Ethics & Public Policy Center

America’s Imperial Responsibility

Published in The World & I on June 1, 1998


The United States stands proud, powerful, and confused on the cusp of the third millennium. This America—with its unmatched economic and military might, cultural clout, and widespread reputation for decency—is destined to be the prime mover in world politics for decades, if not centuries, to come. In significant respects, America has been shaped by the political and moral legacy of the two great civilizing empires: Pax Romana and Pax Britannica.

Contemporary America evokes widely different responses from peoples abroad. Some critics portray it as a materialistic, consumer-driven colossus seeking to aggrandize its wealth and power. Some determined anti-Americans assert that we not only exploit other peoples through transnational corporations but attempt—often successfully—to impose our tawdry materialistic culture on them. “We irritate the rest of the world with our incessant need to build McDonalds and Disneylands,” said a New Yorker letter in this vein. Such criticism notwithstanding, the great majority of the world’s people probably still regard America as the major force for peace and freedom in the world and a beacon of hope for humanity.

In the face of overseas criticism and applause and of conflicting voices at home over our external role, we Americans confront what can be properly called an imperial dilemma. What is our role in the larger world? Do we have the wisdom and stamina to behave as a humane superpower in what promise to be perilous times?

A predictably unpredictable world

Though the Cold War is over, the “new world order” has not arrived. And war has not been banished, as the predatory machinations of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein remind us. All of history has been marked by an endless series of wars interrupted by precarious interludes of peace; humanity will continue to live in an interwar period. The struggle between tyranny and freedom will be with us until the end of earthly time. The lion will not lie down with the lamb, and a brave new world will remain the grand illusion it has always been. Original sin will not be abolished.
Like the British Empire at its height, America today is the preeminent global power. But unlike a Britain confident of its imperial mission, we are uncertain and puzzled about our role in the increasingly complex and demanding external realm. Is America living in the last days of Rome or the twilight of the British Empire? That is the question.

As we confront this predictably unpredictable world, many, perhaps most, Americans are guardedly confident of our future. Others are perplexed, and still others are gloomy. Few would share the hubris of Peter Drucker, who once said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Certainly we can influence the global drama, but we cannot control its outcome, much less tame human nature. We are not God, and, as James Madison said, “Men are not angels.”

On the threshold of the twenty-first century, no one can know with confidence what a dynamic, powerful, and wealthy America will do or become. Will the Pax Americana that emerged after Pearl Harbor continue to be the main force for peace and freedom? Or will demoralization and fatigue consign us to a less honorable role? Will the American idea—embraced in the Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution—survive?

Lincoln’s words in the midst of a wrenching civil war may give us courage. In December 1862, he declared that a united America free of slavery was “the last best hope of earth.” Two decades earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that “if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Toward a global strategy

In his latest strategic assessment, The Grand Chessboard. American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Zbigniew Brzezinski asserts that America is the first “truly global superpower.” As such, it has responsibilities commensurate with its capacity to influence world affairs. He would agree with English poet John Dryden that “all empire is no more than power in trust.”

Brzezinski’s perspective on world politics—including his humanity and realism—like that of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, has been influenced by his origins. He was born in Poland, where he lived under Hitler and Stalin. As a child in Czechoslovakia, Albright also experienced both totalitarian systems. And yet, neither of these American foreign-policy leaders has permitted ideology, as important as it is, to overshadow the perennial realities of world politics—the struggle for power, glory, and territory.

Since leaving the White House, where he served as Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Brzezinski has continued to develop and promote his grand designs for advancing world peace and freedom. In The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century, which I reviewed in The World & I (October 1989), Brzezinski rightly saw Marxism-Leninism as a utopian secular religion whose dream of a classless society had been twisted into a nightmare of terror and imperial conquest. He foresaw “the terminal crisis of communism” and recommended a “far-sighted Western strategy” to promote “post-communist democratization” based on the universal appeal of human rights. At that time, Brzezinski thought that the final collapse of communism was decades away. Fortunately for the long-suffering people of the Soviet Union and the captive states of Central Europe, his estimate was too pessimistic. Like virtually everyone, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, he assumed that deliverance fiom the Soviet yoke was not at hand.

In his current volume, Brzezinski addresses America’s strategic responsibility in the post-Cold War world. His “grand chessboard,” on which global politics is played, is the Eurasian landmass, as the geopoliticians put it. For millennia, Eurasia has been the central stage of world affairs, and it still is. Taking modest exception to the chessboard metaphor, I see world politics as an open-ended drama. The human actors—limited in wisdom, time, and circumstances, to be sure—have greater freedom than chess players, who use pieces whose freedom of movement is rigidly determined from the start. A pawn cannot be made to act with the flexibility of a bishop or knight, much less a king.

Few in the academic world or in the corridors of power would dissent from Brzezinski’s assertion that Eurasia is still the vortex of world politics. Or from his contention that for the first time in history, the pivotal actor on that central stage is not a Eurasian power. Virtually everyone acknowledges that a mighty, continent-spanning America, bordering on the Atlantic and Pacific, is the key player. Albright has immodestly called America “the indispensable nation.”

But the strategic advice flowing from Brzezinski’s assertion of American primacy is open to controversy. He insists that our strategic task is to prevent “the emergence of a dominant and antagonistic Eurasian power” and to create “a stable continental equilibrium with the United States as the political arbiter.” To this end, he says that

the U.S. policy goal must be unapologetically twofold: to perpetuate America’s own dominant political position for at least a generation and preferably longer still; and to create a geopolitical framework that can absorb the inevitable shocks and strains of social-political change while evolving into the geopolitical core of shared responsibility for peaceful global management.

Despite his less than elegant prose, his meaning comes through.

The alternative, in his view, is international chaos, the enemy of both peace and human rights. Brzezinski quotes with approval a statement Samuel Huntington made in 1993: “The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.”

Brzezinski calls this global primacy a unique form of hegemony that reflects America’s “pluralistic, permeable, and flexible” democratic system. Primacy carries with it a different and more difficult form of imperial burden, one sensitive to human rights and man’s thirst for freedom.

How Washington “manages” the momentous task of taming the potential predatory behavior of China, Japan, and Russia in the decades ahead is the critical issue. Sensing drift, incoherence, and ad hocking in President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, including his confusing reference to “assertive multilateralism,” Brzezinski calls for a grand strategy to cope with America’s “geostrategic imperatives.” He rejects the crusading posture of neo-Wilsonian idealists and the neo- isolationists and seems to embrace, at least in principle, Harry Truman’s strategy of containment and Richard Nixon’s strategy of engagement with America’s two potentially adversarial powers, China and Russia.

Brzezinski speaks of a “trans-Eurasian security system” to tame any predatory imperial impulses of China, Japan, and Russia. When he uses the word system he suggests a formal structure, something like NATO, thus sounding more like a political scientist or international lawyer than a historian. The essential task of preventing a regional power from threatening the peace can perhaps be better pursued through pragmatic American diplomatic, economic, and military policies designed to encourage good behavior and discourage menacing moves.

History demonstrates that wise unilateral action is frequently more effective than painstakingly negotiated multilateral agreements. A good example is Ronald Reagan’s deployment of Pershing II medium-range nuclear missiles in Germany, a move that forced Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate 315 medium-range SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe that were aimed at NATO targets from Oslo to Istanbul. Multilateralism, assertive or otherwise, has its limits.

Though firmly in the realist camp, Brzezinski’s vague hope for an eventual “truly cooperative global community” is utopian. At root, the human drama in the twenty-first century will be more like Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature—a “war of everyone against everyone”—than Woodrow Wilson’s dream of a warless world of harmony and law. Statesmen cannot escape operating in a realm of tragic necessity and limited expectations. Their political calculations must necessarily include a recognition of power realities and conflicting national interests along with a sprinkling of nobler sentiments, such as patriotism and sense of justice.

The twenty-first century

Declinists including historian Paul Kennedy assert that America has reached “imperial overstretch,” with “global interests and obligations” far greater than its “power to defend.” Brzezinski nevertheless maintains that “America’s status as the world’s premier power is unlikely to be contested by any single challenger well into the twentyfirst century.” He also argues that, for a variety of technical and economic reasons, America is “likely to be the very last . . . truly global superpower.”

In the meantime, will the American people have the courage, energy, and staying power to shoulder the burdens of a humane imperium? Like Robert Bork in his Slouching Toward Gomorrah (1996), Brzezinski is concerned about the “cultural consequences of social hedonism and the dramatic decline in the centrality of religious-based values in society.” He also fears that the ravages of multiculturalism will make it difficult “to fashion a consensus on foreign policy issues, except in the circumstances of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat.

He asks whether “America might become the first superpower unable or unwilling to wield its power.” He cites opinion polls suggesting that fewer than 17 percent of the American people believe their country “should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems.” In the same poll, 74 percent agreed that we should do our “fair share to solve international problems together with other countries.” That raises the question of what our fair share is, but Brzezinski does not spell out details.

His major thesis, which I find unassailable, is that reluctant Americans must develop a grand strategy—one that is neither timid nor overbearing and in concert with our allies—to deter and if necessary throw back predatory powers that threaten the balance of power in Eurasia and thus in the larger world.

In the final analysis, Brzezinski does not say whether the American people and their leaders have the right stuff to perform this central strategic task. I am less reticent, though tentative. America is not living in the last days of Rome. After all, it took Rome four hundred years to fall! If we succeed in throwing off the phony multiculturalism that has turned e pluribus unum on its head and reaffirming our Judeo-Christian moral tradition, we have a fighting chance of bearing, with honor and without arrogance, the burden that history and Providence have thrust upon us.
In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke issued a warning to imperial Britain that is applicable to America today: “I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded. . . . We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard-of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it.”

Two centuries later, another European gave a reassuring appraisal of America. In 1962, French Minister of Culture André Malraux offered a toast “to the only nation that has waged war but not worshipped it, that has won the greatest power in the world but not sought it, that has wrought the greatest weapon of death but not wished to wield it.” As we face the new millennium, will America succumb to Burke’s fears or rise to Malraux’s toast?

Source Notes
THE GRAND CHESSBOARD

American Primacy and Its Gostrategic Imperatives

Zbigniew Brzezinski,

New York: Basic Books, 1997 223 pp., $26.00

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