The Lonely Superpower

We have passed this way before. In 1945, with Europe a guttering ruin, the British Empire a hollow shell and the Soviet Union still reeling from the loss of 27 million people during World War II, the United States was the world's sole superpower. It had a monopoly on atomic weapons. Its economy was thriving on a wartime industrial regimen. America faced a choice: inward or outward? Would it take up Britain's former global role? Or would it retreat into the isolationism that followed World War I? The debate was brief. By 1947, resurgent Soviet power plunged the United States into the four-decade conflict that historian Hajo Holborn called "international civil war" between the rival Western ideologies of Marxism and liberal capitalism. The expansion of American responsibilities took place in an atmosphere of crisis, with Republican leaders urging President Harry Truman to "scare hell out of the American people" if he wanted them to support American intervention in Europe. He succeeded. As a result, the American people never had the chance to make an unhurried decision about their degree of involvement around the world. The end of the cold war has restored that opportunity.

George Bush wants to continue the internationalist policies Of the last 45 years. In his speech on nuclear-arms reduction last week, he, too, sounded the sole-superpower theme: "America must lead again--as it always has, as only it can." But isolationism is a strain deeply embedded in the American psyche. Even before George Washington warned against foreign entanglements, Americans thought of the Old World their ancestors left as a decadent zone best left alone. That instinct remained strong well into the 20th century: it is worth recalling that less than four months before Pearl Harbor, with Europe already overrun and Japan in control of East Asia, a bill to extend compulsory military service to 18 months passed the House of Representatives by a single vote. Following the demise of the Soviet threat, isolationism is making a comeback. Patrick Buchanan, the conservative scold and former Reagan speechwriter, speaks for the Republican Party's old Fortress America wing. "All that buncombe about what history 'placed on our shoulders' sucked the Brits into two wars," he said in The Washington Post. "If America does not wish to end her days in the same nursing home as Britannia, she had best can this Beltway geo-babble about 'unipolarity' and 'our responsibility to lead'." Suitably modified, such views have even percolated to the heart of the foreign-policy establishment. Last spring William Hyland, the editor of Foreign Affairs quarterly, wrote in The New York Times of the "need to start selectively disengaging abroad to save resources" for domestic problems. "What is desperately required," he said, "is a psychological turn inward."

This change in mood makes internationalists uneasy. "Americans are endlessly resourceful in trying to escape [global] responsibilities," the columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in The New Republic in July. But the world is at least as dangerous as it was at the height of the cold war, he argued; the spread of weapons of mass destruction makes it possible for "relatively small, peripheral and backward states" to emerge as security threats. The United States should be prepared to assert "American interests and values" anywhere in the world, unilaterally if necessary. "Our best hope for safety," said Krauthammer, "is in American strength and will: the strength to recognize the unipolar world and the will to lead it." Bush agrees, though with polite bows in the direction of collective action under United Nations auspices.

But what does it mean to be a superpower today? The term itself is a product of the cold war: it described the way the two adversarial nuclear-weapons states related to each other. The superpowers were not simply old-fashioned "great powers" with ICBMs. They were not interested in the politics of shifting alliances, of playing countries against each other to achieve some global balance. Each superpower claimed to be a model for the rest of the world, and sought worldwide dominance in the ideological sphere. Each had a military capacity that controlled the fate of humankind. Each brought to the conflict what Zbigniew Brzezinski calls "an unprecedented degree of intellectual self-righteousness. " All this gave both countries a sense of mission transcending mere national interests. It was precisely this rivalry that defined the United States and the Soviet Union as superpowers. Without it, the category "superpower" is drained of meaning. It is a dialectical concept: either there are two superpowers, or there is none.

America's loss of mission explains why the president has such difficulty arousing public enthusiasm for his "quest for a new world order." When he tries to articulate it, as he did last April in a speech at Maxwell Air Force Base, he talks generally in terms of conflict resolution and "solidarity against aggression." He seems to regard instability anywhere in the world as a danger requiring American attention. References to "freedom" and "democratic ideals"--justifications for U.S. intervention since the time of Woodrow Wilson--appear almost to be afterthoughts. As Krauthammer tartly observed, "For Bush, the new world order is principally about order." Order is a worthy goal. But as the linchpin of a policy of global reach, it is hardly inspiring. Worse, it furnishes no criteria for distinguishing great dangers from small ones. In a world where American commitments chronically outrun the ability to pay for them there must be, as Alan Tonelson of the Washington-based Economic Strategy Institute wrote in The Atlantic last July, "a strategic basis for selectivity."

"Selectivity" is in fact the new foreign-policy buzzword. Amid a general recognition that the United States' economic problems have left it relatively weaker than it was at midcentury, there is a growing emphasis on coldblooded views of the national interest. Exactly which contingencies merit preparation? Where, and at what price? The cold-war policy of containing communism dictated an ability to project power worldwide. The result by 1990 was a fleet of 14 aircraft-carrier battle groups costing $53.5 billion for that year alone. It meant a forward deployment of troops and equipment to Central Europe that by itself consumed 29 percent of all U.S. military spending, according to the study "Decisions for Defense," published last week by William W. Kaufmann and John D. Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution. This is an obsolete force structure. The Bush administration plans to complete a 25 percent reduction in it by 1995. What policy will shape the new structure?

Accepted maxims: Historically, Americans have not shown much skill in defining the national interest--in part because they find interest-driven policies too cynical. But there are a few commonly accepted maxims. First is that as an industrial country, the United States must maintain access to sources of raw material. Oil is the most obvious example. But America is also dependent on imports for many other critical substances, such as graphite, bauxite and diamonds. Second, as a maritime, trading nation, the United States must insist on freedom of the seas. Third, there is a direct interest in the health of overseas markets for U.S. exports-this was the consideration underlying postwar aid to Europe under the Marshall Plan. At a minimum, then, America has an interest in the stability and security of such suppliers of raw materials as South Africa; of countries like Egypt that sit astride the choke points of vital sea lanes, and of nations that are or that could grow into important trading partners, such as Venezuela and eventually some of the Soviet republics.

This is still a broad canvas. It implies a different mix of armed forces, one with less emphasis on mass power projection and more emphasis on sea and air mobility and on America's technological edge. But as Clausewitz pointed out, military force is what is left when a nation's political goals can't be achieved by nonviolent means. It is a confession of failure. This implies a diplomacy of global range, too. In the case of overseas markets, for example, a farsighted policy would probably call for extensive technical assistance to the resource-rich but technologically backward Russian Republic. It would anticipate the eventual change in power arrangements in South Africa and make sure that the next generation of black leaders is not unfriendly to the United States. Washington should also put high priority on minimizing the greatest single threat to stability in the post-cold-war world: proliferation of nuclear and other unconventional weapons among the regional powers. India has already detonated a nuclear device; Israel and South Africa almost certainly have them, too. Pakistan is close to a nuclear capability, and Iraq and North Korea have been working on it. The example of Iraq reveals how the current nonproliferation regime can be circumvented. It also suggests that all the nations of the developed world have a collective interest in choking off the flow of nuclear technology and materials. If, for example, either India or Pakistan used nuclear weapons in a future confrontation, it is not hard to imagine the conflict spreading beyond the subcontinent.

It has become fashionable to debunk the principle of collective action. Krauthammer, for example, regards it as mere protective coloration for U.S. unilateralism--nice to have but not in the end necessary. But some things, such as nuclear nonproliferation, can be done no other way. Others, like producing the levels of economic help necessary for stability in Third World countries important to the industrial West, are beyond American resources alone. Some problems are unresponsive to the only real power the United States can wield unilaterally; the continuation of the gulf war by other means shows the inherent limits on the value of military force.

But this does not mean the United States has to respond to every crisis around the world. If civil unrest in Zaire cuts off the world's cobalt supply, as happened in 1978, the manufacturers of airplane turbine blades will be able to find substitute materials, as they did then. If Vietnam reprises its 1978 aggression against Cambodia, there is no compelling U.S. interest at stake. Even where there does appear to be a concrete interest, say in the event of hostilities between Syria and Iraq, it is important to recognize, as Alan Tonelson says, the modesty of the "policy tools actually at a government's command-weapons, money and suasion." Some crises are beyond American influence. Intervention in others might exact an unacceptably high cost in either blood or treasure.

It follows that America needs a coherent view of the world cast mainly in terms of cost and risk. Such a policy won't be easy to develop. It is alien to the American temper, which tends to lurch between isolationism and idealism. Those two policies have already been tried and found wanting. Americans will never accept the first half of Lord Palmerston's aphorism, that a nation has no eternal friends; an immigrant nation's sentimental ties to countries of origin are too strong. But they may come to see the wisdom of the second half: there are such things as eternal interests.