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What Are American Interests?

Temptations of a Superpower

by Ronald Steel
Harvard University Press, 144 pp., $18.95

A headline in the International Herald Tribune early this summer warned that “Clinton’s Balkan shifts erode Europeans’ confidence.” That is a striking understatement. In Eastern Europe, for so long a stronghold of philo-Americanism, the American government is the object of disappointed, dismissive cynicism. Among opposition circles in Belgrade and Zagreb there was a dramatic loss of faith in American understanding and good will, as the US negotiated intermittently with its “friendly interlocutor” Slobodan Milosevic, the man most responsible for precipitating the very crisis he now offers to resolve. And in Western Europe the influence of NATO’s senior partner is at its lowest point since the Second World War, a situation that will not change significantly as a result of the recent NATO intervention in Bosnia.

That few in Europe any longer take President Clinton seriously may not matter much—he has long since been plausibly dismissed by policy-makers and commentators alike as the most incompetent and ineffectual US president of the century. European politicians continue of course to look to the US to take the initiative in collective actions, as we have just seen; this is the natural product of habit and of the United States’ overwhelming military power worldwide. But that Europeans are now increasingly discounting the American presence in international affairs and preparing to live without it is an altogether more significant development.

It is symptomatic that these matters are assessed very differently in the US itself. Ronald Steel, a professor of international relations and author of various books on US foreign policy as well as the biography Walter Lippmann and the American Century, welcomes what he sees as the inevitable American retreat from the role of “international gendarme,” The US, he argues, has to create a new foreign policy, one that is compatible with its reduced circumstances and that minimizes the risks of involvement in quarrels “in which it has no direct interest, and over causes it will often misunderstand.” 1 It should cease offering unconditional protection to its own trade rivals and recognize that even in Europe it has interests that sometimes run against those of the Europeans themselves. In short, American foreign policy-makers should ask what the country’s “wider interests” are and act upon these and only upon these. By making no promises it cannot or should not keep the US will not disappoint or mislead others, and will be able to give due care to its domestic priorities.

On a superficial reading this is a refreshingly realistic agenda, and it has secured a wide audience for Ronald Steel’s latest essay. Much of what he has to say is straightforward common sense. The cold war “crusade for democracy” often justified actions “that might otherwise be considered unduly meddlesome, self-aggrandizing, or even belligerent,” while the military buildup of past decades was an invitation to back-door corporate subsidies and has burdened future generations with severe debt. In the absence of a credible threat to national security such undertakings are no longer defensible. Steel is also correct to dismiss the example of the Gulf War as a guide to likely future conflicts, both because the crude but clear interests at stake (such as the protection of oil sources) are unrepresentative of most foreign-policy dilemmas, and because mechanized desert warfare against a weak and unpopular enemy is the least likely setting for international entanglements in the years to come.

These remarks, and Steel’s recommendation that US governments pay more attention to domestic social problems (gun control, urban decay) if they wish the country to be a respected international citizen, are unexceptional and have been echoed less eloquently in many Op-Ed articles. But when he moves into more contested terrain he can become confused and vague. For an expert on international affairs in general and European-American relations in particular he is curiously prone to clichés about “age-old conflicts” and “ancient enmities” in the Balkans; some of the conflicts there are indeed quite old, as are some of the local traditions of cosmopolitan integration—e.g., in Sarajevo itself. But many of the most divisive issues date only from 1918, or from memory of events during and after World War II and are by no means as timelessly rooted in the nature of Balkan society as Steel suggests.

He also has some simplistic views on the place of “identity” in East European politics today, holding that the “future of Eastern Europe threatens to become distressingly like its past” and that the present movements toward ethnic states could embroil NATO in conflicts over a redrawing of the frontiers of Hungary, Slovakia, or Romania. This is unnecessarily over-dramatic; it would be absurd for the US to send troops to police a conflict over the national frontiers of post—World War I Hungary, but that isn’t a serious risk.

If the empirical basis for the essay’s conclusions is rather thin, the concepts deployed seem no firmer. At times the author wants the US to avoid any commitment to current borders and conflicts over redrawing them. States, he writes, are not like individuals, and it is wrong for them “to engage in conflict for reasons of virtue.” If foreign countries want to fall apart or fight over border lines that is their problem. But a few pages later he argues that “we” should intervene forcefully if necessary in cases where “self-determination” risks producing “the suppression of minority rights and a descent into ethnic warfare.” But if these conflicts don’t immediately threaten US national security why should the US get involved? Because the suppression of minority rights is wrong and undesirable? That is a morally convincing reason for individuals, but according to Steel such arguments should not move states.

The confusion seems to arise from Steel’s failure to pay enough attention to the notion of “interest.” There is a crude, implicitly utilitarian sense in which the “interest” of the US is at stake only when the country, its resources, or its citizens are under immediate or potential threat. It is not a very appealing position for a great nation, but it is at least consistent and seems to inform the foreign “policy” of some Republicans today. A more sophisticated approach might be to take a similarly narrow view of “interest” but to recognize that when certain kinds of behavior are condoned overseas, even if they are in themselves no immediate threat, they risk encouraging, by example, acts that would directly threaten US interests, narrowly conceived. This seems to be nearer Steel’s own position, though he never articulates it in these general terms.

But there is also a richer notion of interest, which suggests that it cannot be in the interests of a powerful democracy to see weaker democracies or free states overthrown with impunity, even if it is not itself remotely put at risk. Why? Because the precedent is encouraging for other would-be enemies of democracy or liberty; because small, vulnerable countries may draw the conclusion that the family of free countries is no family at all and that real friends lie elsewhere; and because the strong democracies are weakened by the resulting appearance of hypocritical self-interest that begins to gnaw at their moral (and thus their political) credibility.

None of this requires that states behave like ethically sensitive persons, nor does it ask of them an uncalibrated total response to every potential danger. And no discussion of the complex meanings of “interest” can alone generate a country’s foreign policy. But in the absence of any careful attempt to unpack the meanings and paradoxes of “interest,” commentators like Steel are doomed to self-contradiction. Thus his book concludes with a list of occasions “when the United States might be driven to use force in the pursuit of self-interest”; these include the protection of “vital” natural resources, the quelling of discontent in regions “vital” to American security, the preservation of a “favorable” balance of power in critical areas like Western Europe and so forth. But this list is hopelessly flexible, excluding only “interventions to establish democracy, or to make the world a better place, or to combat uncongenial ideologies and religions.” By such criteria one might decide to do almost anything—or nothing. And nothing in Steel’s conclusion explains why he believes that “acts of genocide” cannot be tolerated. Indeed they should not; but using Steel’s own reasoning I could surely argue that if the US overturns a government engaging in genocide it is precisely in order to help “make the world a better place.” For many of us that is sufficient reason, but according to Steel it should never be invoked to justify involvement of any kind.

The inevitable theme of genocide illustrates another problem in Steel’s approach. If the US cannot tolerate “acts of genocide” then shouldn’t it be actively engaged in Bosnia? Not according to Steel, for whom the “terrible human rights abuses” in that country “took place in the context of a traditional war over territory, and neither the intention nor the result was the systematic eradication of a people, which is the strict definition of genocide.” I find this, frankly, evasive. By that definition, only the Nazis, in the modern era, and then only after January 1942, have engaged in genocide; and even they could argue (as some historians have tried to do) that theirs was actually a traditional war over territory and that the degree of genocidal intention is debatable. Using Steel’s restrictive criteria, no US administration could invoke the danger of genocide to intervene against mass murder anywhere today.2

If I were making US foreign policy I would certainly find Ronald Steel’s dependence on such definitions helpful in avoiding engagement—because in any given instance there will always be something about the events in question that doesn’t fit so restrictive a definition. But as prescriptions for active policy his categories are of no help. And if it suited me I could certainly reject his laudable belief that the US should have intervened in Rwanda and Cambodia—because it “had the power quickly to stop the horror”—by using his own arguments against him. It is not enough that the US had the means to undertake such humanitarian intervention. That is only a necessary condition. Where, in Steel’s sense, was the overwhelming US interest? The risks of such an approach, which gives hostages to isolationism in the name of enlightened self-interest, ought to be obvious.

For Steel the US is a “strange kind of superpower,” with its huge national debt and its annual deficits, and should retreat a little to put its own house in order. He is right about the peculiarities of the American situation, of course, and about the need to attend to America’s problems of slow economic growth and chronic social injustice. But precisely because of its relative economic vulnerability, the US needs to sustain a high level of moral and politial involvement with the rest of the world in order to keep up its influence and thus protect its interests. Strange or not, the US is the only real or potential superpower around, and its withdrawal from world affairs would have—is already having—devastating consequences. There is no longer an “international community,” an illusion of the past fifty years whose credibility depended upon its never being put to the test. The so-called Mogadishu line—the point beyond which neutral peace-keepers are drawn into partisan belligerence—does not exist, now that the United Nations has demonstrated its own inability to act upon the chapter in its charter that authorizes the use of force. Hence the Franco-British resort to their own military resources for the purpose of a limited confrontation in the Balkans. We are back in the world of nation-states and alliances.

The Balkans are not a special case, but rather an anticipation, in an extreme form, of the likely future of conflicts within Europe, which is why the perceived impotence and irrelevance of the American-European “alliance” in the Bosnian affair has particular significance.3 And if the Western alliance (NATO) is an irrelevance to the European continent for whose protection it was conceived, then this is a matter of immediate concern to any American, however etiolated his understanding of “national interest.”

If the US–European condominium breaks down, as the US retreats from “European” concerns and the Europeans correspondingly discount American opinion in years to come, the results will be more than just a series of friendly disputes over trade. The generation that remembers the Second World War and the cold war and whose sense of shared trans-Atlantic interests has created ties among the various partners in spite of quarrels and disloyalties is now passing. A new political generation, skeptical of the warnings of former cold warriors and with no experience of war on the European continent, will see no reason to concern itself with the US, with American advice or American needs.

Obsessed with intra-European divisions (within and between countries, East and West), concerned about competition from Asia and from other regions outside Europe, and about uncontrolled movements of trade, capital, and people across porous borders, European policy-makers will pay US foreign policy-makers the compliment of taking them seriously: if our interests are not naturally aligned with yours, then the converse is equally true. And if Steel is right, and the US has indeed been weakened by chronic inattention to its domestic needs and by its declining economic status, then however much Europe loses in this involuntary bargain, the United States will lose too. Forced to act alone on its perceived self-interests, whether in trade conflicts with Japan or in future “policing” action in Central America or the Middle East or in trying to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the US would lose the protective mantle of collective international undertakings and risk real isolation, suffering all the costs of being an unpopular imperial power while reaping none of the advantages.

Moreover, Steel is quite wrong to suppose that American foreign policy can or will “flow” from the “needs and values of the American people,” whatever that means. Like Europeans, but perhaps more so, Americans left to themselves will not naturally derive international perspectives and practices from domestic concerns. As in the past, foreign policy will be driven by international conflicts and dilemmas, and a failure to anticipate these and educate a nation concerning the need to remain involved in them merely passes the burden of doing so on to a future generation. As with the environment, so with foreign policy: too narrow a devotion to the concerns of the present is bought at the expense of the interests of our successors.

If the US retreats from the world today it will only be drawn back at some later point, but on worse terms. The easiest path for an American president today, faced with the invitation to intervene in a faraway quarrel, is to offer brave words and high-flying planes; it is his successors who will incur the penalties of reduced credibility, limited influence, and a much-diminished capacity to describe American foreign interests to a skeptical domestic audience and protect them abroad in an indifferent international environment.

No one can predict in detail what America’s future interests will be, the interests that today’s administration is being advised to ignore in favor of a “realistic” assessment of immediate concerns. But that they cannot be addressed in isolation and will need the sort of sympathetic international alliances that are now being prejudiced by attention to local interest and domestic political advantage seems reasonably certain. To suppose otherwise is to adhere, in the name of “clear-sightedness,” to the last shreds of American innocence. And in the field of international relations that is precisely what is wrong with this sort of hardheaded “realism”: it is naive.

The US obsession in recent months with avoiding at all costs any policy that might put its own soldiers at risk on the ground is just one of a number of ways in which we have returned to the international mood of the interwar years. But note how events have been unfolding in reverse order: we have already seen the illegal occupation and dismemberment of internationally recognized sovereign states, followed this time by an extended Munich-style capitulation in the activities of the international “contact group.” Then came “non-intervention.” In 1936 France and Britain refused to sell arms to the legitimate republican government of Spain, pretending not to notice when Germany and Italy furnished huge quantities of indirect and direct military assistance to Franco; today the official government of Bosnia is handicapped by an arms embargo, while weapons and logistical aid flow freely to the Bosnian Serbs from across the Drina. In the Thirties this was preceded by the effective end of the League of Nations on the occasion of its inability to punish or even inhibit Mussolini from his brutal occupation of Abyssinia; today the death toll of the United Nations has perhaps already been rung in Srebrenica and Zepa, where the UN forces first promised security to thousands of refugees, then betrayed them to the Serb forces.

What will come now? A “political settlement” inevitably based to some extent on immoral and illegal population “clearances”? For the paradoxical result of the recent NATO bombings (commendable if belated) will be to hasten some such agreement, one that will surely satisfy no one even if it doesn’t benefit the Bosnian Serbs, only to foster further ambitions on their part while doing little to address the resentment and insecurity of their victims in Bosnia and Croatia. In short, a mini-Versailles. And then, in due course, another Balkan war. It does seem a pity to have come all this way only to see the awful interwar decades unfold backward before us. But that is the problem with the “lessons of history”—by learning a little too much from the experience of one mistake (Vietnam) we have forgotten what we were supposed to have learned from another (Munich). But once again the victim in the short run—for in the long run we shall all pay and Western soldiers will die anyway—is a small, faraway country of which we know little.

Letters

Temptations of a Superpower’ February 1, 1996

  1. 1

    Shades of Neville Chamberlain. The current position of many East European policy-makers, that it would be prudent for them to maintain and even cultivate friendly relations with local powers, given the unreliability of their former Western “protector,” is reminiscent of the wartime decision of the Czech President Eduard Beneš to curry favor with Stalin, following his disillusion with the French and British after Munich. There is some irony in the fact that for Czechs in particular it is a united Germany, the likely European great power of coming decades, that stands to replace the US as a natural source of economic investment and political support, despite uncomfortable and enduring historical memories.

  2. 2

    By such demanding standards even the Hutu-Tutsi massacres, or the prima facie genocidal activities of recent Sudanese rulers against their own citizens, could be reclassified as political, territorial, or even “cultural” conflicts.

  3. 3

    Within Europe, but not necessarily between states. Were, for example, Hungary and Romania to be drawn toward conflict it would not be over international frontiers but rather over the Romanian government’s treatment of its own Hungarian minority. In short, a domestic issue with immediate international ramifications.

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