The Humbling of the Hegemon

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the North Korean nuclear test is just the latest demonstration of the Bush Doctrine being challenged by an aggressive international player intent on defying the dictates of the current global hegemon.

Hence, if after the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy could say that the U.S. and the Soviet Union stood eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow blinked, this time it was George W. Bush and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il who stood eyeball to eyeball and… Mr. Bush blinked.

According to this perspective, since President Bush asserted the commitment by the world’s last remaining superpower to thwart any attempt by the members of the “axis of evil” and their subsidiaries to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD), his administration has been engaged in a very costly and failed strategy – at the center of which has been the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq – that has resulted in the over-stretching of American military power.

Strategic Reality

In a way, the U.S. hegemon has been humbled because it had to work within the constraints of its diplomatic and military power. Neither in North Korea nor in Iran would the United States be able to unilaterally use its power to force these regimes to give up their nuclear programs. Washington’s earlier hopes for achieving “regime change” in Pyongyang and Tehran sound like fantasies today.

Indeed, that strategic reality explains why Kim Jong-Il and, for that matter, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are prepared to go ahead and acquire nuclear capabilities. They understand that only by going nuclear will they be able to deter the U.S. from doing to them what it did to Saddam Hussein.

And they have concluded that with America sinking deeper into a military quagmire in Iraq, its military stretched thin, and its voters opposed to new overseas adventures, the chances for a U.S. military response to their acquisition of WMD is very slim.

Instead, the Bush administration finds itself in the position of having no choice but to use diplomacy – working with other powers – through the six-party talks in the case of North Korea and with the aid of the EU3 in the case of Iran.

The conventional wisdom that holds the Bush Doctrine, with its emphasis on the willingness to use preemptive military action against regimes and terrorists coveting WMD, and the ensuing war in Iraq as developments that set in motion the current process of humbling the hegemon is basically correct.

But it’s incomplete. Even in the heyday of the post-Cold War era – during America’s so-called Unilateral Moment – Washington’s political-military power was never invincible. The notion that the U.S. was the global hegemon reflected its success in asserting its “soft power” in the aftermath of the collapse of the communist bloc and the subsequent process of globalization, which has been driven by American economic and cultural power.

At the same time, there was a perception for most of the 1990s that no major global or regional player was ready yet to challenge U.S. political-military power. And when it came to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the civil war in Yugoslavia, U.S. administrations responded by building political-military coalitions with other players.

In fact, in both cases, the U.S. decided not to take certain actions – like ousting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq, or deploying large number of ground troops in the former Yugoslavia – because it recognized the constraints operating on its power, including opposition from partners and adversaries.

Officials in the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton had warned that launching an all-out invasion of Iraq would produce a major and costly diplomatic and military backlash from both global allies and regional players – exactly the kind that the administration of George W. Bush is facing in the Middle East right now.

Moreover, instances in which the American hegemon was challenged and was forced to adjust to the international political-military realities occurred during the last years of the Clinton administration, including the decision by India and Pakistan to test their nuclear weapons; the collapse of the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations at Camp David and the start of the Second Intifada; and the U.S. agreement to allow China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Officials in Washington did their best to rationalize and put a positive spin on these developments. But the fact remained that the Americans couldn’t prevent New Delhi and Islamabad from joining the global nuclear club; they couldn’t deliver a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians; and they were forced to de-link their trade policies with China from that country’s human rights conduct.

In that context, the decision by Clinton and his aides to take the path of bilateral negotiations with North Korea, including the trip by then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang, created the conditions for a gradual peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis.

It was the decision by George W. Bush and his aides to reject the advice of China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan to continue the U.S. bilateral negotiations with North Korea that led eventually to Pyongyang’s decision to go ahead with its nuclear test.

Contrary to the pledge to pursue “humility” in foreign policy that he made during the presidential election campaign of 2000, Bush ended up embracing a unilateral hegemonic strategy aimed at asserting that Washington was “in charge” – a response in part to the 9/11 terrorist acts, which were seen in Washington as a dramatic challenge to U.S. supremacy.

That response was incorporated into the Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on preemption and regime change, which led to the invasion of Iraq and the current nuclear crisis with North Korea. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials insist that the Bush administration is now doing more diplomacy and going multilateral.

After all, it is using multilateral settings, including the UN Security Council, to deal with North Korea and Iran. So why do their partners continue to criticize them? The “new” Bush-Rice policy has to do more with tactics and public relations than with strategy and substance.

In the Middle East, a serious U.S. diplomatic effort has first and foremost to include a willingness to negotiate with Iran (and Syria) over a “grand bargain” that includes achieving stability in Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and a resolution of the nuclear issue.

Practical Way

This is the kind of package deal that U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East want Washington to reach with Iran. The Bushies reject the approach, which they portray as “appeasement,” and demand that their partners join them in imposing punitive measures on Iran.

Similarly, while U.S. partners in Northeast Asia, including China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan, are clearly concerned over the North Korean nuclear test, they also consider bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang as the most practical way to deal with the current tensions. But again, the Bush administration is opposed to the idea and calls for sanctions against North Korea while stressing the need for the Chinese to “take the lead” in the process of punishing Pyongyang.

In both diplomatic arenas, the Bush administration has to readjust its policies sooner rather than later. In fact, it now has an opportunity to make diplomatic deals with both China and Russia as a way of winning their cooperation on both Iran and North Korea.

But there are no indications that President Bush is willing to pay the costs of the necessary adjustments to the evolving balance of power in the same way that his predecessors did.

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