assumed responsibility for coping with the foremost threat to contemporary international security, the spread of nuclear weapons to "rogue" states and terrorist organizations. The U.S.-sponsored Cooperative Threat Reduction program is designed to secure nuclear materials and weapons in the former Soviet Union. A significant part of the technical and human assets of the American intelligence community is devoted to the surveillance of nuclear weapons-related activities around the world. Although other countries may not always agree with how the United States seeks to prevent proliferation, they all endorse the goal, and none of them makes as significant a contribution to achieving that goal as does the United States.

America’s services to the world also extend to economic matters and international trade. In the international economy, much of the confidence needed to proceed with transactions, and the protection that engenders this confidence, comes from the policies of the United States. For example, the U.S. Navy patrols shipping lanes in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, assuring the safe passage of commerce along the world’s great trade routes. The United States also supplies the world’s most frequently used currency, the U.S. dollar. Though the euro might one day supplant the dollar as the world’s most popular reserve currency, that day, if it ever comes, lies far in the future.

Furthermore, working through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United States also helps to carry out some of the duties that central banks perform within countries, including serving as a "lender of last resort." The driving force behind IMF bailouts of failing economies in Latin America and Asia in the last decade was the United States, which holds the largest share of votes within the IMF. And Americans’ large appetite for consumer products partly reproduces on a global scale the service that the economist John Maynard Keynes assigned to national governments during times of economic slowdown: The United States is the world’s "consumer of last resort." Americans purchase Japanese cars, Chinese-made clothing, and South Korean electronics and appliances in greater volume than any other people.

Just as national governments have the responsibility for delivering water and electricity within their jurisdictions, so the United States, through its military deployments and diplomacy, assures an adequate supply of the oil that allows industrial economies to run. It has established friendly political relations, and sometimes close military associations, with governments in most of the major oil-producing countries and has extended military protection to the largest of them, Saudi Arabia. Despite deep social, cultural, and political differences between the two countries, the United States and Saudi Arabia managed in the 20th century to establish a partnership that controlled the global market for this indispensable commodity. The economic well-being even of countries hostile to American foreign policy depends on the American role in assuring the free flow of oil throughout the world.

To be sure, the United States did not deliberately set out to become the world’s government. The services it provides originated during the Cold War as part of its struggle with the Soviet Union, and America has continued, adapted, and in some cases expanded them in the post-Cold War era. Nor do Americans think of their country as the world’s government. Rather, it conducts, in their view, a series of policies designed to further American interests. In this respect they are correct, but these policies serve the interests of others as well. The alternative to the role the United States plays in the world is not better global governance, but less of it — and that would make the world a far more dangerous and less prosperous place. Never in human history has one country done so much for so many others, and received so little appreciation for its efforts.

Inevitable Ingratitude
Nor is the world likely to express much gratitude to the United States any time soon. Even if they privately value what the United States does for the world, other countries, especially democratic ones, will continue to express anti-American sentiments. That is neither surprising nor undesirable. Within democracies, spirited criticism of the government is normal, indeed vital for its effective performance. The practice is no different between and among democracies.

Anti-Americanism has many domestic political uses. In many parts of the world, the United States serves as a convenient scapegoat for governments, a kind of political lightning rod to draw away from themselves the popular discontent that their shortcomings have helped to produce. That is particularly the case in the Middle East, but not only there. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder achieved an electoral victory in 2002 by denouncing the war in Iraq. Similarly, it is convenient, even comforting, to blame the United States for the inevitable dislocations caused by the great, impersonal forces of globalization.

But neither the failure to acknowledge America’s global role nor the barrage of criticism of it means that the officials of other countries are entirely unaware of the advantages that it brings them. If a global plebiscite concerning America’s role in the world were held by secret ballot, most foreign-policy officials in other countries would vote in favor of continuing it. Though the Chinese object to the U.S. military role as Taiwan’s protector, they value the effect that American military deployments in East Asia have in preventing Japan from pursuing more robust military policies. But others will not declare their support for America’s global role. Acknowledging it would risk raising the question of why those who take advantage of the services America provides do not pay more for them. It would risk, that is, other countries’ capacities to continue as free riders, which is an arrangement no government will lightly abandon.

In the end, however, what other nations do or do not say about the United States will not be crucial to whether, or for how long, the United States continues to function as the world’s government. That will depend on the willingness of the American public, the ultimate arbiter of American foreign policy, to sustain the costs involved. In the near future, America’s role in the world will have to compete for public funds with the rising costs of domestic entitlement programs. It is Social Security and Medicare, not the rise of China or the kind of coalition that defeated powerful empires in the past, that pose the greatest threat to America’s role as the world’s government.

The outcome of the looming contest in the United States between the national commitment to social welfare at home and the requirements for stability and prosperity abroad cannot be foreseen with any precision. About other countries’ approach to America’s remarkable 21st-century global role, however, three things may be safely predicted: They will not pay for it, they will continue to criticize it, and they will miss it when it is gone.

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