Fri, Oct 26, 2007 - Page 9 News List

America's power problem

Any country in the same position as the US, even a democracy, would be tempted to exercise its hegemonic power with less and less restraint

By Francis Fukuyama

When I wrote about the "end of history" almost 20 years ago, one thing that I did not anticipate was the degree to which the US' behavior and misjudgments would make anti-Americanism one of the chief fault-lines of global politics. And yet, particularly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that is precisely what has happened, owing to four key mistakes made by the Bush administration.

First, the doctrine of "preemption," which was devised in response to the 2001 attacks, was inappropriately broadened to include Iraq and other so-called "rogue states" that threatened to develop weapons of mass destruction. To be sure, preemption is fully justified vis-a-vis stateless terrorists wielding such weapons. But it cannot be the core of a general non-proliferation policy, whereby the US intervenes militarily everywhere to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.

The cost of executing such a policy simply would be too high (several hundred billion dollars and tens of thousands of casualties in Iraq and still counting). This is why the Bush administration has shied away from military confrontations with North Korea and Iran, despite its veneration of Israel's air strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, which set back Saddam Hussein's nuclear program by several years. After all, the very success of that attack meant that such limited intervention could never be repeated, because would-be proliferators learned to bury, hide, or duplicate their nascent weapons programs.

The second important miscalculation concerned the likely global reaction to the US' exercise of its hegemonic power. Many people within the Bush administration believed that even without approval by the UN Security Council or NATO, US power would be legitimized by its successful use. This had been the pattern for many US initiatives during the Cold War, and in the Balkans during the 1990s; back then, it was known as "leadership" rather than "unilateralism."

But, by the time of the Iraq War, conditions had changed: the US had grown so powerful relative to the rest of the world that the lack of reciprocity became an intense source of irritation even to the US' closest allies. The structural anti-Americanism arising from the global distribution of power was evident well before the Iraq War, in the opposition to American-led globalization during the Clinton years. But it was exacerbated by the Bush administration's "in-your-face" disregard for a variety of international institutions as soon it came into office -- a pattern that continued through the onset of the Iraq War.

The US' third mistake was to overestimate how effective conventional military power would be in dealing with the weak states and networked transnational organizations that characterize international politics, at least in the broader Middle East.

It is worth pondering why a country with more military power than any other in human history, and that spends as much on its military as virtually the rest of the world combined, cannot bring security to a small country of 24 million people after more than three years of occupation. At least part of the problem is that it is dealing with complex social forces that are not organized into centralized hierarchies that can enforce rules, and thus be deterred, coerced, or otherwise manipulated through conventional power.

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