Why We’re Stuck with Being No. 1

By Benjamin Schwarz



For seven years now, foreign policy commentators and officials have been trying to refashion America’s global role. But for all their talk about the need for a bold new vision, they take as a given what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls the “imperative of continued U.S. world leadership.” The Clinton Administration’s just-released Quadrennial Defense Review illustrates this stasis.

Supposedly, America spread its security umbrella worldwide to contain the Soviet threat. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, many hoped that the U.S. defense budget could be reduced substantially, freeing America’s energies, attention and financial resources to meet long-neglected domestic needs. Now, after months of analysis, the administration’s defense planners have concluded that the essential features of America’s “Cold War” security strategy–U.S. leadership of NATO and our East Asian alliances and U.S. guardianship of our allies’ access to Persian Gulf oil–must remain inviolate. Moreover, the strategists call for a $10-billion-a-year increase in projected military spending.

Those who call for a more modest foreign and defense policy argue that the current strategy seems to be extravagance born of paranoia or of the defense establishment’s anxiety to protect its budget. In fact, given the way the policymakers have defined American interests since the late 1940s, these plans are quite prudent. And that is the problem.

Those who assume that the Cold War’s end allows for a sweeping reinvention of America’s foreign policy misunderstand the real purpose behind that policy. America’s defense posture and its globe-girdling security commitments always had a more fundamental purpose than containing the Soviet Union. As fiercely anti-communist Sen. Arthur Vandenberg said in 1947, in “scaring hell out the American people,” the U.S.-Soviet rivalry helped secure domestic support for Washington’s ambition to forge an American-led world order. The U.S. pursued this goal not out of naked desire to dominate but to create a global economy.

Since the late 1940s, U.S. foreign policy has attempted to reconcile the inherent contradiction between international capitalism and international politics. Policymakers envisioned a world economy in which trade and capital would flow across national boundaries in response to the laws of comparative advantage and supply and demand–an economy in which production and finance would be integrated on a global scale.

This vision was unattainable in a world of independent states jockeying for power and advantage. Philosopher David Hume wrote 250 years ago of the “narrow malignity and envy of nations, which can never bear to see their neighbors thriving, but continually repine at any new efforts toward industry made by any other nation.” Allowed to run its natural course, a world of nations will never arrive at an interdependent global economy.

Since the late 1940s, however, America has transformed international politics. In assuming world leadership, it has taken care of other states’ security problems for them, eliminating their need to be more powerful than their rivals and consequently freeing them to concentrate on absolute economic gains. The result is what the Pentagon has called “perhaps our nation’s most significant achievement since the Second World War”–“a prosperous, largely democratic, market-oriented zone of peace and prosperity that encompasses more than two-thirds of the world’s economy.” That is the real story of American foreign policy since the start of the Cold War: not the triumph over the Soviet “threat,” but the triumph of an ambitious American economic vision.

So, even though the Cold War is over, America’s security “leadership,” as exercised in its dominance of the US-Japan alliance and NATO, is still considered necessary to hold in check the rivalries that would otherwise disrupt the stability that international economic interdependence requires. Thus, for instance, the author of the Clinton administration’s security strategy for East Asia, then Assistant Defense Secretary Joseph Nye, asserted that the U.S. military protectorate is “the basis for stability and prosperity in the region”; if America were to forsake its “leadership role” in East Asia, then “the stable expectations of entrepreneurs and investors [would] be subverted.”

Such thinking is consistent with the Pentagon’s 1992 draft defense planning guidance, which argued that the United States must continue to dominate the international system by “discouraging the advanced industrialized nations from challenging our leadership or even aspiring to a larger global or regional role.”

This “leadership” role means not only that the United States must dominate wealthy and technologically sophisticated states in Europe and East Asia–our “allies”–but also that it must deal with such nuisances as Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Kim Jong Il, so that potential major military powers need not acquire the means to deal with those problems themselves. And those powers that eschew American oversight, such as China, must be contained. The upshot is that America must spend more on “national security” than the rest of the world combined.

At the base of these assertions of policy is the belief, or the fear, that today’s complex web of global trade, production and finance is so fragile that it would shatter, with disastrous consequences, if America were to relinquish its global leadership.

Arguing for the maintenance of America’s Cold War alliances, a high-ranking Pentagon official asked, “If we pull out, who knows what nervousness will result?” The problem, of course, is that we can never know, so, according to this logic, we must always stay. America’s Cold War policy has become a permanent burden.

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