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There is much to commend in Professor Walt’s masterly essay—his critique of the Iraq war and its implications for America’s global standing; his skepticism about preventive war and the need to reduce the overseas deployment of American military forces; his proposals for reinvigorating the Middle East peace process; and his idea for a “grand nuclear bargain” (although I would go even further and suggest the prohibition of nuclear weapons as has been done for chemical and biological weapons). And yet the premises on which he bases these proposals are ones with which I fundamentally disagree. This disagreement illustrates the growing gap between foreign-policy thinking on different sides of the Atlantic.
Professor Walt is a “realist.” His is a world peopled by “powers” who act unilaterally according to their individual interests. In this world, America has primacy—it is, in his words, “the most powerful nation on earth.” And it has to learn to act with moderation. His three alternative strategies (global hegemony, selective engagement, and offshore balancing) are all variants on a basic set of realist assumptions.
What Professor Walt fails to take into account is the way the world has changed as a consequence of globalization. We live in an interdependent world where both power and sovereignty have changed their meanings. And this is true even for the United States although American policymakers are perhaps among the slowest to come to terms with this changing reality. Effective policies—that is, policies that can increase the security and well-being of individuals, whether in the United States or elsewhere—can only be carried out if these changes are understood. If the United States continues to act as an autonomous agent, even in the more modest ways outlined by Professor Walt, this could have dangerous consequences.
First of all, what does Professor Walt mean when he says that America is the “most powerful nation on earth”? In military terms, it is true that the United States outspends any other country—indeed, it spends ten times more than the next highest spender. But does that military spending translate into military power? To be sure, the United States possesses very sophisticated technology and can attack targets more or less precisely at very long distances. But that is not the same as what Schelling famously called “compellance.” Despite its apparently extensive military resources, it cannot control either Afghanistan or Iraq—two relatively minor “powers” (to use Professor Walt’s terms). So what does it mean to say that the United States is militarily powerful? Perhaps it means, and this is true, that the United States has the same difficulties as other countries. Russia cannot control Chechnya. Israel cannot control the Palestinian territories. India cannot control Kashmir. Military power has become immensely destructive, and, at the same time, global sensibilities about deliberate destruction increasingly inhibit the use of force. Moreover, the spread of easily available lethal, accurate, and easy-to-use conventional weapons has greatly reduced the comparative advantages of sophisticated military technology.
In other words, military forces are much less useable than in earlier eras, and this represents a profound change in global power relations. If we still believe that military power is significant, and as Professor Walt points out, both America’s friends and foes do still believe this, it is only because of the legacy of past victories, especially during World War II. But every time military power is used, that belief gets eroded.
What, then, about economic power? America is no longer the richest power on earth, either in absolute terms or in per-capita terms. Its economic power rests on the unique international role of the dollar (just as sterling gave Britain power long after the British Empire started to collapse). The American government can sustain internal and external deficits on a scale unimaginable for any other economic unit because the dollar is the international currency and no one wants it to fail. But our belief in the dollar in part depends on our belief in American power. If that is challenged, if foreign banks and governments increasingly decide to hold euros or yen, then the current slide of the dollar could become precipitous.
This leads to the third element of power–-ideology. Our belief in American power still rests on a grand narrative, drawn from World War II, in which the United States is viewed as the global defender of democracy against totalitarian enemies. This belief was sustained by the American role in the Cold War, and President Bush’s “War on Terror” is the new version. Professor Walt rightly criticizes the lumping together of all enemies into an “axis of evil” or “global terrorism,” or as one side in a “clash of civilizations.” But this is precisely what the Bush administration needs to sustain its power. It does not need to solve the problem of “rogue states” or of terrorists. On the contrary, it needs enemies to mobilize domestic and international support.
Such a conflict is polarizing. It squeezes the space for liberals like me and Professor Walt. It is the same tactic used by Sharon and by Hamas in the Middle East or by Serb and Croat nationalists in the former Yugoslavia. And this is really my main difficulty with Walt’s argument. Can a sophisticated concept like “offshore balancing” compete with the big idea of global holy war?
Is there an alternative? I think we have to come to terms with the limits of sovereignty. We have to view the world as a whole and not focus on the interests of one particular group or country—we have to think about human security, the security of individuals worldwide, rather than national security, the protection of borders. Professor Walt is in favor of multilateralism. But he claims it does not require restrictions on sovereignty as the neocons charge. Rather, it is a “buddy system,” a form of reassurance. I disagree.
Multilateralism is about the extension of the global rule of law. Democracy and the rule of law can no longer be contained within borders. We cannot protect ourselves from troubles elsewhere as 9/11 and the recent tsunami have demonstrated. Either we make efforts to extend the rule of law globally, or the kinds of conditions that generate terrorism, organized crime, and global climate change will spread. Multilateralism does indeed mean restrictions on sovereignty, just as domestic law restricts our individual ability to break rules. But nowadays, it is the only way to achieve genuine security.
For space reasons, I cannot elaborate precisely what this might entail. But it would mean, first of all, an emphasis on dealing with conflicts and on the spread of democracy. Of course, Professor Walt also favors this, but it sits uneasily with his idea of promoting the “balance of power.” Traditionally, the balance-of-power approach ignored domestic politics or local conflicts—indeed sometimes authoritarianism and conflict were considered useful ways of maintaining an equilibrium. Professor Walt is notably abstract when he talks about the role of local power balancers. Does he mean that the United States should continue to support authoritarian regimes as it has done in the past, in order to “balance,” say, rogue states? Nowadays, authoritarian regimes are no longer guarantors of stability; on the contrary, the opening up of such regime under the impact of globalization often leads to state failure.
A multilateral approach would also mean establishing mechanisms for global economic and social redistribution—something Professor Walt, curiously, does not mention. And it would have to involve military forces, used in support of multilateral missions but configured in quite different ways to protect people rather than to defeat armies.
Could such an approach offer a serious alternative to the “war on terror”? Would it not be even more difficult to sell than offshore balancing? My feeling is that “human security” has much more resonance with civil society because it is closer to matching the reality that individuals experience on the ground. Just as the rule of law within individual nations developed through pressure from civil society, so I believe, the extension of a global rule of law will depend on bottom-up efforts. It was, after all, the combination of international law (the Helsinki Agreement) and civil society that ended the Cold War, not American military power.
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