Friday, August 25, 2006

America cannot rely on power alone

America cannot rely on power alone
By Christopher Layne
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: August 23 2006 19:30 | Last updated: August 23 2006 19:30

Even the Roman empire at its zenith did not have the international influence of 21st-century America. Yet foreign policy analysts are increasingly asking why the US, with all its hegemonic power, seems unable to get its way in suppressing the Iraqi insurgency, ­stabilising Afghanistan, getting Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear weapons programmes and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other words, the magnitude of American power and Washington’s inability to use that power to get its way in international politics presents a paradox.

Make no mistake: the US is indeed a global hegemon because of its overwhelming economic and military dominance. The sheer magnitude of America’s military superiority dissuades even its closest would-be rivals from openly striving to compete as an equal.

The effective exercise of hegemonic power is illustrated also by events since 9/11. The rapid collapse of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq showcased US military prowess (though the invasion of Iraq was a tragic blunder). Because of its economic power, the US had the carrots to persuade a balky Pakistan to enlist in the battle against al-Qaeda, and to gain approval from the former Soviet republics in central Asia to establish US military bases on their territory (notwithstanding Moscow’s uneasiness).

Also, by invading Iraq essentially unilaterally – in defiance of the United Nations and big powers such as France, Germany, Russia and China, the US proved that the rest of the world is hard-pressed to constrain it.

Hegemony, however, is not omnipotence. There are several reasons why the US can successfully apply its power to some objectives but not to others.

First, the US is better at deterrence – preventing other states from attacking the US or its allies militarily – than it is at “compellence”– using its power coercively to force other states to adopt policies that run counter to their preferences and to act in accordance with Washington’s dictates. The fact that compellence is difficult explains why the US has been unsuccessful in persuading Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons programmes.

Second – as the Iraq morass illustrates – in “asymmetric” conflicts such as insurgencies, outside forces are at a big political and psychological disadvantage notwithstanding their superiority in conventional military power over indigenous fighters. The US should have learnt from its own experience in Vietnam (or the French experiences in Indochina and Algeria) that there are good reasons why big states lose small wars (as Professor Andrew Mack of the University of British Columbia put it in a widely cited article).

In these wars, the balance of motivation invariably lies with the insurgents who, instead of needing to prevail militarily, need only to survive and prolong the conflict sufficiently to chip away at the outside power’s political will. As counter-insurgent wars drag on, and the costs rise, political debate in the external power inevitably focuses on why it should continue to expend blood and treasure in a war that is not vital to security. Also, in such conflicts, occupying powers invariably find themselves on the wrong side of one of the most powerful forces in international politics: nationalism. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington’s ability to attain its objectives is also limited by the religious and cultural divides separating the Islamic world from the west.

Third, America’s own ideological militancy, rooted in the Wilsonian tradition of liberal internationalism, hamstrings the effectiveness of US diplomacy by dividing the world neatly into good guys and bad guys – or, as the Bush administration would have it, between “good” and “evil”. One reason why the US has failed in the Middle East is because of its refusal to engage in direct diplomacy with Syria and Iran – both of which have important stakes in the outcome of security issues in the Middle East, including those involving Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and with Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Ending evil may be a worthy ambition for ministers of the cloth, but it is a foolish one for ministers of state. There is much more to diplomacy than simply talking to one’s friends. The art of diplomacy lies in dealing with those who are rivals and adversaries, and finding ways of resolving outstanding differences. By preferring regime change to diplomatic engagement with “evil” states such as Iran and Syria, the US has tied its own hands in exercising hegemonic power to resolve – or at least ameliorate – the conflicts in the Middle East.

Finally, America’s hegemonic power often seems illusory because it is applied to unattainable objectives such as nation-building and promotion of democracy. US neo-conservatives and liberal imperialists alike seem to think that the world is a piece of clay and that the US can mould other nations and cultures in its own image. It is naive to think that America’s democratic values can be transplanted to flourish in countries that have no indigenous democratic tradition and that lack the social, economic and political foundations on which America’s domestic political system rests. Although the US has failed repeatedly in such efforts, it keeps trying – most recently in Iraq (and Afghanistan). In both countries it is failing yet again.

Although the US remains dominant in international politics, its power is not infinite. What is needed in Washington is the wisdom to differentiate between those foreign policy goals that are attainable and those that are not. The US must be careful not to overreach itself, and Washington needs to understand that a wise grand strategy must balance ends and means, and distinguish between desirable objectives and attainable ones. If the US is to be perceived as powerful rather than powerless, it must refrain from intervening abroad in pursuit of unrealisable goals, and will have to learn that the intricacies of international politics cannot be reduced to a simplistic Manichean struggle between good and evil.

The writer teaches at Texas A & M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, and is author of The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Cornell) and (with Bradley A. Thayer) American Empire: A Debate (Routledge). This article is based on an essay in the September/October issue of The National Interest, the US-based journal


Post a Comment

<< Home