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21st Century Directions in American Foreign Policy

The United States will have no military equal in the twenty-first century, but her leaders must still manage her power skillfully, lest they alienate nations whose alliances she needs.

April 1, 2000
by William E. Odom

To speak about directions in American strategy is to raise expectations about new directions. The old direction during the Cold War, “containment,” has achieved its goal. Consequently, several candidates for a new strategy have been advanced, most prominently Paul Kennedy’s “imperial overstretch” thesis, Michael Doyle’s “democratic peace” theory, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument, Pat Buchanan’s unbridled isolationism, Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “grand chessboard” strategy.

The real choices, of course, are not as broad as this debate suggests, unless Americans are willing to give up their political values and standard of living. Otherwise, the alternatives are constrained by the legacies of the Cold War. Let us, therefore, review them and consider the implications.

How We Got Here

World War I was the defining event of the last century. Emerging German power combined with Europe’s incompetent political leadership caused it, and the Versailles Treaty merely complicated the German problem instead of solving it. Thus the war’s renewal in 1939 was assured. It was also expanded to the Pacific because of emerging Japanese power in East Asia. George Kennan claims that the Russian Revolution was the major political event of the century. Clearly this is wrong. Without World War I, there would have been neither a Bolshevik nor a Nazi regime. Soviet power was a by-product of emerging German power, and once Japan and most of Germany fell into the American camp after 1945, the die was cast against the Soviet Union. Both Germany and Japan have reemerged as major powers while Russia has plunged to a Third World status from which it will not easily escape for several decades.

Accordingly, the greatest change of the century has been the reversal in U.S.-German and U.S.-Japanese relations. The big problem countries in the first half of the century became the big solution countries in the second half. The lesson is clear: when the United States has strong military ties with Germany and Japan, there is peace and prosperity in both regions. When it has bad relations with these two powers, there is war in both regions. When the United States anchors only in Britain and France, it can win wars in Europe, but it cannot prevent them. When it anchors in China, it can win wars in the Far East, but it cannot prevent them.

The end of the Cold War does not render this lesson irrelevant. NATO was created as much for keeping peace among old enemies in Western Europe as for containing Soviet military power. And the U.S.-Japan security alliance has been as important for making Japan welcome in Asian trading circles as for defense against the Soviet military. The deep animosities still held today against Germany and Japan by their neighbors make U.S. troops essential to prevent troublemaking diplomacy from both within and outside these alliances. These military links with our old adversaries, therefore, are primary. All else is secondary. If they are maintained, most other problems will be manageable. If either breaks, then several problems will not be manageable.

Historian Geir Lundestad has called these European and Asian alliances an “empire by invitation.” In other words, the United States did not impose its hegemony. Instead, most member countries invited the United States to assume an imperial role. And it involves more than security concerns. It includes international institution building such as the creation of the United Nations, the GATT, and the World Bank and encouraging European economic and political integration. Countering the Soviet-led “socialist camp” may have inspired these developments, but their rationale has been based more on the logic of Western development than on competition with the East.

The overall result has been a change in the nature of international relations within the American empire. Americans certainly understand Realpolitik, but they do not find it ideologically congenial. They have supported the defense of Europe less from a Realpolitik calculation than because they believe Europeans are “good people.” This American moralism sets limits on amoral balance-of-power games within our alliance system. It angers some of our allies, but in fact it plays a very positive role by repressing old animosities within Europe and Northeast Asia. Moreover, moral indignation is a great source of power because it can produce political and military crusades.

Democratic peace theorists see the new international institutions as proof of their proposition, but they confuse the role of democracy with the role of imperial leadership in explaining the absence of wars among America’s democratic allies. Greece and Turkey, both democracies by the standards of the democratic peace theorists, would have gone to war during the past decade had not Washington strongly advised against it. And peace between South Korea and Japan can hardly be explained by their both being democracies. Outside its empire, however, the United States mainly employs traditional power politics. In the Middle East and South Asia, for example, it straddles regional confrontations when possible, and it stands aloof from massive human rights abuses in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

To sum up, during the last fifty years a unique Western international system, based on American dominance, has evolved, providing the greatest prosperity ever known and the longest period of peace ever in Europe and Northeast Asia. The collapse of the Soviet Union does not, as so many pundits have claimed, make this system irrelevant or outdated. Instead, it should cause us to recognize developments in the West that we have either ignored or not fully appreciated.

Power Gaps

It is obvious that America stands alone today with no peer or strategic challenger. But what is not so obvious is the size of the gaps between U.S. power and the rest of the world. They include economic and technological leads that not even a fully unified Europe can expect to close. The U.S. military advantage is so large that only specialists really understand it. Russia and China are third-rate military powers. Europe, if it were not linked militarily to the United States, would have to struggle to retain second-rate status.

The foundation for these gaps is another gap: America’s liberal political institutions. They have facilitated America’s corporate governance system, its enforcement of business competition, and its labor mobility. No country other than Britain has a university that equals any of America’s top forty or fifty universities. America’s dominance in mass culture is well-known, but less noticed is its place in high culture. Aspiring musicians from around the world come to Juilliard, the Curtis School, and Bloomington, Indiana, to achieve the highest level of competency. They used to go to Germany and Austria.

The full list of gaps is much longer, and when the capabilities of our allies in Europe and Northeast Asia are added to the American empire, the preponderance is truly staggering. Virtually no U.S. leaders in either the executive branch or the legislative branch seem to comprehend it. To say that this empire is so dominant, however, is not to say that using its power is easy. On the contrary, the very nature of an “empire by invitation” poses special leadership challenges. Its vast resources cannot be simply drawn down like cash from a checking account. They are fragile and must be creatively mobilized.

The present American empire is the West and a little more, primarily Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Huntington excludes other parts such as Turkey and the Balkans. We can agree with him that spreading Westernization beyond the West is very difficult, but it is not impossible; it requires many decades. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are prosperous precisely because they imported Western institutions, not primarily because of Japanese values. Countries outside the American empire may modernize by borrowing from it, but they cannot stay modern without the West.

A wave of liberal democracy is not about to sweep over most of the world, but that does not mean that a few non-Western states cannot succeed in adopting enough Western institutions to be effective members of the American empire. There is some danger of overstretch, but thus far the American empire has been a money-making arrangement, not a money-squandering affair.

The Proper Aim of U.S. Strategy

If so, where will we go in the new century? The aim certainly is not to celebrate “the end of history” or “the grasping of the democratic peace.” Isolation is an absurd goal. Civilizations are certainly clashing in some respects, but that is an important observation, neither a goal nor a strategy.

The public debate over strategies may continue, but the United States is unlikely to retrench in any major way. The governors of most states visit foreign countries to stir up investment and trade linkages. Midwestern farmers are as internationalist today as they purportedly used to be isolationist. Most Americans seem to understand that we must maintain international institutions that make us all wealthier and freer.

Two arguments against this judgment deserve refutation. The first is America’s alleged aversion to military casualties. Actually, this seems to be mainly a myth believed by our political elite. As Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi show in their research findings on this matter, Americans can distinguish between suffering casualties and suffering defeats. They are defeat-averse, not casualty-averse. (See “How Many Deaths Are Acceptable? A Surprising Answer,” The Washington Post, November 7, 1999, B3.)

The second myth is that our allies are making us poor by free-riding on our military expenditures. Certainly they free-ride, but how are we to explain that the United States has gotten richer than its allies? Proponents of this argument cannot explain why. They fail to realize that our military alliances, by lowering transaction costs, have facilitated the vast increases in international trade from which the United States profits enormously. Our military costs should be seen as investments that pay us back. Just compare the costs of doing business within these alliances with doing business in the Third World.

Going Forward

The real questions for U.S. strategy, therefore, are how we are to manage the American empire, what capabilities are critical for sustaining it, on which countries to place our priorities, and where to expand or reduce the empire moderately.

I have already mentioned the special challenge in maintaining the “invitational” aspect of the empire. The way President Clinton insisted that NATO fight the war with Serbia last spring is an example of how not to meet this challenge. Rather than appearing morally one-up after the war, America now looks morally one-down to many people in the world, even some of its allies. The United States also faces difficult challenges in dealing effectively with global issues, both new and old, such as demography, ecology, health, and weapons of mass destruction. Convincing the do-gooders to forswear pseudoscience and the “do-baders” to accept real science as the basis for policymaking in these areas has been difficult in the past, and it is not becoming easier.

Concerning military capabilities, America and her allies must understand that we do not face a trade-off between guns and butter; rather, we must decide how many guns we must buy to keep butter production rising. As a percentage of our GDP, America’s defense spending is trivial, under 3 percent. The louder Europe talks about its common defense policy, the lower its defense budgets fall.

Concerning our prioritization of foreign relationships, both Democrat and Republican presidential candidates speak about Russia, China, and India as the big challenges. This is truly puzzling. Neither Russia alone nor in an alliance with the other two can pose a serious challenge to U.S. power as long as NATO is strong. And at the heart of NATO’s strength is the U.S.-German military tie. Thus Germany, the new members of NATO, and our traditional strong allies are where our priorities should be, not Russia. Taking Germany for granted while treating Russia as a great power merely invites Russia to play off our European allies against one another and the United States.

The American obsession with China is no less ill-advised. China’s power is grossly overestimated. The GDPs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan combined are several times larger than China’s, and China will not catch them in the next fifty years, even if it avoids a domestic political crisis, which is highly unlikely. The most urgent problem in East Asia is change on the Korean peninsula. Reunification will probably arrive unexpectedly, and when it does, how it is managed will determine whether Korea remains in the U.S. empire or drifts into the Chinese security orbit, driven by its hostility toward Japan.

The much bigger problem is not U.S.-Chinese relations but Japanese-Chinese strategic competition. Pushing Japan and Korea toward trilateral military cooperation will put the United States in a powerful position to moderate and direct the competition. Fixation on China could undercut U.S. alliances with Korea and Japan, a formula for economic collapse and big wars in East Asia.

Next in strategic importance is the Middle East, a theater that is growing to include the Southern Caucasus and parts of Central Asia. Here the United States can only play a balance-of-power game. Efforts to expand its empire into this region are not only unwise but virtually sure to fail for the foreseeable future. The other regions—South Asia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America—pose no strategic challenges equal to those in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Middle East.

Finally, where and how are we likely to use the U.S. military in wars? Big wars of the World War II type are most unlikely. Instead, we will face three kinds of smaller wars. First are those for expanding the empire. In northeast Asia, the only candidate is North Korea. A collapse of the Pyongyang regime could produce a civil war followed by a South Korean takeover. In that event, the United States would have to support Seoul. In Europe, we are already engaged in two wars in the former Yugoslavia, and we can expect to be involved in two or three more, perhaps spilling into Albania and Bulgaria. This type of war cannot be won quickly because it involves domestic transformations in the defeated country, not simply an operational military victory.

The second kind of war includes interventions such as in Somalia and Haiti. Based more on humanitarian sentiments than strategic interests, they are not very consequential for the stability and health of our empire, although they may be important for U.S. domestic political groups. Yet they will most often end in failure because the real need is effective government, something the United States will most often refuse to provide.

The third kind of war is typified by the Persian Gulf conflict. It was fought not to expand our empire but rather to restore the status quo ante and the regional power balance. Such future wars will be more militarily demanding and also more frustrating because they will seldom be decisive.

The major directions of U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century are already taking shape but are not yet acknowledged as such. The big question, of course, is whether U.S. leaders are up to the challenges posed by them. They certainly will not lack power if they have the political skills to mobilize it.

William E. Odom, director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988 and a retired Army general, is a senior fellow with Hudson Institute. To contact General Odom, please do so via telephone at 202.974.2400 or address your letter to: General Odom c/o Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005.

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