Foreign Policy–Should the US Act as Unipolar World Leader?

March 21, 2014

In 1990 Charles Krauthammer wrote an article in Foreign Policy Magazine, entitled “The Unipolar Moment.” In this now famous article, he accurately laid out the clear proposition resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union: “The immediate Post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its allies.” At that time, US power was at it’s multi-dimensional power peak.  We didn’t need to consult any other power. We could unilaterally do whatever we wanted to fix the world’s problems. Our allies would quickly fall into line. Our enemies would withdraw. Our power was beyond question.

Writing on March 20, 2014, 24 years later, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Krauthammer seems to have overlooked all that has happened since 1990. He needs to update.

In this article, he lambasts President Obama for failing to send military aid to Ukraine, presumably to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea, as indeed it has done. Krauthammer is not alone in such arguments. He is joined by the likes of John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others on the hawkish Right of American politics.  These critics do not even mention the need to consult other powers.

There are three contrary points to be made to Krauthammer and those who would have us double down in our efforts to be the unipolar military policeman of the world:

1. The US is no longer the unilateral unipolar power.
2.  Our military actions around the world have yielded little other than lives lost and budget deficits.
3.  The American public is not in favor of military engagement.

The US is no longer the unipolar power. The early nineties represented a unique period of unipolar power for the US. Global power is calculated by most scholars in terms of three considerations: Military power, economic power, and soft power (including ideology, foreign policy, and all other factors of global perception).  In all three areas, the US has lost its advantage, and at the same time a number of other nations have advanced in terms of one or more of these factors. Examples include China and India, Brazil and Turkey, Mexico and other countries.  US has suffered in the failed attempts of two wars, and in developing a huge budget deficit, triggering a global recession with its mortgage financing debacle, and becoming politically weakened by the obvious gridlock in our partisan Congress. Our form of government has been challenged by the success of China’s benign dictatorship and our attempts (e.g., the “Washington Consensus which drove IMF and World Bank’s largely unsuccessful policies in the 90s).  Our attempts to proselytize the combination of democracy and our form of capitalism as only end game of government has not been well received globally.

Thus, we have found ourselves forced to share power with others, due to our losses and their advances. They have insisted in bodies such as the United Nations Security Council, the World Trade Organization, and elsewhere.

This transition from unquestioned unipolarity toward a possible multipolar global order can be regarded as tragic, or it can be regarded as inevitable–no nation in history has been able to hold the unipolar position–it yields to multipolarity, or a new lead country comes to power.  It can also be regarded as healthy and in the best interest of the world, given that the US actions in trade and foreign policy are unavoidably heavily influenced by interests which are seeking US advantage primarily, as indeed are the interests of any single nation.  Isn’t it abundantly clear that a world government, at least ideally, would be better able to assure global fairness of trade, deal with health epidemics, the global environment, scarce resources, and matters of abject poverty and human welfare–better than any single country, such as the US or Russia?

Some think China is already the power for this century. This is another long debate, but the essence is that China is not ready to take over unipolar world leadership, and will not be for at least another thirty years, in the opinion of many respected scholars. Goldman Sachs says so, also! This is because of the Chinese view of the world and also the challenges they face in sustaining the growth of the world’s largest country, while facing issues of corruption, inequality, pollution, inadequate water, and being surrounded by nations with which they have had wars, and other challenges, with few allies.  Sustained strong growth is necessary to create 20 million or more additional jobs per year. Falling far short of that risks political instability for China.

While relatively weaker than in 1990, the US remains by far the strongest nation, stronger than any other collection of nations, and supported by an immense alliance of allies. This strength clearly exceeds that of the EU, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Mercosur, ASEAN, NAFTA, SELA, OPEC, or the “BRICS.”

Nevertheless, the power of the US can no longer be seen as unipolar in the sense of its status in 1990. Most foreign policy experts agree that the US must now collaborate with a number of other countries to effect the best answers to the evolving challenges of the world.  These growing countries insist on having a voice in major world affairs–and some don’t agree with the US in its actions–in Egypt, Syria, Iran, now in the Ukraine, and elsewhere. In fact, many of us realize the power of the US in world governing organizations is too great–a greater voice must be given to emerging powers and to the developing world–we don’t have all the wisdom!

Of course, achieving agreement in IGO’s is time consuming and laborious. The Right would seem to prefer quick military action.

Yet, our military actions around the world have yielded little other than lives lost and budget deficits: Estimates put the loss of US lives above 6,000 and the total cost of the two wars from $4-6 Trillion, $75,000 for every American household, with many of those households in the precarious financial position that this amount of money might have made all the difference–food, child care, education, not to mention what it might have done for poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. The failure to achieve desired results abroad has damaged the global perception of US unipolar strength which existed when Krauthammer first wrote of it. These failures in war suggest to other nations that our military strength is not effective, notwithstanding all the dollars spent, and that our foreign policy and strategy left these countries dependent on the US and allies, while still riddled with corruption and internal conflict even after our withdrawal.

Third, I have not met anyone across the last few years who wants to send troops to Egypt, to Turkey, to Syria, to North Korea, to Iran, to the Ukraine, or any other of the many places in the world where there is conflict and mistreatment of humanity.

It’s not that we don’t care. Most of us do. That’s why we support increasing and improving our foreign aid (another hotly debated subject). That’s why we support strengthening the International Governing Organizations (IGOs). That’s why we support people like Obama who believe in the collaborative efforts of governments around the world–no single policeman acting unilaterally.

It’s also that these situations are invariably complex. They are thousands of miles from home, in cultures we little understand. And, by reason of our moral commitments to the methods of war and also international agreements, we choose not to cavalierly use methods that risk civilian lives, or use weapons such as chemical or nuclear. The political landscape is hard to understand and is constantly changing. We can’t easily identify the good guys and the bad guys. If we could isolate just the bad guys and properly remove them, that might do it. But, as an example, what if the bad guys were properly elected, as in the case of Egypt, or Yanokovich in the Ukraine? Do we feel we should override the elected decisions of a people?

While Russian action in Crimea is not appropriate, they do have some very strong arguments on their side: Yanukovich was elected. Crimea is largely Russian speaking and wants to be part of Russia. It’s not a black and white situation, as few are.

The point is, we are not able to be effective in achieving reasonable goals of improvement in most cases. And, it’s not just that the US in not capable, it’s that any country so far away trying to aggressively intervene is not likely to be any more successful than we. But if there is a chance of best trying to right the wrongs of distant places in the world, how can anyone argue that it’s not the job of world organizations to do that? Of course, some will say they can’t, or they won’t, so forget that–someone has to have the guts to step up.  I’d vote for that if the record from Vietnam on did not so clearly demonstrate that we can’t.

Finally–there is the nature of political discussion around matters like this:

The irony of such political rhetoric is that it is often cloaked in criticism of our weakness in threatening sanctions and then imposing what is seen as only weak sanctions, thus arguably resulting in our prestige and the importance of our “power” in the world being diminished–i.e., we say you’ll be punished if you do that, and when they take the forbidden step, we do little.

Yet, when these advocating for boots on the ground or even guns and weapons being delivered to those opposing what we see as invasion, or (as in Syria) what we see as crimes against humanity, etc., do they acknowledge that these steps also constitute threats–threats that if our foes do not stop whatever we object to, we will rapidly step up such aid or put (more) boots on the ground? These are also threats. Do they intend to “threaten” in this way, but stop at some line short of true military action such as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this kind of threat without action not a worse kind than the threat of diplomatic or economic sanctions? Or, would these critics intend to follow up with war? Could it be that some of these hope we will sufficiently provoke to justify yet another war? Why? The only beneficiaries of that are the military industrial complex.

I will have a great deal more respect for such critics if they will publicly state either (a) where they would stop (and any stop arguably creates just another empty threat–which they apparently oppose); or (b) that they would go the whole way into war if the desired action is not taken.

Hawks–there is no value to criticizing “threats” unless you answer these questions regarding your own proposed threats.

No matter whether the critic is on the Right or the Left, whenever I hear a litany of what was done wrong, I hope, but never seem to hear exactly what the critic would have done if he/she were in the deciding role, and certainly never get that final piece, e.g., “…and if military supplies do not turn the tide, I would then….”

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