Foreign Policy Folly

A worrisome conservative strategic vision


The United States today is a superpower without rival, perhaps even a modern empire. It dominates the world like no other state since Rome commanded the Mediterranean. America's legions are deployed all over the globe, its generals act like proconsuls, and its ships and submarines rule the seas. The United States' allies depend on American military power for their security, fearing that it will someday fold up its standards and return home. Even the United States' rivals acknowledge its power while hoping for its decline.

But how long can this "unipolar moment" last? And is such an imperial position necessary to secure and advance America's interests and values? Present Dangers, a volume edited by Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, is a salvo aimed squarely at those who are skeptical that this moment can endure and that the United States requires a Roman solution for the needs and health of the American republic. Present Dangers is a compilation of pieces by many of today's most prominent conservative internationalists. Although performed by a chorus, the authors sing a relatively consistent medley in support of Kagan and Kristol's call for an American foreign policy of "benevolent global hegemony."

This book is also a philippic against those who have allowed—or whose guidance would contribute to—the crumbling of the current international order and the American power on which it is built. The indicted include the Clinton-Gore administration, amoral "realists," and conservatives attracted to "isolationism." Unfortunately, the conservative internationalist vision offered in Present Dangers is neither wise nor particularly conservative, and should be rejected as a guide for the future of American foreign policy.

The collection opens with an introductory essay by Kagan and Kristol that lays out the overarching foreign policy outlook that animates the entire book. In this crucial chapter, the editors blast the Clinton administration for a "squandered decade" and outline a policy designed to secure and reinforce the United States' endangered hegemonic position in the world. The editors begin by explaining that there is a "present danger" threatening to create a situation no less problematic than the Soviet menace was during the late 1970s. This danger is that "the United States, the world's dominant power on whom the maintenance of international peace and the support of liberal democratic principles depends, will shrink its responsibilities and "allow the international order that it created and sustains to collapse."

Kagan and Kristol assert that this danger was created in the 1990s, during which the United States squandered the opportunity to transform "a 'unipolar moment' into a unipolar era." They argue that instead of building on its preeminent position at the close of the Cold and Gulf wars, the United States failed to properly meet challenges posed by "dangerous dictators" and a rising China. It also allowed the military to be hollowed out while gen-erally passing up the opportunity to "strengthen and extend an international order uniquely favorable" to this country. As might be expected from these conservative stalwarts, the Clinton administration bears the brunt of the authors' blame for these failures. However, they also tag the first Bush team for not going far enough in the Gulf War, and for failing to act forcefully at the beginning of the Bosnian crisis.

Fortunately, according to Kagan and Kristol, all is not lost for the United States and the precious international order it underwrites. There is still time to act, though the opportunity to save America's hegemony is dwindling due to the speed at which danger grows in international politics. Therefore, "Everything depends on what we do now."

The remedy Kagan and Kristol prescribe is a muscular foreign policy aimed at preserving and extending America's hegemonic position in the international system. In essence, this is a strategy of active engagement, designed to structure the international environment in a manner favorable to U.S. interests and values. To achieve this end, they offer a plan that is unquestionably bold.

First, the United States must increase defense spending by up to $100 billion per year and build a missile defense system. Such an increase would rocket the defense budget up to as much as $400 billion per annum. Second, because "threats to the interests of our allies are threats to us," the U.S. must make a more serious commitment to its allies. Third, instability and uncivilized behavior in vital regions should be treated very seriously because "eventually, the crises would appear at our doorstep."

Indeed, Kagan and Kristol assert that in order to safeguard our interests, our values, and the current international order, the U.S. must take the lead in "resisting, and where possible, undermining, rising dictators and hostile ideologies." Meeting these challenges will sometimes require military intervention abroad, "even when we cannot prove that a narrowly construed 'vital interest' of the United States is at stake." Kagan and Kristol are quick to point out that this does not mean that the U.S. has to stamp out every "evil." Furthermore, they explain, any rigid decision formula for intervention is unnecessary and unwise. Instead, they leave it up to enlightened statesmen to prudently judge when such interventions are right and proper.

Finally, with strong allies and a robust military at its back, the United States would be free to "set about making trouble for hostile and potentially hostile nations." To wit, America could, indeed should, actively spread its values and seek regime changes in the states of its foes, real and potential. Kagan and Kristol are flexible regarding how to effect these transformations. In some cases, they are quite hawkish. If they had their druthers, the United States would have fought its way to Baghdad to remove Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War and invaded Serbia proper during the Kosovo crisis in order to extirpate Slobodan Milosevic. In other cases, the preferred means are less dramatic, including sanctions, support for rebels and dissidents, and "diplomatic isolation." In short, their strategy calls for the Reagan Doctrine with a side of America's Cold War Cuba policy.

Kagan and Kristol clearly hope that this foreign policy will reinforce an international order that secures and advances American interests while simultaneously inhibiting the emergence of any future dangers. They also believe that their vision will restore a sense of moral purpose to the country's foreign policy. Such a policy would build on a broad notion of the "national interest," one that harks back to what they believe is an American tradition of honor, greatness, and the fulfillment of our liberal values abroad.

The remainder of Present Dangers fleshes out this brand of right-wing internationalism. Included are chapters penned by important members of the conservative movement with backgrounds in government, journalism, academia, and the think-tank world. The bulk of these are contained in two comprehensive sections that focus on important threats to the United States and the assets necessary to meet them. The chapters in the first of these sections, titled "The Mounting Threat," concentrate on the usual suspects: China (Ross Munro), Russia (Peter Rodman), Iraq (Richard Perle), Iran (Reuel Marc Gerecht), and North Korea (Nicholas Eberstadt). Those in the next section examine the allies and instruments required to fulfill the overarching vision offered in Present Dangers, including pieces on Europe and NATO (Jeffrey Gedmin), our Asian allies (Aaron Friedberg), Israel (Elliot Abrams), the U.S. military (Frederick Kagan), and missile defense (William Schneider). Other selections include broader historical and philosophical chapters by James Caesar, William Bennett, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Kagan.

Unfortunately, space limitations prevent me from discussing any of these chapters in detail. The best are those by Friedberg, Wolfowitz, and Gerecht. Carefully and cautiously wrought, these pieces are often insightful, if not ultimately convincing. The most troubling chapters include the highly partisan and scare-mongering essay on China by Munro and the saber-rattling piece on Iraq by Perle. Donald Kagan's contribution is especially frustrating for its selective reading of history and his failure to appreciate the key differences between the past and our present.

While certainly worth reading and pondering, Present Dangers outlines a foreign policy that is a recipe for disaster. Though these conservative internationalists are right to deride the Clinton administration and its liberal internationalist policies, they ultimately fail to make a compelling case that the United States should attempt to turn the unipolar moment into an enduring Pax Americana. Most important, their foreign policy vision is strategically unsound and more likely to damage American interests and values than promote them. Considering the impressive roster lined up in this book, it is surprising and unfortunate to see them err so dramatically. It is more surprising still that these conservative wisemen have taken their cues from Theodore Roosevelt and been guided down a path that is actually not conservative at all.

The most significant weakness of Present Dangers is that the foreign policy it prescribes is built on a flawed understanding of international politics. Its authors fail to appreciate that seeking to maintain hegemony is an excessively costly and ultimately fruitless effort. By Kagan and Kristol's own calculations, the minimum cost to implement their policy will be more than $1 trillion every three years. This does not even account for expenditures arising from any interventions, let alone wars, that may become necessary to maintain American primacy. Such spending "needs" are truly remarkable considering that U.S. military spending already accounts for more than one-third of military expenditures worldwide, and few of our rivals are among the top 10 spenders. (In fact, the biggest spenders are actually friendly states.)

A policy aimed at ensuring global dominion could be costly in terms of lives as well. Defending the widely cast alliance system advocated in Present Dangers could involve the United States in bloody battles in places with little direct relevance to American interests. Even if these allies remain out of harm's way, who knows how many lives could be lost in the various interventions contemplated by these authors?

The financial and human costs prescribed by this book might be reasonable if the threat environment demanded it. Yet the United States is incredibly secure. Even if it retrenches, American interests will be safe for the foreseeable future. For one thing, the balance of power in Eurasia, a traditional American concern, is in no danger of being overturned. Additionally, U.S. rivals face significant obstacles to becoming serious threats. The U.S. also enjoys a robust nuclear deterrent force, powerful and technologically superior conventional forces, and still-relevant geopolitical advantages. In fact, U.S. security is very much assured, especially given that America faces a relatively benign threat environment. Therefore, such a vast price is hardly necessary. Contrary to what we read in this book, the sky is not falling anytime soon, and America can easily afford to reshape its security policy in a manner consistent with this reality.

American hegemony is sure to be costly in terms of blood and treasure, but it is also fruitless in the long term. Considering that unipolarity is a historical oddity, it is almost given that other states will eventually rise up and challenge any attempt by the United States to dominate the international system ad infinitum. Indeed, as most students of international politics know, the exertions of maintaining hegemony will only increase the incentives for others to balance American power. This is particularly the case when the hegemon explicitly sets about "making trouble" for those who fail to conform to its preferences. In fact, Peter Rodman's chapter on Russia presents evidence that current U.S. dominance may already be provoking counterbalancing behavior.

Furthermore, it is commonly known that hegemons bear the seeds of their own destruction. The cost of underwriting the international order is borne mostly by the dominant power, thus allowing others to free-ride. This serves to erode the relative power of the hegemon, making its dominance unsustainable in the long run. These free-riders also narrow the gap by emulating the successful superpower and benefiting from the natural diffusion of its superior technology. Hegemons also tend to suffer from "imperial overstretch," which further diminishes their power.

A wiser policy for such a fortunate state would be to extend the life of its relative position by taking advantage of the opportunity to retrench and reduce its defense spending. This strategy would allow the unipolar power to return freed up financial and human capital to the private sphere where the wealth and technological advances necessary for long-term security are created.

Another flaw in the logic of this book's overarching vision is its assumption that there is what academics call "a seamless web of interests" that binds the security of states together. This assumption, which is based on a rather selective reading of world history, posits that threats to others are actually threats to the U.S. itself. It is also the root of the claim that instability and crises abroad will adversely affect American interests if they are allowed to fester. However, we should view these arguments no more seriously than we now view the old domino theory. They are kindred ideas, and the assumption underlying them is as likely to get the U.S. into trouble now as it did in the past. In fact, it already has, considering that this assumption was, and remains, at the base of the rationale for our ongoing involvement in the distant and strategically unimportant Balkans.

Present Dangers hardly offers the conservative vision it advertises, at least in the American sense of the word. First, it is a policy that will threaten rather than preserve many of America's traditional values, such as individual liberty, small government, and anti-militarism. As has been pointed out by a number of historians, war and preparing for war are the soils that nurture the growth of state power, burdensome taxation, conscription, and militarism. If American conservatism should stand for anything, it should be the goal of limited government. Yet the primacist policies offered here guarantee the opposite: a leviathan.

Second, rather than an American conservative vision aimed at protecting a free society of individuals, Present Dangers offers a communitarian perspective that seeks, in Kagan and Kristol's words, "honor and greatness" for the nation. In this way, it is a Greek as well as Roman strategy. Indeed, one can see a lot of continuity between this book and the spirit of the Athenian polis. The Athenians saw virtue in the individual sacrificing for the greatness, glory, and honor of the community. Indeed, the greatness and honor of the polis defined those of its members. Pericles even went so far as to argue that someone without interest in the duties of public life was "a useless character."

The American tradition is quite different. It suggests that the state should seek neither glory nor honor. To the contrary, the state is charged simply with protecting individuals who fulfill their dreams and aspirations in the private, not public, sphere. Surely the Greek spirit that animates Present Dangers is not consistent with the American vision of the relation between the state and the society it protects. Actually, these conservatives could learn one thing from the once-great Athens: that striving for glory, honor, and hegemony leads to ill-conceived endeavors like the expedition against Syracuse that fatally wounded our democratic ancestor during the Peloponnesian War.

Lastly, rather than a policy rooted in conservatism, the vision presented in Present Dangers instead succumbs to what F.A. Hayek called the "fatal conceit" of modern liberalism: "that man is able to shape the world around him according to his wishes." While a few contributors, notably Friedberg, are careful to avoid this conceit, one senses in this book a certain hubris about the ability to control events in world politics. Once you believe that "everything depends on what we do now," it is easy to stumble down a path to doom.

Instead, the United States must realize its limited capacity to control events in international politics. Indeed, it must rid itself of the unrealistic belief that every seam is connected and that the United States should or could repair any tear in the fiber of world peace and stability. Once these fallacies are understood as such, America, and perhaps even conservatism, can safely return to normalcy.