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…

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