Issue #2, Fall 2006

The Security Trap

Bush’s foreign policy is failing, and it’s not just because of Bush. It’s because the world has fundamentally changed.

The United States is the most powerful state in world history–unrivaled in its military, economic, technological, and geopolitical capabilities. It stands pre-eminent on the global stage. Yet America’s authority, measured in terms of credibility, respect, and the ready cooperation of governments around the world, has declined sharply in recent years. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the world seemed to be going in America’s direction. America’s vision of international aspirations was remarkably congruent with the rest of the world’s, a vision symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of the ideals championed by the United States: liberal democracy, global markets, and multilateral governance. But today, America and the world are increasingly at odds. In a recent survey of Western European public opinion, the United States was rated as a greater threat to global stability than Iran or North Korea. The United States is positioned at the center of the global system–and its power is unrivaled–but its role as a global leader has never been more controversial, contested, or resisted.

This troubling situation will forever be associated with the Bush Administration, particularly its “war on terrorism” and the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s foreign policy has been extraordinarily unpopular around the world, and he  himself has few admirers outside the United States. “The world hates George Bush more than any U.S. president in my lifetime,” columnist Thomas Friedman observed recently.

But is it really that simple? Are liberals and other Bush critics correct in saying that America’s eroded authority is essentially a product of Bush’s foreign policy? Will a new administration be able to wash away the ill will and eroded relations of the Bush years? Or is the crisis of America’s global position rooted in deeper problems?

Bush’s foreign policy is indeed failing, but it is important to come to grips with why it is failing. To be sure, it is not working because Bush led the country into an epic disaster in Iraq. But the problems are not just about policy incompetence, ideological blindness, or high-risk policy choices gone bad. Ultimately, Bush’s foreign policy is failing because it is inconsistent with the realities of a transforming international system, which shapes and limits the way the United States can effectively exercise power and, more importantly, assert its authority. These deeper dilemmas and dangers that beset America’s global position would face any president, and they must be confronted if we are to find a coherent, enlightened, and sustainable post-Bush foreign policy.

Put simply, the geopolitical terrain upon which America’s leadership position rests is shifting. The rise of American unipolar power and the erosion of norms of state sovereignty have “flipped” the Westphalian order on its head, altered the logic of order and rule, and made American power more controversial and contested. It has also made it more difficult for the United States to assert its leadership on the global stage. Because of this, the Bush Administration has run into trouble–as I would put it, the United States has gotten caught in a “security trap.” When America tries to solve the nation’s security problems by exercising its power or using force, it tends to produce resistance and backlash that leaves the country bereft of authority, isolated, and ultimately more insecure than it was before it acted.

This can be seen clearly in the record of the Bush Administration. But the thornier problem is that, when liberals take over the reins of foreign policy, they too will fall into this security trap unless they understand the problem and devise a foreign policy that works with, rather than against, these evolving global realities. For Bush and some Democrats, being the unchecked superpower means that the United States has the freedom to act alone or in whatever coalitions it sees fit. But, ironically, the opposite is true. Unfettered power creates resentment and opposition, which makes it more difficult for America to act. To turn power into authority, the United States needs to find ways to restrain and reconnect its extraordinary unipolar power to institutions and partnerships that make up the international community.

Accordingly, the next administration–Democratic or Republican–needs to focus on rebuilding America’s authority as a global power. Threats and challenges abound around the world, but the United States will struggle in responding to any and all of them unless it renews its political capital in the currency of the new international realm. Call it a renewal agenda, one that has at its core a set of proposals for rebuilding global institutions and partnerships tied to new political bargains between the United States and other major states. Ultimately, the key to rebuilding America’s authority is its commitment to sponsoring and operating within a newly reformed, rules-based international order.

Transformations in Global Power

The Bush Administration fell into the security trap because it does not fully understand the implications of the two most important transformations in world politics in half a century: the rise of unipolar power and changing norms of sovereignty. Unipolarity happened almost without notice during the 1990s. The United States began the decade as the world’s only superpower, and it had a better decade than the other major states. It grew faster than an inward-looking Europe, while Japan stagnated and Russia collapsed. China has grown rapidly in recent years, but it remains a developing country. America’s expenditures on defense are equal to almost half of global defense spending. Interestingly, the United States did not fight a great power war to become the unipolar state or overturn the old international order. It simply grew more powerful while other states sputtered or failed. This peaceful ascent to unipolarity probably has made the transition less destabilizing and less threatening to other nations.

Nevertheless, the rise of unipolarity is fraught with implications for American foreign policy. On the one hand, the fact that the United States is the only superpower gives it unprecedented options and opportunities. It can say no to other states and go it alone more readily than in the past. But it is also the case that other states find it easier to “free ride” on American policy than in the past, which opens up new disputes between the United States and its partners about the provision of global public goods: security, open markets, and frameworks for cooperation. Is the United States providing a public good when it stations troops around the world and confronts security threats in Asia and the Middle East? Washington thinks it is–and so it wants and expects the cooperation of others. But other countries are not sure they are beneficiaries of American security protection, and even if they are, they have incentives to let the United States handle these threats on its own. In other instances, countries around the world expect the United States to be a public goods provider–for example, leading the way in global environmental protection or settling regional Middle Eastern disputes–but Washington officials do not necessarily see this as America’s responsibility. This bundle of contradictory incentives and calculations makes unipolarity ripe for conflict and misunderstandings, even among longtime allies.

However, there is another implication in the rise of unipolarity that is subtler but utterly critical: a shift in the underlying logic of order and rule in world politics. In a bipolar or multipolar system, powerful states “rule” in the process of leading coalitions of states in balancing against other states (which likewise usually have their own coalitions). When the system shifts to unipolarity, this logic of rule disappears. Power is no longer based on balancing and equilibrium, but on the predominance of one state. This is new and potentially threatening to weaker states (whether they are friendly to the new hegemon or not). As a result, the power of the leading state is thrown into the full light of day. Unipolar power itself becomes a “problem” in world politics. As Yale History Professor John Gaddis argues, American power during the Cold War was accepted by other states because there was “something worse” over the horizon. With the rise of unipolarity, that “something worse” disappears.

The recent erosion of norms of state sovereignty exacerbates this problem. The gradual decline of Westphalian sovereignty is rightly seen as the triumph of the postwar human rights revolution. The implication is that the “international community” increasingly has legitimate interests in what goes on within a country’s own borders. Over the decades, the international community has added more realms of internal state activity in which it has a stake; most recently, the new threat of transnational terrorism has opened up states even more to outside scrutiny. As former State Department Policy Planning Director Richard Haass notes, “Sovereignty is being challenged from both within and without. Weak states struggle to exercise legitimate authority within their territories. Globalization makes it harder for all nations to control their frontiers. Governments trade freedom of action for the benefits of multilateral cooperation. And outlaw regimes jeopardize their sovereign status by pursuing reckless policies fraught with danger for their citizens and the international community.” As a result, Haass argues, there is “an emerging global consensus that sovereignty is not a blank check.”

This transformation has had two implications. First, the erosion of norms of sovereignty has created a new “license” for powerful states to intervene in the domestic affairs of weak and troubled states. In effect, the norms of state sovereignty have less “stopping power.” There are fewer principled and normative inhibitions on intervention. Second, eroded sovereignty has not been matched by a rise of new norms and agreements about when and how the “international community” should intervene. After all, who speaks for the international community? This vacuum in which old norms have weakened but new norms have not fully emerged has ushered in a new struggle over the sources of authority in the international community.

This global struggle over the sources of international authority has, in turn, been intensified by the rise of American unipolarity. After all, only the United States has the military power to systematically engage in large-scale uses of force around the world. Indeed, the two developments reinforce worldwide insecurity about American power: The United States is the only global political-military power, and the revolutions in human rights and transnational terrorism call forth new reasons why intervention–in the name of the international community or global security or hegemonic management–may be necessary.

The Democratization Paradox

Two other shifts in the global system help create this “problem” of American power. The end of the Cold War has eliminated a common threat that tied the United States to a global array of allies, and it has meant that the United States does not need these allies in the same way as in the past. But it also means that other states do not need the United States as much, either. As a result, American power is less clearly tied to a common purpose. This makes American power less intrinsically legitimate and desirable in the eyes of states and peoples around the world.

The other long-term shift is the rise of an international democratic community, with more countries being led by constitutional, popularly elected governments. This democratic community has paradoxically affected U.S. foreign policy. On the one hand, it gives the United States ready access to partners and the ability to pursue complex forms of cooperation. American power itself is seen as more benign and accessible to other democracies, because the United States is a democracy. On the other hand, these democratic states are not likely to respond to domination or coercion by the United States. Indeed, they will expect America to operate within rules and institutions of the democratic community.

Yet nineteenth-century statecraft is ill-suited for a twenty-first-century democratic world order. The British diplomat and European Union official Robert Cooper has captured the implications of this global democratic transition: “The realist world of rational policy making, equilibrium, alliances of convenience, and the balance of power, worked best when we were governed by rational, oligarchs–Richelieu, Pitt, Palmerston or Bismarck. Democratic ideas mean that policy requires a moral basis… The balance of power, which calls for the application of power with calculation and restraint, is no longer sustainable in a democratic age. Nor is the exercise of hegemony by force…”

In such a world, it is not just poor diplomacy or war-planning on Bush’s part that has hurt America’s standing in the world. Rather, his administration has discovered the limits of American power in the age of democracy. It has gotten into trouble–losing credibility, prestige, respect, and political support–when it has been seen as side-stepping or disrespecting the rules and norms of the liberal order. When America tries to solve security problems by exercising power and wielding force, it triggers resistance and hostility that ultimately makes it harder for the United States to achieve its original security goals. The Bush Administration, then, walked right into this security trap and made it worse. The changing structural foundations of world politics have put American power on display. The Bush Administration added alarms and flashing lights.

Bush and the Security Trap

Three aspects of the new Bush national security orientation have exacerbated America’s limitations as presented by the security trap. First is the Bush Administration’s wholesale depreciation of multilateral governance and cooperative security that is manifest in the long list of agreements and treaties that it resisted in its first years. It famously un-signed America from the International Criminal Court. The United States was also the lone holdout as 178 countries agreed to implement the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The Administration rejected or withdrew from an entire array of arms control treaties–the 1995 Biological Weapons Convention, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). And the Administration has not only refused to participate in new international agreements, but it has failed to live up to obligations under existing treaties, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Some of this resistance to security agreements began during the Clinton Administration, with its refusal to sign the Treaty Banning Anti-Personnel Mines and the Senate’s rejection of the CTBT. But the Bush Administration proudly made it a major feature of its foreign policy.

Issue #2, Fall 2006
Post a Comment


The security trap concept works better than the neo-imperium idea which recalls unhelpful left-right disputes. There are some nice distinctions like the the difference between power and authority that damn the "might makes right" Bush philosophy and explain why it is stupid. All told, a candidate who uses this article has a clear philosophy for the conduct of foreign affairs, without being tied to particular policies. Kerry tried to do that in 2004 and failed miserably, but this article shows that it can be done.

Nov 22, 2006, 9:09 AM

Post a Comment



Comments (you may use HTML tags for style)


Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.