Realism and Reality

January 1, 2006 |
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Michael Mandelbaum's latest book is a superficial symptom of a grave, even potentially deadly disease: the inability of the overwhelming majority of the U.S. establishment to contemplate a limited scaling down of America's struggle for world dominance, even when the maximalist version of that goal has been clearly shown to be unsustainable. The neoconservatives represent only an extreme and crude version of this ambition. To a greater or lesser extent, it is shared by the leaders of both political parties and by a large majority of American politicians, soldiers, bureaucrats, and Washington policy intellectuals.

Unlike the neoconservatives, Mandelbaum has always been thought to belong to the realist tradition. Indeed, while in the Democrat camp in the 1990s he clashed bitterly with the Clinton administration's professed commitment to nation building and the spread of democracy, summing up his critique in the damning phrase "foreign policy as social work." The realist side of Mandelbaum is still evident in the emphasis that he gives to order, trade, and the prevention of security threats, relative to humanitarian intervention and the spreading of democracy and human rights.

Yet in the name of these goals Mandelbaum makes a claim more breathtakingly ambitious than any advanced by any previous realist, from any country--assuming, that is, that Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler are to be classified as ideological fanatics rather than extreme realists. His argument is that the United States not only ought to be, but actually is in vital respects the government of the whole planet. He chooses as his symbolic figure for this power the biblical giant Goliath.

In Mandelbaum's words,

As portrayed in the pages that follow, [America's world role] has something in common with the sun's relationship to the rest of the solar system. Both confer benefits on the entities with which they are in regular contact. The sun keeps the planets in their orbits by the force of gravity and radiates the heat and light that make life possible on one of them. Similarly, the United States furnishes services to other countries, the same services, as it happens, that governments provide within sovereign states to the people they govern. The United States therefore functions as the world's government.

Actually, there was a realist who once made a similar claim, though about himself rather than his country: I was forgetting Louis XIV, the "Sun King" of France.

Mandelbaum's vision dangerously extends the common realist argument that the international system benefits from the existence of a "hegemon," or superpower, capable of imposing a certain degree of order. Although there is a great deal to be said for U.S. leadership, the Iraq disaster should have made absolutely clear--long before Mandelbaum finished this book--that the level of global domination aspired to by the Bush administration, and by thinkers like Mandelbaum, is not only beyond America's resources but, if pursued, will bring even the beneficial aspects of America's global role to an early end.

Mandelbaum's first argument in support of his thesis concerns security, which is indeed the first and oldest function of every state. He suggests that just as the United States used nuclear deterrence to defend the non-Communist world and its own interests during the Cold War, so it now provides "reassurance" to the democratic world.

Across most of the globe, in Mandelbaum's analysis, the United States deters potential aggressors, preserves peace, and thus provides the essential basis for economic development. By preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons, especially to "rogue states," the United States performs an essential service not only for its own interests but for those of humanity in general. This aim, Mandelbaum suggests, continues to justify the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The United States, of course, also combats international terrorism, though this is a threat that Mandelbaum puts second to traditional dangers of conflict between states.

Mandelbaum argues that the United States also fulfills a central function of government in the economic sphere: "The dollar serves as the world's money," he writes. American military deployments ensure the safety of trade in general and of the world's access to Middle Eastern oil in particular. U.S. power, expressed in part through international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is essential to the functioning of the international market system and the avoidance of major crises.

Finally, the United States is the world government in that, like national governments, it acts to encourage high levels of consumption. The United States primes the pump of the world's economy by maintaining high demand in its population for foreign products, thereby fueling Chinese economic growth and directly or indirectly maintaining the economic stability of many other states.

These claims are of greatly varying validity. That the dollar serves in a sense as the world's currency is entirely correct. For both good and evil, the United States also does exert great influence--though not governmental power--through the IMF. In the past, it has also played an important part in securing the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, though the time may be fast approaching when U.S. policies in the region may be more of a threat than a help to the world's energy security.

There is no question that American consumers have fueled China's industrial boom, but it is more than a stretch to describe this effect as equivalent to the role of a government. Furthermore, due to America's resulting trade deficit, its role as the most voracious source of global demand is beginning to conflict directly with the task of maintaining a strong and stable dollar as the world's reserve currency.

Mandelbaum advances as evidence of America's fundamental "benignity" the fact that, unlike previous attempts at hegemony by one state, the rise of American power has not led other countries to form alliances to "balance" against it. He echoes the line of Fouad Ajami, Charles Krauthammer, and many others that most international criticism of the United States is basically motivated by envy, and suggests that other countries accept American leadership in part because they know that "they can reason with and sometimes redirect the attention and energies of Goliath...opportunities to be heard and heeded in Washington are so plentiful."

Finally, in Mandelbaum's account, the United States cannot be replaced as the world government by the United Nations, European Union, or any other single country. He suggests that U.S. global power may well wane, not as a result of external pressure or defeat but because Americans do not wish to pay for international dominance at the expense of social welfare at home. This, he says, would be a disaster for the world.

Mandelbaum's book is forcefully and sometimes wittily argued, and has some good points. Taken as a whole, however, it is specious. His central argument does not work whichever way you look at it. If you accept his thesis and believe that the United States is, in fact, the world's government, the Bush administration had better pray that no interplanetary commission of enquiry comes calling any time soon. For on a whole range of critical functions of government and stewardship, the United States has in recent years been grossly negligent.

This is, above all, true of global warming, which Mandelbaum addresses not so much to assess the seriousness of the threat to our civilization as to score points against the EU. On a range of other issues as well, from preventable disease through poverty reduction to resolving some of the world's most bloody and dangerous conflicts, the United States under George W. Bush does not qualify as a responsible government.

Mandelbaum and like-minded analysts seem incapable of understanding that much criticism of the United States today is motivated not by hostility to the idea of America leading, but by profound alarm at the quality of its leadership. Even soldiers who may fully accept the principle of military subordination may yet come to hate, fear, and disobey a particular general whom they regard as incompetent and rash.

The terrorist threat to U.S. allies raises the question of whether the United States is any longer a security provider to Europe, or a security destroyer. Naturally, therefore, Europeans have every right and reason to be profoundly concerned both about the U.S. strategy that led to the Iraq War and about the appallingly incompetent way in which that strategy was executed. Concerning nuclear nonproliferation, the question is not whether this goal is desirable--of course, it is--or whether the United States is essential to its pursuit. It is whether existing U.S. strategies have any real chance of working, at least without catastrophic regional wars.

The Iraq fiasco has made the invasion and occupation of Iran and North Korea an obvious impossibility. Bombing would at most delay these countries' programs, while vastly inflaming nationalist sentiment and the danger from Iranian-sponsored extremism in the Middle East. What is left, therefore, is diplomacy--and this requires a willingness to offer serious concessions as well as to bring economic pressure to bear.

The Bush administration may be edging toward this approach in dealing with North Korea, but it is very far from it in dealing with Iran. Instead, powerful elements of the Bush administration and the U.S. establishment--once again, Democrat as well as Republican--continue to dream that "regime change" will somehow solve this problem. Yet, even if Iran became a genuine democracy, every opinion survey shows that a great majority of its people--and by no means just the mullahs--believe that their nation has the right in principle to develop its own nuclear deterrent.

On one issue, this book is worse than specious--it is a disgrace. At no point does Mandelbaum address the question of international perceptions of the U.S.-Israeli alliance and its effect in diminishing international confidence in American leadership. This is especially true in the area of nuclear nonproliferation to which he devotes so much attention. Differing views of America's relationship with Israel are certainly legitimate. But for a public intellectual to ignore its impact on America's international role is a dereliction of duty.

But then again, why bother with omissions when the whole world-government thesis is gimcrack? The Bush experience has shown that the United States does not remotely have the power or will to function as a world government. On economic matters, it functions mainly through negotiation and cooperation with other major players. On environmental matters it barely functions at all.

And on security matters, Mandelbaum's choice of poor old Goliath as a symbolic figure was doubtless in part intentionally ironic, but it was also more ironic than he knew. For despite all his strength, Goliath was, of course, defeated by a much smaller opponent, as the United States is being defeated in Iraq, even if--like the Vietcong--the insurgents can never win on the battlefield. Goliath would have done well to have been lighter on his feet, less ambitious--and, above all, less arrogant.