Driven by its unmatched military might but undermined by increasing global interdependence and by the structure of American democracy itself, America is embarked on an unfamiliar journey to world empire.
That was the general consensus of a panel on American power who spoke Friday (May 2) at the Annual Dean’s Conference at the Kennedy School of Government. Following on last year’s examination of terrorism, this year’s subject was American might and the potential pitfalls that lie in the way of the exercise of that might.
The two-day event, called “Global Risks and Realities: How Should America Lead?”, was held May 1-2 at the Charles Hotel. The event featured a variety of discussions, expert panels, and speeches on topics ranging from “Is America an Empire?” to “Transatlantic Relationships: Can This Marriage Be Saved?”
Other topics focused on the developing world, weapons of mass destruction, North Korea, the media, fossil fuels, the United Nations, and the future of intelligence gathering.
Kennedy School Dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. kicked off the conference by organizing recent developments into three major arenas that he likened to a three-dimensional chess game. On the first board, dedicated to traditional military power, Nye said, the United States is clearly superior to any other nation.
The second board, where economic power plays out, is not so lopsidedly American, he said. In the economic arena, the European Union is an effective balance to the United States’ economic weight, and other nations, such as Japan, also hold considerable international sway.
The third board is where unofficial international relationships play out. This playing field, where exchanges take place on everything from money to arms to information, is the most level of all.
Nye said the importance of that third field has grown rapidly with the spread of technology. Everything from computing power to instantaneous communications that were once the sole purview of governments and wealthy businesses are today available to ordinary citizens.
The most striking recent example of the availability of technical know-how, he said, was al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attack, when the private terrorist organization did greater damage than the nation of Japan did in its attack on Pearl Harbor. The Sept. 11 attacks, Nye said, woke Americans up to a whole new world.
“Sept. 11 was like one of the lightning flashes on a summer evening that illuminates a landscape that has been changing and then it goes dark, leaving you wondering what to do about it,” Nye said. “What Sept. 11 made us realize is that dreadful conditions in poor, weak states halfway around the world can matter very much to us.”
The result has been an about-face in Bush administration policy, Nye claimed, from a focus centered on the world’s major powers, particularly China, to a variety of trouble spots. While Nye said he agrees with Bush’s policy shift, he doesn’t agree with the new unilateralism the administration has employed. The problem with the emphasis on U.S. military might, Nye said, is that it is one-dimensional and doesn’t address the multipolar powers that wield considerable influence on the other two chessboards he described.
Nye said the reliance on military force also squanders what he calls the United States’ “soft power,” which includes harder-to-quantify factors such as the attractiveness of its society and values, and a belief its actions will be just. Soft power, Nye said, makes people want to follow your lead regardless of military strength.
How the United States conducts the aftermath of the war in Iraq, Nye said, may help determine whether the country regains some of the soft power lost in its push for war.
“Clearly we can go it alone militarily; we proved that in Iraq,” Nye said. “Whether we can go it alone afterward is a much more difficult question.”
The increasing trend toward use of military force has raised questions of American empire building, which was addressed by the conference’s first panel. The discussion, moderated by David Gergen, director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, featured Nye, Charles Warren Professor of American History Ernest May, and Boston University Professor of International Relations Andrew Bacevich.
Much of the discussion centered on Bacevich’s recent book, “American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy.” Bacevich said what is striking about American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War have been the similarities, not the differences, between the policies pursued by different administrations.
Without much public debate, the U.S. government has embarked on a policy that aims to make the United States the world’s pre-eminent military power, with a globally deployed force and a decreasing threshold for military action. This policy has resulted in a string of interventions from Gulf War I, through Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and now Iraq.
The goal, Bacevich said, is to spread freedom around the world. The problem, he said, is that it’s the affluent American concept of freedom that is being pushed. That concept, he claimed, doesn’t include being free from the poverty and hunger plaguing much of the world.
“We have a particular definition of freedom,” Bacevich said. “Our definition of freedom in this country doesn’t give you a claim to food, clothing, and shelter.”
While America’s recent foreign policy may appear to validate accusations of American imperialism, Nye said American democracy won’t stand for it. The majority of the public, he said, wants the United States to re-engage with international institutions. He also didn’t believe the U.S. public could stand for long-term occupation of nations with hostile populations.
Instead, Nye said, he expected both globalization and rapid technological advances to continue, but to bear a less and less American flavor as other players develop and grow stronger, and as technology continues to level the playing field.
May agreed, saying that though the United States has shown a great ability to “blow things up,” the nation really hasn’t been very good at staying afterward and policing the peace. He said while the pre-eminence of U.S. power may give it some of the problems of an imperial power, there are also limits to what it can do.
Bacevich said his intent in writing about an “American Empire” was to deliver a wake-up call to the American public about the country’s foreign policy.
“One of my messages to citizens is ‘Let us stop and look at the trajectory we’re on,’” Bacevich said. “How did it come to be in the year 2003 that we’re occupying Baghdad – of the Thousand and One Nights and flying carpets – and Afghanistan, of all godforsaken points on Earth?”