The National Interest, Winter 2002
The Unipolar Moment revisited - United States world dominance
It has been
assumed that the old bipolar world would beget a multipolar
world with power dispersed to new centers in Japan,
and a diminished Soviet Union/Russia. [This is] mistaken. The immediate
post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is an unchallenged
superpower; the United
States, attended by its Western allies.
"The Unipolar Moment", 1990 (1)
IN LATE 1990,
shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union,
it was clear that the world we had known for half a century was disappearing.
The question was what would succeed it. I suggested then that we had already
entered the "unipolar moment." The gap in
power between the leading nation and all the others was so unprecedented as to
yield an international structure unique to modem history: unipolarity.
At the time, this
thesis was generally seen as either wild optimism or simple American arrogance.
The conventional wisdom was that with the demise of the Soviet empire the
bipolarity of the second half of the 20th century
would yield to multipolarity. The declinist
school, led by Paul Kennedy, held that America, suffering from
"imperial overstretch", was already in relative decline. The Asian
enthusiasm, popularized by (among others) James Fallows, saw the second coming
of the Rising Sun. The conventional wisdom was best captured by Senator Paul
Tsongas: "The Cold War is over; Japan won."
They were wrong,
and no one has put it more forcefully than Paul Kennedy himself in a classic
recantation published earlier this year. "Nothing has ever existed like
this disparity of power; nothing", he said of America's position today.
"Charlemagne's empire was merely western European in its reach. The Roman empire stretched farther afield,
but there was another great empire in Persia,
and a larger one in China.
There is, therefore, no comparison." (2) Not everyone is convinced. Samuel
Huntington argued in 1999 that we had entered not a unipolar
world but a "uni-multipolar world." (3)
Tony Judt writes mockingly of the "loud boasts
of unipolarity and hegemony" heard in Washington today. (4)
But as Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth argue in
a recent review of the subject, those denying unipolarity
can do so only by applying a ridiculous standard: that America be able to
achieve all its goals everywhere all by itself. This is a standard not for unipolarity but for divinity. Among mortals, and in the
context of the last half millennium of history, the current structure of the
international system is clear: "If today's American primacy does not
constitute unipolarity, then nothing ever will."
A second feature
of this new post-Cold War world, I ventured, would be a resurgent American
isolationism. I was wrong. It turns out that the new norm for America is not
post-World War I withdrawal but post-World War II engagement. In the 1990s, Pat
Buchanan gave 193 Os isolationism a run. He ended up carrying Palm Beach.
suggested that a third feature of this new unipolar
world would be an increase rather than a decrease in the threat of war, and
that it would come from a new source: weapons of mass destruction wielded by
rogue states. This would constitute a revolution in international relations,
given that in the past it was great powers who presented the principal threats
to world peace.
Where are we
twelve years later? The two defining features of the new post-Cold War world
remain: unipolarity and rogue states with weapons of
mass destruction. Indeed, these characteristics have grown even more
pronounced. Contrary to expectation, the United States has not regressed to
the mean; rather, its dominance has dramatically increased. And during our
holiday from history in the 1990s, the rogue state/WMD problem grew more acute.
Indeed, we are now on the eve of hostory's first war
over weapons of mass destruction.
geopolitical structure of the post-Cold War world... [is]
a single pole of world power that consists of the United States at the apex of the
industrial West. Perhaps it is more accurate to say the United States
and behind it the West.
"The Unipolar Moment", 1990
Unipolarity After September 11, 2001
THERE IS LITTLE need to rehearse the acceleration of unipolarity
in the 1990s. Japan,
whose claim to power rested exclusively on economics, went into economic
stagnated. The Soviet Union ceased to exist, contracting into a smaller,
radically weakened Russia.
The European Union turned inward toward the great project of integration and
built a strong social infrastructure at the expense of military capacity. Only China grew in
strength, but coming from so far behind it will be decades before it can
challenge American primacy--and that assumes that its current growth continues
The result is the
dominance of a single power unlike anything ever seen. Even at its height Britain could
always be seriously challenged by the next greatest powers. Britain had a smaller army than the land powers
of Europe and its navy was equaled by the next
two navies combined. Today, American military spending exceeds that of the next
twenty countries combined. Its navy, air force and space power are unrivaled.
Its technology is irresistible. It is dominant by every measure: military,
economic, technological, diplomatic, cultural, even
linguistic, with a myriad of counties trying to fend off the inexorable march
of Internet-fueled MTV English.
dominance has not gone unnoticed. During the 1990s, it was mainly China and Russia that denounced unipolarity in their occasional joint communiques.
As the new century dawned it was on everyone's lips. A French foreign minister
dubbed the United States
not a superpower but a hyperpower. The dominant
concern of foreign policy establishments everywhere became understanding and
living with the 800-pound American gorilla.
September 11 heightened the asymmetry. It did so in three ways. First, and most obviously, it led to a demonstration of
heretofore latent American military power. Kosovo, the first war ever fought
and won exclusively from the air, had given a hint of America's
quantum leap in military power (and the enormous gap that had developed between
American and European military capabilities). But it took September 11 for the United States to unleash with concentrated fury
a fuller display of its power in Afghanistan. Being a relatively
pacific, commercial republic, the United States does not go around
looking for demonstration wars. This one was thrust upon it. In response, America showed
that at a range of 7,000 miles and with but a handful of losses, it could
destroy within weeks a hardened, fanatical regime favored by geography and
climate in the "graveyard of empires."
Such power might
have been demonstrated earlier, but it was not. "I talked with the
administration", said Vladimir Putin shortly
after September 11,
and pointed out the bin Laden issue to them. They wrung
their hands so helplessly and said, 'the Taliban are not turning him over, what
can one do?' I remember I was surprised: If they are not turning him over, one
has to think and do something. (6)
Nothing was done.
President Clinton and others in his administration have protested that nothing
could have been done, that even the 1998 African embassy bombings were not
enough to mobilize the American people to strike back seriously against
terrorism. The new Bush Administration, too, did not give the prospect of
mass-casualty terrorism (and the recommendations of the Hart-Rudman Commission) the priority it deserved. Without
September 11, the giant would surely have slept longer. The world would have
been aware of America's
size and potential, but not its ferocity or its full capacities. (Paul
Kennedy's homage to American power, for example, was offered in the wake of the
11 demonstrated a new form of American strength. The center of its economy was
struck, its aviation shut down, Congress brought to a halt, the government sent
underground, the country paralyzed and fearful. Yet within days the markets
reopened, the economy began its recovery, the president mobilized the nation,
and a united Congress immediately underwrote a huge new worldwide campaign
against terror. The Pentagon started planning the U.S. military response even as its
demolished western facade still smoldered.
America had long been perceived as invulnerable. That
illusion was shattered on September 11, 2001. But with a demonstration of its
recuperative powers--an economy and political system so deeply rooted and
fundamentally sound that it could spring back to life within days--that sense of invulnerability assumed a new character. It
was transmuted from impermeability to resilience, the product of unrivaled
human, technological and political reserves.
The third effect
of September 11 was to accelerate the realignment of the current great powers,
such as they are, behind the United
States. In 1990, America's principal ally was NATO.
A decade later, its alliance base had grown to include former members of the
Warsaw Pact. Some of the major powers, however, remained uncommitted. Russia and China flirted with the idea of an
"anti-hegemonic alliance." Russian leaders made ostentatious visits
to pieces of the old Soviet empire such as Cuba
and North Korea.
India and Pakistan, frozen out by the United States
because of their nuclear testing, remained focused mainly on one another. But
after September 11, the bystanders came calling. Pakistan made
an immediate strategic decision to join the American camp. India enlisted with equal alacrity, offering the
basing, overflight rights and a level of cooperation
unheard of during its half century of Nehruist
genuflection to anti-American non-alignment. Russia's
Putin, seeing both a coincidence of interests in the
fight against Islamic radicalism and an opportunity to gain acceptance in the
Western camp, dramatically realigned Russian foreign policy toward the United States.
(Russia has already been
rewarded with a larger role in NATO and tacit American recognition of Russia's
interests in its "near abroad.") China
remains more distant but, also having a coincidence of interests with the United States in fighting Islamic radicalism, it has cooperated with the war on terror and
muted its competition with America
in the Pacific.
of the fence-sitters simply accentuates the historical anomaly of American unipolarity. Our experience with hegemony historically is
that it inevitably creates a counterbalancing coalition of weaker powers, most
recently against Napoleonic France and Germany (twice) in the 20th
century. Nature abhors a vacuum; history abhors hegemony. Yet during the first
decade of American unipolarity no such
counterbalancing occurred. On the contrary, the great powers lined up behind
the United States,
all the more so after September 11.
The most crucial
new element in the post-Cold War world [is] the emergence of a new strategic
environment marked by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.... The
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery will
constitute the greatest single threat to world security for the rest of our
lives. That is what makes a new international order not an imperial dream or a Wilsonian fantasy hut a matter of the sheerest prudence. It
is slowly dawning on the West that there is a need to establish some new regime
to police these weapons and those who brandish them.... Iraq ... is the
prototype of this new strategic threat.
"The Unipolar Moment", 1990
THE AMERICAN hegemon has no great power enemies, an historical oddity of
the first order. Yet it does face a serious threat to its dominance, indeed to
its essential security. It comes from a source even more historically odd: an
archipelago of rogue states (some connected with transnational terrorists)
wielding weapons of mass destruction.
The threat is not
trivial. It is the single greatest danger to the United
States because, for all of America's dominance, and for all of
its recently demonstrated resilience, there is one thing it might not survive:
decapitation. The detonation of a dozen nuclear weapons in major American
cities, or the spreading of smallpox or anthrax throughout the general
population, is an existential threat. It is perhaps the only realistic threat
to America as a functioning hegemon, perhaps even to America as a functioning modern
It is of course
banal to say that modern technology has shrunk the world. But the obvious
corollary, that in a shrunken world the divide between regional superpowers and
great powers is radically narrowed, is rarely drawn. Missiles shrink distance.
Nuclear (or chemical or biological) devices multiply power. Both can be bought
at market. Consequently the geopolitical map is irrevocably altered. Fifty
years ago, Germany--centrally
located, highly industrial and heavily populated--could pose a threat to world security
and to the other great powers. It was inconceivable that a relatively small
Middle Eastern state with an almost entirely imported industrial base could do
anything more than threaten its neighbors. The central truth of the coming era
is that this is no longer the case: relatively small; peripheral and backward
states will be able to emerge rapidly as threats not only to regional, but to
"The Unipolar Moment", 1990
Like unipolarity, this is historically unique. WMD are not new,
nor are rogue states. Their conjunction is. We have had fifty years of
experience with nuclear weapons--but in the context of bipolarity, which gave
the system a predictable, if perilous, stability. We have just now entered an
era in which the capacity for inflicting mass death, and thus posing a threat
both to world peace and to the dominant power, resides in small, peripheral
What does this
conjunction of unique circumstances--unipolarity and
the proliferation of terrible weapons--mean for American foreign policy? That the first and most urgent task is protection from these
weapons. The catalyst for this realization was again September 11.
Throughout the 1990s, it had been assumed that WMD posed no emergency because
traditional concepts of deterrence would hold. September 11 revealed the
possibility of future WMD-armed enemies both undeterrable
and potentially undetectable. The 9/11 suicide bombers were undeterrable;
the author of the subsequent anthrax attacks has proven undetectable. The
possible alliance of rogue states with such undeterrables
and undetectables--and the possible transfer to them
of weapons of mass destruction--presents a new strategic situation that demands
a new strategic doctrine.
Any solution will
have to include three elements: denying, disarming, and defending. First, we
will have to develop a new regime, similar to COCOM (Coordinating Committee on
Export Controls) to deny yet more high technology to such states. Second, those
states that acquire such weapons anyway will have to submit to strict outside
control or risk being physically disarmed. A final element must be the
development of antiballistic missile and air defense systems to defend against
those weapons that do escape Western control or preemption.... There is no
alternative to confronting, deterring and, if necessary, disarming states that
brandish and use weapons of mass destruction. And there is no one to do that
but the United States,
backed by as many allies as will join the endeavor.
"The Unipolar Moment", 1990
The Crisis of Unipolarity
one but a host of new doctrines have come tumbling out since September 11.
First came the with-us-or-against-us ultimatum to any
state aiding, abetting or harboring terrorists. Then,
pre-emptive attack on any enemy state developing weapons of mass destruction.
And now, regime change in any such state.
The boldness of
these policies--or, as much of the world contends, their arrogance--is
breathtaking. The American anti-terrorism ultimatum, it is said, is high-handed
and permits the arbitrary application of American power everywhere. Pre-emption
is said to violate traditional doctrines of just war. And regime change, as
Henry Kissinger has argued, threatens 350 years of post-Westphalian
international practice. Taken together, they amount to an unprecedented
assertion of American freedom of action and a definitive statement of a new
To be sure, these
are not the first instances of American unilateralism. Before September 11, the
Bush Administration had acted unilaterally, but on more minor matters, such as
the Kyoto Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention, and with less
bluntness, as in its protracted negotiations with Russia over the ABM treaty. The
"axis of evil" speech of January 29, however, took unilateralism to a
new level. Latent resentments about American willfulness are latent no more.
American dominance, which had been tolerated if not welcomed, is now producing
such irritation and hostility in once friendly quarters, such as Europe, that
some suggest we have arrived at the end of the opposition-free grace period
had enjoyed during the unipolar moment. (7)
unilateralism has produced the first crisis of unipolarity.
It revolves around the central question of the unipolar
age: Who will define the hegemon's ends?
The issue is not
one of style but of purpose. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
gave the classic formulation of unilateralism when he said (regarding the
Afghan war and the war on terrorism, but the principle is universal), "the
mission determines the coalition." We take our friends where we find them,
but only in order to help us in accomplishing the mission. The mission comes
first, and we decide it.
with the classic case study of multilateralism at work: the U.S. decision
in February 1991 to conclude the Gulf War. As the Iraqi army was fleeing, the
first Bush Administration had to decide its final goal: the liberation of Kuwait or regime change in Iraq. It
stopped at Kuwait.
Why? Because, as Brent Scowcroft has explained, going further would have
fractured the coalition, gone against our promises to allies and violated the
UN resolutions under which we were acting. "Had we added occupation of Iraq and
removal of Saddam Hussein to those objectives", wrote Scowcroft in the
Washington Post on October 16, 2001, "... our Arab allies, refusing to
countenance an invasion of an Arab colleague, would have deserted us." The
coalition defined the mission.
Who should define
American ends today? This is a question of agency but it leads directly to a
fundamental question of policy. If the coalition--whether NATO, the wider
Western alliance, ad hoc outfits such as the Gulf War alliance, the UN, or the
"international community"--defines America's mission, we have one
vision of America's role in the world. If, on the other hand, the mission
defines the coalition, we have an entirely different vision.
A large segment
of American opinion doubts the legitimacy of unilateral American action but
accepts quite readily actions undertaken by the "world community"
acting in concert. Why it should matter to Americans that their actions get a
Security Council nod from, say, Deng Xiaoping and the butchers of Tiananmen Square is beyond me. But to many Americans it
matters. It is largely for domestic reasons, therefore, that American political
leaders make sure to dress unilateral action in multilateral clothing. The
danger, of course, is that they might come to believe their own pretense.
"The Unipolar Moment," 1990
Americans, multilateralism is no pretense. On the contrary: It has become the
very core of the liberal internationalist school of American
foreign policy. In the October 2002 debate authorizing the use of force in Iraq, the
Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin,
proposed authorizing the president to act only with prior approval from the UN
Security Council. Senator Edward Kennedy put it succinctly while addressing the
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on September 27:
"I'm waiting for the final recommendation of the Security Council before
I'm going to say how I'm going to vote."
This logic is
deeply puzzling. How exactly does the Security Council confer moral authority
on American action? The Security Council is a committee of great powers, heirs
to the victors in the Second World War. They manage the world in their own
interest. The Security Council is, on the very rare occasions when it actually
works, realpolitik by committee. But by what logic is
it a repository of international morality? How does the approval of France and Russia,
acting clearly and rationally in pursuit of their own interests in Iraq (largely
oil and investment), confer legitimacy on an invasion?
That question was
beyond me twelve years ago. It remains beyond me now. Yet this kind of logic
utterly dominated the intervening Clinton
years. The 1990s were marked by an obsession with "international
legality" as expressed by this or that Security Council resolution. To
take one long forgotten example: After an Iraqi provocation in February 1998,
President Clinton gave a speech at the Pentagon laying the foundation for an
attack on Iraq
(one of many that never came). He cited as justification for the use of force
the need to enforce Iraqi promises made under post-Gulf War ceasefire
conditions that "the United Nations demanded--not the United States--the
United Nations." Note the formulation. Here is the president of the most
powerful nation on earth stopping in mid-sentence to stress the primacy of
commitments made to the UN over those made to the United States.
This was not
surprising from a president whose first inaugural address pledged American
action when "the will and conscience of the international community is
defied." Early in the Clinton
years, Madeleine Albright formulated the vision of the liberal internationalist
school then in power as "assertive multilateralism." Its principal
diplomatic activity was the pursuit of a dizzying array of universal treaties
on chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear testing, global environment,
land mines and the like. Its trademark was consultation: Clinton
was famous for sending Secretary of State Warren Christopher on long trips (for
example, through Europe on Balkan policy) or endless shuttles (uncountable
pilgrimages to Damascus)
to consult; he invariably returned home empty-handed and diminished. And its
principal objective was good international citizenship: It was argued on myriad
foreign policy issues that we could not do X because it would leave us
"isolated." Thus in 1997 the Senate passed a chemical weapo ns convention that even some of its proponents
admitted was unenforceable, largely because of the argument that everyone else
had signed it and that failure to ratify would leave us isolated. Isolation, in
and of itself, was seen as a diminished and even morally suspect condition.
A lesson in
isolation occurred during the 1997 negotiations in Oslo over the land mine treaty. One of the
rare holdouts, interestingly enough, was Finland. Finding himself scolded by
his neighbors for opposing the land mine ban, the Finnish prime minister noted
tartly that this was a "very convenient" pose for the "other
Nordic countries" who "want Finland to be their land
In many parts of
the world, a thin line of American GIs is the land mine. The main reason we
oppose the land mine treaty is that we need them in the DMZ in Korea. We man
the lines there. Sweden and France and Canada do not have to worry about a
North Korean invasion killing thousands of their soldiers. As the unipolar power and thus guarantor of peace in places where
Swedes do not tread, we need weapons that others do not. Being uniquely
situated in the world, we cannot afford the empty platitudes of allies not
quite candid enough to admit that they live under the umbrella of American
power. That often leaves us "isolated."
is the liberal internationalist's means of saving us from this shameful
condition. But the point of the multilateralist
imperative is not merely psychological. It has a clear and coherent
geopolitical objective. It is a means that defines the ends. Its
means--internationalism (the moral, legal and strategic primacy of
international institutions over national interests) and legalism (the belief
that the sinews of stability are laws, treaties and binding international
contracts)--are in service to a larger vision: remaking the international
system in the image of domestic civil society. The multilateralist
imperative seeks to establish an international order based not on sovereignty
and power but on interdependence--a new order that, as Secretary of State
Cordell Hull said upon returning from the Moscow Conference of 1943, abolishes
the "need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of
internationalism seeks through multilateralism to transcend power politics,
narrow national interest and, ultimately, the nation-state itself. The
nation-state is seen as some kind of archaic residue of an anarchic past, an
affront to the vision of a domesticated international arena. This is why
liberal thinkers embrace the erosion of sovereignty promised by the new
information technologies and the easy movement of capital across borders. They
welcome the decline of sovereignty as the road to the new globalism
of a norm-driven, legally-bound international system broken to the mold of
domestic society. (8)
sovereign, of course, is the American superpower, which is why liberal
internationalists feel such acute discomfort with American dominance. To
achieve their vision, America
especially--must be domesticated. Their project is thus to restrain America by
building an entangling web of interdependence, tying down Gulliver with myriad
strings that diminish his overweening power. Who, after all, was the ABM treaty
or a land mine treaty going to restrain? North Korea?
internationalist vision-- the multilateral handcuffing of American power--is,
as Robert Kagan has pointed out, the dominant view in
Europe. (9) That is
to be expected, given Europe's weakness and America's power. But it is a
mistake to see this as only a European view. The idea of a new international
community with self-governing institutions and self-enforcing norms--the vision
that requires the domestication of American power--is the view of the
Democratic Party in the United
States and of a large part of the American
foreign policy establishment. They spent the last decade in power fashioning
precisely those multilateral ties to restrain the American Gulliver and remake
him into a tame international citizen. (10) The multilateralist
project is to use--indeed, to use up--current American dominance to create a
new international system in which new norms of legalism and interdependence
rule in America's place--in short, a system that is no longer unipolar.
There is much
pious talk about a new multilateral world and the promise of the United Nations
as guarantor of a new post-Cold War order. But this is to mistake cause and
effect, the United States
and the United Nations. The United Nations is guarantor of nothing. Except in a
formal sense, it can hardly be said to exist. Collective
security? In the Gulf, without the United States leading and prodding,
bribing and blackmailing, no one would have stirred.... The world would have
written off Kuwait the way
the last body pledged to collective security, the League of Nations, wrote off Abyssinia.
"The Unipolar Moment", 1990
Realism and the
division between the two major foreign policy schools in America centers
on the question of what is, and what should be, the fundamental basis of
international relations: paper or power. Liberal internationalism envisions a
world order that, like domestic society, is governed by laws and not men.
Realists see this vision as hopelessly utopian. The history of paper
treaties--from the prewar Kellogg-Briand Pact and
Munich to the post-Cold War Oslo accords and the 1994 Agreed Framework with
North Korea--is a history of naivete and cynicism, a
combination both toxic and volatile that invariably ends badly. Trade
agreements with Canada
are one thing. Pieces of parchment to which existential enemies affix a
signature are quite another. They are worse than worthless because they give a
false sense of security and breed complacency. For the realist, the ultimate
determinant of the most basic elements of international life--security,
stability and peace--is power.
is why a realist would hardly forfeit the current unipolarity
for the vain promise of goo-goo one-worldism. Nor, however, should a realist want to forfeit unipolarity for the familiarity of traditional multipolarity. Multipolarity is
inherently fluid and unpredictable. Europe practiced multipolarity
for centuries and found it so unstable and bloody, culminating in 1914 in the
catastrophic collapse of delicately balanced alliance systems, that Europe sought its permanent abolition in political and
economic union. Having abjured multipolarity for the
region, it is odd in the extreme to then prefer multipolarity
for the world.
Less can be said
about the destiny of unipolarity. It is too new. Yet
we do have the history of the last decade, our only modern experience with unipolarity and it was a decade of unusual stability among
all major powers. It would be foolish to project from just a ten-year
experience, but that experience does call into question the basis for the
claims that unipolarity is intrinsically unstable or
impossible to sustain in a mass democracy.
I would argue
that unipolarity, managed benignly, is far more
likely to keep the peace. Benignity is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.
But the American claim to benignity is not mere self-congratulation. We have a
track record. Consider one of history's rare controlled experiments. In the
1940s, lines were drawn through three peoples--Germans, Koreans and
Chinese--one side closely bound to the United States, the other to its
adversary. It turned into a controlled experiment because both states in the
divided lands shared a common culture. Fifty years later the results are in.
Does anyone doubt the superiority, both moral and material, of West Germany vs. East
Germany, South Korea
vs. North Korea and Taiwan vs. China. (11)
Benignity is also
manifest in the way others welcome our power. It is the reason, for example,
that the Pacific Rim countries are loath to see our military presence
diminished: They know that the United
States is not an imperial power with a
desire to rule other countries--which is why they so readily accept it as a
balancer. It is the reason, too, why Europe, so seized with complaints about
American high-handedness, nonetheless reacts with alarm to the occasional
suggestion that America
might withdraw its military presence. America came, but it did not come
to rule. Unlike other hegemons and would-be hegemons, it does not entertain a grand vision of a new
world. No Thousand Year Reich. No New Soviet Man. It has no great desire to remake human
nature, to conquer for the extraction of natural resources, or to rule for the
simple pleasure of dominion. Indeed, America is the first hegemonic
power in history to be obsessed with "exit strategies." It could not
wait to get out of Haiti and
Somalia; it would get out of
Kosovo and Bosnia
today if it could. Its principal aim is to maintain the stability and relative
tranquility of the current international system by enforcing, maintaining and
extending the current peace.
The form of
realism that I am arguing for--call it the new unilateralism--is clear in its
determination to self-consciously and confidently deploy American power in
pursuit of those global ends. Note: global ends. There is a form of
unilateralism that is devoted only to narrow American self-interest and it has
a name, too: It is called isolationism. Critics of the new unilateralism often
confuse it with isolationism because both are prepared to unashamedly exercise
American power. But isolationists oppose America acting as a unipolar power not because they disagree with the
unilateral means, but because they deem the ends far too broad. Isolationists
would abandon the larger world and use American power exclusively for the
narrowest of American interests: manning Fortress America by defending the American
homeland and putting up barriers to trade and immigration.
unilateralism defines American interests far beyond narrow self-defense. In
particular, it identifies two other major interests, both global: extending the
peace by advancing democracy and preserving the peace by acting as balancer of
last resort. Britain was the
balancer in Europe, joining the weaker
coalition against the stronger to create equilibrium. America's
unique global power allows it to be the balancer in every region. We balanced Iraq by supporting
its weaker neighbors in the Gulf War. We balance China
by supporting the ring of smaller states at its periphery (from South Korea to Taiwan,
even to Vietnam).
Our role in the Balkans was essentially to create a microbalance: to support
the weaker Bosnian Muslims against their more dominant neighbors, and
subsequently to support the weaker Albanian Kosovars
against the Serbs.
Of course, both
of these tasks often advance American national interests as well. The promotion
of democracy multiplies the number of nations likely to be friendly to the United States, and regional equilibria
produce stability that benefits a commercial republic like the United States. America's (intended) exertions on behalf of
pre-emptive non-proliferation, too, are clearly in the interest of both the United States
and the international system as a whole.
Critics find this
paradoxical: acting unilaterally but for global ends. Why paradoxical? One can
hardly argue that depriving Saddam (and potentially, terrorists) of WMD is not
a global end. Unilateralism may be required to pursue this end. We may be left
isolated in so doing, but we would be acting nevertheless in the name of global
interests--larger than narrow American self-interest and larger, too, than the
narrowly perceived self-interest of smaller, weaker powers (even great powers)
that dare not confront the rising danger.
What is the
essence of that larger interest? Most broadly defined, it is maintaining a
stable, open and functioning unipolar system. Liberal
internationalists disdain that goal as too selfish, as it makes paramount the
preservation of both American power and independence. Isolationists reject the
goal as too selfless, for defining American interests too globally and thus too
A THIRD critique
comes from what might be called pragmatic realists, who see the new
unilateralism I have outlined as hubristic, and whose objections are practical.
They are prepared to engage in a pragmatic multilateralism. They value great
power concert. They seek Security Council support not because it confers any
moral authority, but because it spreads risk. In their view, a single hegemon risks far more violent resentment than would a
power that consistently acts as primus inter pares, sharing rule-making
functions with others. (12)
I have my doubts.
The United States
made an extraordinary effort in the Gulf War to get UN support, share
decision-making, assemble a coalition and, as we have seen, deny itself the
fruits of victory in order to honor coalition goals. Did that diminish the
anti-American feeling in the region? Did it garner support for subsequent Iraq policy
dictated by the original acquiescence to the coalition?
The attacks of
September 11 were planned during the Clinton Administration, an administration
that made a fetish of consultation and did its utmost to subordinate American
hegemony and smother unipolarity. The resentments
were hardly assuaged. Why? Because the extremist rage against the United States
is engendered by the very structure of the international system, not by the
details of our management of it.
realists also value international support in the interest of sharing burdens,
on the theory that sharing decision-making enlists others in our own hegemonic
enterprise and makes things less costly. If you are too vigorous in asserting
yourself in the short-term, they argue, you are likely to injure yourself in
the long-term when you encounter problems that require the full cooperation of
other partners, such as counter-terrorism. As Brooks and Wohlforth
put it, "Straining relationships now will lead only to a more challenging
policy environment later on." (13)
If the concern
about the new unilateralism is that American assertiveness be judiciously
rationed, and that one needs to think long-term, it is hard to disagree. One
does not go it alone or dictate terms on every issue. On some issues such as
membership in and support of the WTO, where the long-term benefit both to the
American national interest and global interests is demonstrable, one willingly
constricts sovereignty. Trade agreements are easy calls, however, free trade
being perhaps the only mathematically provable political good. Others require
great skepticism. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, would have harmed the
American economy while doing nothing for the global environment. (Increased
emissions from China, India and Third World countries exempt from its
provisions would have more than made up for American cuts.) Kyoto failed on its merits, but was
nonetheless pushed because the rest of the world supported it. The same case
was made for the chemical and biological weapons treaties--sure, they are use
less or worse, but why not give in there in order to build good will for future
needs? But appeasing multilateralism does not assuage it; appeasement merely
legitimizes it. Repeated acquiescence to provisions that America deems injurious reinforces the notion
that legitimacy derives from international consensus, thus undermining America's
future freedom of action--and thus contradicting the pragmatic realists' own
America must be guided by its independent judgment, both
about its own interest and about the global interest. Especially on matters of
national security, war-making and the deployment of power, America should
neither defer nor contract out decision-making, particularly when the
concessions involve permanent structural constrictions such as those imposed by
an International Criminal Court. Prudence, yes. No
need to act the superpower in East Timor or Bosnia. But there is a need to do
so in Afghanistan and in Iraq. No need
to act the superpower on steel tariffs. But there is a need to do so on missile
exercise of power allows, indeed calls for, occasional concessions on non-vital
issues if only to maintain psychological good will. Arrogance and gratuitous
high-handedness are counterproductive. But we should not delude ourselves as to
what psychological good will buys. Countries will cooperate with us, first, out
of their own self-interest and, second, out of the need and desire to cultivate
good relations with the world's superpower. Warm and fuzzy feelings are a
distant third. Take counterterrorism. After the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, Yemen
did everything it could to stymie the American investigation. It lifted not a
finger to suppress terrorism. This was under an American administration that
was obsessively accommodating and multilateralist.
Today, under the most unilateralist of
has decided to assist in the war on terrorism. This was not a result of a
sudden attack of good will toward America. It was a result of the war
in Afghanistan, which
concentrated the mind of h eretofore recalcitrant
states like Yemen on the
costs of non-cooperation with the United States. (14) Coalitions are
not made by superpowers going begging hat in hand. They are made by asserting a
position and inviting others to join. What "pragmatic" realists often
fail to realize is that unilateralism is the high road to multilateralism. When
George Bush senior said of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, "this will not
stand", and made it clear that he was prepared to act alone if necessary,
that declaration--and the credibility of American determination to act
unilaterally-in and of itself created a coalition. Hafez al-Asad
did not join out of feelings of good will. He joined because no one wants to be
left at the dock when the hegemon is sailing.
does not mean seeking to act alone. One acts in concert with others if
possible. Unilateralism simply means that one does not allow oneself to be
hostage to others. No unilateralist would, say, reject Security Council support
for an attack on Iraq.
The nontrivial question that separates unilateralism from multilateralism--and
that tests the "pragmatic realists"--is this: What do you do if, at
the end of the day, the Security Council refuses to back you? Do you allow
yourself to be dictated to on issues of vital national--and
proposed the unipolar model in 1990, I suggested that
we should accept both its burdens and opportunities and that, if America did not
wreck its economy, unipolarity could last thirty or
forty years. That seemed bold at the time. Today, it seems rather modest. The unipolar moment has become the unipolar
era. It remains true, however, that its durability will be decided at home. It
will depend largely on whether it is welcomed by Americans or seen as a burden
to be shed--either because we are too good for the world (the isolationist
critique) or because we are not worthy of it (the liberal internationalist
unilateralism argues explicitly and unashamedly for maintaining unipolarity, for sustaining America's unrivaled dominance for
the foreseeable future. It could be a long future, assuming we successfully
manage the single greatest threat, namely, weapons of mass destruction in the
hands of rogue states. This in itself will require the aggressive and confident
application of unipolar power rather than falling
back, as we did in the 1990s, on paralyzing multilateralism. The future of the unipolar era hinges on whether America is governed by those
who wish to retain, augment and use unipolarity to
advance not just American but global ends, or whether America is governed by
those who wish to give it up-either by allowing unipolarity
to decay as they retreat to Fortress America, or by passing on the burden by
gradually transferring power to multilateral institutions as heirs to American
hegemony. The challenge to unipolarity is not from
the outside but from the inside. The choice is ours. To impiously paraph rase Benjamin Franklin:
History has given you an empire, if you will keep it.
note: This quotation, and all subsequent boxed quotations in this essay, are
from Charles Krauthammer, "The Unipolar
Moment", Foreign Affairs: America and the World (1990/91), which
introduced the idea of American unipolarity. That
essay was adapted from the first annual Henry M. Jackson Memorial Lecture,
September 18, 1990.
"The Eagle has Landed", Financial Times,
February 2, 2002.
(3.) Huntington, "The
Lonely Superpower", Foreign Affairs (March/April 1999). By uni-multipolar Huntington
means a system with a pre-eminent state whose sole participation is
insufficient for the resolution of international issues. The superpower can
still serve as a veto player, but requires other powers to achieve its ends.
(4.) Judt, "Its Own Worst Enemy", New York Review of Books, August 15, 2002.
(5.) Brooks and Wohlforth, "American Primacy in Perspective",
Foreign Affairs (July/August 2002).
with the German newspaper Bild, translated and reported in the Inter fax News Bulletin,
September 21, 2001.
(7.) A Sky News
pail finds that even the British public considers George W. Bush a greater
threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein. The poli
was conducted September 2-6, 2002.
(8.) See my
"A World Imagined", The New Republic, March
15, 1999, from which some of the foregoing discussion is drawn.
(9.) Kagan, "Power and Weakness", Policy Review (June
(10.) In "A
World Imagined", I noted the oddity of an
American governing elite adopting a goal--a constrained America--that
is more logically the goal of foreigners: "The ultimate irony is that this
is traditionally the vision of small nations. They wish to level the playing
field with the big boys. For them, treaties, international institutions, and
interdependence are the great equalizers. Leveling is fine for them. But for us? The greatest power in the world--the most
dominant power relative to its rivals that the world has seen since the Roman empire--is led by people
who seek to diminish that dominance and level the international arena."
(11.) This is not
to claim, by any means, a perfect record of benignity. America has
often made and continues to make alliances with unpleasant authoritarian
regimes. As I argued recently in Time ("Dictatorships and Double
Standards", September 23, 2002), such alliances are nonetheless justified so long as they are instrumental (meant to defeat the larger
evil) and temporary (expire with the emergency). When Hitler was defeated, we
stopped coddling Stalin. Forty years later, as the Soviet threat receded, the United States
was instrumental in easing Pinochet out of power and overthrowing Marcos. We
withdrew our support for these dictators once the two conditions that justified
such alliances had disappeared: The global threat of Soviet communism had
truly democratic domestic alternatives to these dictators
(12.) This basic
view is well-represented in The National Interest's Fall
2002 symposium, "September 11th One Year On: Power, Purpose and Strategy
in U.S. Foreign Policy."
(13.) Brooks and Wohlforth, "American Primacy in Perspective."
(14.) The most
recent and dramatic demonstration of this newfound cooperation was the CIA
killing on November 4 of an Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen using a remotely operated
Krauthammer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a syndicated
columnist for the Washington Post and an essayist for Time.
The National Affairs, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group