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

President George Bush has decided to disregard both the political message of the 2006 midterm election and congressional pressure for an early end to America’s Iraq involvement, as well as the Baker-Hamilton proposals. These decisions are meeting much opposition, which is likely to fail. Bush’s opponents have been unable to propose a course of withdrawal that is not a politically prohibited concession of American defeat and that does not risk still more destructive consequences in Iraq and probably the region—even though the result of delayed withdrawal could be worse in all respects. Most of Bush’s critics in Congress, in the press and television, and in the foreign policy community are hostage to past support of his policy and to their failure to question the political and ideological assumptions upon which it was built.

This followed from a larger intellectual failure. For years there has been little or no critical reexamination of how and why the limited, specific, and ultimately successful postwar American policy of “patient but firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies…and pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” (as George Kennan formulated it at the time) has over six decades turned into a vast project for “ending tyranny in the world.”1

The Bush administration defends its pursuit of this unlikely goal by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities.

This is where the problem lies. Other American leaders before George Bush have made the same claim in matters of less moment. It is something like a national heresy to suggest that the United States does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations, and therefore in the affairs of the contemporary world. In fact it does not.

This is a national conceit that is the comprehensible result of the religious beliefs of the early New England colonists (Calvinist religious dissenters, moved by millenarian expectations and theocratic ideas), which convinced them that their austere settlements in the wilderness represented a new start in humanity’s story. However, the earlier Virginia settlements were commercial, as were those of the Dutch, and the proprietary colonies in Pennsylvania and Maryland were Quaker and Catholic, and had no such ideas. Nor did the earliest colonies, the Spanish in Florida and the Southwest, and the French on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

The nobility of the colonies’ constitutional deliberations following the War of Independence, and the expression of the new thought of the Enlightenment in the institutions of government they created, contributed to this belief in national uniqueness. Thomas Paine wrote that

the case and circumstances of America present themselves as in the beginning of the world…. We have no occasion to roam for information into the obscure field of antiquity, nor hazard ourselves upon conjecture. We are…as if we had lived in the beginning of time.

Even Francis Fukuyama, a recovering neoconservative, acknowledges in a recent book that American economic and political policies today rest on an unearned claim to privilege, the American “belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible.” Nor, he adds, is the claim tenable, since “it presupposes an extremely high level of competence” which the country does not demonstrate.2

The belief nonetheless is old and very powerful. The critic Edmund Wilson, scarcely a chauvinist, wrote nostalgically, near the end of his long life, about “the old idea of an anointed nation doing God’s work in the world,” although he deplored its corruption in his time by “moralistic cant.”3 It is true that by establishing a republic, Americans made themselves successors to the dynastic monarchies of Europe (although the Dutch Republic and Swiss Federation preceded us). But that God had taken a hand in this, nominating us as his Chosen and confiding to us an earthly mission, has yet to be demonstrated, and a moral theologian might see in the claim the grave sin of Presumption.

A claim to preeminent political virtue is a claim to power, a demand that other countries yield to what Washington asserts as universal interests. Since 1989, when the end of the cold war left the United States the “sole superpower,” much has been made of this, with discussion of a benevolent (or even inevitable) American world hegemony or empire—a Pax Americana in succession to the Pax Britannica. While such ideas have not been explicit in official discourse, they seem all but universally assumed, in one or another form, in policy and political circles.

The most coherent and plausible official articulation of such reasoning was offered in the summer of 2003 by Condoleezza Rice, then President Bush’s national security adviser, speaking in London at the annual meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. She said that the time had come to discard the system of balance of power among sovereign states established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The Westphalian settlement ended the wars of religion by establishing the principles of religious tolerance and absolute state sovereignty. The UN is a faulty embodiment of international authority because it is an indiscriminate assembly of all the governments of the world, and should, she argued, be replaced as the ultimate world authority by an alliance or coalition of the democracies. This is a theme frequently promoted in conservative circles in Washington.


Rice also told the institute’s members that the time had come to reject ideas of multipolarity and balance of power in international relations. This was a reference to French and other arguments in favor of an international system in which a number of states or groups of states (like the EU) act autonomously, serving as counterweights to American power. It followed the controversy earlier that year over the UN Security Council’s failure to authorize the US invasion of Iraq. In the past, she said, balance of power may have “sustained the absence of war” but did not promote an enduring peace. “Multipolarity,” she continued, “is a theory of rivalry; of competing interests—and at its worst, competing values. We have tried this before. It led to the Great War….”

Foreign policies of power balance were, of course, a response to the rise of nation-states of varying weight and ambition, which, in order to preserve their independence and protect their national interests, had no alternative to policies that “balanced” their relations and alliances with others in order to contain rival interests and conflicting ambitions. The only apparent alternative to such a policy is submission of all to a dominant power. Rice’s seeming confidence that such conflicts and rivalries would not create problems in some new international organization of the democracies would seem very optimistic. Nonetheless both the professional foreign policy community and American opinion generally seem to assume that the international system is “naturally” headed toward an eventual American-led consolidation of democratic authority over international affairs.

During the first century and a half of the United States’ history, the influence of the national myth of divine election and mission was generally harmless, a reassuring and inspiring untruth. During that period the country remained largely isolated from international affairs. The myth found expression in the idea of a “manifest destiny” of continental expansion—including annexation of Mexican land north of the Rio Grande—with no need to plead a divine commission.

With Woodrow Wilson, this changed. The national myth became a philosophy of international action, and has remained so. In the great crisis of World War I the United States and Wilson personally had thrust upon them seemingly providential international roles; Wilson said that he believed he had been chosen by God to lead America in showing “the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” The war’s carnage and futility largely destroyed the existing European order and undermined confidence in European civilization. The European allies enthusiastically welcomed American intervention in 1917, which tipped the military balance, and Wilson’s Fourteen Point plan for peace appealed to the people of the Central Powers as well as to the allies and neutrals.

Wilson’s plan, however, did not prove a success. The principle of universal national self-determination did not solve Europe’s problems but further complicated them, creating new ethnic and territorial grievances subsequently exploited by the fascist powers. A witness to the Versailles negotiations, the British diplomat Harold Nicolson, considered Wilson a man “obsessed, possessed…by the conviction that the League [of Nations] covenant was his own revelation and the solution of all human difficulties.” The US Senate’s failure to ratify the League of Nations treaty (which Wilson had imagined as a proto-world government) left most Americans persuaded of the prudence of national isolation, support for which remained majority opinion in the United States until Pearl Harbor.

When World War II ended, the isolationist bias remained, and foreign policy was an issue in the 1946 and 1948 elections. As late as 1949, the leading figure in the Republican Party, Senator Robert A. Taft, objected to the NATO treaty, saying that it involved unforeseeable commitments. (We can only imagine what he would have made of NATO in Afghanistan today.) He was, on the other hand, in favor of “international law defining the duties and obligations of nations …international courts…and joint armed force to enforce the law and the decisions of that court.” He felt the UN did not yet fulfill this ideal “but it goes a long way in that direction.”


This seemingly contradictory position actually expressed the paradox of American sentiment concerning foreign relations: on the one hand apprehensive about involvement in international “power politics,” and on the other open to utopian reform, provided that it confirmed the special position the US had always claimed. Despite his reservations about US military commitments abroad and his isolationist instincts, Taft accepted the utopian global visions of Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.

The Korean War and developing political confrontation with Soviet Russia in Europe provided a new reason for American international involvement, interpreted in quasi-theological terms by John Foster Dulles, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, a lawyer and Presbyterian elder (a Calvinist, as both Wilson and the Puritan Pilgrims had been). The notion of the United States as the providential nation became integrated into American foreign policy under Dulles, so that George W. Bush in 2001 automatically articulated his global war on terror in imitation of Dulles’s conception of cold war (even to the instant portrayal of the September 11 terrorists as agents of an organized global threat to freedom). The formulation was uncritically accepted in most political and press circles, and much of the professional policy community.

Bush administration policy continues to reflect the influence of cold war ideology, which in Dulles’s case revealed the influence of the world-historical thinking of the Marxist enemy as well as personal religious assumptions about the meaning of history. The neo-conservative, “neo-Wilsonian” ideological influence on Bush’s thinking, that history’s course is moving toward universal democracy, was reinforced by the President’s encounter in 2004 with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident. Sharansky’s argument that international stability is possible only under the rule of democracy was reflected in the President’s second-term inaugural announcement that America’s foreign policy objective had become “ending tyranny in our world.”4 This amounted to a naive instance of what the British-Austrian political philosopher Karl Popper called “historicism,” meaning faith in large-scale “laws” of historical development.5 The Bush vision is of a vast struggle between democracy and an effort by “the terrorists” to establish an oppressive Muslim caliphate of global scope. (How they are to do this against the opposition of the industrial West and non-Muslim Asia has yet to be given a persuasive explanation.)

The Bush administration and its sympathizers thus see themselves supporting the dominant force in history’s development. If history’s natural trajectory is toward democracy, US policy is simply to accelerate the inevitable. When, as in Iraq, this does not turn out to be so simple, a political equivalent of the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s argument concerning “creative destruction” can be evoked, which says that destruction (in certain circumstances) clears the way for progress. Schumpeter describes a mechanism of the market economy, but when applied to the development of human society it reduces to a matter of secular belief in progress—which is a question of faith, not evidence.

The United States today is the leading world power by many if not most conventional measures. With the largest economy and the largest and most advanced arsenal of weapons, it is acknowledged as such and exercises wide influence. However, it is in the nature of political relationships that an effort to translate a position of material superiority into power over others will provoke resistance and may fail, possibly in costly ways. In the present case, it implies the subordination of others, notably the other democracies that are expected to accept US leadership in a new international order, and may resist this for a variety of well-founded reasons. In the past, societies that were more advanced in political and social organization, or economic or military power, or even so narrow a specialty as navigation, created empires, but in medieval and early modern times imperial powers were not necessarily technologically or militarily superior to their subject nations. The Hapsburg empire was the result of dynastic marriages and religious alliances.

Today’s major democracies are all advanced societies; in some ways, in social standards, distribution of wealth and opportunity, the provision of universal health care and free or affordable education, and certain technologies and industries, many are more advanced than the United States. They are willing to cooperate with the United States in matters of common concern, as they have for a half-century, but not to subordinate themselves to Washington. They are aware that this administration’s effort to establish a system of Central Asian and Middle Eastern client states (the “Greater Middle East”) has already produced two ruinous and continuing wars, and worsened situations in Lebanon, Gaza and the Palestinian territories, and Israel.

Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins recently asked why, if other nations really objected to an American effort to establish a new international hegemony, there has been no effort to build a military coalition to oppose it. He describes the United States as already dominating the world, much as the elephant (in his genial comparison) dominates the African savanna: the calm herbivorous goliath that keeps the carnivores at a respectful distance, while supporting “a wide variety of other creatures—smaller mammals, birds and insects—by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself.”6 Everyone knows the United States is not a predatory power, he says, so everyone profits from the stability the elephant provides, at American taxpayer expense.

Elephants are also known to trample people, uproot crops and gardens, topple trees and houses, and occasionally go mad (hence, “rogue nations”). Americans, moreover, are carnivores. The administration has attacked the existing international order by renouncing inconvenient treaties and conventions and reintroducing torture, and arbitrary and indefinite imprisonment, into advanced civilization. Where is the stability that Mandelbaum tells us has been provided by this American military and political deployment? The doomed and destructive war of choice in Iraq, continuing and mounting disorder in Afghanistan following another such war, war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, as well as between Hamas and Fatah, accompanied by continuing crisis in Palestine, with rumbles of new American wars of choice with Iran or Syria, and the emergence of a nuclear North Korea—all demonstrate deep international instability.

American efforts to deregulate the international economy and promote globalization, whatever its benefits, have been the most powerful force of political, economic, social, and cultural destabilization the world has known since World War II, providing what closely resembles that “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation” forecast by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.

Michael Mandelbaum’s question about using military coalitions to contain American power seems spoken from another age. The utility of military coalitions is not what it used to be, as the United States has reason to know. No one today would rationally consider conventional war with the United States a useful (or feasible) response to American power, although North Korea and Iran (and undoubtedly others) have concluded that a nuclear deterrent to what is seen as the threat from the United States is a worthwhile investment.

The new American militarism, as Andrew Bacevich calls it, encourages reliance on obsolete notions about power based on quantitative military advantage. Power now comes primarily from economic, financial, industrial, political, and cultural assets and influence, in all of which the United States is vulnerable.7 If American international hegemony is considered a threat, there are political and economic ways for international society to check it, not to speak of unconventional forms of military resistance, which have been employed with success in Iraq, in Lebanon last summer, and, much earlier, in Vietnam.

War tends now to be driven by nationalism and religious or political ideology. Nationalism and communalism, the defense of a community’s identity and autonomy, remain eminently powerful political forces, as in Vietnam three decades ago. The recent history of Lebanon, Iraq, Chechnya, the Palestinian intifadas, failed states, the memory of the Vietnam War, and the specter of rogue nations possessing nuclear weapons combine to make military interventions in the non-Western world an unattractive prospect.

Is there an alternative policy? At the time of George Kennan’s death in 2005, much was made of the cold war policy of containment, of which he was the author, and its vindication by the collapse of the Soviet Union from inner decay, as he had foreseen. Not much was written about Kennan’s general view of the nature of relations between states, which was in radical contrast with the policies and assumptions of the present US government and most of those concerned with foreign policy in Washington. Kennan’s volume of autobiographical reflections, Around the Cragged Hill, published in 1993 when he was eighty-nine, contained his mature reflections on this subject, as well as his thoughts on American foreign policy.

He did not think that democracy along North American and Western European lines can prevail internationally. “To have real self-government, a people must understand what that means, want it, and be willing to sacrifice for it.” Many nondemocratic systems are inherently unstable. “But so what?” he asked. “We are not their keepers. We never will be.” (He did not say that we might one day try to be.) He suggested that nondemocratic societies should be left “to be governed or misgoverned as habit and tradition may dictate, asking of their governing cliques only that they observe, in their bilateral relations with us and with the remainder of the world community, the minimum standards of civilized diplomatic intercourse.”8

With the cold war over, Kennan saw no need for the continuing presence of American troops in Europe, and little need for them in Asia, subject to the security interests of Japan, allied to the United States by treaty. He deplored economic and military programs that existed in “so great a profusion and complexity that they escape the normal possibilities for official, not to mention private oversight.” He asked why the United States was [in 1992] giving military assistance to forty-three African countries and twenty-two (of twenty-four) countries in Latin America. “Against whom are these weapons conceivably to be employed?… [Presumably] their neighbors or, in civil conflict, against themselves. Is it our business to prepare them for that?”

In the late 1950s, a colleague, the late Edmund Stillman, and I circulated an argument that eventually became a magazine article and book, suggesting that the American obsession with Soviet Communist power was turning the United States toward an American version of Marxist historicism and ideological messianism. We said that Washington had fallen under the influence of “the ideological politics of the Thirties and moral fervor of the second world war” in assuming that we and Soviet Russia were struggling, so to speak, for the soul of the world.9

We argued that quite the opposite was true. We said that common sense about the nature of Russia’s and China’s real interests suggested that time was not on their sides, and that Kennan’s policy of containing the major Communist powers, until what Marx would have called their internal contradictions undermined them, was the correct one. The interest of China was mainly to weaken Soviet supremacy among the Communists. Russia itself was in material decline, its messianism faded. Western Europe, Japan, and other Asian nations were increasingly dynamic, and could be expected to reclaim their pre-war influence. The 1950s, we concluded, were already a time of plural power centers and multiple interests, a system in which international power and ambitions were increasingly expressed by independent state actors, a system in which the United States could flourish, but the Soviet Union, in the long term, could not. We ended by recommending patience.

This went against much thinking of the period. In retrospect, it is the loser’s tale, describing a road not taken. It might seem of little interest now, if the direction actually followed had not proven so disastrous. It seems scarcely imaginable that the present administration could shift course away from the interventionist military and political policies of recent decades, let alone its own highly aggressive version of them since 2001, unless it were forced to do so by (eminently possible) disaster in the Middle East. Whether a new administration in two years’ time might change direction seems the relevant question.

Yet little sign exists of a challenge in American foreign policy debates to the principles and assumptions of an international interventionism motivated by belief in a special national mission. The country might find itself with a new administration in 2009 which provides a less abrasive and more courteous version of the American pursuit of world hegemony, but one still condemned by the inherent impossibility of success.

The intellectual and material commitments made during the past half-century of American military, bureaucratic, and intellectual investment in global interventionism will be hard to reverse. The Washington political class remains largely convinced that the United States supplies the essential structure of international security, and that a withdrawal of American forces from their expanding network of overseas military bases, or disengagement from present American interventions into the affairs of many dozens of countries, would destabilize the international system and produce unacceptable consequences for American security. Why this should be so is rarely explained.

What is the threat that America keeps at bay? Neither China nor Russia directly threatens Western security interests, at least in the opinion of most governments other than the one in Washington. Obviously all the major nations have energy and resource needs and interests that intersect and conflict, but there is little reason to think that these and other foreseeable problems are not negotiable. Warmongering speculation of the kind one sometimes hears when American conservatives discuss China or Russia—not to speak of Iran—is a product of world-hegemonic thinking, and a disservice to true American interests.

America’s so-called war against terrorism has not saved its allies from violence. The terrorist problem is generally seen in Europe as one of domestic social order and immigrant integration—a matter for political treatment and police precautions—related to a religious and political crisis inside contemporary Islamic culture that is unsusceptible to foreign remedy. Few leaders outside the United States, other than Tony Blair, consider the terrorist threat a global conspiracy of those “who hate freedom”—a puerile formulation—or think the existing militarized response to it a success. The positive results have been meager, and the negative consequences in relations with Muslim countries have been disastrous. The US approach has become perceived as a war against Islamic “nationalism”—a reaffirmation of cultural as well as political identity (and separatism)—which like most nationalisms has thrown up terrorist fighting organizations (as did another nationalism without a nation, Zionism, in its day).

The noninterventionist alternative to the policies followed in the United States since the 1950s is to minimize interference in other societies and accept the existence of an international system of plural and legitimate powers and interests. One would think the idea that nations are responsible for themselves, and that American military interference in their affairs is more likely to turn small problems into big ones than to solve them, would appeal to an American public that believes in individual responsibility and the autonomy of markets, considers itself hostile to political ideology (largely unaware of its own), and professes to be governed by constitutional order, pragmatism, and compromise.

A noninterventionist policy would shun ideology and emphasize pragmatic and empirical judgment of the interests and needs of this nation and of others, with reliance on diplomacy and analytical intelligence, giving particular attention to history, since nearly all serious problems between nations are recurrent or have important recurrent elements in them. The current crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, and Iran are all colonial or postcolonial in nature, which is generally ignored in American political and press discussion.

Such a noninterventionist policy would rely primarily on trade and the market, rather than territorial control or military intimidation, to provide the resources and energy the United States needs. Political and diplomatic action would be the primary and essential instruments of international relations and persuasion; military action the last and worst one, evidence of political failure. Military deployments abroad would be reexamined with particular attention to whether they might actually be impediments to solutions of the conflicts of clients, or reinforce intransigence in the complex dynamics of relations among nations such as the two Koreas, China, Taiwan, and Japan, where lasting solutions can only be found in political settlements between principals.

Had a noninterventionist policy been followed in the 1960s, there would have been no American war in Indochina. The struggle there would have been recognized as nationalist in motivation, unsusceptible to solution by foreigners, and inherently limited in its international consequences, whatever they might be—as has proved to be the case. The United States would never have been defeated, its army demoralized, or its students radicalized. There would have been no American invasion of Cambodia, which precipitated the Khmer Rouge genocide. The tribal peoples of Laos would probably have been spared their ordeal.

The United States would not have suffered its catastrophic implication in what was essentially a domestic crisis in Iran in 1979, which still poisons Near and Middle Eastern affairs, since there would never have been the huge and provocative American investment in the Shah’s regime as American “gendarme” in the region, compromising the Shah and contributing to the fundamentalist backlash against his secularizing modernization.

Without entering further into what rapidly would become an otiose discussion of the “mights” or “might nots” of the last half-century, one can certainly argue that a noninterventionist United States would not be at war in Iraq today. While obviously concerned about the free flow of Middle Eastern oil, Washington would have assumed that the oil-using states bought their oil on the market and that oil producers had to sell, having nothing else they can do with their oil, and that politically motivated interference in the market by the oil producers would in the mid- and long term fail, as happened after the OPEC oil price rise of 1973.

Israel, with its conventional and unconventional arms, is capable of assuring its own defense against external aggression, if newly aware of the limits of its ability to combat irregular forces. It cannot expect total security without political resolution of the Palestinian question, a problem only it can solve, by withdrawing from the territories to some negotiated approximation of the 1967 border. International engagement would undoubtedly be necessary to a solution, and would willingly be supplied. Forty years of American involvement have unfortunately served mainly to allow the Israelis to avoid facing facts, contributing to radicalization in Islamic society.

Washington might reasonably have considered people who are victims of domestic despots, such as the Iraqis before 2003, as responsible for their own solutions, and usually capable of their own revolutions—if they really wanted revolution. No foreign power occupied Iraq, imposing Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The current Iraqi insurgencies against military occupation and an American-imposed government, accompanied by mounting sectarian conflict, now tie down the quasi totality of available American ground forces. “Regime change” is better left to the people whose regime it is, who know what they want, and who will benefit from or suffer the consequences of change.

A hard-headed doctrine concerning the responsibilities of people themselves may seem unacceptable when the CNN audience witnesses mass murder in Darfur, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. However an interventionist foreign policy in which the US aggressively interferes in other states in order to shape their affairs according to American interest or ideology is not the same as responding to atrocious public crimes.

The latter may be relatively simple to deal with, as in the case of Charles Taylor, onetime president of Liberia, responsible for several rapacious and exceptionally bloody West African conflicts, now being tried for war crimes in The Hague. The adroit British intervention that ended civil chaos and conflict in Sierra Leone was a public service, as was the pacification of Liberia.

There are limits to the feasibility of humanitarian intervention. It can create its own problems, as nongovernmental groups now acknowledge. Their and UN efforts to feed and support refugees can facilitate aggression by taking the victims off the aggressor’s hands, as happened in the initial Yugoslav intervention, where the Security Council limited the UN force to “protection” of civilians while a war of sectarian and territorial aggression was going on.10 Eventual military intervention produced the Dayton agreement, which nonetheless left Kosovo and the explosive problem of the Albanian regional diaspora unsettled.

Humanitarian crises are often the current manifestation of intractable historical grievances, as in the former Yugoslavia, and in Rwanda, where the Tutsi, Hamitic cattle-raising people who migrated to the Lake Kivu area some four centuries ago, presumably from Ethiopia, had imposed a form of monarchical and aristocratic rule on the Bantu-speaking Hutus, despite the latter’s much greater numbers. German and Belgian colonial authorities left this system as they found it, and it persisted until independence in the 1960s, when the Hutus’ bid for democratic power launched the conflicts that followed, culminating in the genocidal upheaval of 1994 against the Tutsis that ended with them once again in power.

Such crises are often intensified by material developments, like the droughts in recent years in the semi-arid Sahel, the geographical and climactic zone running from Senegal to Ethiopia that separates the coastal deserts of Africa from the savannah to the south. Its occupants have mainly been nomadic pastoral peoples identified as Arabs, distinct from the black peasant cultivators of the more fertile south. Arable land has been reduced, producing conflict, population movement, and political unrest in fragile states. The Darfur victims are refugees from political conflict inside Sudan, and their plight has spilled over into Chad and the Central African Republic, and threatens trouble elsewhere.

This is not, obviously, a situation susceptible to solution by foreign military intervention. However the US Army is pressing for a new Africa Command, possibly based in Djibouti, with “forward-based troops” ready to deal with Africa’s “emergence…as a strategic reality” (as Marine General James Jones, departing commander of US forces in Europe, said in December). The 2004 US National Security Strategy declaration identifies “failed states” in Africa as well as “rogue states” as threats to American interests.

US support of the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia, which overturned Islamist rule in that “failed state,” together with demands in the US and Europe for military intervention against the Muslim “Arab” tormentors of the Darfur refugees, suggest that in government circles as well as the public mind, the African humanitarian crisis is beginning to be confused with or assimilated to the larger US “war on terror.” This is a profound error, and risks setting the United States on a course of endless and fruitless military interventions against Africa’s miseries—a “long war” indeed.

Nuclear weapons proliferation, since North Korea’s recent nuclear claims, is now more than ever an American preoccupation. In North Korea and elsewhere, the most important incentive for obtaining nuclear weapons is to deter American (or in Iran’s case, Israeli) military intervention. The advantage provided by possession of such weapons is intimidation of neighboring states and inhibition of foreign interference. On the other hand, as Iran is finding out, the effort to obtain nuclear weapons may invite a precautionary foreign attack, so the choice of proliferation presents its own risks.

In Washington, Iranian possession of nuclear weapons is usually described as a threat to Israel, or to American bases or interests in the region, or even to Europe. Given the ability of all of these governments to retaliate conventionally as well as by nuclear means, it seems implausible or even unreasonable that Iran would initiate such an attack, or even imagine that there would be something to gain from doing so.

The possession of nuclear weapons provides mainly symbolic power, since their actual use implies unforeseeable and uncontrollable consequences, while this same uncertainty contributes to their deterrence effect. Building and testing a nuclear weapon makes a country ostensibly more important, or a more notorious and more feared actor on the international and regional stage, but the positive exploitation of nuclear status, even for purposes of blackmail, is not easy.

The nuclear threat is not automatically a credible one since its execution would be so disproportionate to any easily imagined provocation. Whatever the motive, a nuclear attack against a nonnuclear state with no means for deterrence or retaliation would provoke enormous international uproar and anxiety, invite intervention by one (or all) of the old nuclear states as well as by the UN and other international organizations, bring intense international opprobrium upon the state making use of the nuclear weapon—and of course inspire any other government in the region that thought itself potentially threatened to go after its own nuclear deterrent.

Would, for example, either the United States or Israel really gain by using nuclear penetration weapons against Iran’s nuclear installations, breaking the nuclear truce that has lasted since Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Would this not add to the incentives that Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, perhaps states in the Persian Gulf, and certain countries in the Far East already may feel to seek nuclear deterrents? And would it not give the Europeans reason seriously to reconsider their own situation?

As the last sixty years of nuclear strategy studies suggest, the value of these weapons for any purpose other than deterrence seems slight. Their utility for coercion or blackmail seems very doubtful when not linked to a secure second-strike capability to deter retaliation, of the kind possessed by the cold war nuclear states, and this is beyond the means of the countries now considered candidates for nuclear status.11

History does not offer nations permanent security, and when it seems to offer hegemonic domination this usually is only to take it away again, often in unpleasant ways. The United States was fortunate to enjoy relative isolation for as long as it did. The conviction of Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the country was exempt from the common fate has been succeeded in the twenty-first century by an American determination to fight (to “victory,” as the President insists) against the conditions of existence history now actually does offer. It sets against them the consoling illusion that power will always prevail, despite the evidence that this is not true.

Schumpeter remarked in 1919 that imperialism necessarily carries the implication of

an aggressiveness, the true reasons for which do not lie in the aims which are temporarily being pursued…an aggressiveness for its own sake, as reflected in such terms as “hegemony,” “world dominion,” and so forth…expansion for the sake of expanding….

“This determination,” he continues,

cannot be explained by any of the pretexts that bring it into action, by any of the aims for which it seems to be struggling at the time…. Such expansion is in a sense its own “object.”12

Perhaps this has come to apply in the American case, and we have gone beyond the belief in national exception to make an ideology of progress and universal leadership into our moral justification for a policy of simple power expansion. In that case we have entered into a logic of history that in the past has invariably ended in tragedy.

January 18, 2007

This Issue

February 15, 2007