Opinion: U.S. Won't Shed Its Imperial Ambitions

A few weeks ago, as the U.S. financial crisis was causing ripples of anxiety throughout world markets, I was on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington as it sailed into the Japanese port it will be calling home for the next few years. As the immense ship pirouetted around its axis in the middle of Yokosuka Harbor before backing up to its berth, it occurred to me that there are few manifestations of American power more awe-inspiring than an aircraft carrier. I've seen many other examples of America's military reach—from Kosovo to Central Asia, Guam to Iraq—but the George Washington takes the cake. It has 5,200 members on board, and its galleys serve 18,000 meals a day. It is home to an entire Navy air wing of 60 to 70 planes altogether. It's as tall as a 24-story building. And thanks to its nuclear reactors, it can stay out at sea, well, pretty much forever.

Conventional wisdom has it that the George Washington is soon to become an empty symbol. According to everyone from Hamas to Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, the American Empire is over. The era of U.S. hegemony is done for, finito. The reason is simple enough: the financial and economic crisis is already tipping the United States into recession. The huge amounts of money now being spent on reviving the banking system will crimp America's leading role in the world. Whoever the next president is, he'll find it hard to push-through dramatic tax increases; and without additional revenue, the already huge U.S. budget deficit can only get bigger. Aircraft carriers like the George Washington cost $4.5 billion a pop, and keeping them afloat isn't much cheaper. In 2007, the Department of Defense budget was about $440 billion—and that didn't include additional funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which add more to the bill. Surely the sheer lack of cash will end up restraining Washington's ambitions to remake the world.

There's just one problem with this thesis: The United States was short on cash long before this latest crisis hit, but that didn't stop it from continuing to build up the world's most formidable military. (According to one estimate, the U.S. accounted for 47 percent of the world's defense spending in 2003.) Many people may not have noticed, but for the past few years the United States has paid for its policies by borrowing money from other countries—primarily Japan, China, and other East Asian economic giants who have America buy their stuff by loading themselves down with U.S. Treasury debt. This is something that those neo-conservative theoreticians who rejoiced at America's new spirit of foreign policy activism after 9/11 didn't like to talk about much. It's also one of many reasons why the 21st century usually turns out to be more complicated than talk of 19th-century statecraft and balance of power politics would allow. Today's great powers are economically linked in all sorts of ways that make big wars a lot less likely.

So does that mean that the military factor is irrelevant in today's globalized world? Not at all. Let's go back to the USS George Washington. Since it arrived in Japan this September, it's the only one of the U.S. Navy's 11 carriers to be permanently stationed ("homeported") in a foreign country. Why is that? Just take a look at the map. The George Washington is the biggest ship of the 50-some-odd vessels that make up America's Seventh Fleet, whose area of responsibility extends from the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean. That includes, for example, the Strait of Malacca. Every year a quarter of the world's oil sails through that narrow chokepoint from its source in the Persian Gulf to the economies of East Asia—one of the world's three major economic centers of gravity, along with the United States and the European Union.

The problem with East Asia, though, is that none of its countries trust each other. If, let us say, the Seventh Fleet were to evaporate tomorrow, China would suddenly get very nervous about protecting what strategists call its "sea-line of communications." Four-fifths of China's entire supply of oil comes through the Strait of Malacca. Were China to beef up its military presence there, though, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—all dependent on the same oil—would immediately have to confront similar concerns. And because China hardly offers a model of transparent government, they would find themselves having to do a lot of guessing. Unpredictability is a very dangerous thing when the vital national interests of states are involved. Just to make it more interesting, China, for its part, has good historical reasons to worry about the motives of Japan, while South Korea is intensely paranoid about both Japan and China. Like it or not, the Seventh Fleet is a powerful insurance policy that ensures more or less stable rules of the game.

The same principle applies around the world. Just to cite one example, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s happened in the European Union's backyard, but they ended only when the United States—belatedly and reluctantly—applied its military leverage. It's entirely true that, as my colleague Fareed Zakaria has argued, America's pseudo-imperial role is being diluted as more and more countries embrace their own forms of market-oriented democracy, which helps them to build confidence in each other. That's a good thing and undoubtedly serves the cause of general stability. And I readily concede that America's intense belief in the rightness of its own system sometimes tempts it into destabilizing adventures. Yet, on balance, the world would still be a much more dangerous place without America around. In a world of intensifying competition for natural resources, trust is still the rarest commodity of all. U.S. influence will undoubtedly wane as more and more countries build confidence in each other. But that's going to take a long time.

No question about it, America is overstretched. As economic turbulence hits home, U.S. voters are already less inclined to pay for overseas adventures. Yet to an extent, they don't have much choice. For the reasons I've described above, the world will probably need someone to play the role of arbiter, enforcer, hegemon—call it what you will—for a long while to come. ("Hegemony," by the way, is a Greek word that means "leadership.") Americans may not want to play that role, and the rest of the world doesn't always like the United States when it does. Yet I don't see anyone around who's ready to take its place. The European Union? It can't even forge a common foreign policy, much less a strategy for regional security and defense. China? Many of its neighbors are unlikely to be enthusiastic. Russia? Give me a break.

Both McCain and Obama have talked about the greater need for cooperation with U.S. allies and placed far less emphasis on Bush-style unilateralism. Both have talked about overarching challenges that unite the international community. And there's certainly a lot of work to be done in all these respects. But I have a feeling that someone, somehow, is going to go on paying for the Seventh Fleet.