Nately’s Old Man

Is the statement, ‘America’s position as pre-eminent world power will not last indefinitely’ a truism? That is to say, is this a statement too obviously true to be worth making? It was not blindingly obvious to Nately, Catch-22‘s embodiment of east coast rectitude and privilege. Whilst visiting his whore he was taunted by an old Italian with the knowledge that Italy was winning the war. After all, her soldiers were no longer fighting, whereas Americans and Germans were still dying every day. In consequence:

‘Italy will survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed.’

Nately could scarcely believe his ears. he had never heard such shocking blasphemies before, and he wondered with instinctive logic why G-men did not appear to lock the traitorous old man up. ‘America is not going to be destroyed!’ he shouted passionately.

‘Never?’ prodded the old man softly.

‘Well . . .’ Nately faltered.

The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper more explosive delight. His goading remained gentle. ‘Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your country will last? Forever?

Well, they’re still on top, and with no immediate end in sight, but that day will come. Do Americans now know this, and if they don’t does it matter?

To begin with, let’s leave the American people out of this. They no more think about abstruse matters of foreign policy than any people anywhere else. Instead let’s consider the leaders and the thinkers. One of the latter, Prof. Kenneth Waltz [1] , is sure that ‘American leaders seem to believe that America’s pre-eminent position will last indefinitely’. Since any such conviction amongst the governing class is likely to have at least been shaped by what the thinkers have thought, it’s instructive to listen.

Elliot Abrams [2] considers the US’s current position such as to render irrelevant traditional notions such as the ‘balance of power’. Implying a very considerable degree of choice in the matter, the key question facing America is, he suggests, ‘whether to preserve this dominance, or whether to view it as a danger to ourselves and others’. Mr Abrams is all for preserving, because that, fortunately, will also, ‘preserve peace and promote the cause of democracy and human rights’. Let’s not forget that America has ‘been the greatest force for good among the nations of the earth’. So America staying as top nation is not merely likely from this viewpoint, but also, for each and every one of us, a thoroughly good thing.

To still any dissenting voices Eliot Cohen [3] assures us that ‘there are, of course, a few first principles. No one (probably not even some members of the Chinese Politburo) would like to see the US lose its status in the international system as the fundamental guarantor of an open trading order’. Nor need we be worried that this vista of an endless horizon to US power will intimidate Americans. As James Heilbrunn [4] proclaims with almost Natelyesque confidence: ‘the new realists have it backward. America is not overcommitted. It is not committed enough’. Thankfully American hegemony is not only buttressed by rational foreign governments being aware of all these facts, foreign people are also up to speed. Michael Ledeen [5] points out, ‘oppressed people everywhere know that if we fall, they are doomed’. It is difficult to think of America at moments like this without hearing the cadences of Star Wars – ‘The purpose of power, Luke, is the opportunity to do good’.

In short, America’s on top, and she’s staying on top. For confirmation of that you have only to appreciate that even a bum like Clinton wasn’t able to dissolve American power. All of our quotations are from conservative thinkers – made during the Clinton era (when US exercise of power was presumably less than congenial to them) – to be found at home in journals such as The National Interest, Commentary, National Review and the Weekly Standard, and sufficiently distinguished that not even their right wing beliefs can deny them a place in more stolid, establishment publications like Foreign Affairs. Yet, despite being conservatives (or more often than not, neo-cons) their watchword is sunny optimism, improving enthusiasm even. For they all seem to share a common certainty of American power, world without end.

At most when the possibility of decline is considered it’s in the context of, ‘well as long as we don’t do this or that unutterably foolish thing, we’ll endure’. However there are very good reasons for believing that, whatever the US does, decline happens.

These come under four broad headings. First, are the faulty assumptions which underlie much of the ugly talk of ‘new paradigmatic shifts’ such as globalisation. Second, the power of the United States, both in absolute terms today, and in comparison to previous hegemons, is greatly overstated. Third, and perhaps least significantly, there are the factors already at work which indicate ongoing US decline. And fourth, there are the systemic problems inherent in the idea of a perpetual hegemon.

Before we turn to each of these, there is one more thing to understand about how hegemons understand themselves. Much like a baby boomer, although they’re likewise aware of the concept of death, they simply don’t believe it can apply to them. Psychologically this manifests itself in the doctrine of exceptionalism. All hegemons, whilst hegemonic, subscribe to this self-belief system. In circular fashion they assume that because they’re top, they deserve to be top – it being too absurd for words that they might have got there by ‘accident’ or that hegemonic status is devoid of moral meaning. From Philip II to Palmerston, the message they tell themselves, and the rest of the world is the same: ‘we stand at the head of moral, social and political civilisation . . . our task is to lead the way and direct the march of other nations’. Palmerston, as we know, was wrong, Britain was simply powerful, not God’s instrument on earth.

Everything’s different, everything’s better

To start with faulty assumptions: these tend to revolve round notions of the new. ‘Globalisation’ is a prime example. Always an overdone concept given the superior credentials of the pre-Great War international economy, globalisation is used by many proponents of American ascendancy as proof positive of its likely long-lasting nature. They point to the recent health of the US economy, forget that their academic peers spent previous decades pointing to then healthy economies (e.g. Germany or Japan) and drawing infallible conclusions from them, and announce that, because of the crucial importance economic strength plays in maintaining power, American pre-eminence is locked in.

In The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905 Aaron Friedberg [6] self-consciously examined America’s predecessor as hegemon with a view to illuminating how power is kept or lost. Turning to the debates which preoccupied Edwardian Britain – would global free trade, which was held to have made Britain top nation, keep her that way, or to that end should protection be adopted? – Friedberg goes to the heart of the dispute, and the arguments are just as valid of today as they were of 1900:

the classical theory of free trade made no promises of permanent national advantage. Unencumbered exchange meant optimum efficiency and maximum global welfare, but it did not guarantee the lasting predominance of any one political unit. The free play of economic forces would undoubtedly result in shifts in comparative advantage in certain crucial industries, and it might also cause one nation to displace another as the leader in overall production and wealth.

This last fear gripped the US as regards Japan for much of the late 70s and 80s. As Britain displayed in the twentieth century, after economic mastery has departed, diplomatic leadership can linger for some time. The globalist/free trade point remains – this theory guarantees no nation permanent retention of economic primacy. Indeed, employing the stock reasoning about British economic decline – the inevitable consequence of a prolonged head-start – if the United States has, or is enjoying a new information age climacteric, what’s to say that when others catch up they won’t there and then surpass a dinosaur?

Another fallacy of the new is the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA). This is the belief that the United States has, or is about to achieve ‘full spectrum dominance’. That there has been, or is fairly soon about to be, a qualitative shift in the very nature of war-making, so that it will be impossible for any military power to contest an issue with America and win. Very crudely this means, ‘we have better bombs than you, and we’re smarter at using them too’.

According to taste, some believers in RMA hold that it is a permanent evolutionary advantage, like opposable thumbs, and that in no meaningful timescale is anyone else going to catch up with this undeniable advantage. Others hold that the US merely enjoys a window of superiority, similar in kind perhaps to that afforded to imperial Britain by the invention of the dreadnought: she outclasses everyone else thanks to her technological lead, but, unavoidably, mostly everyone else catches up. This second, smaller, school is divided as to whether the ultimate consequence of the RMA will be to denude the US of her comparative military advantage (e.g. dreadnoughts not only made Germany’s pre-dreadnought battleships obsolete, they also made the far larger number of British pre-dreadnoughts obsolete when Germany started building her own dreadnoughts), or, simply that competition will continue on this new, higher plane of military achievement – making it incumbent upon future administrations to spend as vigorously as their predecessors are held to have done.

This, though, remains only an idea. Its flaws are apparent from Britain in eighteenth century America and nineteenth century Afghanistan, to America in twentieth century Somalia and twenty first century Afghanistan. In each war cited, whether the coacervation of loss of will, and war with more important adversaries leading, by default, to victory ‘by’ the technology-retarded over the advanced military machine in the first example, to the shifting goals and deficient war fighting capabilities exposed in the last (no Bin Laden captured, no appetite for maintaining a victory with one’s own troops) of the last, wars are, were and always will be won by those who know what their goals are, and are willing to see them met. Like globalisation, the idea of an ‘RMA’ illuminates the willingness of a substantial number of American intellectuals to believe in the prospect of in-my-lifetime new rules. In this scenario these are invariably to the benefit of the player currently leading the game. As I will discuss in the final section, on systemic problems for unending American primacy, there is very little to back up any of these notions that ‘transformative factors’ have at all changed the basic rules of inter-state competition.

The most powerful nation ever?

If nothing miraculous has thus occurred which petrifies the present level of American dominance, what is the nature of that power? Is the United States quite as omnipotent as she is habitually made out to be? Bluntly this boils down to: is, at her presumed heyday, the US as powerful as preceding hegemons were during theirs? Arguably not. Jacky Fisher, when forcefully communicating the nature of Edwardian British world power, would have been able to point to his ‘five keys’: Dover; Gibraltar; Singapore; Alexandria; and the Cape. In their day these were the strategic prerequisites to power, as they controlled the sea. And the Royal Navy controlled them. As Britain’s heir, America has inherited this same appreciation that ‘power projection’ amounts to world power. Crucially, however, the US controls very few of her strategic assets.

Take away bases granted to her by allies, in Britain, Turkey, Germany, Australia or Japan, or in their dependencies e.g. Okinawa or Chagos Arch (the British Indian Ocean territory where the bombers fly from to bomb Iraq or Serbia or Afghanistan) and you substantially diminish American power. Even today, the continental US is still a long way away from anywhere interesting. Moreover, as this network of foreign bases indicates, there is a fundamental difference between British hegemony and American. The latter is at root conducted through the medium of alliance diplomacy, the former was, outside largescale warfare, unilateral in kind. US leadership rests much more upon the consent of her ‘western’ followers than is commonly allowed for. Subtract from the calculus of American power the sheepish behaviour of say Britain, Germany and Japan, and again, the equation is markedly different. These (rather than basket cases like Iraq, China and Russia) are precisely the countries which could most plausibly ‘compete’ with the United States, being rich, militarily capable, and most importantly, on the whole underexerted. If her Western allies took repeated American advice and raised their percentage of GDP allocated to defence to American levels, that would have an astonishing effect on those tables which presently show the US to be spending as much on defence as the next seven powers combined.

Euroland, the single currency zone, is already at a par with the US in terms of resources. If this incipient power takes the decision to offer a challenge to the global power of the US, then it, unlike China and before that, the USSR, is more than capable of making one. Imagine a European amount of money spent in a British fashion on defence. Which brings us to a most unusual ally: Britain.

Perhaps it has something to do with the partially voluntary liquidation of her power, but Britain has not, as previous hegemons have been inclined to do, conducted a hate campaign against her replacement. Commonplace wisdom has it that for centuries (long predating her own occupation of the top spot) Britain coalesced with the weak against the strong. From Catholic Spain, through revolutionary France, to German Germany, the theme seems simple: resist the top nation when you’re not it. Yet today she is the most loyal ally the strongest power can muster. And a very handy thing that is too for American primacy. Apart from the obvious virtues already discussed – the bases, the manpower, and the intelligence and technology relationship – which Britain provides, she plays a crucial role in terms of the alliance diplomacy through which the US is obliged to exercise her primacy.

Contrary to what the most self-avowedly self-interested American conservatives believe, the United Nations is an extremely useful tool of American foreign policy. Here, as elsewhere, Britain provides the US with ‘cover’ for her actions. This works in two ways. The first is between other states, the second is in the context of the American domestic viewing electorate – having Britain always to hand allows US politicians to point to at least one bunch of foreigners being on side. Having Britain in her pocket further helps the US in that Britain’s peer-competitors (especially France and Germany) often join in ‘Western’ ventures so as to prevent London from having sole access to Washington. Lastly, Britain lined up behind America, whatever else it means, means that there is one less power available to be lined up against her.

No crisis, but some decline?

If American power is in fact somewhat less than it’s usually made out to be, let alone being at the ‘post-balance, unprecedented heights’ some have claimed for it, are there signs of US decline already in existence? Well . . . as you would expect, there are difficult, often intangible factors to appreciate. If the form and exact consequences of British decline are still debatable a century later, we can perhaps be forgiven for a degree of vagueness in assessing immediate and categorical American problems.

‘Problems’ for a hegemon can cover a wide range of nuisances. Apart from the near-theological questions of ‘fundamentals’ (and who, after fifty thousand International Relations texts has any idea what they are?), we have questions like: does the power wish to remain a power? is she undergoing cultural changes inimical to the discharge of great power status? is a rival rising? are competing pressure groups (ethnic lobbies, humanitarian campaigns, unrelated political activists) distorting US foreign policy? is the US making ‘mistakes’ (e.g. by picking the wrong allies; sustaining client-liabilities i.e. Israel, Taiwan; picking the wrong enemies etc.)?

Although I promised to leave them out of it, it’s worth dragging ‘the American people’ back in, given how often their sacerdotal embrace is invoked by the academic avatars of American global engagement. China was (remember) the policy issue of the pre-bellum world. How many of the varied aspects that make up the China question would be singled out by the famed American people as ‘important’? Taiwan? the fate of North Korea? the alliance with Japan? Tibet? the American military presence in East Asia? These are surely circular, bureaucratic issues. They matter only because of the posture of global engagement the US is already committed to. They are not matters which would, unbidden, arouse great excitement in the hearts of the American people. In short, do Americans actually wish to bear the financial and moral burdens of empire to which their governors have long ago indentured them?

As is much discussed when considering Britain’s fall from place, the quality of ‘the people’, in a democracy, is moderately to quite important when assessing matters of empire and world-power. Dispensing with the near-racism which many progressive European commentators employ when opining on the average American, is this in truth rather placid creature up to the bloodthirsty business of keeping an empire? Just how many foreigners can you afford to kill in front of CNN before domestic support for imperial policing collapses? The most fanatical prophets of American exceptionalism claim that ‘the people’ will always endorse what they call ‘engagement’ (i.e. empire) because of the moral component to American foreign policy. Even if for a moment one accepts this dubious reasoning, the point at issue is means not ends. Regardless of how good the cause a neo-Reaganite foreign policy might have taken America to war for, will the public support the gory details that such a war will entail? This leaves entirely to one side the opposite but related matter of your own casualties. Precisely how many of those are ‘the people’ prepared to endure to fight foreign wars, whyever they’re being fought? As a mere six months on from September 11th shows, for the people, striking back is one thing – striking first, quite another.

Moving from the led to the leaders, the foreign policy class upon which this empire truly rests is hardly without flaw. Anatol Lieven [7] wrote damningly (and well before the lunatic, and literally indefensible central Asian overreach of post 9/11) of the self-conceived heirs to the Great Game:

the rhetoric of US engagement in central Asia has moved far ahead of America’s interests in the region, and the resources it is willing to commit there. Present US strategy in the region is not, as is frequently stated, ‘dual containment’ of Iraq and Iran. It is quadruple containment, of those two states as well as Russia and now Afghanistan (and one might even consider adding Pakistan to that list). This is not diplomacy, it is strategy by autopilot, with the course set a generation ago. It also commits the cardinal sin of badly overstating the real power that the United States is willing to commit to achieve its aims in the region.

Worse still, ‘the United States has neither reason, power, nor the will to replace a largely vanished Russian hegemony in the Caspian region with a hegemony of its own. This argument, of course, runs flatly counter to the assumptions on which US policy in the region has been based [in recent] years. These assumptions are false in just about every particular. Some are indeed so historically illiterate that it is difficult not to see their proponents as blinded either by a truly pathological degree of Russophobia, or by personal ambition’. Long before 9/11, central Asia was hardly the only instance where policy had outrun resources and sanity.

One danger that that most realistic of commentators, Owen Harries (editor emeritus of The National Interest) has identified, and warned against, is hyperactivity. In this case it is not so much the self-justifying sort that imperial security bureaucrats always engage in that he cautions against, but what in American terms is known as ‘neo-Reaganism’. The danger in this sub-Wilsonian, derived from bogus exceptionalism, only-marginally-tempered-by-realism-when-spouted-by-conservatives line, promoted in descending order of merit by William Kristol [8] , Robert Kagan [9] , Norman Podhoretz [10] and Michael Ledeen, is that it can only but consume the finite physical and moral capital of American power in pursuit of trifles. This, when as Charles Krauthammer [11] soundly observed (before 9/11 – see if you can spot a theme here), there’s very little point in going out looking for trouble, because trouble will go out of its way to find you, the hegemon. Most of all though, Harries advocates restraint

because every dominant power in the last four centuries that has not practised it – that has been excessively intrusive and demanding – has ultimately been confronted by a hostile coalition of other powers. Americans may believe that their country, being exceptional, need have no worries in this respect. I do not agree. It is not what Americans think of the United States but what others think of it that will decide the matter.

All of which at last brings us to whether the system in which the United States finds itself will allow it to be perpetual hegemon.

It’s not easy to rule the world

In one sense this is an exceptional moment, and it would be misleading, not to say cold blooded, to deny it. Ever since the United States rose to being the most powerful nation on the planet it was consistently dogged by a competitor: first Britain, and then the Soviet Union. Today she is without peer, and that of course is the direct cause of this essay. She’s not the ‘first universal nation’ (that was of course us here in the mother country), but she is now, for the first time in her history, clearly on a different plane to all the other current powers. However, this state of affairs is arguably the norm in diplomatic history. You have several powers, but one always seems to be in a different league to the others. This power is constantly beset by the temptation of hubris. But whatever it believes about itself (and, mostly Americans are realistically modest) it doesn’t, because it can’t, render the other actors irrelevant.

All the practical consequences of classical realism – that the United States will be ‘balanced’ come what may; that she lacks the power to surmount the current order by which inter-national affairs are organised; that, for the US, there’s not the reason, the will or the means even to attempt genuine global domination – argue that the position of America vis-à-vis other powers will retract rather than improve. The only way that it could possibly hope to do otherwise would be if that wily provocateur Edward Luttwak’s [12] take on the Clinton era continue holds good. That is, a shambolic external policy disguises American strength and thereby disinclines others to coalesce against her. To put it mildly, the modesty some of us saw inherent in Dubya’s likely approach to foreign policy has been a trifle difficult to maintain after 9/11.

Sadly for Mr Luttwak, his kinsmen on the right are, as we have seen, all too willing to proclaim America uber alles. This noise carries. American ‘conservatives’ are (I ambitiously guess) near certain to be the principal solvent of US power. America will decline more, then fall, largely because neo-conservatives will spend vast, unnecessary sums on defence; boast about American power, thereby provoking determined opposition; and, make significant strategic errors – principally regarding China as a preordained foe, and, overcommitting resources on Wilsonian fancies due to pursuit of neo-Reaganite goals. Perhaps the neocons know this – they’re very smart – perhaps the reason they’ll destroy the thing they claim they love most, American pre-eminence, is because they realise at some level of consciousness its basic incompatibility with their creed’s fundamentally moral raison d’être (liberty, freedom, all that jazz). Maybe neocons are secretly yearning to scream out too, ‘A republic, not an empire’. Of course the opposite might be true if we look to the under considered field of geopol-psychology for an answer – perhaps neo-cons are so loudly triumphalist because of deep-rooted anxiety, perhaps they’re simply screaming at the night?

As to America’s fall, the most important factor – since every exit requires an entrance – is that she potentially faces a genuinely capable rival, which, in Euroland, she now does. This is an entity that will come into being for the delicious reason that Britain is no longer able to prevent it from doing so. And whose fault is that?

[1] Research Associate of the Institute of War and peace Studies and adjunct professor at Columbia University.

[2] President Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington DC; former assistant Secretary of State under Reagan.

[3] Professor of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University.

[4] Senior editor of The New Republic

[5] Holds the Freedom chair at the American Enterprise Institute; author of Machiavelli on Modern Leadership.

[6] Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.

[7] Editor Strategic Comments, IISS; author of Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power.

[8] Founder & publisher, the Weekly Standard.

[9] Senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; co-editor (with William Kristol) of Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy.

[10] Editor-at-large Commentary; author of Ex-friends.

[11] Contributing editor, The New Republic.

[12] Senior fellow Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC; author of Turbo-Capitalism: Winners and Losers in the Global Economy.