Logically, at the cold war’s end, the United States should have begun a long-term scaling down of forces and commitments abroad. The cold war was a period of crisis demanding exceptional measures. Its end altered contemporary geopolitical circumstances, meriting a serious response from Washington.
It did not receive that response because of the confusion which accompanied so drastic a change—there was an intellectual and imaginative failure—and because retreat from engagement and power simply went against the bureaucratic and career interests of the US foreign policy community. In executive Washington, and in Congress too, it had been found very agreeable to exercise power.
The Gulf War thus launched a new American globalism. However, while there are undoubted popular gratifications in being the sole superpower, the public also saw the disadvantages, which is why, to the vexation of the policy community, the American people have since 1989 stubbornly withheld support, or granted it only parsimoniously, to international undertakings that promise cost or risk.
Rationalizing and defending America’s global presence thus have become an important concern for the directors of US policy, nearly every one of whose speeches stresses the necessity for “explaining to the American people and their elected representatives that a foreign policy of leadership and engagement is the best investment in security, prosperity, and freedom we can make.” These exemplary recent remarks by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded by saying that “the work is never done.”
The task is never-ending because the global expansion of American power not only lacks a coherent rationale but has become, itself, an obstacle to the success of American foreign policy. It has proven a cause of the very instabilities that policymakers say American global deployment is meant to cure. This is an unrecognized general problem in America’s post-cold war foreign relations. The US is held to exercise global power for the sake of international stability; yet the United States’ global presence itself frequently causes instability.
The Middle East provides the most visible case of this. The United States deploys immense political and military resources in the region in order, it says, to protect its access to oil resources. The undeclared war currently being waged against Iraq and its regime, US involvement in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, the two-decades-old Iran boycott, Washington’s counterterrorism campaign and effort to treat terrorism as if it were something that could be bombed away (since Washington knows how to bomb, but not how to deal with terrorism)—all this in one way or another is connected with “securing” Middle Eastern oil.
Yet Middle Eastern oil doesn’t need to be secured, since it is not going away. The position of US oil companies may need to be assured, but that is another matter. It actually does not make much difference who is in charge of the oil, since those who have it must sell it to those who will buy, at a price that makes it worthwhile for the buyer to buy this oil rather than oil from another source (or substitute another form of energy for oil).
The continuing bombing of Iraq and the attempt to overthrow its government, the stationing of “infidel” American forces in the same country as Islam’s holy places, muted interference in the internal politics of the Saudi Arabian and other Arab governments, the attempt to prosecute a regionwide war against an Islamic fundamentalism Washington scarcely understands, and of course virtually unqualified support for Israel—all this has destabilizing effects. The eventual result in Saudi Arabia could prove to be the same as that produced by the virtually identical US policy pursued twenty years ago in the Shah’s Iran.
In the past the cold war gave US foreign policy a focus and discipline. There were reasonable strategic arguments for these global deploy-ments, controversial as many of them may have been. Today a strategic purpose has yet to be reinvented, despite all that is claimed about the responsibility of America as the sole superpower, extending democracy and free markets, about the extravagant threats supposedly posed by US-designated “rogue states” and freelance terrorists, and even about the merits of an American “benevolent hegemony.” The government and foreign policy community’s arguments combine unimpeachable but unrealizable global good intentions with anecdotal threats and rehabilitated domino theory. “Leadership and engagement” are to accomplish exactly what, and how?
This is an important matter since it means that American policy is currently out of control, made by inertia or momentum. Thus NATO is expanded, but its purpose blurred and its competence degraded by threats without issue, most recently in Kosovo. The US guarantees Japan (which has the second-largest military budget in the world) against China (and North Korea), while seemingly guaranteeing China against Japan, and against Russia as well. The United States proposes now to provide Japan, South Korea, and possibly Taiwan with systems of missile defenses. China, meanwhile, cynically and predictably exploits a US indulgence motivated chiefly by the interests of corporate America. What serious theme is there in all of this?
Raising these issues undoubtedly will change nothing in the short run. They are nonetheless worth discussion since, within another decade, this huge, politically profligate, and increasingly purposeless American global engagement risks becoming, itself, a subject of international alarm, and the United States the object of worldwide geopolitical concern.
April 8, 1999