With over 1,000 US deaths in Iraq, and the huge pressures that the occupation of that benighted country has put on American troops around the world, it is clear that -- for the first time in decades -- foreign policy issues may determine the outcome of a US presidential election. Ordinary Americans are asking themselves the same questions that people around the world are asking: How should the US' global supremacy be used? What price must be paid for that supremacy to be maintained? What limits on the use of US military power are acceptable or necessary?
These have long been dominant questions in US' strategic debate. But, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they became confused with another debate, one far more important for a US electorate that feels threatened: How can alliances and multilateral institutions protect Americans?
Senator John Kerry's great virtue has been to resist confusing the demand for security and peace with the hegemonic impulses of America the hyper-power.
Nationalist and neo-conservative currents within the Bush administration believe that unilateral action best serves US interests because it handcuffs American power the least. On this view, the security of the US can be guaranteed through energetic military action, with or without allies. Hence the Bush administration's tendency to weaken the ties of the US' permanent alliances, including those that NATO represents.
Unilateral announcement of troop reductions in Europe and Asia, where US forces primarily serve (as in South Korea) to dissuade aggression, can only be seen as a corollary of this tendency. The Bush doctrine's bedrock notion is that of "pre-emptive war," a doctrine that lacks international legitimacy and that therefore can usually count on only a limited number of allies.
The idea behind pre-emptive wars is that US force should be projected through high-tech, blitzkrieg type wars waged from US soil, or from the soil of uncritical allies. On this view, NATO is merely to serve as a means to mobilize Europeans to tackle the inevitable postwar stabilization and reconstruction missions -- obviating the need for the US to place its forces under NATO command. This is what happened in Afghanistan. But as NATO's secretary-general has said, if it is the mission that defines the coalition, then NATO -- a permanent alliance -- is no longer needed.
Kerry is focused upon the same type of security problems as Bush. This leaves many observers skeptical about the possibility for real change. Where he differs fundamentally from Bush is in his belief that resolving international problems that affect the US almost always calls for the support of others. He therefore considers the revival of the US' alliances to be a key foreign policy priority, and he has proposed that US forces in Iraq should be integrated into a NATO operation, as long as this remains under US command.
Acting jointly means that the US will have to take into account other interests and views -- views that may not always be in harmony with its own. America will have to accept a world that is regulated not by the US unilaterally, but by global institutions and permanent alliances. And the norms and rules that govern international institutions constitute a boundary on American power -- and thus as a check on its hegemony.