The National Interest
John J. Mearsheimer
December 16, 2010
IN THE first years after the Cold War ended, many Americans had a profound sense of optimism about the future of international politics. President Bill Clinton captured that mood when he told the UN General Assembly in September 1993:
One year later, Charles Krauthammer emphasized in “The Unipolar Moment” that the United States had emerged from the Cold War as by far the most powerful country on the planet.2 He urged American leaders not to be reticent about using that power “to lead a unipolar world, unashamedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them.” Krauthammer’s advice fit neatly with Fukuyama’s vision of the future: the United States should take the lead in bringing democracy to less developed countries the world over. After all, that shouldn’t be an especially difficult task given that America had awesome power and the cunning of history on its side.
U.S. grand strategy has followed this basic prescription for the past twenty years, mainly because most policy makers inside the Beltway have agreed with the thrust of Fukuyama’s and Krauthammer’s early analyses.
The results, however, have been disastrous. The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight. As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world events knows, countries that continuously fight wars invariably build powerful national-security bureaucracies that undermine civil liberties and make it difficult to hold leaders accountable for their behavior; and they invariably end up adopting ruthless policies normally associated with brutal dictators. The Founding Fathers understood this problem, as is clear from James Madison’s observation that “no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Washington’s pursuit of policies like assassination, rendition and torture over the past decade, not to mention the weakening of the rule of law at home, shows that their fears were justified.
To make matters worse, the United States is now engaged in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have so far cost well over a trillion dollars and resulted in around forty-seven thousand American casualties. The pain and suffering inflicted on Iraq has been enormous. Since the war began in March 2003, more than one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, roughly 2 million Iraqis have left the country and 1.7 million more have been internally displaced. Moreover, the American military is not going to win either one of these conflicts, despite all the phony talk about how the “surge” has worked in Iraq and how a similar strategy can produce another miracle in Afghanistan. We may well be stuck in both quagmires for years to come, in fruitless pursuit of victory.
The United States has also been unable to solve three other major foreign-policy problems. Washington has worked overtime—with no success—to shut down Iran’s uranium-enrichment capability for fear that it might lead to Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. And the United States, unable to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place, now seems incapable of compelling Pyongyang to give them up. Finally, every post–Cold War administration has tried and failed to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; all indicators are that this problem will deteriorate further as the West Bank and Gaza are incorporated into a Greater Israel.
The unpleasant truth is that the United States is in a world of trouble today on the foreign-policy front, and this state of affairs is only likely to get worse in the next few years, as Afghanistan and Iraq unravel and the blame game escalates to poisonous levels. Thus, it is hardly surprising that a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey found that “looking forward 50 years, only 33 percent of Americans think the United States will continue to be the world’s leading power.”
Clearly, the heady days of the early 1990s have given way to a pronounced pessimism.
This regrettable situation raises the obvious questions of what went wrong? And can America right its course?
THE DOWNWARD spiral the United States has taken was anything but inevitable. Washington has always had a choice in how to approach grand strategy. One popular option among some libertarians is isolationism. This approach is based on the assumption that there is no region outside the Western Hemisphere that is strategically important enough to justify expending American blood and treasure. Isolationists believe that the United States is remarkably secure because it is separated from all of the world’s great powers by two giant moats—the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—and on top of that it has had nuclear weapons—the ultimate deterrent—since 1945. But in truth, there is really no chance that Washington will adopt this policy, though the United States had strong isolationist tendencies until World War II. For since then, an internationalist activism, fostered by the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation, has thoroughly delegitimized this approach. American policy makers have come to believe the country should be militarily involved on the world stage. Yet though no mainstream politician would dare advocate isolationism at this point, the rationale for this grand strategy shows just how safe the United States is. This means, among other things, that it will always be a challenge to motivate the U.S. public to want to run the world and especially to fight wars of choice in distant places.
Offshore balancing , which was America’s traditional grand strategy for most of its history, is but another option. Predicated on the belief that there are three regions of the world that are strategically important to the United States—Europe, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf—it sees the United States’ principle goal as making sure no country dominates any of these areas as it dominates the Western Hemisphere. This is to ensure that dangerous rivals in other regions are forced to concentrate their attention on great powers in their own backyards rather than be free to interfere in America’s. The best way to achieve that end is to rely on local powers to counter aspiring regional hegemons and otherwise keep U.S. military forces over the horizon. But if that proves impossible, American troops come from offshore to help do the job, and then leave once the potential hegemon is checked.
Selective engagement also assumes that Europe, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf are the only areas of the world where the United States should be willing to deploy its military might. It is a more ambitious strategy than offshore balancing in that it calls for permanently stationing U.S. troops in those regions to help maintain peace. For selective engagers, it is not enough just to thwart aspiring hegemons. It is also necessary to prevent war in those key regions, either because upheaval will damage our economy or because we will eventually get dragged into the fight in any case. An American presence is also said to be valuable for limiting nuclear proliferation. But none of these strategies call for Washington to spread democracy around the globe—especially through war.
The root cause of America’s troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War. From the Clinton administration on, the United States rejected all these other avenues, instead pursuing global dominance , or what might alternatively be called global hegemony, which was not just doomed to fail, but likely to backfire in dangerous ways if it relied too heavily on military force to achieve its ambitious agenda.
Global dominance has two broad objectives: maintaining American primacy, which means making sure that the United States remains the most powerful state in the international system; and spreading democracy across the globe, in effect, making the world over in America’s image. The underlying belief is that new liberal democracies will be peacefully inclined and pro-American, so the more the better. Of course, this means that Washington must care a lot about every country’s politics. With global dominance, no serious attempt is made to prioritize U.S. interests, because they are virtually limitless.
This grand strategy is “imperial” at its core; its proponents believe that the United States has the right as well as the responsibility to interfere in the politics of other countries. One would think that such arrogance might alienate other states, but most American policy makers of the early nineties and beyond were confident that would not happen, instead believing that other countries—save for so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea—would see the United States as a benign hegemon serving their own interests.
There is, however, an important disagreement among global dominators about how best to achieve their strategy’s goals. On one side are the neoconservatives, who believe that the United States can rely heavily on armed force to dominate and transform the globe, and that it can usually act unilaterally because American power is so great. Indeed, they tend to be openly contemptuous of Washington’s traditional allies as well as international institutions, which they view as forums where the Lilliputians tie down Gulliver. Neoconservatives see spreading democracy as a relatively easy task. For them, the key to success is removing the reigning tyrant; once that is done, there is little need to engage in protracted nation building.
On the other side are the liberal imperialists, who are certainly willing to use the American military to do social engineering. But they are less confident than the neoconservatives about what can be achieved with force alone. Therefore, liberal imperialists believe that running the world requires the United States to work closely with allies and international institutions. Although they think that democracy has widespread appeal, liberal imperialists are usually less sanguine than the neoconservatives about the ease of exporting it to other states. As we set off to remake the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall, these principles of global dominance set the agenda.