m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

J U L Y   1 9 9 1

Why the Gulf War Served the National Interest
by Joseph S. Nye Jr.

LET'S start with a puzzle. Why did a majority of the people living in the central part of North America think it in their interest to send half a million soldiers 6,000 miles away to the Persian Gulf? The simplest answer is one word: oil. To quote one of the better placards at a peace march, "If Kuwait exported broccoli, we wouldn't be there now."

Like most slogans, however, that one oversimplifies the truth. Persian Gulf oil accounts for less than five percent of America's energy consumption. Japan, which is highly dependent on Gulf oil, did not send troops, while Britain, which exports oil, did send troops. So oil is not the whole answer. Other possible aspects of the answer include "a new world order," collective security, interdependence, prevention of regional hegemony, and reversal of American decline. But big words sometimes substitute for clear thought. Let us unpack the abstractions and see what they're made up of as we search for the national interest in the Persian Gulf.

Defining the National Interest

SOMETIMES geopoliticians act as though determining the national interest were an arcane science, or at least an occult art. But there is nothing mysterious about the national interest. It is simply the set of interests that are widely shared by Americans in their relations with the rest of the world. The national interest is broader than private interests, though it is hardly surprising that various groups try to equate their interests with the national interest. And despite what self-proclaimed realists say, the national interest is broader than protection against geopolitical threats. The strategic interest is part of, but not necessarily identical to, the national interest. In a democracy the national interest is what a majority, after discussion and debate, decides are its legitimate long-run shared interests in relation to the outside world.
Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte. More on foreign policy from The Atlantic's archive.

More on defense from The Atlantic's archive.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Iraq Considered" (October 1, 2002)
Should the U.S. intervene in Iraq? Articles from 1958 to the present offer a variety of perspectives.

Flashbacks: "The Intervention Question" (April 7, 2000)
Atlantic articles from 1967 to 1996—by George McGovern, Ronald Steel, Jonathan Clarke, John J. Mearsheimer, and Robert D. Kaplan—take up the issue of American interventionism.

Flashbacks: "Who Are the Kurds?" (February 17, 1999)
Two Atlantic articles from the past decade put the "Kurdish problem" in perspective.

Flashbacks: "Oil and Turmoil" (July 11, 1996)
Three Atlantic authors tackle the issues of politics, oil, and the Persian Gulf.


What can Americans agree on? Most want a sense of security -- the absence of threats at home or abroad. Economic well-being is also high on the list. Many jobs that Americans hold and products they consume depend on the world beyond their borders. But Americans don't define themselves by bread alone. They also care about their identity, self-image, and moral values. Here the list becomes fuzzier, as people differ in the extent to which they want their governmeet's foreign policy to express their preferences for democracy, human rights, or a sense of national pride.

Foreign-policy experts who call themselves realists often deny that such values can be part of the national interest. They prefer to identify the national interest with the strategic interest. The realists are right to warn about the strategic costs and pitfalls of indulging such moralistic preferences, but in a democracy the experts have no right to assert that their amoral preferences are the only correct way to define the national interest.

Some analysts, myself included, say that the American people share an interest in world order. But order is instrumental, valuable only insofar as it serves the more basic shared interests in security, economic well-being, and identity. So why should Americans care about order in distant parts of the globe? The simple answer is that even distant disorder can have effects that hurt, influence, or disturb the majority of people living within the United States. The various ways in which these effects are transmitted are lumped together under the abstraction "rising interdependence." They add up to a world in which it is ever more difficult for us to isolate what happens inside the United States from what happens outside.

There are various forms of interdependence: economic, military, social, and ecological. The changing technology of communications and transportation has had a revolutionary impact on economic interdependence. World trade has grown more rapidly than world product. Over the past few decades foreign trade has tripled its share in the U.S. economy, from five to 15 percent of the gross national product. A third of the growth in the U.S. economy over the past five years is attributable to exports. And international monetary flows, some twenty-five times as large as the world's flows of goods, have eroded the ability of national monetary authorities to control capital markets. Americans like to think that interest rates, so important to economic growth, are set by the Federal Reserve Board. But in practice they are also set by thousands of people watching little green screens all over the world, deciding whether or not the underlying conditions of the U.S. economy merit buying U.S. Treasury bills at the offered rates.

Another trend that increases interdependence is the spread of the technology of destruction. At least ten poor countries have major weapons-export industries. Twenty countries have the capability to make chemical weapons; fifteen are working to produce ballistic missiles; nine probably have nuclear weapons. More will follow. Not only is there the prospect that hostile countries may try to use such weapons on the United States, but also, given the weak command-and-control capabilities in poor countries, there's the chance that such weapons will fall into the hands of terrorist groups. Ballistic-missile defenses built with American technology will be unable to stop the aircraft, ships, and smuggling that are the likely forms of delivery by weak states or terrorist groups.

Along with economic and military interdependence, social and ecological interdependence have increased as well. A growing number of the issues in international politics are transnational in the sense that they have roots in many societies and their effects cross international borders. The radioactivity released from the Chernobyl reactor in the Soviet Union was a dramatic example, but threats to the ozone layer or to the global climate are rooted in the domestic practices of many countries. The solutions to such issues of transnational interdependence as ecological change, AIDS, and illicit trade in drugs will require cooperation among many governments. If governments are mired in chaos and too weak to deal with their end of a transnational problem, the U.S. government will be unable to influence them to minimize the damage done to Americans.

In other words, behind the abstractions about rising interdependence are changes that make it ever more difficult to isolate the United States from the effects of events in the rest of the world. More concretely, there are two simple reasons why Americans have a national interest in reducing disorder beyond our borders. Things out there can hurt us, and therefore we will want to influence distant governments on a variety of issues, such as proliferation, terrorism, drugs, resources, and ecological damage. To do so, we will need power beyond just our good example. But there is sometimes another reason for concern about distant disorder.

Some foreign violations of human rights are so egregious that they evoke a broad response among Americans. The majority vote in Congress for sanctions against apartheid in South America is a case in point.

The Case of the Gulf

EVEN if interdependence is rising and the United States has a national interest in some degree of world order in general, what were the widely shared American interests in the specific case of the Persian Gulf? How might Americans have been hurt if the United States had continued to have "no opinion" on inter-Arab disputes? The three most serious reasons for involvement were oil, order, and weapons proliferation.

Oil is the most tangible interest, though not necessarily the most important. Oil provides about 40 percent of American energy, and about 45 percent of this oil is imported. Roughly a quarter of the imports come from the Persian Gulf -- so America's direct energy dependence on the Gulf is less than five percent. After the energy crises of the 1970s the U.S. government spent $20 billion developing a strategic petroleum reserve. By August of 1990 the reserve contained 600 million barrels, or approximately a year's supply of Persian Gulf imports.

The direct physical effects of losing Gulf oil appear small, but it is a mistake to look only at the direct effects. The numerous editorials that compared America's five percent dependence on Gulf oil with Japan's 37 percent dependence were misleading, for they ignored the effects of global economic interdependence. Oil is a fungible commodity: it flows to the highest bidder. As long as the world market depends on the Gulf for a third of its oil, shortfalls there will jack up world prices and everyone, including the United States, will pay more for oil. Those higher prices are like a tax on the world economy, stimulating inflation and depressing demand, hurting rich and poor alike.

Higher oil prices have two kinds of effects on the U.S. economy: a larger import bill (economists call this a change in the terms of trade), and shocks to the economy that interrupt growth (economists call these macro-economic effects). If Saddam Hussein had raised oil prices to $27 a barrel, the increase in our import bill would have been about $20 billion a year, or less than one half of one percent of GNP. The greater harm comes when sudden rises depress the economy, but this effect is harder to estimate. Some economists believe that a temporary oil price of $40 a barrel, for example, helped to trigger the recession, which represented a loss of several percent of GNP. If Saddam Hussein had gained control of Gulf oil and chosen a long-term sustainable price rise, the effects on the U.S. economy (through the terms of trade) would have been modest. If he had tried to extort money more quickly with a more dramatic price rise, the damage to the U.S. (and world) economy would have been considerably greater. If President Richard Nixon's old goal of energy independence could be achieved, the United States could reduce the terms-of-trade effects of global oil shortages on its economy, but not the larger macro-economic effects that would be transmitted from the shock of rapid price rises and depressed activity in the world economy. Moreover, energy independence has proved to be a chimerical goal. Increased drilling, a gasoline tax, and incentives for conservation are worthwhile efforts, but they will not replace our dependence on oil imports in this century at any reasonable level of costs. Of course, imported oil also has hidden costs that are not reflected in its market price. These include the costs of economic and military assistance as well as of military forces earmarked for the Middle East. These factors added $8.32 per barrel of imported oil in 1990, for a total still well below the costs of such alternatives as solar energy and synthetic fuels.

By many accounts, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in large part because of oil. Only ten days later did he invoke the Palestinian cause. In 1988 he faced economic-reconstruction costs of $230 billion in the aftermath of his war with Iran; Iraq's annual oil revenues of $13 billion did not even cover current expenditures. As Saddam Hussein complained at an Arab summit in Mav of last year, every dollar drop in the price of oil cost Iraq a billion dollars a year Not only was annexing Kuwait like capturing a gold mine, but had Iraq's President gone unchallenged in his use of force, he would have been able to cow Saudi Arabia and the smaller states into cutting their oil production and jacking up the world price by the ten dollars a barrel or more that he had mentioned in May.

Oil markets, of course, respond to price changes, and eventually increased conservation and production outside the Gulf would have set upper limits on price, though probably only after considerable damage had been done to the world economy. But even if the markets had prevented Saddam Hussein from extorting as much wealth from the world economy as he wished, his oil revenues would have increased dramatically. It would be nice to believe that the additional income would have been devoted to economic development, but that belief is inconsistent with the Iraqi President's past behavior, which has been aimed at turning Iraq into the dominant military power in the region. The additional revenues would have permitted a dramatic increase in Iraq's already impressive ability to import modern weapons and the technology necessary for producing weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam Hussein had already demonstrated his chemical weapons capability, against Iran and against his own Kurdish civilians. In addition, he was developing biological weapons, extending the range of his ballistic missiles, and covertly importing components for a nuclear-weapons program. Despite alarmist reports by some pundits, at the time of the war Iraq was probably still at least five years away from having a deliverable nuclear weapon. If he aspired to be the Bismarck of the Arabs, eliminating those nations friendly to the West and finally confronting Israel, the next decade in the Middle East promised to be one of escalating violence and loss of life. Facing such a prospect, those who believed that a conflict with Saddam Hussein was inevitable concluded that sooner was better than later.

Was a conflict with Saddam Hussein inevitable? The simple answer is no. Few things are inevitable in human affairs. For instance, he might have been overthrown before he achieved nuclear capability, or Israel might have pre-empted that capability again, as it did with its strike against Iraq's Osirak reactor, in 1981. Though not inevitable, however, higher levels of conflict looked likely. But would the United States have been drawn in? Probably so, given America's de facto alliance with Israel.

Is support for Israel a national interest? It is if a majority of Americans consistently say it is. The United States being a nation of immigrants, it has long been legitimate for Americans with binational affinities to lobby for the support of particular countries, but support for Israel extends far beyond the American Jewish community. The support is based in part on the biblical beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, in part on a sense of historical guilt related to the Holocaust, and in part on admiration for Israeli democracy. In the Reagan years Israel derived strategic importance from the anti-Soviet focus of American diplomacy, but although that focus is less compelling in the post-Cold War era, strategists who believe that alliances are crucial to American efforts at world order nonetheless consider support for Israel to be important for the sake of the credibility of American commitments.

None of this means that Israel's national interest is identical with that of the United States; depending on Israel's behavior, it is conceivable that Americans might someday decide to put greater distance between the two nations. But these factors suggest that it was predictable that the United States would be drawn into growing turbulence in the region. Moreover, given Iraqi threats against friendly Arab governments, the dangerous precedents set by the use of weapons of mass destruction, and the risk that such weapons would fall into the hands of subnational groups, the U.S. interest in stemming weapons proliferation in Iraq went beyond the question of threats to Israel.

The most intangible of the American interests was the "new world order," a phrase that President Bush had begun using by February of last year to describe the end of the Cold War. Since the development of the modern state system, the structure or distribution of power in world politics has tended to be set by the outcome of major wars and the treaties associated with their settlement. For half a century the balance of power in world politics reflected the outcome of the Second World War. The preponderance of the United States and the Soviet Union was known as bipolarity.

The standoff between the two superpowers meant that the collective-security provisions of the United Nations Charter of 1945 could not be fully implemented, but the Cold War balance provided a degree of order, if not justice. The decline of the Soviet Union meant the end of bipolarity and a weakening of constraints on the USSR's regional client states. Saddam Hussein publicly recognized the Soviet decline in a speech in Amman in February of last year, which tempts one to conclude that Kuwait was the first victim of the end of the Cold War world order.

One of the open questions last August was whether the United Nations collective-security provisions would play a role in a post-Cold War world. If the UN had failed to respond to such a clearcut case of aggression and annexation, that would have suggested that UN collective security would not work in any case. Although the analogies to the 1930s were overdrawn, they were not completely farfetched. For the first time (with the exception of the UN response in the Korean War, a response that derived from a Soviet tactical mistake), the Security Council was not paralyzed on a collective-security issue by a veto. Nor were the UN resolutions simply a case of American manipulation. Many postcolonial countries with disputable borders saw a national interest in collectively rebuffing Iraq's claim that it was justified in its invasion of Kuwait.

Even if the United States has a national interest in world order, as argued above, why not let the United Nations shoulder the burden? Why should the United States be the world's 911? The answer is that the United States should not be the world's policeman, at least not alone.

Working through the United Nations and getting others to share the burden of maintaining order is part of foreign-policy wisdom. But to assume that the UN is a separate entity capable of imposing order by itself is a case of misplaced specificity. The UN is the sum of its member nations, and the United States is by far the largest contributor among those members.

Economists have long noted about collective goods that because everyone can consume without necessarily helping to produce, there is always a temptation to take a free ride. And if the largest consumer fails to do its share, or sometimes even more, there is little likelihood that the goods will be produced by the others. The net result will be that everyone is worse off. That was the situation in the 1920s, when the United States emerged from the First World War as the strongest nation but refused to join the collective-security system of the League of Nations. The isolationist free-riding in the interwar period came back to haunt and hurt Americans by the end of the 1930s. One does not have to believe that Saddam Hussein is another Hitler (the latter was a far cleverer evil genius) to believe that the failure of the United States to support the UN collective-security system in the first major post-Cold War crisis would have come back to haunt us in the future. At the same time, using the UN rather than acting unilaterally set an important precedent that may help to limit any temptation for the United States to become overextended as a global policeman. And in retrospect it appears that other nations may have borne somewhere between 75 and 100 percent of the additional financial burdens imposed by the Gulf War.

How Much Insurance to Buy?

ASSERTING the existence of these three U.S. national interests in the Persian Gulf does not automatically justify all the actions that the United States took to promote them. Nor does a belief that the war was in the national interest require one to defend all American policies that preceded or followed it. A number of issues are open to debate. Could collective security have been enforced by sanctions alone, or would the international coalition have collapsed long before sanctions persuaded Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait? Was Saddam Hussein using the Soviet peace proposal as a delaying tactic so that his military could survive to fight at a later date, or was a ground war unnecessary? Could the United States have insisted that other countries' troops make up a higher proportion of the force as successfully as it insisted that others share the financial burden? Could an effective UN military command have been established, or would the inefficiencies of such a polyglot system simply have encouraged defeat or high casualties on the battlefield? My own guess is that the coalition would not have held together long enough for sanctions to have persuaded Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait. After all, more than a month of bombing did not produce that effect. Nor do I think that the United Nations alone could have obtained and managed the forces needed to defeat Iraq's large army. The purpose of raising these questions is not to answer them here but to illustrate that even when there is agreement that national interests exist, how to advance them can still be debatable.

This is true not only of the Gulf but also offoreign policy generally. Much of strategic analysis deals with events that would be disastrous if they actually occurred but that are very unlikely to occur. Deterring a Soviet nuclear attack over the past half century has cost us trillions. Americans have never fully agreed on how much deterrence was enough, but the majority have always wanted a margin of safety. In that sense foreign policy is like an insurance policy. Few people expect their house to burn down, but most want the security of adequate insurance.

Just as homeowners can impoverish themselves by buying too much insurance, so countries can pay too much to promote their national interests. The problem of how much insurance to buy is inherent in the nature of issues that involve huge potential losses but have quite low or uncertain probabilities. And if the problem is hard for homeowners, it is doubly hard for democracies constructed on the basis of the separation of powers. Small wonder, then, that the eminent constitutional scholar Edward S. Corwin described the framework for making U.S. foreign policy as "an invitation to struggle."

Lessons for the Future

AS AMERICANS struggle to interpret the lessons of the Gulf War, nothing could be less fruitful than the exaggerations of neo-isolationism and global unilateralism. Since foreign policy involves trade-offs among several national interests, there is more to be said for seeking an Aristotelian mean than for the pursuit of blindingly clear solutions. As a people, Americans have a long history of swinging back and forth in their national mood between inward and outward orientation, between optimism and pessimism about their world role.

The most recent example is the debate between declinists and revivalists over America's global role. In his best-selling book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, the eminent Yale historian Paul Kennedy argued that the United States was suffering from "imperial overstretch," like other empires in the past, but was declining even more rapidly than could be expected. In my book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, I showed that the postwar decline in America's share of world product ended by the early 1970s, and that, contrary to theories of imperial overstretch, the burdens borne by the military are today less than half those borne at the height of the Cold War. This trend is not altered by the Gulf War. The defense budget continues to decline in real terms in fiscal 1992, and it is estimated that defense will cost around 3.5 percent of the gross national product by the middle of the decade.

In 1989 polls showed that half the American people believed their country to be in decline. Early polls this year suggest that the Gulf War corrected this tendency to exaggerate American weaknesses. The danger now, however, is that American self-estimates will overcompensate -- will overshoot in other directions. If Americans learn the wrong lessons from the Gulf War, they can do real damage to their long-term national interests. Such would be the case if they were to conclude, for example, that the United States can police the world alone or that Americans can embark on moral crusades to impose their ways on other peoples, or if they neglect the pressing agenda of domestic issues.

The problem for the United States -- and other countries -- in shaping a new world order lies less in the traditional danger of battles for first place in the rank of great powers than in the diffusion of power to weak states and private transnational entities in a world of increasing interdependence. Military power remains relevant in such a world. The trendy proclamations of early last year according to which Japan and Germany were new superpowers seemed fatuous after August. But in a world where the sources of power are more diffuse, military power alone will not be enough.

America's capacity to promote its national interests will have to rest on both hard power and soft power. Hard power is based on the familiar resources of military and economic might. Soft power, the ability to co-opt rather than command, rests on intangible resources such as culture, ideology, and the use of international institutions to determine the framework of debate. In the Gulf crisis it was important to get the hard power of the military to Saudi Arabia quickly, but it was equally important to have the soft power to shape the UN resolutions that defined Iraq's entry into Kuwait as a violation calling for sanctions.

Without such resolutions it might have been impossible for the Saudis to accept U.S. troops, for other Arab countries to send troops, and for allied countries to foot more than three quarters of the bill. And although America's hard power was critical to winning the war, winning the peace will require investments in such soft-power initiatives as a regional development fund to redistribute the oil wealth, efforts to further the Arab-Israeli peace process, and humanitarian relief for the many civilian victims of the war.

The skillful combination of hard and soft power resources abroad, however, is only half the job Americans face after the Gulf War. In a world of rising interdependence the distinctions between domestic and foreign policy become blurred. Here the declinist warnings become more relevant, though not in the way their originators think.

Analogies between the United States in the Gulf War and imperial Spain in the Thirty Years War or Edwardian England in the Boer War fail to note that Spain was in absolute economic decline and Britain had already slipped to third place in the world economy. For all its problems, the United States remains the world's largest economy, with the highest level of absolute productivity, and its share of global manufacturing exports has risen in recent years. But the United States is suffering from a low savings rate, a government deficit that eats up part of those savings, and an education system that is inadequate for the needs of an information-age economy. American decline could occur through a gradual, long-term cumulation of political decisions favoring consumption over investment. America's hard power and soft power to shape a better world order depend on addressing such domestic issues.

The Gulf crisis showed that the declinists underestimated U.S. strength in both hard military and soft coalition-building power resources. But if the American people and their political leaders let postwar euphoria divert them from the domestic agenda, efforts to construct a new world order will become increasingly hollow.

The American situation is not that of a Britain hard pressed by the rise of the Kaiser's Germany. The Soviet Union is in decline, and the United States is one of the most lightly taxed of all advanced industrial countries. There is no reason that Americans cannot both afford domestic reforms and contribute to international order in a post-Cold War world. President Bush will have to risk some of his popularity in hard slogging in the domestic trenches, and the Democratic opposition will have to resist letting its calls for domestic reform degenerate into neo-isolationism. In a world of interdependence Americans cannot afford to define the national interest in domestic or international terms alone.


Copyright © 1991 by Joseph S. Nye Jr. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1991; Why the Gulf War Served the National Interest ; Volume 268, No. 1; pages 56 - 64.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture