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Its Own Worst Enemy

In Nye’s view, international relations today resemble a particularly intricate game of three-dimensional chess. On one level there is hard military power, a terrain where the US reigns uncontested. On the second level there is economic power and influence: in this field the European Union already challenges the US in trade, the regulation of monopolies, and the setting of industrial standards, and outdistances America in telecommunications, environmental policy, and much else. And there are other players besides.

At the third level Nye places the multifarious and proliferating nongovernmental activities shaping our world: currency flows, migration, transnational corporations, NGOs, international agencies, cultural exchanges, the electronic media, the Internet, and terrorism. Non-state actors communicate and operate across this terrain virtually unconstrained by government interference; and the power of any one state, the US included, is readily frustrated and neutralized.

The trouble with the people in charge of shaping and describing US policy today, according to Nye, is that they are only playing at the first level, their vision restricted to American military firepower. In his words, “Those who recommend a hegemonic American foreign policy based on such traditional descriptions of American power are relying on woefully inadequate analysis.” Before September 11, Americans in Nye’s view were willfully deaf to the world around them. They blithely ignored even those, like the former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, who warned them in 1999 of a coming catastrophe: “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”9 September 11 ought to have been a clear call for a fresh perspective, but America’s present leadership appears not to be listening.

If the United States is to win its war on terror, if it is to succeed in its assertion of world leadership, it is going to need the help and understanding of others, particularly in dealing with poor Arab and Muslim states and others resentful at their own backwardness. This is perfectly obvious. International police actions and the regulation and oversight of intercontinental movements of currency, goods, and people require international cooperation.10 “Failed states,” in whose detritus terrorists flourish, need to be rebuilt—the US is culpably uninterested in this task and no longer much good at it, in depressing contrast to its performance after 1945. America does the bombing, but the complicated and dangerous work of reconstruction is left to others.

The European Union (including its candidate members) currently contributes ten times more peacekeeping troops worldwide than the US, and in Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere the Europeans have taken more military casualties than the US. Fifty-five percent of the world’s development aid and two thirds of all grants-in-aid to the poor and vulnerable nations of the globe come from the European Union. As a share of GNP, US foreign aid is barely one third the European average. If you combine European spending on defense, foreign aid, intelligence gathering, and policing—all of them vital to any sustained war against international crime—it easily matches the current American defense budget. Notwithstanding the macho preening that sometimes passes for foreign policy analysis in contemporary Washington, the United States is utterly dependent on friends and allies in order to achieve its goals.

If America is to get and keep foreign support, it is going to have to learn to wield what Nye calls “soft power.” Grand talk of a new American Empire is illusory, Nye believes: another misleading historical allusion to put with “Vietnam” and “Munich” in the catalog of abused analogies. In Washington today one hears loud boasts of unipolarity and hegemony, but the fact, Nye writes, is that

The success of US primacy will depend not just on our military or 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. Talk about empire may dazzle us and mislead us into thinking we can go it alone.11

Soft power, in Nye’s usage, sounds a lot like common sense, and would have seemed that way to every post-war American administration from Harry Truman to George Bush Sr. If you want others to want what you want, you need to make them feel included. Soft power is about influence, example, credibility, and reputation. The Soviet Union, in Nye’s account, lost it in the course of its invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968. America’s soft power is enhanced by the openness and energy of its society; it is diminished by needlessly crass behavior, like Bush’s blunt assertion that the Kyoto agreement was “dead.” Scandinavian states, and Canada, exercise influence far above their weight in international affairs because of their worldwide identification with aid and peacekeeping. This, too, is soft power.

You don’t need to agree with Nye in every instance to sympathize with his overall thesis. What he is proposing, after all, is that the government of the United States pay what Thomas Jefferson once called “A decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind.” Far from representing a frustrating impediment to the pursuit of national interest, the judicious exercise of restraint and cooperation can only enhance it, in a world where America is anyway powerless to defend its many interests unaided. Nye has little patience for those, like the present national security adviser, in whose blinkered perspective the US should “proceed from the firm ground of national interest and not from the interest of an illusory international community.”

In Nye’s account, the national interest in a democracy “is simply what citizens, after proper deliberation, say it is.” Given the nature of modern democracy that is a little naive, but any definition of American interest could surely accommodate a modicum of reduced sovereignty in exchange for a basket of public goods whose benefits would be shared with the world at large.

The costs of American obstinacy are well illustrated by the recent international skirmish over the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Bush administration opposes the Court, claiming that Americans serving abroad would be exposed to frivolous prosecutions. Accordingly, in anticipation of the Court’s inauguration on July 1, 2002, the US in late June threatened to withdraw from UN peacekeeping missions and veto all such operations in the future unless Americans are guaranteed a blanket exemption from the Court’s jurisdiction. Perhaps taken a little aback by the refusal of other UN Security Council members to accede to such arm-twisting, the US agreed after lengthy and fraught discussions to a face-saving compromise: UN peacekeepers from countries that have not signed on to the ICC will have one year of immunity from prosecution, renewable every July 1.

The behavior of the US in this affair was deeply unseemly. There are only 700 Americans currently serving overseas in UN peacekeeping missions (out of a total of 45,000 personnel), and the ICC already contained clauses, inserted explicitly to mollify Washington, that virtually exempted UN missions from prosecution. The initial American position this June had clearly been taken with the object of undermining the International Criminal Court and UN peacekeeping activities—both of them scorned and abominated by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice. Washington’s stance is particularly embarrassing because it makes a mockery of American insistence upon the international pursuit and prosecution of terrorists and other political criminals; and because it provides American cover for countries and politicians who have real cause to fear the new Court. All of our allies on the UN Security Council voted against the US on this matter; meanwhile Washington’s opposition to the International Criminal Court is shared by Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, Israel, and Egypt.12

Nevertheless, many widely sought goals could be reached merely by the US ceasing to oppose them: Washington has refused to sign the international Protocol on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, and Congress won’t ratify the international Convention on Discrimination against Women: in the first case because the Pentagon wants to reserve the right to recruit a handful of seventeen-year-olds, in the second because of the anti-abortion lobby. Like racial segregation in the 1950s, such policies bring worldwide discredit to the US: a sure impediment to the pursuit of American interest, however you define it. Even the mere appearance of taking the world seriously would enhance American influence immeasurably—from European intellectuals to Islamic fundamentalists, anti-Americanism feeds voraciously off the claim that the US is callously indifferent to the views and needs of others.

There is a world of difference between encouraging others to want what you want and seducing them into wanting what you have. Many American commentators miss this distinction, and parochially assume that the world is divided into those who want what America has got and those who hate America for having it. Joseph Nye is careful to avoid such solipsism. But even he takes it for granted that the US and its Western allies are basically at one and share common values and goals: all that is needed to close the rift that has opened up between Europe and the US is a more subtle and sensitive exercise of American diplomatic clout. I am not so sure.


Superficially, the Atlantic gap is a by-product of post–cold war restructuring. The purpose of NATO is now unclear and opinion is split (in Europe as in the US) over whether and how Europeans should organize collectively for their own defense in the absence of a Soviet threat. The European Union, free to enlarge to its east, is absorbed by internal debates over how to do this and the consequences for its own governance. The “big” three members (Germany, France, Great Britain) are wary of having their actions constrained by more than twenty smaller states, while the latter cling nervously to their equal status within the Union. The world outside does not have Europe’s undivided attention.

For the sake of the euro the EU has imposed strict spending constraints on its members, just as postwar baby-boomers are retiring and placing heavy demands on national pension funds. And to this must be added the incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the far right. For all these reasons, and because of their erstwhile dependence on the American nuclear umbrella, Europeans are reluctant to divert public resources to military spending and for the most part they don’t fully appreciate America’s post– September 11 apprehension over terrorism—the British and the Spanish have lived with murderous domestic terrorism for over thirty years.

In any case, although Europeans today feel more “European” than they used to, the EU will never be a “superpower,” for all its economic heft.13 “Europe” does not think strategically, and even its largest members are in no position to do so in isolation. Even when they all agree—as in their anxious frustration at Bush’s failed Middle East policy—European leaders cannot line up as one to say so. Europeans are right to criticize the propensity of America to march out, dispose of its enemies, and then retreat to its fortress. As Chris Patten, the EU commissioner for external affairs, put it after the “axis of evil” speech, “True friends are not sycophants,” and the US needs its friends.14 But it is not as if they have an alternative strategy to propose.

  1. 9

    Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, New World Coming: American Security in the Twenty-First Century, Phase I Report (US Commission on National Security/21st Century, 1999), p. 4, quoted in Nye, The Paradox of American Power, p. x.

  2. 10

    Before September 11, the chief impediment to the international regulation of money-laundering and tax havens, the sinews of terrorism, was the US Treasury Department.

  3. 11

    Joseph Nye, “Lessons in Imperialism,” Financial Times, June 17, 2002.

  4. 12

    In recent months the US has more than once found itself in questionable company. Last November, when America vetoed a protocol designed to put teeth into the thirty-year-old Biological Weapons Convention and effectively destroyed a generation of efforts to halt the spread of these deadly arms, only a handful of the 145 signatories to the Convention took Washington’s side: among these were China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Cuba, and Iran. As a united force for good in international affairs, “the West” hardly exists. All too often Washington’s position now pits it against the Western Europeans, Canadians, Australians, and a majority of Latin American states, while American “unilateralism” is supported (for their own reasons) by an unseemly rogues’ gallery of dictatorships and regional troublemakers.

  5. 13

    The latest of many books on Europe’s collective destiny is David P. Calleo, Rethinking Europe’s Future (Princeton University Press, 2001), a learned and thoughtful exposition of the European Union, its history and prospects.

  6. 14

    See Financial Times, February 15, 2002.

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