The Reality of American Primacy: Hope, Error and incompetence

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John D. Stempel
UK Patterson School of Diplomacy
October, 2004

The Reality of American Primacy: Hope, Error and incompetence

For the past four to six years, the question of American Primacy has been a primary subject of discussion by both theorists and practitioners of international relations. The matter has come to a serious political head during the lead-in to the present presidential campaign, and the whole issue of American Primacy and Unilateralism has made foreign policy a major issue in the race for the first time in 40 years.
The issue had a strong symbolic content: Never has America been so powerful; never has it felt so vulnerable. This is the extraordinary paradox America faces as it deals with crucial questions of war and peace. The events of September 11, 2001, transformed America’s image of itself and of its role. Before that day, the U.S. was proudly trumpeting the end of history and the victory of American values, including both market economics and liberal political democracy.
The world was going our way. We had won the Cold War, the third world war of the 20th Century. Communism had been decisively defeated and discredited. It was no longer either a moral or military power. American military power not only vastly surpassed that of any potential rival, be it Russia or China, but it exceeded that of all our traditional allies combined. The American economy was on a roll, the deficit had been eliminated and American technology and productivity were second to none. Friends and foes alike acknowledged our power. The French went so far as to label us a “hyper-power”. Other called us a global hegemon.
Political scientists and editors analyzed the “imperial presidency.” All assumed we were able to do our will in the world without significant hindrance and that we sought to bend other governments and international organizations to our will. America was the unquestioned leader of a coalition of freedom-loving peoples. In short, we were masters of all we surveyed. We were not merely first among equals as many thought in the bipolar world after World War II or in the multi-polar imperial world post-World War I. We were the unchallenged No. 1; Triumphalism was the order of the day.

After 9/11 it was far easier to wonder whether this was all mere illusion. Our seeming invincibility gave way to a stark realization of how exposed we were to the asymmetrical forces of terrorism -- the new terrorism of global reach. To understand the past three years of American policy, one must understand how understand how that mindset played out over the past three years.

Unfolding Policy
Many foreign and domestic commentators were quick to assume that Al Qaeda’s demonstration of America’s vulnerability meant that our primacy was an illusion. Because we had oversold our primacy before 9/11, others began to underestimate our power and our ability to influence the course of events in a New World of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. The truth is we DO remain “No. 1” in almost all critical ways, political, economic and military. However, that does not mean we are excused from the historical pressures on empires and powerful states, as historians and others have pointed out.
The U.S. moved against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as everyone expected. Then it dismayed everyone, including a majority of its own citizens, by rushing forward to destroy Saddam Hussein in Iraq despite substantial reservations by many key nations as well as many Americans, including Secretary of State Colin Powell. In the process, American policy did not fare very well.
Our intelligence services, according to a recent congressional report, cooked intelligence to suit policymaker’s views, and just flat out erred in many respects. A major issue of trust has already opened up, which will extend beyond in the presidential campaign to intelligence reform.
A number of military men and Defense scholars have pointed out that the US used way too few troops—hence the nightmare security situation on the ground since May 2003. This despite warning from two Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that between 300,00 and 400,00 would be needed to secure the peace. In retrospect, even the best contemporary history of the war suggests that the war itself was not enough to reestablish peace.
Even more depressing, the U.S. government had not planned well, if at all, for the post-war phase, and withdrew the Coalition Provisional Authority before establishing its goal of a permanently elected government. Even sadder, the CPA spent only two percent of the $18 billion funded for reconstruction through July 2003, and our General Accounting Office has found a number of contract irregularities in the way money was handled. This all has a Keystone Cops/Three Stooges look to it in the eyes of many Americans as well as others—a far cry from our successful rehabilitation of Germany and Japan in the 1945-52 period.
Much of this stems from a sense of arrogance on the part of key leaders. Driven by the neoconservative ideology of bringing freedom to the Middle East, a freedom that would be welcomed by all, America’s natural strength of pragmatism foundered on a lack of sound strategy. In the previous 60 years, America had led as a coalition leader, not as a unilateral know-it-all, but that has not been the pattern since February 2002.
In the post-9/11, the neoconservatives – Vice President Cheney, Sec Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith and perennial bulldog gadfly Richard Pearle, captured the ear of the President and were impervious to all warnings and facts on the ground. But none of these folk listened to the experts—or even their own Secretary of State. As one of our greatest humorists, Will Rogers, said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that will hurt you, but what you think you know that ain’t so that will kill you.”
The damage this mindset has done, unless rectified or removed from political power, will cause permanent damage to America’s ability to lead as it has done before in building a 60-year consensus around which the free world could rally.


How America got that way

Primacy is not something new for Americans. Indeed, and perhaps unfortunately, the concept of American primacy almost seems to come naturally. From the earliest days of the Republic we claimed that our institutions were fundamentally different from those of the rest of the civilized (and uncivilized world). We were a City on a Hill, a New Jerusalem, and a beacon for humankind. We asserted a primacy for our values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As our power grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries we were less and less content to be merely a beacon for democracy. Increasingly we sought to make ourselves into a missionary force for those values. To be sure, there were voices of caution. Washington urged us to beware of permanent alliance.
John Quincy Adams told Americans:
“The United States does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She will recommend the general cause of freedom and independence by the consistency of her voice and by the benign sympathy of her example”

But by the end of the 19th Century the conviction of its Manifest Destiny was well-entrenched in America’s self-image, reinforced by America’s spectacularly swift victory over Spain in 1898.
Theodore Roosevelt’s dispatch of the Great White Fleet in 1907--following TR’s making peace between Russia and Japan in 1905 underlined America’s arrival. Imagine, if you will, a fleet of 16 white battleships on a 40,000-mile cruise, touching every continent, circumnavigating the globe. It was a massive demonstration of American power. Never, either before or since, has a fleet of this size made a peacetime journey of that length. The purpose of this grand gesture was to make the world understand that America had joined the ranks of the great naval powers and could, in that area at least, rival both the British and the Germans.
The Wilsonian interlude before the First World War produced an active interventionist policy to support democratic governments (“We will teach them to elect good men”), and the idealism of democracy.
World War I brought America’s first participation in a European conflict. Our intervention brought the war to a successful conclusion. We had participated, as an Associated Power with Britain, France and Italy in a war to end all wars. Woodrow Wilson then tried to commit us to an enduring peace settlement that he hoped would make the world safe for democracy and an active internationalist policy focusing on collective security.

The U.S. was by this point already the world’s most powerful economy. As a result of the war we became the world’s leading creditor, the engine of the world’s growth. American economic primacy was on the horizon. But we did not have the maturity or position to claim political or military primacy, certainly not in the inter-war period of isolationism, when a kind of 19th century “normalcy” was in vogue.
The Second World War consolidated America’s global position of leadership. Europe was devastated. Its colonial empires were in their last years. The United States was the unchallenged political and economic leader of the free world. Our economy continued to grow at a prodigious rate. Europe did, of course, recover from the devastation of the war, but only with the help of the Marshall Plan. Unapologetically the United States assumed the burden of containing communism. We created a network of alliances, NATO, CENTO, SEATO and ANZUS, that consolidated our primacy in the non-communist world.
Even in the bipolar world of the 50’s and 60’s the United States was first among equals. The Soviet Union could seek to match us militarily and in space, but the Soviet economy was never the equal of ours, and we now know that its military was also significantly less powerful than once thought.
The collapse of communism, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, left America alone in the unique situation of power in which we now find ourselves. The challenge, which we have faced in the last decade, since the collapse of communism, and particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, is how to exercise that power, and in the service of what values.

Current Turmoil
Adjusting to the new times has been difficult. Americans were proud of our own leadership, but an “American Empire?” America destroyed empires; it didn’t create them. We forgot about our role in the Philippines—a bloody 14-year war to surpress the people we helped liberate from Spain. The Neoconservatives married Wilsonian idealism to realpolitik and revived the talk of “Empire.” The word didn’t fit exactly, but Charles Krauthamer spoke eloquently of the “Unipolar Moment” and the word stuck.
Americans conveniently forgot a few things, however—the 14-year insurgency in the Philippines, the failures Woodrow Wilson’s attempts to teach self-government to our Latin Neighbors in his first administration. Even Theodore Roosevelt (a very under-appreciated president, by the way) turned against the early 20th century imperial experiment quickly. When asked whether the US should annex the Dominican Republic, TR commented:
“As for annexing the island, I have about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might to have swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to.”

Failure to complete the dismantling of imperialism after World War II led to a major quagmire in Vietnam, (which at least some in the American leadership seem to have forgotten as the insurgency grows daily in Iraq. ) and is part of our current problem in the Middle East. There, the US is seen, rightly or wrongly, as Britain’s successor by many if not most of those who would otherwise appreciate, if not admire, our values,
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, operating in the post-Cold War environment, pulled allies, including Arab states, together for Gulf War I. Clinton ironically would up intervening in more places than Bush I (Haiti, Bosnia, attacks on Afghanistan, Somalia). Neoconservatives seized upon the post-9/11 situation to challenge the whole idea of multilateral internationalism and the idea of The U.S. as leader of a coalition. Max Boot, William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz – all argued the U.S. should embrace the idea of primacy if not “empire.”

But the devil has been in the details. The threat of Al Qaeda and its associated networks was stimulated by a reaction to US “imperialism, and Arabs and Iraqis of all stripes reacted much more negatively to the US military conquest that the neconservatives realized, but most other area scholars expected.
In their arrogance, Defense officials Feith and Wolfowitz excluded the 112-person planning team for post-Saddam Iraq, which had begun at The Brookings Institution, from all Defense Department Planning for the transition to peace. The team produced a seven-volume work that is still classified. I have been told by old, reliable friends that this effort anticipated virtually all of the problems the Coalition Provisional Authority faced. The plan was never considered, and the key people who wrote it were forbidden to go out to Iraq with General Garner’s original team in April 2003. Some resurfaced with Paul Bremer became the CPA chief in mid-2003, but valuable and critical time was lost,
Neoconservatives assertions that troops would be welcomed with open arms and embrace the conquerors was a sad echo of 1899, when Manila’s upper classes told President McKinley not to worry about the nationalists.
President Wilson had wanted to bring democracy to the world—but by multilateral means, and international organization. The Neoconservatives adopted his view of the democratizing mission, but want to achieve it through unilateral power. The result thus far has been engagement with a Middle Eastern tar baby (Iraq) and a precipitous decline in American prestige and respect across the board. It is now clear that America’s ability to transform societies remains very limited, in large part by our own ineptitude. Some even say that in seeking to unilaterally search and destroy monsters, we have become one ourselves.
Note carefully, However—it is the unilateralism that irritates allies and infuriates others more than the U.S. being powerful. For 60 years, the world accepted and relied on U.S. power—when exercised with tact, diplomacy and concern for others in the international system.
The paradox then, is that American cannot exercise primacy by bullying others and remain true to their own values, but others cannot do without U.S. power without risking chaos and anarchy. Today, post-9/11 and post-Iraq, American Primacy is attacked by new, non-state challenges (Al Quaeda and other terrorist networks) which require both new strategies and a renewed concern for and understanding other peoples.

Neither can America retreat from the world, no matter how much its radical fringes would like to do so. An examination for various power/primacy factors will make the point.
Power, of course, is not the same as primacy, nor is primacy merely a question of power. Indeed, we need to be very clear about the different kinds of means at our disposal, and for what ends we propose to use them, and what strategies we adopt.

Military power-- There can be no question that we enjoy unique military superiority. In recent years this superiority has been repeatedly demonstrated in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither our enemies nor our allies have comparable military capabilities. The U.S. spends about 45% of the world’s investments in military outlay. No other country can match the commitment we have made, and continue to make, in weapons systems. For purposes of conventional war we are not equaled and we cannot be defeated—though we may lose the will to fight. Unfortunately, because of the shock of 9/11, that has led to American hubris rather than American self-confidence.
Whether our military capabilities are appropriate for the undeclared and unconventional war against global terrorism is another question. Aircraft carriers, battle tanks, smart bomb and a nuclear capability second to none, are only part of what we need to protect ourselves against the kinds of attacks that we faced on 9/11.
We evidently have the capacity to intervene in conflicts anywhere in the world, but it is less clear how, or even if, we can use our military power in the war against terrorism.
Counter-terrorism is also a political struggle which requires political and diplomatic skill, economic power, the “soft” power of culture and the ability to rally the world community around values we all agree upon.
Do we have the weapons systems, tactics and strategies we need to counter the terrorist threat, which requires more combined police work than sustained force? Even if we have these, do we have the political will to build coalitions to exercise that power in a focussed and meaningful way?
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has been pushing for a lighter, more flexible force structure to enable us to exercise power more rapidly, more effectively and more efficiently. But the truth is that, given the military primacy that we enjoy, we inevitably will have to take the lead in exercising our power against a variety of new threats, both from the spread of international terrorism and the dangers associated with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
History gives us some sober warnings. Rome hacked its way to empire with many defeats along the way, and Germany tried to do it unilaterally twice in the past century with horrifying results. History also gives us some hope—Europe faced much the same kind of multinational terrorist threat in the early 1970’s in the Red Brigades and the Bader-Meinhof gangs. By careful police, intelligence, and paramilitary work, plus excellent international cooperation, that threat was first contained, then destroyed, and that is the way the current threat will finally be contained and removed.

Economic Power -- In many ways this is a more problematic area for those who talk primacy. The US is the third most populous nation and the American economy is clearly the largest on the globe. We have the highest productivity. We account for the largest share of global GNP. We are almost every nation’s principal trading partner. And yet we are less than confident about the overall welfare of the economy, and for good reasons. The US has a growing dependence on foreign capital that depends on respect for its financial institutions and policy. Domestically, issues of globalization and production are center-stage. Walter Russell Mead calls this “sticky power.”
Our coming elections are being fought on economic issues and values. Without getting into a partisan debate on this subject, there can be little doubt that we will spend much of the forthcoming campaign in a debate about globalization, trade, jobs, and outsourcing. All of these topics reflect a profound sense of uncertainty and malaise among our fellow citizens. We do not feel ourselves to be all-powerful in the face of globalization. It does not help to be told that we are No. 1, when the benefits of being No. 1 are so fragile, so fleeting, and so unevenly distributed. Moreover, key financial leaders are suggesting that we are seriously overstretched, with potentially disastrous consequences if we do not get better control of events.
And beyond these uncertainties there is the immediate question of our current and future economic rivals. The European Union is already our economic equal. We live in a multi-polar global economy, which will certainly change to our disadvantage in the decades ahead as China and India emerge as genuine and serious collaborators/ competitors. America’s economic primacy may not endure, and it would be nice, if not essential, to have some friends when it passes.

Soft Power-- Joseph Nye, dean of the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard, writes about the necessity of emphasizing America’s “soft power.” He contrasts our soft power with the hard military and economic power, which go to make up the principal pillars of America’s primacy.
The elements of soft power are easy to find—three American music companies produce 85% of the music sold around the world, or cultural influence is, for better or worse, ubiquitous—MTV, Spielburg, MacDonald’s, Madonna, Brittany Spears, For better or worse, we’re THERE. This is, of course; also one of the reasons people react against us, but it can be a powerful source of strength. In both China and India, over 90% say English is the most important second language to learn.
For Nye, the challenge we face is how to use the strength of our values, our commitment to freedom and justice in ways that will enhance America’s national interests. This will require, he asserts, skillful use of public diplomacy as we seek to project our values in a positive way. But this will take time. Changing the attitudes of a whole generation of young Muslims in the Arab World, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond is not the work of a single day. Our own educational system has not yet caught up with our role in the world-- we need to learn more history, culture and languages.
There is one other source of power—Moral influence—but this is a two-edged sword. The State Department’s current five-year strategic plan contains these words:
“U.S. values and interests drive our policies. Moreover the values we espouse of political and economic freedom and the non-negotiable demands of humanity are increasingly recognized as universal rather than culturally specified.”

President Bush at the end of his most recent State of the Union address stated:
The cause we serve is right because it is the cause of all mankind. The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable and it is not carried forward by our power alone. We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years. And in all that is to come, we can know that His purposes are just and true.

In these two quotes one hears echoes of the long tradition of American exceptionalism, the call to exert moral leadership in the world. In it are combined the twin themes that have animated presidents from the earliest days of the republic, and particularly in the 20th Century, that American values act as a beacon of hope for the world and that America has a missionary obligation to make those values available to others.
But there is another side to the story, represented by the Abu Ghraib prison scandals—our failure to live up to our own best ideals. Americans of all faiths have returned from journeys to all parts of the world in the past year stunned by the universally negative perceptions of America and its values, especially among the world’s Muslims, but even among America’s traditional friends. Favorable views of America have shrunk from the 60-80% range down to single digits in all Middle Eastern states except Israel and Iran! Clearly, we must look critically at how we live our values and their impact on others. Often the freedom we enjoy is seen as libertinism, the economic success that we have achieved as exploitation of others, and our military might as a tool for the cultural and political domination of others.

Can America be an Empire?
The weight of evidence, both past and contemporary, comes down on the side of those who believe Democracy and Empire are ultimately incompatible, and that our democratic process will ultimately opt to turn away from the following problems:
1) The pressure of “imperial necessity” for control.
2) Compulsions that corrupt democratic freedoms.
3) The innate drive for hierarchical control posed by imperial activity.

As American citizenry struggles with the problems of control, they citizens will ask “why?” and “Is this necessary?” The present political campaign is an excellent example of how this plays out and increases citizen awareness of both the stakes and the problems.
Yet the fact of America’s strength means that she must play a role. Some may want her to disappear into her own borders, but most recognize that the US is an essential player in the international system. The US cannot submit completely to the international institutional model—no such institution could manage all of today’s complex problems. Domestic pressures will not let it be a classic empire in the format of Rome, or even 19th century Britain, and none but the extreme fringes elsewhere really want to do without the United States
This frustration helps explain the tide of Anti-Americanism that has swept the world since 9/11. Favorable attitudes have dropped from the 65-80 per cent range to below 30 per cent in many countries, and to single digits in the Middle East.
So, if the world can’t live with us, and doesn’t really want to go it alone, what’s next? At the very least, the United States should consider the following propositions:
--our arrogance needs to disappear
--the U.S. needs to relearn diplomacy and learn to play well with others. Former Ambassador Charles Freeman says America currently has for the first time “a foreign policy without diplomacy.”

-- American leadership needs to accept and deal with the country’s democratic attention deficit—difficulty in focusing on long-term goals and allocating sufficient resources.

--handle, or at least be more humble, about flaws in our own
system: failing health care, corporate corruption, poor/unequal

Walking Softly while carrying the Big Stick
The answer for the United States is to learn how to interact more effectively with others. In short, more and better diplomacy coupled to a strategy that binds, rather than offends -- Understatement, avoidance of bluster. If the US must exercise power effectively, even against the wishes of its allies—and there may be such times—it should do so with a bland smile, not boastful words. It should pick its fights carefully and divide its enemies (as it is now trying to do in Iraq.
President Bush’s sharp rejections of the Kyoto Treaty, the AMB Treaty and the International Criminal court were certainly not good diplomacy, however they maybe viewed as policy. The US has a choice: try to go it alone, with all the additional cost and concern or return to the successful diplomacy of the past 60 years: Building coalitions of common values, working with international organizations where possible and leading by example and cooperation. Leave the heavy hand for the extraordinary case, not the run of the mill problem. Americans do not want to pay for policing the world, and the logic of empire is extension and the dangers are over commitment and overstretch.
Despite France and Chinese wishes, no state or combinations of states will reclaim a European-style balance of power in the near future. The Chinese face severe political adjustments arising from the logic of their economic development -- the same kind of conflict which destroyed the Shah’s Iran, and which other states have gone through. India’s democratic government will be a countervailing force to China, but will itself focus on development for its own citizens even while coping with Pakistan’s treats over Kashmir.
Neither Americans nor others are prepared for the kind of anarchy and economic chaos which would follow a disgusted US recall of its forces abroad in a fit of democratic disgust with, and indifference to, the rest of the world.
The US can either educate itself to the influence and charms of diplomacy—citizenry as well as foreign policy and political Elites—or have it hammered in by sad experience. Only then will better strategies emerge and US Public Diplomacy arise from its present comatose state. The ingredients are greater wisdom, less arrogance, and more humility.
What goals and values?
Almost everyone who writes on the subject of empire has proscriptions or possible solutions. Among the most thoughtful and challenging are books by Walter Russell Mead, William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric, and Amatai Etzioni. All are concerned about balancing American domestic issues such as rising health care and globalization-related issues of job stability with the cost of international involvement.
Assessing America against past empires and present prospects, Niall Ferguson states,
“Yet for all its colossal economic, military and cultural power, the United States still looks unlikely to be an effective liberal empire without some profound changes in its economic structure, its social makeup and its political culture. …. Americans…should try to do a better rather than worse job of policing an unruly world than their British predecessors.

Franco-American writer Emmanuel Todd is very pessimistic. He feels that the United States has been weakened as the Soviet Union was, and that the American order will break down. He makes the case the Europe, Japan, and eventually Russia and China, will block American unilateral efforts to maintain its “empire,” and that American economic weakness will hinder its global aspirations if it “stubbornly decides to continue showing off its supreme power.…
Odom and Dujarric believe the United States can put its own house in order and continue to manage a liberal international order,
it had a better understanding of what it has to do, and how it must deal with interdependence. The authors are considerable more optimistic that Todd that the U.S. will mobilize its resources and work out a strategy. It will not decline as many predict, but will adjust.
Mead also speaks of balancing domestic and international considerations, and suggests that will require a full dose of American pragmatism and engagement.
While keeping our eye on our core national interests we are going to have to reinvent some of the ways we think about power and influence and we are certainly going to have to repackage our leadership for a world …
Etzioni, on the other hand, goes further and suggests that if the U.S. is to maintain its position into the future, it must focus on building more community both at home and abroad. Such communities will need to be based on shared core values, of which the nearest to being is a global anti-terrorism authority. Building up the moral foundations will be important, especially drawing on moderate religious sources as well as secular ones.
We will live out the answers to these issues, and America would do well to seek balance in its engagement with the world, and heed the words of one of our greatest Baseball managers, “It’s what you learn after you think you know everything that really counts.” (Earl Weaver, Baltimore Orioles)