Zoë Heller: Learning in Public (June 12, 2003)
Zoë Heller, the author of What Was She Thinking?, talks about testing out a new point of view, and how journalism prepared her for fiction.
A Conversation With Michael Kelly (June 3, 2003)
Michael Kelly, The Atlantic's editor at large and former editor, was killed in Iraq this April while on assignment for the magazine. This interview took place a month and a half before he died.
Robert Baer: Addicted to Oil (May 29, 2003)
Robert Baer, the author of "The Fall of the House of Saud," discusses the perils of our dependence on Saudi Arabia and its precious supply of fuel.
Chase: The Disease of the Modern Era (May 20, 2003)
Alston Chase, the author of Harvard and the Unabomber, argues that we have much to fear from the forces that made Ted Kaczynski what he is.
The Calculus of Terror (May 15, 2003)
Bruce Hoffman talks about the strategy behind the suicide bombings in Israel—and what we must learn from Israel's response.
The Fiction of Life (May 7, 2003)
Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, on the dangers of using religion as an ideology, and the freedoms that literature can bring.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic and Atlantic Unbound.
Atlantic Unbound | June 18, 2003
The Hard Edge of American Values
Robert D. Kaplan on how the United States projects power around the world—and why it must
n "Supremacy by Stealth," his cover story for the July/August Atlantic, Robert D. Kaplan states simply that we have gotten ourselves into the business of empire. (He leaves it to others to debate the necessity or morality of such a move.) Concentrating on empire's practical side, he asks, How do we manage this world?
In order to answer that question, Kaplan has spent much of his time over the past several years traveling with the U.S. military, observing the implementation of American power on a day to day basis by Special Forces troops who work on the ground in countries around the globe. Based partly on these extensive travels, Kaplan has come up with a list of "Rules for Managing the World":
1. Produce More Joppolos
In essence, these rules are an articulation of power on a global scale. Have the best men possible on the ground; be everywhere; use American citizens—foreign and native born; use the military to further democracy; do a lot with a little; covert means and dabbling in moral ambiguity are sometimes necessary; a country united under one name may need more than one policy; the mission cannot be forgotten or compromised; sell the product; be idealistic, but know that realism wins the day.
2. Stay on the Move
3. Emulate Second-Century Rome
4. Use the Military to Promote Democracy
5. Be Light and Lethal
6. Bring Back the Old Rules
7. Remember the Philippines
8. The Mission is Everything
9. Fight on Every Front
10. Speak Victorian, Think Pagan
For now, Kaplan argues that maintaining American pre-eminence is paramount—both for the sake of other countries and for our own. He cautions, however, that the American empire is not meant to last forever. We are here as a self-interested but liberal power, shepherding the world along only until a "kind of civil society for the world" exists.
Robert Kaplan is an Atlantic Monthly correspondent. He is the author of Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2001), Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (2000), The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite (1993), and other books.
We spoke recently by telephone.
One of the first questions that emerges in your piece is "How should we operate on a tactical level to manage an unruly world?" Can you explain what you mean by "manage" in the context of the United States' global empire?
First of all, I find that so much of the analysis and commentary about America's place in the world is too abstract. What I'm attempting to do here is get down to the nuts and bolts. And one of the nuts and bolts that is never discussed is personnel. Who are the ambassadors? Who are the defense attachés? Who are these lieutenant colonels who are put in these positions in so many countries, where they are basically formulating micro-foreign policies on their own? I would much rather have an imperfect foreign policy executed and interpreted by the best kind of ground-level people than a brilliant foreign policy executed and interpreted by mediocrity. The real decisions on foreign policy are often made in the meetings of the State Department and the Defense Department, where the important questions are, Who's going to be the next ambassador to Turkey, who's going to be the next defense attaché to Uzbekistan? These are crucial, and this is what I get into in some of the first rules. Though I don't use the word personnel, that's what a large part of the piece is about. And you can only manage well through whom you appoint. A policy is only as good as the people who are executing it on the ground in the various countries.
So then your point here is to cut through the discussions of these high-minded, philosophical concepts and establish a real rule book for the people on the ground?
Right. It's not that these discussions are bad. Or that they don't help. It's that these discussions are often so similar that I feel unless you are going to write something different, it's better not to write anything at all. There have just been so many discussions—useful, not useful, whatever—on whether we want to enforce democracy, or whether we should or shouldn't nation-build. These are such broad categories that in so many countries they often have no application whatsoever. Often the last thing on an ambassador's mind is, Do we want to have more democracy or less? For example, there are elections in Yemen already; they're imperfect. They tend to lead to more radical politics, but not always. There already is some kind of a balanced system. These kinds of Washington and New York discussions simply don't help.
Should we be in the business of managing the affairs of other countries? Do we have a choice in the matter?
We don't have a choice. Very few empires set out to become empires. What tends to happen is that through economic and social dynamism, they become very strong economically and militarily as other places weaken, and they find themselves in a gradual position of dominance. As they increasingly see themselves threatened, they go out and do things not for the sake of conquest, but for the sake of their own security at home. Rome didn't go conquer Carthage because it sought to expand an empire in North Africa. It did it because it felt that Carthage was a threat to Sicily. And gradually Rome came to dominate North Africa through a process that originally started as a narrow security concern.
If you look at the history of the U.S., we were an empire long before we were a nation. I'm talking about the history of the American West. Up until the West became incorporated as states in the Union, it was essentially governed as an empire from Washington. And why did we expand to the west? Because we had the Spanish, the French, and the British at our west, our northwest, and our north. So we expanded into the continent originally for the sake of security and as a consequence we built an empire that we eventually incorporated into the country. We conquered the Philippines, a hundred years ago, as sort of an accidental consequence of the Spanish Civil War. Had it not been for Hitler and Tojo and the threats that Japanese and German militarism represented, America would not have become so dominant in Europe and Asia in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties. So it was always a threat that led the U.S. deeper and deeper into the world. You can say the same thing about September 11. The United States is certainly stamping its foot around the world a lot more than it was before September 11. That increased involvement was, initially, at least, a consequence of a security threat.
You consider Colombia to be a very important example for the future of U.S. intervention in world affairs. Why should we be paying attention to that country?
I could have used the Philippines, I could have used Nepal. Colombia is important for two reasons here. First, we are deeply involved, yet no one is paying attention to it, which is an example of how we find ourselves in an imperial position in the world. There are many places where we are deeply involved that aren't even covered by the news media. The news media tends to interpret American imperialism solely through what's been in the headlines—Afghanistan first, now Iraq. Second and more specifically, the problems that Colombia presents are an exaggerated form of the kinds of problems that we are likely to face over the next ten or twenty years in managing our affairs around the world. North Korea and Iraq, the countries that have gotten the headlines recently, really have old-fashioned, Cold War, dinosaur-style regimes. So while these problems, North Korea and Iraq, will be with us for some years yet, they essentially already represent the past. Whereas Colombia is a sign of the future, in the sense that it has these guerilla organizations that are sort of centerless corporations split up into baronies and franchises, where it's hard to get your finger on the pulse. And it's very, very hard to defeat them, because you stamp out one element and there are all these other elements around the country. Colombia also represents how so much of terrorism around the world is interrelated with crime. The part of al Qaeda represented by Osama bin Laden is not an example of that. They are very utopian and ideological. But most of these groups that we're going to have to deal with have radical politics that are interrelated with crime.
Another reason why Colombia is so important, which I didn't have space to mention in the piece, is that we are constantly reading about these disputes between the State Department on the one hand and the Pentagon on the other. It's like they are these two poles of opposing bureaucracies. But when you get into the field, this totally dissolves, because any major U.S. program anywhere is an interrelationship between the State Department, the Pentagon, and other agencies. If the agencies don't work together seamlessly, the program itself doesn't work. Plan Colombia, which is the name of the whole gamut of foreign and military aid that we are providing to the Colombian government was, up until post-Saddam Iraq, the largest foreign interagency operation that the U.S. government had in the world. Plan Colombia represents billions of dollars of interagency cooperation. And interagency is really the only way we can ever operate into the future.
You describe FARC, the main guerilla group in Colombia, as being "Karl Marx at the top and Adam Smith all the way down the command chain." Can you tell us what you mean by that?
Karl Marx means that the front that the group presents to the world is ideological, in this case left-wing/communist/socialist. But beneath that front it's all based on profits and crime. The FARC has lost its ideological edge and has kind of devolved into profit-making enterprises, involving kidnappings, drugs, and siphoning off oil-pipeline revenues.
The Special Forces soldiers in Colombia complain about the limited rules of engagement in that country, since they are permitted "only to train, rather than fight alongside, their Colombian counterparts." Why aren't they allowed to fight? How does this edict manifest itself during their time in Colombia?
Rules of engagement are probably the key issue in determining what the morale is of our soldiers in the field. If the rules of engagement are appropriate, the morale tends to be very high. If they are inappropriate, you tend to get low morale. What rules of engagement really means, when you get down to it, is when you are allowed to fire and when you're not. Rules of engagement was a term that you didn't really hear much about until the 1990s, because during the Cold War, we were in a black-and-white situation. So it was either all-out war or nothing. We didn't have these kind of nuanced, quasi-battlefield, peacekeeping situations or training situations. All this emerged in the 1990s when we found ourselves in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. We found ourselves with such questions as, If somebody wants to steal food from a relief convoy, is that worth shooting over?
The problem in parts of Colombia has been that Special Forces troops are allowed to train the elite units of the Colombian military and police but they often do this training in very hostile territories, which are surrounded by guerrillas. Many of the middle-level officers feel that the rules of engagement are not as expansive as they need to be in order for the soldiers to protect themselves while they are in these areas.
Also, rules of engagement come about through a negotiation between the United States and the host country. So we're limited to a degree by what the host country can politically accept. If U.S. soldiers find themselves shooting guerrillas in the Philippines or Columbia or Nepal, the question becomes, How does that affect the politics for the governments in these countries? Is it a plus? Is it a minus? So this is where politics intrudes in military operations.
What kind of things are these Colombian soldiers and others being taught? Why do they need this kind of training?
First of all, training sounds very passive. It sounds like the Special Forces soldiers are in a classroom teaching the Colombian soldiers how to clean a rifle. That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about elite units of one military training the best of the best of the other military. And we're going even further. Because U.S. Special Forces soldiers don't just train elite units. They train the trainers of the elite units—whether it's knowing how to retreat, whether it's knowing how to throw a grenade, knowing how to occupy a building in urban combat, and once you occupy one building how to capture another building. It's practical and operational. The training really involves doing it as an example. Every morning U.S. Army Green Berets go out in full battle gear and they actually do these exercises. Very often a typical training day replicates actual combat conditions, in terms of physical exertion and tension. It includes parachute drops, it includes rappelling down from helicopters, it includes very fine things like teaching snipers how to measure the wind velocity and zero in through sights—all these little tricks. And if the Special Forces soldier can't get a perfect bulls eye with his assault rifle every day, the Colombians—or any other military—are not going to respect him. You only earn respect in this business by showing that you're the best.
Is the United States the only country that has this diffuse military presence, with thousands of operations a year in 170 countries?
Yes, we are. Some other countries—like Australia and Israel—are surprisingly diverse; they do things that would surprise people. Of course, you have the French throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, and they are very active in ways that also do not get that much news coverage. But these tend to be small, boutique operations. The United States is the only one that is doing it all.
Why do we consider this presence so important?
It is something that has emerged. I don't think it has ever been, "We need a military presence in a hundred countries in the world." What happened is that the Cold War went on for so long. It wasn't just a four-year war like World War II or World War I, where once the war was over the military budget could go down. The Cold War went on for so long that it bred a kind of worldwide military establishment. Even when budgets went down in the early and mid-nineties, it didn't really affect it. Also, in the post-Cold War world, with the Soviet Union gone, with problems in the Balkans that the Europeans couldn't solve on their own, and with all these Middle Eastern threats, the U.S. was always called upon to intervene, to train, to do this, to do that. So it was not part of a thought-out process.
The Army calls the Special Forces soldiers "quiet professionals." What is the definition of a quiet professional?
A quiet professional is somebody—and this is very generic—who may go into the country with civilian clothes. He'll have small arms waiting for him when he's there, he's diplomatic, he can put on a suit and tie, he'll know a foreign language. He may quietly liaison with elite units of a foreign Army giving them advice on how to deal with this terrorist or that drug lord. He may actually go out on missions with them. He flies in on a commercial airliner, traveling economy class like any civilian, and is met at the airport. With a small group of others, perhaps five or eight people, he will be in a forward position to help in a decisive moment. Probably the most popular known example of this is the Delta force that went down to help the Colombians eliminate Pablo Escobar.
You state that "a world dominated by the Chinese, by a Franco-German-dominated European Union aligned with Russia, or by the United Nations
would be infinitely worse than the world we have now." Why is that the case? Can you give examples of why each of these would be worse?
Let's go down the list here. Let's use the Iraq crisis as an example. Or let's use the Balkans in the 1990s. In these cases, removing a terrible oppressive dictator was the primary aim—and remember, Saddam Hussein is responsible, directly or indirectly, for killing two to four times as many people as Slobodan Milosevic. The Europeans claimed that they could handle the whole problem in the Balkans at the end of the Cold War. They wound up calling upon us. It took the United States to get rid of Saddam Hussein. I think a world operated by the French, the Germans, and the Russians would have a kind of realpolitik that is more of the seventeenth century than the twentieth century. It would be so cold-blooded, and yet it would be dressed up with self-righteous moral statements, like the "world community" and "every country is sovereign." The result would be that some horrible dictators would flourish. And remember, Russia is not really a democracy. Germany has never really exhibited much wisdom in foreign affairs. If you look at how the French have operated in sub-Saharan Africa, how they operated supporting the Serbs in the Balkans, you will see that despite all the statements, their actual operations on the ground in many parts of the world have been, by any moral standards, worse than ours. And the problem I have with the United Nations is that it can only make decisions on broad consensus. And it's like any bureaucracy: the more people that are involved, the more mediocre and diluted the decisions are. Tough decisions tend to be made by small groups of people willing to take risks. The European Union and the UN Security Council certainly aren't designed that way. If you look back, the UN Security Council didn't give its stamp of approval for Bosnia, for Kosovo, for almost anything in the post-World War II world, except for the Korean War and the first Gulf War.
Some might consider the line "And so for the time being the highest morality must be the preservation—and, wherever prudent, the accretion—of American power" a rather terrifying one. How would you respond to people who have such qualms?
I would say that a liberal power like the United States cannot spread its liberalism without military power as well. That the reason the Balkans are democratizing is not because everyone woke up one morning and said, "Let's be democrats." It's because the United States proved dominant militarily in the Cold War and was willing to intervene. In the 1930s many of the intellectuals and university people in the Balkans were fascists, because the fascists were militarily and economically dominant at the time. It's not enough to have the right ideas. You also have to have military and economic power behind it, or else your ideas cannot spread. And again, we're not talking about the United States invading every country and holding a gun to their heads and saying, "Hold an election or we'll undermine you." We're talking about the United States serving as an organizing principle for the gradual expansion of civil society around the world. And making moral statements simply is not enough to spur that expansion. You also need military power, and you have to periodically show that you are willing to use it.
You mention that "while realists and idealists argue 'nation-building' and other general principles in Washington and New York seminars, young majors, lieutenant colonels, and other middle-ranking officers are regularly making decisions in the field." This effectively makes them the "keepers of our values and agents of our imperium." Does the American public realize that this is the case? If not, would this realization change the status of the military in this country?
First of all, I don't think the public realizes this. But, regardless, it is the case. If they thought about it for five minutes, however, they would realize that there is no other way to do this thing, because all decision-making has to be delegated. When you talk about aiding this country against that country or about fighting terrorism, when you actually take that decision and strip it down, it always comes down to one person in the field giving specialized training to somebody else in the field. It comes down to somebody working with the police in Cairo or the police in Tunis—teaching them techniques about how better to track suspicious characters in their country. The hard edge of American values has and always will be executed by people in the field.
One of the majors you spoke with told you that the model for a Special Forces soldier could be found in John Hersey's A Bell for Adano, in the character of Army Major Victor Joppolo. Can you talk about the important traits in his character for a Special Forces solider?
First of all, A Bell for Adano is just a simply great book that everyone should read. It's one of those sparely written, perfectly organized—almost in a mathematical way—kind of novels. Victor Joppolo represents the victory of common sense over mere abstract rules and regulations and precepts. What Hersey is showing is that no matter what rules you draw up, ultimately the man on the field is going to interpret them based on his instinct and common sense. Joppolo loves to talk to people, he speaks Italian, and he's not interested in being rewarded for his successes. He really doesn't care who takes the credit as long as something gets done. He also realizes that for each little problem there's a different solution. Because each problem he encounters in this town of Adano means a problem with a specific citizen in that town. They all have different personalities, so he has to approach each in a different way. There almost is no rule book. The rule book boils down to who you have in the field. It's a study in interpersonal relations.
You mention the friendships that have developed between U.S. military men and their foreign counterparts. These relationships appear to be extremely important to the Special Forces service. Can you talk about why these friendships mean so much? Also, why is it important for us to have a system for tracking these relationships outside of an anecdotal one?
What happens now is, there will be a crisis somewhere and an officer will say, "Oh, I know that army. A guy in that army was my student at Fort Leavenworth or Fort Benning and we were really good friends for a few years and then we lost contact. I'm sure he's in the middle of this crisis. I wonder what he's up to? I wonder what his e-mail address is?" If we could systematically keep track of these relationships and contacts, people would be able to access them in a crisis. We'd have better intelligence quickly and we'd be able to fix a problem too. When friendships are maintained, they are used. For instance, the Ghanaian Army may have a problem—it's got rebels in the north, it lacks equipment, or it can't keep up an airfield because the runway is damaged or there's not enough money to keep paving it. So then a colonel in Ghana, who is friends with a Marine lieutenant at Camp Pendleton in California, can just get in touch with his friend and say, "You know, this is going wrong and that's going wrong. Perhaps you could help us, perhaps you could send a training mission." And remember, some of these training missions can be one person. Or they can be ten or twenty. They can be planned nine months in advance, or they can happen on the spot. The more flexible this process is—the more seamless the relationships between American middle- and higher-level officers and officers in other countries—the better our relationships with these foreign militaries are going to be, and the better able we're going to be to deal with problems as they emerge in a world where every country is potentially strategic. If there's one thing we learn from the news, it's that the places that seem the most obscure today are the stuff of tomorrow's headlines.
Rule No. 3 is "Emulate Second-Century Rome." A main component of that emulation seems to be making use of "hyphenated Americans," similar to what the Romans did when they incorporated far-flung imperial subjects into the inner workings of the
And made them citizens. Even emperors in some cases.
Right. Why haven't we done this thus far? Also, how has the U.S. military's relationship with "hyphenated Americans" been changing of late?
Well, we have been doing it, and there's been a lot of progress on this since I wrote the article. In fact, one of the stories that got some attention, but perhaps not as much as it should have, is the number of visits by high-level Pentagon officials to Dearborn, Michigan, which is kind of the center of the Iraqi-American community. People in the U.S. government have been increasingly reaching out to Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles, to Iraqi-Americans in Dearborn, hopefully to Palestinians in northern New Jersey. They recognize that we aren't tapping the "hyphenated Americans," and increasingly we're making progress. But just think about it. We have the most international country in the world. Large communities of Armenians, of Iranians, of Laotians, of Vietnamese, and of Arabs. Given this population base, there is no excuse for us not having a diplomatic and military corps that is the most erudite and linguistically sophisticated in the world. And we do, to an extent. But we have to get a lot better at it.
You argue that it isn't necessary for the area specialists whom we trust with delicate missions to agree with or like the orders they are given to carry out. Why is it a benefit for them to be emotionally involved with the host countries, which often causes the specialists to dislike policies from Washington? What guarantees do we have that this dislike won't prevent the policies from being carried out?
From the archives:
"Tales From the Bazaar" (August 1992)
As individuals, few American diplomats have been as anonymous as the members of the group known as Arabists. And yet as a group, no cadre of diplomats has aroused more suspicion than the Arab experts have. Arabists are frequently accused of romanticism, of having "gone native"—charges brought with a special vehemence as a result of the recent Gulf War and the events leading up to it. Who are the Arabists? Where did they come from? Do they deserve our confidence?
By Robert D. Kaplan
This is actually a very controversial subject. It's not controversial in the big news sense, or on the op-ed pages. But it's very controversial in Washington, because the Near East Affairs division of the State Department, which basically deals with the Middle East—the Arabs, the Israelis, Iran—has traditionally been pro-Arab, anti-Israeli for bureaucratic, diplomatic reasons. You have large numbers of people who learn Arabic and then serve their whole careers in Arab countries. And yet there's only one country where they speak Hebrew, so career-wise, why would you want to specialize in that? I wrote a book on this subject called The Arabists. I found out that yes, there is a lot of sloppy thinking in the Near East Affairs division. That comes from "cultural clientitis." And there's very little solution to it. Once you teach someone a difficult-to-learn language, don't you want them to use it? Do you want them to study a language for three years, become fluent, and then only have them serve in one country for three years? No. You want to keep using them, because the public is invested in it. When people learn a language, when they live in a country, and in a second and a third country, they build up marriages, friendships, experiences—which is only human. And it's only human that they're going to develop some kind of an emotional sympathy. To a point there's not much you can do about this. The answer is not to destroy the Near East Affairs division, as some conservatives recommend. The answer is simply to police it. This is a management issue. You don't have to destroy a whole community of experts just because you have a problem with how they feel about something. And remember, we're talking about gradations of differences. Your troops in the field cannot always love the policy that they're carrying out. Sometimes, if they have certain differences with it, it may actually ease their own relationships with the locals. And as long as the policy is not undermined, I don't see the problem.
How does it ease their relationships with the locals?
Because the locals feel, This ambassador is really sympathetic with us, but he's got to carry out these orders from Washington. But he's really a good guy; we should try to help him. In other words the ambassador becomes a middle man—an interpreter of our policy to the local people. And if it's a policy that the local people don't like, but which still has to be carried out for the sake of our own self-interest, you're going to need a kind of medium. An ambassador can serve this purpose. What I'm talking about in this article is developing area and linguistic expertise, and that comes with a price. The price is sympathy—cultural sympathy for the area you become expert in. And that's going to lead you to have certain tensions with Washington's foreign policy. But I'm saying that that's normal, we can't just legislate that out of the picture. There is more benefit than drawback, and there are ways of managing this.
You describe a world in which the State Department seems increasingly irrelevant, at least in its current incarnation. Can you talk about this a little more? Is the military assuming the role of diplomacy?
First of all, the State Department is not irrelevant. It's going to be more and more relevant, because it's impossible to conduct a big program anywhere without both State and Defense. It's just that the State Department is not the subject of this article. Let me repeat this twice, it's so important. This article is not about foreign policy, it's about the security branch of foreign policy. I didn't write about globalization, I didn't write much about human rights, foreign aid—those are all legitimate subjects, but they're outside the scope of this piece. But yes, it is true that the military is broadening its scope of operations. They're doing more humanitarian relief work and more diplomatic work. But it is also true, as I mention here and there in the piece, that diplomats—foreign service officers from the State Department—are increasingly militarily sophisticated. They increasingly cannot operate without a greater and greater knowledge of military affairs. We're too locked up in roles, in specific definitions that are becoming more and more muddled as time goes on.
So it goes back to what you mentioned earlier about the importance of interagency cooperation?
Exactly, it goes back to that question. That we should stop this argument over who's more important, the State Department or the Pentagon. The better they can cooperate, the more effective our foreign policy is going to be.
The U.S. military's relationship with Latin America emerges as an example in your piece of the military's aggressive intelligence operations, Special Forces training of local units, and domineering diplomacy. You admit that "the results were not always pretty and frankly, not always moral." Is there a way to avoid these results in the future while still following the example?
Yes, absolutely. You cannot judge a foreign policy unless you accept the assumptions of the age in which that policy was executed. And the assumptions of the Cold War age were that the Soviet Union and China and Cuba together represented a massive, palpable security threat to the United States. That the people who lived under those regimes were essentially far less happy, far poorer, more miserable and more repressed than those who lived in the regimes of our allies. Having accepted those assumptions, we operated in a very rough and dirty way in Latin America during the Cold War decades. What I'm talking about here is using Cold War Latin America as an operational example, while at the same time being much more aware of moral concerns.
Rule No. 9 is "Fight On Every Front." The media appear to play an important role in implementing this rule. Can you talk about what kind of role you envision for the media?
I think the key thing that is so obvious that it's almost overlooked is that there is no longer an American media. There's a global media. Increasingly, American newspapers, magazines, etc., use reporters and writers from other countries, who come with a non-American perspective. Media organizations are global. They may be based in the U.S., but they're essentially global. So, while the U.S. government still has to operate in a world of nation-states, it's being judged by a media that already exists in a universal, post nation-state world. This increases the tension between government and media. Operating in such a world means you're judging the United States on a level of morality that any nation-state will find hard to live up to in every crisis. So there is no absolute answer to this, but there are two partial answers. One is, we can do information a lot better than we're doing it. As I put it, a nation that has businesses that can sell us things that none of us want or need can certainly come up with a better way of explaining our foreign policy. The other point, and I think this is crucial, is that we want to avoid future Iraqs. It never plays in our favor when there's one massive issue in front of the world's eyes. Because once an issue becomes so important—I'm talking about foreign-policy security issues—people start thinking about it emotionally and symbolically. Look at the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. It's gone on for so long and been on the front pages so long that there are many people on both sides who simply react to it emotionally. And because we are the world's preeminent military power, it's natural that when people focus on one issue that we're involved in, they're not going to take our side, they're going to be suspicious of us, they're going to be frightened and nervous—the way it's normal to be frightened, nervous, suspicious of anyone who wields all the power, or most of it. So we want to deal with issues around the world before they achieve mega-front-page status. In my opinion, that is ultimately the best information strategy.
You mention that U.S. dominance could end in a few decades. Why such a short amount of time? What sort of world do you see emerging after that?
Hopefully it will last only a few decades. If we have this much power in the world a hundred years from now, we would be far less benign and idealistic than we are now. I think it's a good thing that we should only be the preeminent power for a few decades. I can't in detail describe the world that's going to come next, simply because it hasn't happened yet. I foresee a global system in a few decades that will very roughly resemble the Han Empire that emerged in China in around the second or third century BC. The Han Empire, which governed much of today's China, was not a dictatorship ruled from a central capital. In the beginning, at least, it represented a grand harmony of diverse peoples and systems that despite all their power struggles found out that it was in their self interest to limit their own power for the sake of the greater whole. So while a single country didn't emerge, a loose web of agreements emerged that was a system, even though it wasn't a central government.
In other words, I'm not predicting a world government. What I am hoping for is a kind of world governance that's loose, informal, undeclared, and allows for a number of organizations—regional, global, and great powers—to work together toward the larger good. I don't think we're there yet. And because we're not there yet, I think it's very important that the preeminent military power in the world is also a liberal power, and that it serve as an organizing principle until this system of global governance emerges.
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Elizabeth Shelburne is a staff editor at The Atlantic. Her last interview was with Robert Baer.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.