George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

America is now being widely criticized as a new empire. Already toward the end of World War II De Gaulle wrote about FDR’s will to power, a will that soon took the form of an American-controlled network of unequal alliances, military bases abroad, and economic dominance. The harshest criticisms of US imperial aims were made against Bush after 2001: the US and much of the rest of the world fell out over America’s new unilateralism and its refusal to accept the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, and arms control generally. Most nations were appalled by America’s flaunting of its dominance; its use of preventive war, particularly the invasion of Iraq, was widely seen as proof of a will to reshape and dominate the Arab world.1 America’s new mixture of patriotism and religiosity annoyed many secularists at home and abroad, and the American way of fighting terrorism by bombing and torturing Iraqis and mistreating Afghans shocked many previously well-disposed allies.

Another category of criticisms concerns the American belief that globalization should come only in the orthodox form of American free-market and pro-business policies. Many Europeans see this as a denial of the state’s responsibility to provide social justice, public services, and safety nets for the poor, the unemployed, and workers. Other sources of dismay were America’s reluctance to include in international agreements provisions for standards of health or workers’ rights, or to accept codes of conduct for multinational corporations, as well as the connections between American corporations and American political agencies—not only in occupied Iraq.

The most flagrant and widely deplored contradiction is between America’s self-image as a force for democracy and human rights and a reality in which many rights at home are sharply limited, the death penalty continues along with the torture of “enemy combatants,” while the US repudiates the international laws of war. Abroad, the US support of dictators and its failure to protect victims of genocide in Rwanda and Darfur2 have contributed greatly to anti-Americanism. Foreigners can observe for themselves, on the one hand, the weakness of public services throughout the US, the cult of low taxes, and the distrust of any redistributive role for government and, on the other hand, the formidable apparatus of American military and intelligence services throughout the world and in the US itself. The strength of America’s destructive power and the lack of American interest in nation-building and development abroad have become all too evident.

Anti-Americanism is also fostered by various American illusions: “all human beings want what we want—freedom,” to paraphrase George W. Bush; hence democratization should be easy.3 Democratization has become confused with elections, and the legal institutions and protection of rights needed for a workable democracy are neglected. America sometimes downplays or denies its own nationalism in its rhetoric, and yet America has asserted its sovereignty more forcefully than any other advanced nation in recent history (including Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain). Most other countries are more affected and limited by US policies than the US is by anyone else’s. Therefore most countries are very uneasy about a world in which the US is the single superpower.

Thus, while the mighty US faces a huge number of problems that affect other nations as well—including those of global warming and the depletion of natural resources—at the same time it distrusts or attacks global institutions such as the International Criminal Court that could be of some help. It shows little understanding of the pride, fears, and humiliations of others, and has damaged its “soft power”—the power of influencing others through persuasion and example—by its policies in Iraq, its recent abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and its restrictions on foreigners eager to come to the US.


Several recent books have tried to go beyond such failures of the Bush foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq and the violence committed in carrying it on.4

Francis Fukuyama’s book might have been called “Goodbye to Neoconservatism,” which has dominated the Bush administration. He describes neoconservatism as a doctrine with four components: (1) “a belief that the internal character of regimes matters and that foreign policy must reflect the deepest values of liberal democratic societies,” (2) a belief that American power “has been and could be used for moral purposes,” (3) “a distrust of ambitious social engineering projects,” and (4) “a skepticism about the legitimacy and effectiveness of international law and institutions to achieve either security or justice.” He discusses how these aims have been contradicted by American support for dictatorship in the Transcaucasus, and its failure to provide adequate aid for people in Darfur or for the eradication of AIDS in Africa. He now calls for “multi-multilateralism,” involving “new institutional forms,” public and private, national and international, mainly aimed at meeting the economic needs of the global economy. He thinks such multilateral relations will be more efficient than treaty-based formal institutions such as the UN and its specialized agencies.


Since he believes this multilateralism is necessary, he criticizes America’s attachment to absolute sovereignty. He also denounces the negative effects of American economic and political domination, which “rests on a belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible.” Nor is it tenable, since “it presupposes an extremely high level of competence” which we don’t have, and a domestic political system with greater attention to, and willingness to finance, foreign policy goals than the American one. Moreover, “although political reform in the Arab world is desirable, the US has virtually no credibility or moral authority in the region.”

Fukuyama believes that US power is most effective when it is latent and not seen (he mentions for example recent relations with India and other parts of East Asia), and most important when it is used to shape international institutions. He is obviously very far from his former neocon allies. Success in promoting democracy abroad depends on the past historical experience of a country, on the willingness of its government to organize free elections and thus “permit some degree of freedom for the groups that are part of civil society to organize” (as in Serbia or Ukraine), and on the political will within a society to overcome “bad governance, weak institutions, political corruption.” His model for an “engine of institutional reform” is the European Union’s process of admitting new members, which requires them to satisfy democratic requirements before being allowed to join the EU.

Why did Fukuyama, in view of his emphasis on multilateral institutions, ever sympathize with neoconservatism in the first place? The “realistic Wilsonianism” he now embraces, along with his condemnation of excessive use of American force and threats abroad, is obviously very far from the neoconservatives’ credo. Also, how could he fail, as he does, to emphasize a crucial element in neoconservative doctrines—imperial ambition and pride? It has served to connect the neoconservatives and the apostles of brute force—like Cheney and Rumsfeld—who don’t take seriously the democratic proselytizing of the neoconservatives. The imperial nationalism of both groups reminds one of that of the French Revolution, which wanted both to export the “principles of 1789” and to expand French rule of other countries. In neoconservative thought, the idea of expanding hegemony was as important as that of encouraging democracy. The neoconservatives failed to understand the difficulties of both.

Stephen M. Walt’s book is no less critical of the Bush administration’s record than Fukuyama’s. Walt and his former colleague John Mearsheimer were prescient opponents of the invasion of Iraq. His book is, however, primarily an incisive analysis of how the world’s other countries have responded to American supremacy and tried to limit it. His chapter on “the roots of resentment” is particularly impressive. It is not only American power and official policies that are resented but also—in varying parts of the world—American political values, cultural products, and the activities of “US corporations, foundations, media organizations, and various nongovernmental organizations.” He writes that “the combination of a universalist political philosophy and a strong evangelical streak” is “bound to be alarming to other countries, including some of our fellow democracies.” Walt deplores Americans’ failure to understand foreign hostility. American leaders and much of the public, he charges, suffer from “historical amnesia,” fostered by “US textbooks and public rhetoric” which portray America’s international role as “uniformly noble, principled and benevolent.”

Walt finds that while there have been few formal alliances to contain the US, other countries resort to “soft balancing,” defined as “the conscious coordination of diplomatic action in order to obtain outcomes contrary to US preferences.” The refusal of the main European countries to back the war in Iraq is the most obvious example. At the moment, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba have formed an alliance against American power in the Caribbean and Latin America, and in one degree or another, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico are resisting American economic and diplomatic pressures. Some states, he writes, are also mobilizing their domestic resources in ways that limit the US capacity to pressure them. Such a strategy can emphasize conventional military power, as can be seen in the growing strength of Chinese military forces. It can also take the form of terrorism and building weapons of mass destruction, both apparently aims of the current regime in Iran. The US should try to discourage other nations from taking such measures, Walt argues, by seeking “to convince most states that they have little to fear from US power unless they take actions that directly threaten vital US interests.” He believes a principal task of US policy is to persuade other nations that its “privileged position is legitimate,” which requires that the US respect established international law and procedures, something it has failed to do before and throughout the war in Iraq.


Some nations, he believes, have collaborated with the US for protection against threats, as for example Lebanon and Jordan, which wanted US help against the threat of Syria. Some foreign leaders “bond” with Bush—Blair being a cautionary example. He also mentions the efforts of foreign powers to influence Congress and the administration, the most flagrant case being the Israel lobby, the subject of his taboo-breaking essay with John Mearsheimer in the London Review of Books and of Michael Massing’s recent article in these pages.5

Writing as a traditional realist, Walt argues that America’s national interest demands that it try to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians. If that fails because of Israel’s unwillingness to grant the Palestinians a workable state, the US should continue to support Israel’s existence but no longer act as if Israel’s interests and US interests were identical. Instead, the US should end its excessive military and economic support of Israel.

Moreover, he argues, large US forces are no longer needed in Europe and only air and naval bases are needed in Asia. The US should avoid preventive war, intervene in the Middle East only with the participation of others, and withdraw from military engagements, if they become necessary, after a “threat has been thwarted.” The US should also deemphasize its nuclear weapons programs so as to decrease “other states’ incentives to get nuclear weapons of their own.” Bush, by putting North Korea and Iran in the “axis of evil,” only ensured that they would act more aggressively.

Similar conclusions are reached by John Brady Kiesling, for nineteen years a career foreign service officer with wide experience in the Near East and in Greece; he resigned publicly—with a strong letter explaining his decision to Colin Powell—when he became convinced that the Bush administration was determined to invade Iraq.6 His book provides the invaluable perspective of someone who has seen American foreign policy from the inside. What we learn from his lively, often witty, and incisive report is invaluable. The Bush administration hoped that some Greek leaders and much of the public would support its invasion of Iraq in view of past US aid to Greece and collaboration with its military. In fact, he writes, the Iraq war was unpopular throughout Greece and US standing there suffered because of it. American success depends “on respecting domestic politics in other states as well as our own. Those politics ultimately compel America to embrace the rule of law…as the basic principle of effective diplomacy.”

Notwithstanding the advice of Kiesling and others, the administration simply didn’t understand that a Greek politician who supported the war would be in trouble. He also argues that “when the US promotes local and regional security and prosperity, even to the short-run benefit of tyrannical regimes, it creates the soil in which democracy can grow.” This happened in Taiwan, where US protection helped to allow democratic forces eventually to take power.

Kiesling gives his own account of conflict between two types of foreign service officers: US diplomats “whose playing field is the foreign country in which they are posted,” and those he calls bureaucrats, such as the Bush administration’s champions of

self-aggrandizement and political fantasy at home, whose job is reinforcing the prevailing inclination of the chief policymakers. Lurking in some obscure or less obscure university is all the intellectual underpinning required for any fatuous scheme.

He mentions the neoconservatives who, in the months before the Iraq war, introduced Professor Bernard Lewis to Dick Cheney.

Successful counterterrorism, Kiesling writes, requires respect for the lives of innocents. Iraqis, for instance, see dozens of their innocent fellow citizens again and again being sacrificed in American bombing attacks that often are not successful against terrorists in any case. Yet their dismay and anger are not understood. Kiesling’s condemnation of torture is eloquent: “The US war on terrorism is at heart a war to strengthen the rule of law in societies whose citizens are themselves often helpless victims of illegitimate violence.” The use of torture by the US only makes a mockery of attempts to sustain the rule of law. As a working diplomat, he was appalled by bureaucrats who “took the word of their president that preemption of terrorism required unilateral violence and the death of innocent civilians.”

Kiesling argues that US insistence on expanding its own nuclear arsenal destroys any effective nonproliferation strategy. He finds secret intelligence operations often damage US interests—for instance, when the CIA backed corrupt warlords in Afghanistan. “Secrecy’s role in the US government is to keep senior officials from learning from their mistakes.” The “war on terrorism” for Kiesling has been a “failed reprise” of the moral clarity of the cold war. It has turned the most powerful nation into the most frightened one. He hopes for a political leadership “brave enough” to bring into the open the “hidden environmental, social, and other costs” of the American way of life. He writes in the tradition of George Kennan when he argues that while Americans may argue that their security depends on the spread of morality and justice abroad, they should first practice both at home.


What would be the outline of a decent and effective American foreign policy?

The first prerequisite, in my view, is to improve America’s own economic and moral condition, a change that would be well received abroad. This would mean a return to the rule of law and to the protection of civil liberties, and an end to efforts to escape from the obligations of international law in the fight against terrorism. The US should accept, despite its flaws, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and try to improve it; and it should sign the International Criminal Court treaty. Accepting both would undo some of the damage of recent years.

The US also needs a fiscal policy that would take seriously the reduction of America’s deficit and debt, and therefore of American dependence on foreign countries that are willing to subsidize the US by buying its debt in exchange for what we provide in return—security for Japan, access to US markets in the case of China. Otherwise the US will remain, in Charles Maier’s words, an empire of consumption.7 Greater investment at home in technological and educational progress is indispensable. A serious effort, including a tax on carbon emissions, to reduce the consumption of oil in favor of new sources of energy is essential for several reasons: to preserve the global environment from global warming and other dangers, to escape from dependence on corrupt and tyrannical regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to protect against the temptation to seize control of oil production in, say, Iraq as an insurance against possible trouble in Saudi Arabia.

A second prerequisite is a willingness to break dramatically with the foreign policies of both Republicans and Democrats. Throughout the postwar era, and especially after the fall of communism, these policies have oscillated from multilateralism to imperialism, but they have assumed, as Walt does, that the world could only benefit from American primacy, seen as both a fact of power and a condition of world security and prosperity. Even Democratic critics of neoconservative hubris and critical commentators such as Walt have not put in doubt the need for the US to set the course for its partners and for the world. Nor have the merits of the US being the world’s only superpower been seriously questioned, except on the isolationist fringe and among the libertarians of the Cato Institute. These deeply ingrained views, by now as ritualized as the late thoughts of Mao, need to be changed. They do not correspond with the realities of power.

The US has an undeniable, overwhelming superiority in raw military might and in the capacity to project it. But as soon as we turn to other kinds of power—“hard” economic power, which is the power to reward, or bribe, and to coerce; “soft power”; and what I would call “building power,” the power to help others construct their institutions—we see that we live in an increasingly multipolar world. This has become all the clearer in view of the recovery of Japan, the spectacular rise of China and India, and the growth of the EU, notwithstanding the current sluggishness of the European economy.

Global economic competition is now a clash of varieties of capitalisms, each one expressing a specific, mainly national, conception. And in recent years the US has lost ground, whether in its influence in international economic organizations such as the WTO or in its generally inadequate efforts to help nations like East Timor and Sri Lanka and Haiti to build badly needed national institutions. This is the result of many factors: the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, and the US ideological hostility to “nation-building,” a view that is overtly expressed by the US military but is generally supported by the conservative American preference for the market.

In fact, if we switch from a consideration of the ingredients of power to whether it can actually be deployed, we find that much American military power is practically unusable because of international risks (as with nuclear weapons) and domestic opposition both to the draft and to protracted wars with high casualties. Finally, even when US military power can be used, it is often ineffective or worse, as is shown by US failures to anticipate political problems in Iraq and to protect the population there from insurgent and sectarian violence. Military power, in short, can serve as a deterrent, but America should avoid using it to destroy cities, people, and regimes. For the most part, only soft power, and the power of state-building and of promoting economic development, can have beneficial results.

Even if America’s power were as enormous as US politicians assert, there is a huge difference between American hegemony now and past empires. Nineteenth-century Britain had much less military power than the US today, but it had much more ability to get things done within its empire than the US in today’s world. Hence the need for shifting from a policy of primacy (however cautious and considerate, as in Walt’s analysis) to a genuine policy of partnership based on reciprocity and compromise. No doubt a world of 191 UN members and thousands of nongovernmental organizations requires leadership but this can be exerted by more than one nation (as has usually been the case in the EU); and that one nation should not always be the US. The leader, or group of leaders, needs to work by means of persuasion and diplomacy, not command. The world political system too needs a degree of democratization.8

A true partnership is particularly necessary concerning several major issues. The first, and most urgent, is the Middle East. Two conflicts there have bred terrorism, jihadism, and hatred of the West, particularly of America. First, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been scandalously neglected since the fiasco of Camp David in 2000, despite the “road map” which has remained largely fictional. By now it should be clear that the occupation has long been the root of the trouble. It does not justify Arab terrorism aimed at civilians, but it goes a long way toward explaining it. Cutting off aid to the Palestinians because they voted for Hamas was exactly the wrong thing to do: it was punishment for exercising democratic choice. A unilateral “solution” imposed by Israel is no solution at all, only a recipe for continuing war.

The US and its partners—the so-called Quartet—need to work hard for a two-state solution close to the one almost reached at Taba in early 2001. Then and now, a settlement would require that the Palestinians give up, in practice, the right of return to Israel, but it would provide them with a workable state that is not truncated or walled-in and has financial support. In arriving at such a settlement, Hamas—obviously divided between extremity and moderation—could be legitimately pressured to recognize Israel explicitly and to condemn terrorism unequivocally. In the immediate future, what is needed is a cease-fire based on a Palestinian declaration renouncing rocket attacks on Israel, and an Israeli declaration renouncing incursions and air strikes in Gaza. Moreover, the Palestinians would release the Israeli corporal held by their gunmen, Hezbollah would release the soldiers captured during its cross-border attack, and the Israelis would release the Palestinian officials they have seized.9 To achieve these outcomes, as war spreads in Lebanon, would require far more active American participation than has been the case so far. The destruction of Hamas by disproportionate Israeli reprisals would have the same effects as destruction of the Palestinian Authority by Sharon earlier: it would escalate violence, further radicalize the Palestinians and much of the Arab world, and encourage further attacks on American passivity or “complicitly.”

In dealing with Iraq, what I proposed in these pages two years ago seems all the more necessary10—a deliberately and carefully planned American withdrawal that would force the feuding politicians and the conflicting ethnic and religious factions to confront the reality of civil war and continued killing, and to try to find a political solution to the insurgency and to sectarian conflict. As long as American forces stay there, they both exacerbate the discord and terror and provide Iraqis with an alibi for ceaseless haggling. If the Iraqis want peace and unity as much as the American champions of “staying the course” assert, it is up to them to act accordingly. The argument about how much good we could still do by staying is, to put it mildly, undermined by how little we have done to provide protection and essential services to a population that the US invasion exposed to bitter violence and hardships. We need to pull out completely, leaving behind no imperial residues. Whatever protection (of Sunnis, for example) will be needed should be entrusted to UN peacekeeping forces to whose creation and support we should be prepared to contribute both money and weapons. We should also get out of Afghanistan soon: our presence has not deterred a Taliban revival or the emergence of an opium economy dominated by the Taliban and warlords; non-American NATO forces should be supplemented by non-European forces under UN command.

Secondly, what is needed for the US is—as Walt suggests—a drastic long-term policy of demilitarization carried out in collaboration with foreign partners. It should begin at home. The US military and domestic security budget exceeds $550 billion and amounts to almost 20 percent of US expenditures. It seems more like a program of public works than one of national security, and the American economy has other badly neglected domestic needs. Our military budget is more likely to be a provocation than a deterrent to America’s current rivalry with China. A reduction of 50 percent in military expenditures would allow the US to take better care of its poor, to establish a decent health care system, to improve education, and to invest in conversion to more efficient fuels. It would also liberate funds for urgently needed nation- building, health care, and development in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This drastic change ought to be part of a plan that would aim, globally and regionally, at reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the established powers and at a new policy against nuclear proliferation.

This policy would include security guarantees to powers such as North Korea and Iran that have plausible fears of attack provoked by the hostility of their neighbors and the US. The guarantees would entail nonaggression pacts, the reduction or departure of American forces near these countries’ borders, and the kinds of arms control agreements that were worked out in the later phases of the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union. Such agreements would reassert the right of all signers of the nonproliferation treaty to nuclear energy for civilian uses—a right many more states may want to use so they would not have to depend on foreign oil supplies. It would offer them a range of choices including the transfer of uranium enrichment activities to foreign suppliers that already have them. If a country insists on enriching nuclear fuel itself, it should come under strong international pressures to accept a very strict and intrusive inspection regime.

General rules are needed to prevent ad hoc deals, such as the new US–Indian agreement accepting India’s nuclear weapons programs. Nevertheless, a serious recent study of nuclear proliferation concludes that US policy should be “more flexible, not less,” and take into account the preferences of states for different “levels of commitment” and different kinds of non-proliferation schemes.11 A policy of demilitarization would aim not only at putting an end to preventive war—which the 2006 US National Security Strategy statement still supports12—but at ultimately eliminating most weapons of mass destruction, and in the meantime at narrowing the gap between those who possess them and those who do not.

Thirdly, as for the UN, any useful changes in its structure are being blocked by the unholy combination of John Bolton and a number of developing countries, such as Brazil, India, Egypt, and South Africa, that are suspicious of the UN Secretariat’s potential power. They are now opposing the reform plan endorsed by Kofi Annan. But in view of the poverty and instability of many states, the UN is in great need of more funds, more military forces, and more efficient and authoritative governance. It will be essential to reinforce existing international and regional organizations and to establish new ones in economic matters now unregulated (such as capital movements), as well as measures to ensure their accountability to the people they serve.

Another component of a new policy would be an effort, in association with other states, to consolidate the progress made in such states as East Timor, Georgia, and Uganda, and to rescue failed states such as Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, Haiti, and Chad, which have been disastrous for their citizens and for other states, not only because, in most cases, of extremely bad leaders but because, as Lawrence Freedman has put it, of “sudden population movements, environmental disasters, [and] local conflicts being exported through expatriate communities.”13

A new policy should also provide for a concentrated effort to protect human rights: while democracy cannot and should not be imposed from the outside, widespread violations of human rights, as in Darfur today, should be, along with defense against aggression, the only legitimate cause for collective armed intervention, preferably through forces put at the disposal of the Security Council. Removing genocidal regimes should be legitimate if authorized by the UN or, if the UN is paralyzed, by an association of genuine democracies.14

Most challenging of all is the need to form a new “partnership” of advanced countries for the economic development of the underdeveloped ones. For many reasons—political, economic, and philosophical disagreements—this will be difficult to organize; the attempt to eliminate absolute poverty and to prevent the poor from succumbing to epidemics would be a worthy first step. At the same time national and international action to prevent the destruction and mass migration expected from global warming should become an urgent priority. An issue that threatens all countries, it requires energetic, diverse, and imaginative measures for the curtailment of CO2 emissions. A revised and strengthened version of the Kyoto Protocol would be a beginning.15 Most other problems shrink compared to this one.

These proposals may appear utopian. And yet striving to realize them would make for a safer world; they would not abandon or damage any of America’s main interests; they would allow regional disputes to be dealt with primarily by the members of the regions, and with the assistance of international and regional agencies. The US would not be the only “indispensable nation,” or the nation that knows best what the real interests of others are. There is always a danger when dependent nations gain autonomy, but autonomy is the condition of responsibility. A world in which several large or middle-sized powers would have a larger say than they do now does not mean a return to the balance of power mechanisms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which war decided disputes. Competition has to continue, but—as Kant speculated—it should be constrained by the ever-increasing costs of war, and by the benefits (as well as the dangers) of interdependence. As Kiesling puts it, “Morality and self interest are inseparable, provided we persuade our politicians to take a long enough view of these interests. In the long run, security cannot be purchased at the expense of justice.”

—July 13, 2006

This Issue

August 10, 2006