For most of the past 10 years, America's world dominance has been taken for granted. In recent months, however, U.S. preeminence has been attacked by other states--notably Germany, France, Russia, China and India--and American policymakers have new doubts about its permanence. In short, the foundations of America's post-Cold War grand strategy are showing signs of wear and tear.
At the heart of that strategy is America's desire to perpetuate its supreme global role. And why not? What could be better than being the sole superpower in a unipolar world? The answer usually given in Washington is "nothing." In the real world, however, this unilateral dominance--what political scientists call hegemony--is self-defeating. In the first place, hegemony cannot be sustained. Secondly, attempts to do so may ultimately prove more harmful than beneficial to American interests.
Careful students of world politics know that hegemony has never proven to be a winning strategy. History is strewn with the remains of states that have bid for supremacy: the Hapsburg Empire under Charles V and Philip II, France under Louis XIV and Napoleon, Victorian Britain, Germany under Hitler. The reason for their ultimate failure is simple: When one state becomes too powerful, other states become fearful and unite to "balance" against it. That is, they build up their own military power and, if necessary, form alliances to create a strategic counterweight.
Until recently, American policymakers have acted as if the United States somehow is exempt from this pattern. But, if recent events are any indication, this is wishful thinking.
Consider the international response to two recent developments--the U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the increasing likelihood that the United States will abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and deploy a ballistic missile defense system.
Russia, China and France are trying to use the United Nations to compel the United States to adhere to the test ban and to the ABM treaty. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer noted this month that Germany's determination to remain non-nuclear "was always based on our trust . . . that the United States, as the leading nuclear power, would guarantee some sort of order"--and went on to imply that if America abandoned that guarantee, Germany might have to develop nuclear capabilities of its own. Just as alarmingly, Russia has threatened to build its own anti-missile defenses and expand its nuclear arsenal, and in fact on Nov. 3 test-fired a short-range interceptor missile.
Earlier this month, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine gave voice to fears that something must be done to rein in America. Calling the United States a "hyper-power," he told the French International Relations Institute: "We cannot accept either a politically unipolar world, nor a culturally uniform world, nor the unilateralism of a single hyper-power. And that is why we are fighting for a multipolar, diversified and multilateral world."
If the European Union ever does achieve political and military integration and emerges as an independent strategic player in world politics, the U.S.-led NATO action in Kosovo may come to be viewed as the catalyst that made it happen. That conflict--fought in part to validate NATO's post-Cold War credibility--had the ironic effect of dramatizing the striking disparity between America's military power and Europe's.
Another alliance, one with fewer friendly ties to the United States, has already emerged in the wake of the Kosovo action: China, Russia and India. Seeing Kosovo as a precedent for Washington's self-declared right to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign states, these three countries have increased their military cooperation--especially with respect to arms transfers and the sharing of military technology--and, like the Europeans, have declared their support for a "multipolar" world.
In Japan, meanwhile, there is growing support for the idea that Tokyo needs to strengthen its military capabilities--and possibly acquire nuclear weapons--to free itself of its strategic subservience to the United States.
These developments have not gone unnoticed in Washington. The depth of American concern was made clear last month in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations by national security adviser Samuel R. Berger. Excerpted in Outlook (Oct. 31), the speech primarily focused on attacking the "new isolationism" that Berger said was emerging in Congress. But he also directed some of his remarks at foreign critics of U.S. power.
Berger acknowledged that the United States is seen in Europe, Russia and China as "a hectoring hegemon," a country that is "unilateralist and too powerful." He did not deny or criticize the United States' dominant role. What he tried to do instead was argue that the United States is a benign hegemon. The United States acts not to promote its own selfish interests but rather "for the greater good," he said, and others benefit tangibly from America's global leadership. He said America's ideals and values legitimize its preeminence and enable it to lead on the basis of its moral authority rather than its military might. "Our authority," Berger declared, "is built on very different qualities than our power: on the attractiveness of our values, on the force of our example, on the credibility of our commitments, and on our willingness to work with and stand by others."
It would be a mistake to think that other nations take these hubristic protestations at face value. Much of the world does not share Washington's belief that America is its model. Far from regarding America's attempt to export its ideology as altruistic, they see it as a way of rationalizing U.S. geopolitical preeminence. American pretensions of idealism are not novel, but what is new--and frightening to other nations--is the combination of a proselytizing ideology and overwhelming material power.
Whether one looks at Europe, China or Russia, the handwriting is on the wall: America's superpower strategy is triggering a geopolitical backlash that will run counter to its interests. The ill-considered policy of NATO expansion has heightened Russia's sense of strategic insecurity, and underscored for Moscow the dangers of American power. America's position on Taiwan, and its human rights policies, are regarded by Beijing as unwarranted intrusions in China's domestic affairs. America's assertive policy of "enlarging" the community of free market democracies is regarded by others not as benevolent idealism, but rather as the use of ideology to mask its will to power.
It is time to open a new debate--to get past the superpower model and delineate a more productive U.S. role. The issue is not whether the United States should act unilaterally, or act cooperatively with others. All states act in their own interests. The salient point is how to define America's interests. Some suggestions:
* Washington should encourage, and accept, Europe's emergence as an equal--independent--actor in world politics.
* The United States should stop trying to force its values and institutions on the rest of the world. In some cases, such as Russia, the American model is inappropriate and has done more harm than good. In other cases, notably China, Washington's attempt to compel ideological conformity has made an already tense relationship worse.
* Finally, the United States should not be so quick to intervene overseas, instead allowing other states and institutions to assume primary responsibility for the security of regions where America's security interests are not at risk. This is not isolationism; it is a classically realist strategy.
Some will argue that a non-hegemonic strategy will lead to increased instability. Perhaps. But, because of its nuclear deterrent and geography, the United States is the most secure great power in history. Moreover, one must face reality: The sole superpower interlude of the past decade is not sustainable. Attempting to prolong the "unipolar moment" will not work. Paradoxically, a more circumspect America will be more secure in the future than one assertively seeking to maintain its primacy.
Christopher Layne is a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California's Center for International Studies and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in Global Security.