The Bubble of American Supremacy: Correcting the Misuse of American Power

By George Soros
PublicAffairs. 207 pp. $22
Friday, February 27, 2004

Chapter One

The Bush Doctrine

It is generally agreed that September 11, 2001, changed the course of history, but we must ask ourselves why that should be so. How could a single event, even if it involved three thousand civilian casualties, have such a far-reaching effect? The answer lies not so much in the event itself but in the way the United States, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, responded to it.

Admittedly, the terrorist attack was a historic event in its own right. Hijacking fully loaded airplanes and using them as suicide bombs was an audacious idea, and the execution could not have been more spectacular. The destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center made a symbolic statement that reverberated around the world, and the fact that people could watch the event on their television sets endowed it with an emotional impact that no terrorist act had ever achieved before.

The aim of terrorism is by definition to terrorize, and the attack of September 11 fully accomplished this objective. Most people in America were shaken to their core. They were affected both individually and collectively. Until then, the idea that the United States could be challenged on its own soil and that U.S. citizens may be personally vulnerable did not enter into Americans' consciousness. The attack shattered people's sense of security. A feeling of normalcy was replaced by a sense of emergency.

Even so, September 11, 2001, could not have changed the course of history to the extent that it has if President Bush had not responded to it the way he did. He declared war on terrorism and under that guise implemented a radical foreign policy agenda that predated the tragedy of September 11.

The underlying principles of this agenda can be summed up as follows: International relations are relations of power, not law; power prevails and law legitimizes what prevails. The United States is unquestionably the dominant power in the post-Cold War world; it is therefore in a position to impose its views, interests, and values on the world. The world would benefit from adopting American values because the American model has demonstrated its superiority. Under the previous administrations, however, the United States failed to use the full potential of its power. This has to be corrected. The United States must assert its supremacy in the world.

This view on foreign policy is part of a comprehensive ideology customarily referred to as neoconservatism, but I prefer to describe it as a crude form of social Darwinism. I call it crude because it ignores the role of cooperation in the survival of the fittest and puts all the emphasis on competition. In the economy, the competition is between firms; in international relations, it is between states. In economic matters, social Darwinism takes the form of market fundamentalism; in international relations, it leads to the pursuit of American supremacy.

Not all the members of the Bush administration subscribe to this ideology, but the neocons form an influential group within the executive branch and their influence greatly increased after September 11. Their ideas were succinctly stated in the 1997 mission statement of the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think tank and policy advocacy group. Already in 1992, under the first Bush administration, a similar memorandum had been prepared by the Defense Department, but it proved so controversial that it had to be dropped. It is worth quoting the 1997 mission statement and its signatories in full:

In 1998, many of the same signatories sent to President Clinton an open letter in which they argued for the invasion of Iraq. Five years later, they were in charge of the invasion, Dick Cheney as vice president, Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz as his deputy, Zalmay Khalilzad as the envoy of the Pentagon, and the others as advocates and ideologues both inside and outside the government. These people had a clear idea of the direction in which they wanted to take the country, and when the September 11 terrorist attacks presented an opportunity, they seized it without ever coming clean about all of their goals. The public is still not fully aware of this history.

Prior to September 11, 2001, the ideologues of the Project for the New American Century were hindered in implementing their strategy by two considerations. First, President Bush came to office without a clear mandate-he was elected president by a single vote on the Supreme Court. Second, America did not have a clearly defined enemy that would have justified a dramatic increase in military spending. The strategy advocated prior to September 11 was not identical with the one adopted afterward-it emphasized missile defense rather than the war on terrorism-but it was infused with the same spirit of seeking unilateral American dominance.

September 11 removed both obstacles in one stroke. President Bush declared war on terrorism, and the nation lined up behind its president. Then the Bush administration proceeded to exploit the terrorist attack for its own purposes. To silence criticism and keep the nation united behind the president, the administration deliberately fostered the fear that has gripped the country. It then used the war on terrorism to pursue its dream of American supremacy. That is how September 11 changed the course of history.

Exploiting an event to further an agenda is not inherently reprehensible. It is the task of the president to provide leadership, and it is only natural for politicians to twist, exploit, or manipulate events to promote their policies. The cause for concern is to be found in the policies that President Bush is promoting and in the way he is going about imposing them. President Bush is leading the United States and the world in a very dangerous direction.

Supremacist Ideology

The supremacist ideology of the Bush administration is in contradiction with the principles of an open society because it claims possession of an ultimate truth. It postulates that because we are stronger than others, we must know better and we must have right on our side. That is where religious fundamentalism comes together with market fundamentalism to form the ideology of American supremacy. The very first sentence of our latest national security strategy reads as follows: "The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom-and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise."

This statement is false on two counts. First, there is no single, sustainable model for national success. And second, the American model, which has been successful, is not available to others, because our success depends greatly on our dominant position at the center of the global capitalist system and we are not willing to yield this position to others.

The Bush doctrine, first enunciated in the president's speech at West Point in June 2002 and then incorporated in the national security strategy in September 2002, is built on two pillars: First, the United States will do everything in its power to maintain its unquestioned military supremacy and, second, the United States arrogates the right to preemptive action. Taken together, these two pillars support two classes of sovereignty: the sovereignty of the United States, which takes precedence over international treaties and obligations, and the sovereignty of all other states, which is subject to the Bush doctrine. This is reminiscent of George Orwell's Animal Farm: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

To be sure, the Bush doctrine is not stated so starkly; it is buried in Orwellian doublespeak. The doublespeak is needed because of the contradiction between the Bush administration's concept of freedom and democracy and the actual principles of freedom and democracy. Talk of spreading democracy looms large in the national security strategy. When President Bush says, as he does frequently, that "freedom" will prevail, in fact he means that America will prevail. I am rather sensitive to Orwellian doublespeak because I grew up with it in Hungary first under Nazi and later Communist rule.

In his address to Congress nine days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, President Bush declared, "The advance of human freedom-the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of our time-now depends on us. Our nation-this generation-will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage." In a free and open society, however, people are supposed to decide for themselves what they mean by freedom and democracy and not simply follow America's lead.

The contradiction has been brought home by the current occupation of Iraq. We came as liberators bringing "freedom and democracy," but that is not how we are perceived by a large part of the population. The military part of the campaign went better than could have been expected, but the occupation turned into a disaster.

The dearth of thought given to, and preparation for, the aftermath of the invasion is truly amazing, especially when so many critics had been so vocal in warning about the difficulties. It can be explained only by a confusion in the mind of President Bush, which has been exploited by the advocates of the Iraqi invasion. President Bush equates freedom with American values. He has a simplistic view of what is right and what is wrong: We are right and they are wrong. This is in contradiction with the principles of open society, which recognize that we may be wrong.

It is ironic that the government of the most successful open society in the world should have fallen into the hands of ideologues who ignore the first principles of open society. Who would have thought sixty years ago, when Karl Popper wrote Open Society and Its Enemies, that the United States itself could pose a threat to open society? Yet that is what is happening, both internally and internationally. At home, Attorney General John Ashcroft has used the war on terrorism to curtail civil liberties. Abroad, the United States is trying to impose its views and interests on the rest of the world by the use of military force, and it has proclaimed its right to do so in the Bush doctrine.

The invasion of Iraq was the first practical application of the Bush doctrine, and it turned out to be counterproductive. A chasm has opened between America and the rest of the world. That is what Osama Bin Laden must have been hoping for. By declaring war on terrorism and invading Iraq, President Bush has played right into the terrorists' hands.


September 11 introduced a discontinuity into American foreign policy. It created a sense of emergency that the Bush administration skillfully exploited for its own purposes. Violations of American standards of behavior that would have been considered objectionable in normal times came to be accepted as appropriate to the circumstances, and the president has become immune to criticism, because it would be unpatriotic to criticize him when the nation is at war with terrorism. Contrary to the mission statement of the Project for the New American Century, our policies did not strengthen our ties to our democratic allies; on the contrary, they stand in the way of international cooperation. There has been an unprecedented rift between the United States and what Donald Rumsfeld calls "old Europe," because the United States demands unquestioning subservience from its allies. Some, like French President Jacques Chirac, resisted even to the point of endangering French national interests; others, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, aligned themselves with us in the hope of modifying our behavior, but they have found themselves in an untenable position with regard to their electorates. It is difficult for a democracy like Britain to be allied with a country determined to act unilaterally.

The discontinuity was brought about by the Bush administration's carrying to extremes certain ideological tendencies that were already present in the United States before President Bush came into office. Ever since Senator Barry Goldwater's candidacy, the Republican Party has come under the domination of a curious alliance between religious fundamentalists and market fundamentalists. The two groups feed off each other-religious fundamentalism provides both an antidote to and a cover for the amorality of the market. Market fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists make strange bedfellows, but they have been held together by their success: Together they came to dominate the Republican Party.

Until recently, the natural complement of market fundamentalism in the foreign policy area has been geopolitical realism, which maintains that states should-and do-pursue their national interests. The pursuit of American supremacy is a wild extrapolation of that idea, reflecting America's success as the sole remaining superpower. The neoconservatives add a dose of proselytizing zeal that is lacking in geopolitical realists. Necons regard the American model of national success as superior to all others and want the rest of the world to benefit from it. That is the origin of the quaint idea that we can introduce democracy to a country like Iraq by military force. Although they were influential, the advocates of American supremacy could not have their way until the terrorists struck on September 11. That is when American foreign policy entered what I call far-from-equilibrium territory.


© 2004 George Soros