Thursday, December 28, 2006

America Past the Apogee? The Coming Anti-Hegemonic Alliance Against the U.S.

Charles Krauthammer, in a November speech to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, updated his theory of American unipolar preponderance in the international system. (Click here to access the speech, which is available at RealClearPolitics).

Back in 1991, Krauthammer argued that the United States was enjoying a "unipolar moment" of American world dominance. The international system had undergone dramatic change with the weakening of Soviet power, and future decades of world politics would be marked by unrivaled American hegemony across the globe. In his recent speech, though, he sees America's current international position under stress.

Krauthammer divides the post-Cold War system of American leadership into three periods: The 1990s, a preeminently peaceful decade in which the U.S. could wade into humanitarian crises at its choosing; the immediate post-9/11 era, the half-decade starting the 21st century in which the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington stirred America to global military exertion; and our current historical era -- post-winter/spring 2005 -- which Krauthammer dates as the "apogee" of American unipolar power. Krauthammer expects this current era to be one of relative American decline. He foresees the emergence of a countervailing alliance of states and transnational actors competing with a weakend U.S. for international primacy.

What happened? Basically, the exertion of American power under the Bush doctrine of democracy promotion has weakened the United States. Here's Krauthammer's triumphalist take on America's post 9/11 Wilsonianism under President Bush:

The Bush Doctrine held that besides attacking the immediate enemy who had perpetrated 9/11, it would have to engage in a larger enterprise of changing the underlying conditions which had given birth to this idea of Islamic radicalism, and to change the conditions that had allowed it to recruit and breed, particularly in the Arab world.

This meant changing the internal structure of Arab regimes and in a larger sense the culture of the Arab/Islamic world. This had been the one area of the world that uniquely had been untouched by the modernizing and democratizing influences of the postwar era. East Asia had famously taken off economically and politically, in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere; Latin America and even some parts of Africa had democratized; of course, Western Europe had been democratic ever since World War II, but now Eastern Europe had joined the march. Only the Arab/Islamic world had been left out. Unless it was somehow encouraged and brought along on that march, it would remain recalcitrant, alienated, oppressed, tyrannical, and the place from which the kind of atavistic attacks on America and the West that we have seen on 9/11 and since would continue.

That's why the entire enterprise of changing the culture of the Arab world was undertaken. It was, as I and others had said at the time, a radical idea, an arrogant idea, a risky idea. But it was also the only idea of any coherence and consistency that anyone has advanced on how to change the underlying conditions that had led to 9/11 and ultimately to prevent the kind of conditions that would lead to a second 9/11.

So we have this half decade of American assertion. And it was an astonishing demonstration. In the mood of despair and disorientation of today, we forget what happened less than half a decade ago. The astonishingly swift and decisive success in Afghanistan, with a few hundred soldiers, some of them riding horses, directing lasers, organizing a campaign with indigenous Afghans, and defeating a regime in about a month and a half in a place that others had said was impossible to conquer; that the British and the Russians and others had left in defeat and despair in the past. It was an event so remarkable that the aforementioned Paul Kennedy now wrote an article, "The Eagle has Landed" (Financial Times, Feb. 2, 2002) in which he simply expressed his astonishment at the primacy, the power, and the unrivalled strength of the United States as demonstrated in the Afghan campaign.
After Afghanistan, of course, we've had the Iraq deployment. But the United States has not prevailed in Iraq, and American difficulties there have laid the basis for an Iranian-led counter-coalition of global actors seeking to reign-in American power and influence. Here's Krauthammer's prediction on the future of international politcis:

What is becoming clear is that the overall international strategic situation in which we had unchallenged hegemony for the first decade and half the unipolar moment is now over. We are seeing on the horizon the rise of something that is always expected in any unipolar era, which is an alliance of others who oppose us.

Historically, whenever one country has arisen above all the others in power, anti-hegemonic alliances immediately formed against them. The classic example is the alliance against Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, and of course the alliances against Germany from World War I to World War II, particularly in the 1930s, where you had the rise of an aggressive, hegemonic Germany in the heart of Europe. What is interesting about our unipolar era is that whereas we had achieved unprecedented hegemony in the first decade and a half, there were no alliances against us. What I think we are beginning to see now is Iran positioning itself at the center of a regional alliance against us, again with the--Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Sadr--looking to overawe the entire region with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which would make it the regional superpower. And Iran is receiving tacit backing for its regional and anti-American ambitions from two great powers: Russia and China. That, I think, is the structure of the adversary that we will be looking at for the decades to come.

As the Bush Doctrine has come under attack, there are those in America who have welcomed its apparent setbacks and defeats as a vindication of their criticism of the policy. But the problem is that that kind of vindication leaves America in a position where there are no good alternatives. The reason that there is general despair now is because if it proves to be true that the Bush Doctrine has proclaimed an idea of democratizing the Arab/Islamic world that is unattainable and undoable, then there are no remaining answers to how to counter ultimately the threat of Islamic radicalism.

It remains the only plausible answer--changing the culture of that area, no matter how slow and how difficult the process. It starts in Iraq and Lebanon, and must be allowed to proceed and not precipitate an early and premature surrender. That idea remains the only conceivable one for ultimately prevailing over the Arab Islamic radicalism that exploded upon us 9/11. Every other is a policy of retreat and defeat that would ultimately bring ruin not only on the U.S. but on the very idea of freedom.
Read the whole thing. Krauthammer suggests that not all is lost in Iraq, if a way could be found for the Iraqi regime to seize control of the situation and put an end to sectarianism and civil war.

I'm split in my assessment of Krauthammer's thesis. I agree with him on the reasons for American failure in Iraq -- particularly mistakes in the U.S. occupation and the Iraqis' lost opportunties in consolidating their new democratic regime. Krauthammer's right, moreover, to argue that a cultural revolution is key to transforming the Middle East, and the U.S. goal for the region should remain the eventual establishment of an arc of democracies from Damascus to Riyahd.

I disagree, however, that American failure in Iraq represents the collapse of American global power and leadership. Krauthammer, surprisingly, is just one more analyst jumping on the bandwagon of a new thesis of American decline. It's starting to become pretty common to see commentary articles suggesting that Iraq will foment the collapse of U.S. power and the rise of a new constellation of powerful actors rivaling the U.S. This is premature talk, however. The United States will remain the world's indispensible actor for the foreseeable future. No other state enjoys a comparable level of economic endowments, and our forward military power projection capabilities dwarf those of any near rival.

The sun's not setting on American world leadership anytime soon. I've blogged previously about the thesis of American decline: One post examined
Fareed Zakaria's optimistic looked at the continued future of American global leadership, and a second entry looked at Christopher Layne's argument on America's unipolar illusion. Check them out.

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