Why America Thinks It Has to Run the World

The Cold War is over, and America is staggering under a colossal debt and an accumulation of frightening social problems. Yet it continues to spend billions to protect Germany and Japan--two rich nations whose freedom is in no apparent danger. Why? Here is the answer that the foreign-policy elite would give if it dared to speak frankly about the delicate matter of American efforts to assert international economic and political control

Three years ago, in light of the end of the Cold War, the Clinton Administration undertook a "fundamental reassessment" of America's national-security requirements. But after six months of analysis Administration officials concluded that the defense of U.S. global interests still demanded military spending of more than $1.3 trillion over the following five years and the permanent commitment of more than 200,000 U.S. soldiers in East Asia and Europe--in other words, a strategy remarkably similar to that which America pursued during the Cold War. Moreover, rather than relinquish America's costly and risky responsibilities by dissolving Cold War alliances, defense strategists now plan to expand NATO's responsibilities eastward. Those who call for a more modest plan argue that U.S. strategy seems to be extravagance born of paranoia, or of the defense establishment's anxiety to protect its budget. In fact, given the way the makers of U.S. foreign policy have defined American interests since the late 1940s, these plans are quite prudent. And that is the problem.

If many Americans had been asked ten years ago why U.S. troops were deployed in East Asia and Europe, they would have answered, To keep the Soviets out. They may have wondered, however, why the United States persisted in its strategy long after Japan, South Korea, and Western Europe had become capable of defending themselves. Now that the USSR itself has disappeared, why does Washington continue to insist that U.S. "leadership" in East Asia and Europe is still indispensable?

Ask National Security Council staff members, think-tank analysts, or State Department policy planners about America's globe-girdling security commitments and they will deliver very different answers--ones that have not changed in forty-five years. They will justify the Pax Americana by invoking "the imperative of continued U.S. world leadership," the need to "shape a favorable international environment," "reassurance of allies," and the ongoing need for "stability" and "continuing engagement." Even during the Cold War the "Soviet threat" might not have been mentioned.

The question that all this justification ignores is What, exactly, is "leadership," and why has it been the mantra of foreign-policy cognoscenti for nearly fifty years? What have we been doing around the globe, and why?

Most Americans misunderstand their country's foreign policy. It seems to operate only when "danger" looms--when Iraq invades Kuwait, when Russian "imperialism" threatens to resurface, when China rattles its sabers at Taiwan. Even people who religiously read the newspapers fail to grasp that U.S. foreign policy is far more than simply a series of responses to crises.

For instance, media coverage of recurring tensions on the Korean Peninsula has focused on speculation about North Korea's nuclear program and the prospect of a new Korean war. But when foreign-policy officials and experts discuss the Korean crisis among themselves, they rapidly leave the Koreas behind to focus on the real players in the region: China and Japan. As far as national-security experts are concerned, almost any immediate crisis is subsumed by a larger threat--in this case no less than East Asia's role in the potential collapse of the international economy that U.S. power has sustained since the late 1940s.

It's now an axiom of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment that economic, technological, and demographic changes are making East Asia the world's most dynamic arena, a driving force--increasingly the dominant force--in the international economy. The Pacific Century, we are told ad nauseam, has dawned. This transformation also means a shift in the international distribution of political and military power. In a typical evaluation of East Asia's strategic future the foreign-policy expert Aaron Friedberg states darkly in the journal International Security,

In the long run, it is Asia [rather than Europe] that seems far more likely to be the cockpit of great power conflict. The half millennium during which Europe was the world's primary generator of war (as well as of wealth and knowledge) is coming to a close. But, for better and for worse, Europe's past could be Asia's future.

Friedberg's assertion nicely illustrates the ambivalence with which the U.S. national-security community views East Asia's future. He both prophesies an exhilarating Pacific Century and warns the West that the East may once again be up to no good.

East Asia has never been a terribly successful field for American diplomacy. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, and surely that shortcoming for which the United States is continually indicted--cultural and historical myopia--has contributed enormously to its failures in the region. Americans have always seen East Asia not for what it is but for what it can do to them or for them: the region is either danger or opportunity--either a new "ground war in Asia" or a new China market. American understanding of Japan, for instance, is, in the words of the historian Bruce Cumings, caught within the conflicting views of Japan as "miracle and menace, docile and aggressive, fragile blossom and Tokyo Rose." As Friedberg's analysis attests, the U.S. foreign-policy community worries that the fragile blossom may again bloom into a Tokyo Rose.

Pacific Century rhetoric usually describes the new era in a "post­Cold War" context. This is misleading, because it starts at the wrong place. First, the shift of economic activity has not been sudden. Even if East Asia rose in the American consciousness just as the Soviet Union receded, to define the economic and geopolitical transformation of East Asia as a post­Cold War phenomenon Americanizes and trivializes a development in international (not American) politics of far greater impact than the Cold War itself. Although Vietnam, China, and North Korea were for forty years able to contain America's Cold War ambition to "roll back" communism, they are proving utterly unable to contain the juggernaut of East Asia's capitalist political economy. Most important, to imply that the end of the Cold War is of primary significance to U.S. policy in East Asia is to wrench that policy out of its most important context and to distort its underlying aims and challenges.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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