Editor's Choice January/February 2009


A new report from the country’s top intelligence office predicts a fundamental change in America’s foreign policy—but not the change Barack Obama has promised.

With missionary muscularity, Obama says that the United States “shouldn’t shy away from pushing for more democracy … in Russia,” proposing an intrusion hardly conducive to smooth relations between two sovereign great powers. (Obama’s future UN ambassador, Susan Rice, was asked if Russians would appreciate Washington’s dictating to them the internal arrangements it finds acceptable—after all, how would Americans react if Russia’s president “pushed” for authoritarianism here? She replied, with a hint of the highhandedness Obama’s supporters found dismaying in the previous administration’s foreign-policy utterances, “No, they would not like it. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing it.”) But Obama also asserts, correctly—and in the very next sentence—that America “must work with Russia” to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. He fails to apprehend how the pursuit of his first imperative stymies the second.

In his emphatic declarations—declarations all but identical to those of every post–Cold War administration—Obama has made clear that he will not “cede our claim of leadership in world affairs,” meaning he is unwilling to fundamentally refashion America’s foreign policy. Far from a vague shibboleth, “leadership” (or, more precisely, hegemony—American statesmen and policy planners always use the euphemism) in fact connotes a complex global role and a set of specific strategies. Predating and quite apart from the necessary costs and measures involved in countering the threat al-Qaeda poses, American strategy has been based on the perceived imperative to impose military protectorates over Europe and East Asia. By enmeshing the states in these regions in security alliances that it dominates and obviating their need to develop air and naval forces with global reach (ensuring, for instance, the safe flow of oil from the Persian Gulf), Washington has prevented potential great powers from pursuing autonomous and, so the thinking goes, possibly destabilizing policies.

Of course, maintaining what the Clinton-era Pentagon called “full-spectrum dominance” over allies and potential enemies means that America must spend more on its military than do virtually all other countries combined (despite the economic catastrophe we’re now facing, Obama’s spokesmen have made clear that he won’t reduce defense spending). It also entails expanded and risky defense commitments. The enlargement of NATO—a policy the Clinton administration initiated, the Bush administration pursued, and Obama endorses—was intended to bolster America’s position in post–Cold War Europe. (Advocates of the policy argued that the alliance, the essential vehicle for U.S. “leadership” in Europe, would go “out of business” if it didn’t go “out of area.”) But by extending its military and nuclear umbrella over an unstable region historically outside its strategic orbit, America has taken on its most ambitious and far-reaching security obligations since the late 1940s, thereby committing what George Kennan called “a strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” Pushing the U.S.-led alliance into regions very much in Russia’s sphere of influence has understandably antagonized a great power whose cooperation the Obama administration will need if it is to resolve a range of issues—nuclear proliferation, relations with Iran, terrorism, global warming—that it has placed at the top of its international agenda.

American officials like to describe Washington’s leadership as “benign.” It might not appear so to others. Long before the Iraq War, Russia and China (as well as some of our “partners”) feared the strategic imbalance in America’s favor. In the days when Madeleine Albright was swaggeringly declaring America “the indispensable nation … We stand tall and hence see farther,” much of the rest of the world shared the sentiments of an anonymous British diplomat who spoke of the Clinton administration in the same terms critics would later use to describe the George W. Bush administration:

One reads about the world’s desire for American leadership only in the United States. Everywhere else one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism.

Back then, a few American foreign-policy analysts argued (in these pages and elsewhere) that America’s strategy was not only risky but Sisyphean. They explained that other states would coalesce against American hegemony and that American leadership would be undermined by its own success. The Pentagon has asserted that American preponderance created and sustained the foundations for “a market-­oriented zone of peace and prosperity encompassing two-thirds of the world economy.” But the problem with a giant zone of peace and prosperity is that it bites the hegemon that feeds it: by augmenting the wealth and power of multiple states, the United States spurs the relative decline of its own power even as it contributes to the absolute growth of its own (and the world’s) economy. Instead of pursuing “leadership,” these analysts argued, the U.S. would do better to accept and in fact encourage the emergence of a multipolar system of truly independent great powers, which would take care of their own and their regions’ security. Such arguments were barely considered. Triumphalists—Democratic and Republican, left-wing and right—believed that international politics could in effect be transcended, and that American leadership, like the ever-rising Dow, could be sustained indefinitely.

Global Trends 2025 should shake Obama’s confidence in the wisdom of embracing a hegemonic foreign policy. Owing largely to the unantici­pated quickening of the processes de­scribed above (which the NIC characterizes as “the unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power roughly from West to East”), the report concludes, in the words of the NIC chairman, Thomas Fingar, that over the next 16 years,

American dominance will be much diminished … The overwhelming dominance that the United States has enjoyed in the international system … is eroding and will erode at an accelerating pace …

A multipolar world—a world of autonomous great powers that American global strategy has sought to avert for 60 years—will inevitably emerge.

If the NIC is correct, this president, elected on a promise of change, will be presiding over the country as it begins to come to terms with the most significant transformation in international politics since the Second World War (and that includes the Cold War). Among the other momentous tasks that confront him, he must help create a new American stance toward the world. Maybe now isn’t the time to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. And why insist that the United States cling to a prerogative that history is about to snatch away?

Editor’s Choice

Readers looking for genuine “change” in American foreign policy should consult the following books, some out of print, all out of fashion:

George F. Kennan’s Around the Cragged Hill; Ronald Steel’s characteristically sharp and elegant Temptations of a Superpower; E.H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis, the sardonic antidote to Wilsonianism; William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy; Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America; Robert A. Packenham’s Liberal Amer­ica and the Third World; and Christopher Layne’s The Peace of Illusions, the most penetrating, intellectually daring work I’ve read on post–Cold War foreign policy.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

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