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America and the World

Mandelbaum has little tolerance for the clichés of “globalization.” We don’t live in a post-sovereign age, he insists. On the contrary: “The three components of Woodrow Wilson’s vision—democracy, free markets, and peace—may be understood as public goods in that an effective state is needed to establish each of them.” The world of the post–cold war era, like the world of the cold war, is a world of sovereign states, and only the traditional state can effectively act as the agent of its own and its citizens’ interests. The greatest of all sovereign states—the US—happens also to be the country that has done most to promote and benefit from democracy and free markets. The interests and responsibilities of American foreign policy thus remain intimately bound up with those of other similarly disposed states.

Unlike Kagan, therefore, Mandelbaum appreciates the significance of Europeans’ “invention of peace,” as he puts it, and emphasizes the shared interest of America and Europe in the common security arrangements so carefully put in place in recent decades. Cooperation brings strength, not weakness. Present tiffs across the Atlantic should not distract us from the benefits that Europeans, Americans, and everyone else glean from the joint pursuit of shared interests. Peace, markets, and democracy, Mandelbaum concludes, are about as good as it gets. In any case, the alternatives are not merely worse; after our recent experience they are surely unthinkable.

But that is just the problem. Influential people in Washington are indeed, once again, thinking “the unthinkable.” The Bush administration is breaking away from the very system of international relations that Mandelbaum posits as the shape of the coming century; and in influential circles around President George W. Bush peace is becoming, as we have seen in Robert Kagan’s writing, a term of near abuse. Why is this happening?

According to Charles Kupchan, the paradoxical explanation is that the American imperium so enthusiastically announced by Kagan and his colleagues is a dangerous mirage. Despite appearances, the post–cold war American monopoly is already on the wane. The “unipolar” window is fast closing, and in its place we shall see a return to unstable, multiple poles of power, in which the US will need—as in the past—to compromise and negotiate with allies and competitors. The most important of these competing poles will be an expanded and united Europe, whose rise will coincide with an American retreat from expensive international engagements. “Getting right this devolution of responsibility from America to Europe should be a central objective of US grand strategy.”

Mr. Kupchan, who teaches international relations at Georgetown and served on the National Security Council under Clinton, is a realist with ideals. Mandelbaum’s Wilsonian apotheosis doesn’t impress him: there is, in his account, no “permanent peace” under benevolent American supervision, merely an illusory lull in international great power confrontation. Furthermore, there is a tension in American policy between the urge to remake the world and the old instinct for quick forays followed by withdrawal and disengagement. The US has neither the means nor the appetite for sustained international involvement. Knowing this, US strategists should be working to strengthen the sorts of transnational restraints and institutions that will serve America best when it has to live once again in a world it cannot dominate.

Kupchan’s account of the domestic roots and strategic contradictions of American foreign engagement is convincing and well supported. He is thoughtful, too, on a related matter: the unraveling fabric of America’s domestic institutions, though he rather mechanistically attributes this to “a shift in the mode of production.” He does, though, suffer from the occupational deformation of international relations specialists: an enthusiasm for ransacking the past in search of precedents, analogies, patterns, and cycles that might explain the present and forecast the future. “History” is scanned into the text, but contributes little to our understanding. In Kupchan’s book there are lengthy, sweeping, and redundant historical summaries, covering everything from late Imperial Rome to the 1815 Congress of Vienna, intended to illustrate how empires rise and fall, unipolar moments come and go, and so forth. These musings add little to the argument, and they distract attention from the main point.

The crux of Kupchan’s thesis is that an integrated and prosperous Europe “could well emerge as a formidable entity on a new geopolitical map of the world.” This united Europe, in Kupchan’s account, didn’t just happen: it was a deliberate project, the achievement and objective of Europe’s “founding fathers” in the wake of Hitler’s defeat. “In the aftermath of World War II, Europeans saw the challenge before them, designed their geopolitical map of the future, and set out to make that map a reality.” It wasn’t like that at all, of course—in the aftermath of World War II most European leaders were too busy digging out of the rubble to plan the geopolitical future.8 But however that may be, Europe today does pose an economic and geostrategic alternative to American power. Kupchan would agree with David Calleo, a Washington- based expert on European affairs, who sees in Europe’s “hybrid confederacy” a “genuinely new political form,” a standing challenge to the American model. If other analysts look “right past” the significance of a united Europe, it is because they simply don’t recognize this new creature.

In one sense Kupchan’s timing is unfortunate. His book has appeared just as the present and future member states of this united Europe have fallen to internecine squabbling, unable to agree on a common response to America’s martial activism. Some, like Britain, Spain, and Italy, have chosen to line up with their longstanding American protector. Others, like France, Germany, and Belgium, have asserted a “European” difference that certainly reflects public opinion across the continent, but leads them into a strategic cul-de-sac. The East Europeans have buckled under unprecedented American diplomatic pressure and bribery; for those in Brussels, Paris, and elsewhere who didn’t want them in the Union anyway, that will not soon be forgotten.9 If this is the geostrategic challenger America now faces, why should Washington lose sleep?

Yet Kupchan may be right. The EU, as Calleo reminds us (in the afterword to a new edition of Rethinking Europe’s Future), has still to think seriously about “power”: how to acquire it, how to use it. It wasn’t constructed with that objective in mind, and it hasn’t resolved the problem of large nation-states in its midst that won’t relinquish control over their foreign policies. But Europe, especially “old Europe,” is much more in tune than the US with the thinking of the rest of the world on everything from environmental threats to international law, and its social legislation and economic practices are more congenial to foreigners and more readily exportable than the American variants. US policy and politics, in Kupchan’s view, are poorly adapted to the complexity of today’s world. And it is the US, not Europe, that is increasingly dependent on foreign investment to feed its deficit-laden economy and sustain its vulnerable currency.

Thus when American leaders throw fits of pique at European dissent, and provoke and encourage internal European divisions, these are signs of incipient weakness, not strength. Real power is influence and example, backed up by understated reminders of military force. When a great power has to buy its allies, bribe its friends, and blackmail its critics, something is amiss. The energetic American response to September 11 is thus misleading, in Kupchan’s view. Like Mandelbaum, but for opposite reasons, he treats the “war on terror” as a “surface feature” that does not affect “underlying tectonic forces and the location of fault lines.” The bedrock reality is a world from which the US will either retreat in frustration or with which it will have to engage on cooperative terms. Either way, the “American era” is passing.

There is another sort of explanation for the turbulence of the coming age, and it concerns the third leg of the Wilsonian triad: “democracy.” In most accounts of the coming of mass society and, more recently, “globalization,” the spread of democracy is taken for granted. “Democracy” is the name we now give to any political arrangement that purports to include all adult citizens on equal terms into its system of governance, and that is regarded by those same citizens as the legitimate vehicle for the expression of their interests. We are all democrats today. The defense and extension of democracy are the commonplace justifications for America’s overseas presence.

But, as Fareed Zakaria argues in a new book, the protean qualities of democracy can be misleading.10 In much of the world, democracy is often the direct heir to authoritarian dictatorship and a substitute for good government. We are all familiar with the late, unlamented “people’s democracies,” but even in more genuine democracies the spurious legitimacy of public elections frequently obscures infirm and corrupt institutions. The source of Western success and the basis for both free markets and international peace, Zakaria suggests, had been the distinctive tradition of representative government, protected civil freedoms, and public law that originated in northwest Europe (specifically Britain), before migrating across the Atlantic. Democratic voting rights and free elections flow from these blessings; they do not necessarily bring them in their wake. “The ‘Western model of government’ is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge.”

That “democracy” can be inimical to liberty is hardly a novel thought; it has led many to prefer rule by an uncorrupted civic elite over demagogic manipulation of volatile, uninformed multitudes. The imperfections of modern democracy are troublingly obvious, and Zakaria summarizes them well. States, in his view, don’t need to be made more democratic, they need to be sheltered from the perverse pressures generated by unconstrained mass rule. Most democratic theorists would respond that competent administrative elites cannot be conjured up at will; and while minority rights clauses and other constraints are important, it is only the ballot box that can confer public legitimacy. It may be, as Zakaria suggests, that we set too much store by elections and their outcomes. But they are all we have.

Zakaria’s skepticism is a nice antidote to Mandelbaum’s Wilsonian picture. It also suggests that if we have lived in a peaceful world these past fifty years, this has little to do with democracy. It is liberal states—states that have enshrined the constitutional protection of liberties—that don’t go to war with one another. Democracies may or may not be warlike—they haven’t actually been around long enough to draw conclusions (though Alexander Hamilton thought “popular assemblies” were unlikely to prove peace-loving, and nothing in the past two centuries has proven him obviously wrong). In any case, the world itself is not a democracy, so there is nothing even in Mandelbaum’s thesis to preclude international war, particularly between liberal and illiberal democracies. And, for liberal and illiberal democracies alike, it is nuclear weapons rather than public opinion that have most effectively inhibited aggression.

Self-generating liberal democracies are historically unusual, even in the West. Like capitalism, they require, in order to succeed, indigenous antecedent qualities that cannot be retroactively supplied. Democratic institutions grafted from abroad onto cul- turally distinctive and impoverished nations have a mixed track record. America’s rediscovered mission, to make the world “safe for democracy,” thus risks proving self-defeating, even in its more plausible guise as a mis-sion to make the world safe for Americans. And in the absence of any accompanying ambition to make the rest of the world richer, safer, healthier, or better educated, this mission stands a good chance of constructing and defending some quite unwholesome “democracies.”11

We are living in an unusually uncertain moment. There are no secure conclusions about the future of peace, free markets, or anything else to be derived from the monopoly enjoyed today by the Anglo-American model. People forget quickly. Should liberal democracy fail to deliver on its promises, or be undermined by geopolitical overreach, then arguments for regulation, protection, and control (of markets and people alike) will be heard once again. And it will be democrats of a certain kind who will be the first to present them.

The best way to prevent this is by judiciously applied restrictions on the “natural” workings of the international system. Just as the much-maligned European welfare states stabilized capitalist economies after 1945, by mitigating the impact of the market and thus demobilizing political criticism from both extremes, so the trans-national institutions and agencies, treaties and laws of our time have facilitated international order by reducing the risks for smaller countries of unprotected exposure to the economic and political pressures from larger neighbors and competitors. The United States has benefited greatly from the stability these arrangements have facilitated. To threaten to leave the World Trade Organization, or to dismantle years of work on an International Criminal Court, is perverse.

What is missing in recent American commentary is not so much an appreciation of history—there has been too much of that, with “Munich” invoked at every turn. What is lacking is a sense of the tragic. If the US has had such a long run of foreign policy successes in the modern age, it is in large measure because, as Dean Acheson once put it, “we were fortunate in our opponents.” This may not last. We were also fortunate in our leaders. This has certainly not lasted. There is much confident talk of the coming American century; but one hundred years ago many thought it was Germany that held the keys to the new era—and they had good reasons for thinking it. As Raymond Aron once remarked, the twentieth century could have been the German century.

Things can go wrong very fast, even and perhaps especially for an over-reaching great power. Like the German planners of 1914, today’s Washington strategists are obsessed with challenges, timetables, windows of opportunity—and the eschatological urge to tear down a frustrating international order and remake it in their image. They, too, have exaggerated the threats and underestimated the risks. That is as far as the analogy goes—Imperial Germany and Republican America have little else in common. But hubris is not a shortcoming peculiar to any one constitutional form; and the inability to envisage nemesis is modern America’s distinctive failing.

To be sure, things can go right, too, and the twenty-first century may yet belong to America. But just now, as Zhou Enlai is reported to have replied when asked what he thought were the consequences of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell. In the meantime, as they are about to go to war, our leaders are betting the farm on the dream of a world that will for the foreseeable future perform America’s bidding on nonnegotiable American terms. When, at the dawn of the American age, George Kennan urged that the US contain the Soviet challenge, he added: “It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness.’” Fifty-six years on, his advice goes unheeded. It is a bad sign

March 12, 2003;
this is the second of three articles.

  1. 8

    For a less romanticized account of Europe’s fitful unification, see Alan S. Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation-State (University of California Press, 1992) and Andrew Moravcsik, The Choice for Europe: Social Purpose and State Power from Messina to Maastricht (Cornell University Press, 1998).

  2. 9

    Students of the link between markets, democracy, and peace will note the alacrity with which the US has recently declared both Bulgaria and Romania—its new-found East European allies in the struggle against Iraq, the International Criminal Court, and other foes—to be “fully functioning market economies,” with all the attendant rewards that will now follow.

  3. 10

    See also Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 6 (1997).

  4. 11

    The US in recent years has contributed about $29 per annum for each American in overseas (nonmilitary) aid. The average per head contribution from other Western countries now exceeds $70 per year.

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