New Part Three - December 27:
James Fallows
Walter Russell Mead

Part Two - December 20:
James Fallows
Walter Russell Mead

Part One - December 6:
James Fallows
Walter Russell Mead

Walter Russell Mead is the senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mead is also the author of Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition. His internationally syndicated articles on economic policy and foreign affairs appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times and have appeared in major newspapers around the world, including The International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal. He has also written for The New Yorker, Harper's, and Rolling Stone, and is a senior contributing editor at Worth magazine. A native of South Carolina, he lives in New York.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and browse an archive of his recent articles, visit

Previously in Fallows@large:

Beyond the Tech Bubble (August 29, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Michael Lewis, the author of Next: The Future Just Happened.

The Waste Land (June 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Alex Kerr, the author of Dogs and Demons.

Working Classes (May 2, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on foreign affairs

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

Atlantic Unbound | December 20, 2001
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Walter Russell Mead
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: The wily champion of the diplomatic world - Part Two

Dear Jim:

You are absolutely right that one of the key plot lines that I see running all through the history of American foreign policy is the relationship to Great Britain. From 1789 through 1946 Great Britain was the most important foreign market for American exports; it remains the most important long-term source of foreign investment, a key trading partner and, as Tony Blair is proving again in Afghanistan, our most reliable and least annoying military ally.

Your question is whether Britain's fall should be a cautionary tale for the United States. It's a good question, and although my crystal ball isn't as clear as I could wish, I'll give the best answer I can.

In the book, I'm somewhat agnostic about the future of American power, alluding more than once to the possibility that the long flow of world events in the twenty-first century could well bring the United States to a less powerful position in world affairs. I even say that I'm not entirely sure that being the global hegemon is what the American people should wish for.

However, I have to say that there are a number of factors suggesting that American power may still have a long time to run. Some of this has to do with geography. We remain the only great power in the Western hemisphere, and despite the best efforts of Brazil, I think it is unlikely that we will face a real rival for hemispheric leadership for some time to come. That makes it relatively easy for us to project power overseas; we aren't worried about being stabbed in the back at home.

Furthermore, the structure of world politics seems to favor us. In Europe, the old great powers look pretty worn out. France, Britain, and Germany are too small to act as great powers on the world scene individually, and it seems very unlikely that they could ever effectively combine. Even if they did, there is virtually no chance that the European countries alone or together would ever spend enough money to build a military capable of acting independently of the U.S., much less able to challenge it. Russia could conceivably get its economic act together again and function like a great power that is hostile to our interests, but I think Russian and U.S. interests in the twenty-first century are so similar that Russia is more likely to be an ally and an asset for U.S. policy.

In Asia, as you very well know, great power politics are still alive. Despite its recent problems, Japan has the economic potential to be a great power, and China and India are already nuclear powers with far-reaching ambitions. Things could go very wrong in Asia, for us and for the Asians. However, there are some structural factors that seem to favor continuing U.S. influence in the region. Just as the smaller European states welcomed American support against Germany and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century, smaller Asian states are likely to welcome an American presence in the region. Obnoxious as we can often be, we are thousands of miles away and therefore less of a danger to small Asian countries than large, powerful neighbors. If any single Asian country tries to overturn the balance of power and establish a regional hegemony in Asia, we are likely to find many allies in our effort to keep the hegemon in check. The potential emergence of India as an important economic and military power in the region would work very much in America's favor. There would be two nuclear regional superpowers in Asia with more than a billion people; that means that no single power would be able to achieve the kind of dominance in Asia that we have achieved in the Western hemisphere.

Looking at the rest of the world, it seems unlikely that new challengers would arise. One can imagine a situation in which one country took over all the oil of the Middle East and created a great power with the wealth, population, and ambition to challenge and even check American power, but I think this possibility is unlikely. While Africa could in the future be the home for a great power, that lies too far ahead to be a serious factor in our thinking now.

Therefore it seems unlikely that we will face the kind of rival superpowers that ultimately brought Britain down. It is hard to see us overthrown in that way.

We could, however, be nibbled at. Our economic power could decline, as Britain's did when other countries industrialized. Regional powers could acquire weapons systems that make it impossible for us to project force beyond our immediate neighborhood.

Some such development is probably inevitable in the twenty-first century, but there are some other factors that would tend to preserve our power. One is that the positive link between military spending and economic development seems to be back. One of the things that made Britain rich was that for many of the years of its rise there was a virtuous circle. Money spent on the navy and navigational techniques gave British traders and shippers great advantages. They had better ships, better charts, more trained sailors than their rivals. With those advantages, the British economy was able to grow—meaning that the government had more money to spend on the navy.

Something like that seems to be happening now. Money spent on gee-whiz high-tech weaponry and other war systems helps maintain and even extend the U.S. lead in high-technology civilian industries. That, despite the recent problems on the NASDAQ, makes the economy more productive and more able to bear military expenditures.

The greatest dangers we face in the twenty-first century will probably be the consequences of our own strengths and policies. We are a liberal hegemonic power—that is, we don't try to conquer and annex other countries. We try to build a system in which they will be reasonably content. For that to work, they have to be able to prosper—and over time, this almost ensures that our GDP should decline as a percentage of total world output. Our absolute wealth will increase, but our relative wealth must diminish. As that happens, we will face difficult trade-offs, and handling these transitions will challenge the foreign-policy system.

Technological change is another product of American hegemony, in that our hegemony is rooted in the ever more intensive application of capitalist, market-driven methods of production and investment. Technological change poses great threats for a great military power. The development of the Dreadnought class of ship made Britain's old fleet obsolete overnight. Germany, far outclassed in the old ships, was able to enter a naval arms race with Britain with some hope of winning. Today we might find that hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in high tech weapons can be wiped out very rapidly when some new technology comes along. Technological change makes the military balance more volatile; that can't help but be a disadvantage for the leading power. Since the imperatives of our own economic system force an accelerating pace of technological change, American world power rests on an inherently unstable foundation.

Finally, contrary to widespread assumptions, economic growth in developing countries does not necessarily lead—particularly in the short and medium term—to increasing social stability. Capitalism is a profoundly destabilizing force, and rapid development has frequently led to aggressive foreign policy—France under Napoleon, Germany from 1850 to 1945, Japan... Examples are not hard to find. Since the American system pushes countries to intensify their efforts to develop, we are to some degree building the fires that we must then spend great efforts to stamp out. (One of the problems I have with the "blowback" theory—that many of our problems abroad are the result of our evil deeds coming back to haunt us—is that the real problems may come from our good deeds, like promoting economic development and democracy.)

To sum up: we may not be doomed to a British-style decline, but there is nothing fated about our continuing power.

Your second question is how one could make the case for a predominantly commercial foreign policy without sounding like a Philistine. I actually think it is easy to do. (By the way, is it still PC to call someone a Philistine? It is just the old word for Palestinian.)

Military power competition between states is a zero-sum game. If Germany becomes more secure, Russia becomes less secure. In a world driven by the logic of military competition, no stable international order can exist—the countries left insecure by the existing power distribution will be doing everything in their power to change their situation, and this restless revisionism sooner or later leads to war.

Prosperity, however, is not zero sum. Germany and Russia can both grow richer, and each can benefit through trade from the increasing opportunities represented by the success of the other. If economics, along with military power, plays a significant role in the world of great powers, then the likelihood of war can be significantly reduced. The advantages of participation in a beneficial economic system can outweigh the disadvantages of a weak military position. Germany and Japan, for example, have found the American-dominated post-World War II security order more comfortable because we also built an economic order that allowed these countries to prosper.

How Philistine was the Marshall Plan?

On to the third question—does my Panglossian approach welcome dangerous aberrations that threaten to break down the American foreign-policy process?

I should first stress that the advantages of the American system show up on average and in the long run. From day to day, the American system can be messy. Tenure for statesmen is short: each of America's sixty-six Secretaries of State lasted on average about three years, whereas Bismarck and Metternich combined for a total of sixty-seven years in office. Our system is also marked by divided authority between the executive and legislative branches, internal power struggles in the executive branch, and endless hearings that often make for a slow process of public debate.

But the culmination of this process of checks and balances is a foreign policy that reflects the underlying national interest reasonably well. I often say that our foreign-policy debate is like a car with four sets of hands on the steering wheel: everyone is trying to pull the car in a different direction, but the path chosen by the many hands gripping the wheel usually takes us to a better destination than any of the individual drivers had in mind.

An auteur-driven foreign policy gives a smoother ride, but the country has all its eggs in one basket. A state is first dependent upon finding a great genius like a Talleyrand, Bismarck, or Kissinger, hoping that he doesn't make any big mistakes, and then on finding a suitable replacement when he is too old. The Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames amply compared the two systems in 1795 when he stated that "A monarchy is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock, and go to the bottom; a republic is a raft which will never sink, but then your feet are always in the water."

So we are (so far) unsinkable, if also unsightly. But you are correct to point out that there are times when our foreign-policy process results in indecision and poor policy. Our process works best when the four schools have a core understanding of our overall relationship to the international economic and military systems. Eras where we don't have that kind of common framework for discussion have resulted in weak policies.

From 1789 to 1823, there was a basic disagreement in the U.S. Hamiltonians wanted the kind of cooperation with Britain that began with the Monroe Doctrine; Wilsonians toyed with the idea of supporting revolutionary France against Britain and its conservative, monarchical allies; Jeffersonians wondered if the national interest was better served by an alliance of the U.S. with the strongest land power in Europe to contain Britain; Jacksonians were too angry both at Britain's role in the revolution and its scarcely veiled contempt for the young republic to consider an alliance with the mother country. As a result, foreign policy battles were very bitter during those years, and U.S. foreign policy was often less successful than it could have been.

Another period of basic strategic uncertainty went from World War I to Pearl Harbor. In those years, it was gradually becoming clear that Britain was no longer able to play its old role. Should America prop Britain up, take Britain's role for itself, or simply let the British Empire crash and let the chips fall where they may? Ultimately the country realized that there weren't really any alternatives: as Britain faded away, ugly powers like Nazi Germany, imperial Japan and the USSR elbowed their way toward power. We had to step in and replace the British Empire with a system of our own.

Our foreign policy was neither pretty nor effective while we dithered over this problem. Nobody, not even me, looks at the 1919-1941 period as a golden age of American foreign policy, and our failure to grasp the new responsibilities we faced as Britain declined helped make World War II inevitable—though fortunately these failures did not prevent us from winning it.

Writing before September 11—and I'll wait until the next letter to examine how September 11 affected American foreign policy—I worried that the U.S. had entered another era of drift after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. I argued—rather presciently, if I do say so myself—that during periods of drift like this American foreign policy muddled along "[u]ntil the day when American bumbling and lack of focus permits a new threat to arise...." The book calls for an effort to build a new American consensus about our international post-Cold War role before our aimless drift lands us in serious trouble.

In answer to your last question, you seem taken aback my claim that the U.S. is the world's most dangerous military power—it seems like something that Professor Chomsky would say. I would simply say that there is a difference between "dangerous" and "evil." We are dangerous to our enemies, and after September 11 it seems clearer than ever that this is a good thing to be. I am not some kind of Darwinian realist who believes that international life is nothing more than a permanent struggle—eat or be eaten. There is more to life than eating. But I do think that it is on the whole a good thing for a country to have a strong military, and for the people to have enough patriotic spirit that they rally to their country's aid in time of peril. Certainly the martial spirit of the American people has played a major, often decisive, role in enabling this country to surmount the many threats and challenges we have faced over the centuries. Let us hope that one outcome of the events since September 11 will be to reinforce the understanding, even among those who hate us the most, that however much they disapprove of our foreign policies, our religions, our culture, or our economic system, attacking the United States of America is a damn dumb thing to do.

Best wishes,

Walter Mead

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