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.
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