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Managing American Hegemony
Essays on Power in a Time of Dominance
By Kori N. Schake
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Why Is American Power So Threatening?
American power was ascendant for most of the twentieth century, but fears about it seem to have taken on a qualitatively more anxious feel and quantitatively greater frequency in recent years. The end of the cold war freed up dread that previously had been focused on nuclear apocalypse or the spread of communism, and since the Soviet model had been vanquished, it is perhaps not surprising that some concern migrated to managing American hegemony. The United States was the last superpower standing, but it was quickly seen as much more: the only state in the international order with the ability to take action with impunity, to ignore international institutions, to insulate itself from the effects of other states' choices. We represent a fundamental asymmetry in the international order because the United States is seen as being unaffected by the actions of other states, whereas no state considers itself free of the effects of U.S. choices.
Concern about newly unrestrained power was not generalized to the West: the free market democracies ostensibly won the cold war, but concern has been about American power in the international order, not about Western power. Moreover, much of the concern expressed has come from America's closest allies, not its enemies. At times, America's enemies seem more accommodated to American power than its friends. This chapter explores why American power seems so intimidating to other states now, and what we can or should do about their concerns. The chapter focuses in particular on the European critique of American power, because the European states seem to have the least to fear from our hegemony: they are the preferred partners, the recipients of most of our diplomatic attention, the countries with the closest relationships with the United States and greatest influence over our choices, the ones we have bound ourselves to defend.
Several explanations have been posited for recent concern about American predominance: the decreasing legitimacy of American power; declining multilateralism by the United States; a recklessness particular to the Bush administration, compromising the goodwill of generations; changes in American political culture due to 9/11 that are difficult for longtime allies to appreciate; and even the "natural" proclivity of states to cooperate against a hegemon.
When one speaks of legitimacy in international relations, what is meant is the acceptability of state actions to other states. "International law" is the fancy dress for what powerful states agree to in principle. As Shakespeare's Henry V says when his French fiancé refuses to kiss him because it is not the practice in her country, "nice customs curtsy to great kings, Kate. We are the makers of manners." So it is with powerful states and international law. States appeal to it to restrain others, but when a state's own interests are at stake, means of circumvention can usually be found. The illustrative post–cold war example is Kosovo, because it involves the states most committed to institutional constraint and international law, and because their motivation was commendable. The choice was a threefold intrusion into state rights by Europeans who champion the sole authority of the United Nations' remit in legitimating the use of force: their action lacked an authorizing resolution from the UN Security Council; it intruded into that most sacrosanct aspect of international law, the sovereign right of states to determine their domestic policies; and it posited a new standard for future international interventions, the prevention of harm to people by their own government. Europeans (and the United States) chose war in Kosovo because it was in their interest to stabilize the Balkans and because Serbian behavior so offended their morality. In the process Europeans legitimized the notion that there are "laws" higher than "international law": national interests and human rights.
Even in the tighter confines of powerful state norms as law, it is unclear what actions excepting the Iraq War (and the criticism predates Iraq) the United States has taken after the end of the cold war so out of step with its earlier behavior as to call the legitimacy of our power into question. We fostered the peaceful reunification of Germany when Russia, France, and even the Thatcher government in Britain preferred to perpetuate its division. We assisted the transition of former Warsaw Pact states to free market democracies, even taking on security guarantees for most of them. We did not demonize the Russians, but instead gave them the opportunity of a fresh start. We are largely supportive of rising powers, including China, while preventing their using force to subjugate others. We have encouraged an expanded role for Japan that does not threaten the interests of its neighbors. We have not prevented others from joining in cooperation that excludes us, whether in the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It would seem a pretty commendable record for a state with the ability to impose its will.
What Europeans seem to object to is the U.S.'s declining to join in cooperation that does not advance or protect our interests. We decline to accept that we need an international mandate for the use of force. We decline to accept that states can create "law" that binds other states without their consent, as in the International Criminal Court. We decline to become party to treaties, such as the Ottawa Land Mines Convention, that would prevent the carrying out of security obligations on terms we judge appropriate when we are not the cause of the problems those conventions seek to solve. We decline to consider treaties immutable when they contain provisions for parties to withdraw, as in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. These are attitudes of long standing in the U.S. political culture. They shouldn't be news, especially not to close allies.
Perhaps it is our own fault that other states believe there have been dramatic changes of direction in U.S. policies with the end of the cold war, since the largest perpetrators of that fiction are Americans themselves. We pretend new presidential administrations presage different approaches to foreign policy and talk as though they deliver on their promises of greater internationalism or tougher economic competition or "fair trade" when the swathe of agreement is quite wide on which problems we should engage in attempting to solve and what means are available to solve them.
If U.S. behavior has not substantially changed, perhaps norms in other states are transcending our practice to establish a higher, worthier standard of state behavior that we are failing to work up to. Perhaps other states fight their wars more justly and compromise their national interests for the greater good more easily. There is little evidence for that hypothesis, however. Other countries are not doing the hard work of advancing peace and security by means more virtuous than Americans have used. For the most part, they are simply not doing the work.
The United States is not behaving worse than other states in the international order. We are simply operating more, and under much greater scrutiny. The United States commits itself to protect more states and with more force than any other government would contemplate. American military forces in the wars we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are operating with greater restraint under fire and greater concern for civilian populations than virtually any other military in the world could achieve.
It is true that other militaries operate with greater cultural knowledge and sensitivity than the U.S. military does, and our limitations in this regard often result in greater resentment of our presence or a higher price in casualties. But often this criticism ignores three important countervailing forces. First, U.S. forces are more attractive targets for insurgent forces than are most countries' militaries, because we generally lead the operations we participate in, and therefore derailing U.S. involvement would collapse the operation. Second, military training is a full-time occupation in contemporary warfare, and there are operational trade-off s to spending training time on noncombat skills. Third, because of the global security obligations of the United States, our military cannot afford to specialize in the way expansive cultural awareness requires. We cannot devote ourselves to becoming Arabists because we must also be Sinologists and South Asianists and Hispanologists. U.S. military forces run different risks than other militaries do, and have a broader range of obligations, even before addressing the American insistence on retaining a war-winning (as opposed to a peacekeeping) military. We can, and should, build awareness of the environments in which our forces operate, but expecting the American military to optimize to the needed skills would simply increase the likelihood that the United States would not intervene.
Besides, securing the international order is not simply a popularity contest. Our government's responsibility is the well-being of the American people. That our choices are unpopular may say more about the states objecting than about the nefariousness of our actions. The easy cases are Iran's objecting to our nonproliferation activities, North Korea's decrying our approach to government accountability, or Middle Eastern authoritarian governments' disclaiming our support for democracy movements. In those cases, the governments all have a strong interest in undercutting U.S. policies. But those are not the critics that gain traction. The critics that gain traction are European critics.
When Europeans complain about the declining legitimacy of U.S. international involvement, they mean either that we are not doing what they want us to do, or we are not doing it through the institutions they value. Consultations with Europeans are near constant and take up far and away the majority of U.S. diplomatic engagement: we consult with Europeans bilaterally, both in their capitals and in Washington, through NATO and the European Union, at the United Nations. It cannot be that the quantity of consulting is insufficient; what Europeans are really complaining about is that U.S. policies are insufficiently malleable to their influence. We are unilateral if we do not adopt common transatlantic policies.
The rallying cry against U.S. unilateralism rings from nearly every underused European church bell tower, but in truth the United States rarely acts alone. The complaint really translates to the United States' not accepting European vetoes. When the United States was unable to achieve a UN Security Council resolution for invading Iraq, it received public endorsement of the war from fifty-six other countries — a much more significant international validation than the fifteen members of the Security Council represent. When the United States invaded Iraq, it did so with military forces from thirty-seven other countries — one-fifth of the world's countries validated the war by their own participation. Thirty-nine other countries have declined to sign the international convention banning land mines, not coincidentally most of those with extensive or difficult to defend land borders. Yet when the United States is criticized for not joining the treaty, what is gleefully reported is that we are in the company of North Korea, Iran, and Cuba.
Perhaps the most resented American refusal is of the Kyoto Treaty restricting greenhouse gas emissions, since the United States is now the largest producer of that pollutant. Even in that case, the 141 signatories account for only 51 percent of total global emissions, and the states likely to produce much greater quantities as their economies develop also chose not to participate. In each celebrated case of the United States' declining to participate in international undertakings, we have not acted alone, even if we have not acted through international institutions.
The constraints of international institutions work most effectively when either the basic agreement on rules and policies is broad (as on security in NATO or social policies in the European Union), or when achieving an outcome supersedes in importance the substance of the outcome (as, for most states, in Palestine). The UN is simply incapable of dealing with crises affecting the most powerful states because these states control its outcomes. It is impossible to imagine the UN playing a useful role in punishing Russia for using energy supplies to blackmail former Soviet states. Even a regional power like Iran can be in flagrante delicto with regard to the UN Security Council's demand that it cease uranium enrichment, to little effect. The UN is incapable of moving against the interests of the strongest states; it can only withhold support from the strong and punish the weak (if they are not shielded by one of the strong). The UN is mostly useful for making a public case of dangerous behavior against another state to raise the cost of such behavior by shaping international attitudes. In sum, the UN is an imperfect tool for managing international peace and security, and certainly not the deus ex machina of virtuous international action.
The UN tends to get problems dumped on it either because they are intractable (Israel-Palestine) or states don't care enough to solve the problem nationally (genocide in Darfur). Those critical of the UN record in producing good outcomes should weight the grade of its performance by these two factors. While deference for the United Nations is most everywhere higher than in the United States, the "international institutions create legitimacy" argument overstates the extent to which states adjudicate their gravest concerns through international institutions. For example, perhaps no state trumpets the importance of the United Nations in international peace and security as fervently as Germany does, but Germany never permitted a UN role in the Berlin crises or in adjudication of its national unification, and fought in Kosovo without UN sanction. Europeans are perhaps more enthusiastic about UN legitimation because their own security problems seem distant at this time.
Why, then, do Europeans treat the UN as the seminal legitimizing body? Europeans have a greater affinity for institutions that orchestrate international activity than does the United States. As small- and medium-sized states, they seldom believe acting alone will achieve their objectives. Small- and medium-sized states have better odds of restraining the strongest states through agreed practices and institutional power sharing; the strongest states have an interest in the validation of multilateralism. It should match. But most states do not entrust their security, economies, or domestic policies to international institutions. The countries of the European Union are unique in the extent to which they pool sovereignty for common policies; what is extraordinary is the extent to which they believe the EU experience is a microcosm for the international order.
Another weakness of the institutional argument is that it overstates the extent to which the United States has ever been committed to institutions. The NATO commitment is unique in American experience, our promise to our closest friends in the world at the end of a savage war and with a bristling threat near to them; NATO correspondingly is the international institution with the highest level of U.S. support. We have always had a strong strain of domestic concern about participating in the UN, much less binding our policies to its proscriptions. It is of substantial value to the United States to have UN validation of its action, but we fought long wars in Vietnam and Iraq and invaded Panama and Grenada without the benefit of UN approval. Approval from the NATO nations has the strongest legitimating value of any international institution, and yet NATO also has never served to restrain the United States from using military force.
The institutional legitimacy argument is most vociferously advanced by Europeans and Europeanists; not surprisingly, since European states are the ones with the greatest success in constraining American power through institutions and have expended such enormous effort in constructing the European Union among themselves. We have mostly agreed on security in Europe and given wide latitude to European concerns about whether and how wars would be fought. This was proper, as the war would be fought on their territories. Yet even in those circumstances, the United States retained a separate, national chain of command to take unilateral action. And despite all the ties that bind the United States to Europe institutionally, we have never really agreed on security issues outside of Europe. The United States strongly supported decolonization in the 1940s and 1950s; refused assistance to the British, French, and Israeli attack on Suez in 1956; fought a decade in Vietnam without European assistance; and supported insurgents in Central America in the 1980s over European objections. It is difficult now to imagine Europeans fighting to defend Taiwan from China, as the United States has committed to do, or redoubling their involvement in Iraq because of our troubles there.
Excerpted from Managing American Hegemony by Kori N. Schake. Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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