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The American mood

Print edition : Oct 11, 2002 T+T-

THE current American mood is imperial, imperious and imperialistic. From it spring unilateralism, disdain for international law and morality and contempt for world opinion. It is intellectuals who mould public opinion.

Referring to a declaration on ``What are American Values'' by 60 American intellectuals, including Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and Daniel P. Moynihan published in major European newspapers recently, Edward Said remarked that its publication ``augurs a new and degraded era in the production of intellectual discourse. For, when the intellectuals of the most powerful country in the history of the world align themselves so flagrantly with that power, pressing that power's case instead of urging restraint, reflection, genuine communication and understanding, we are back to the bad old days of the intellectual war against communism, which we now know brought far too many compromises, collaborations and fabrications on the part of intellectuals and artists who should have played an altogether different role.''

This is a fair description of the role of many Indian writers who enthusiastically support the projection of India's military might with American support. They are, if anything, intellectually more shallow and morally more cynical than their American counterparts. That is saying a lot. Charles Krauthammer's article `The Unipolar Moment' (Foreign Affairs 1990/91) set the tone. Benazir has gifted to L. K. Advani a copy of a book by Robert D. Kaplan, thereby exposing a lot more than she intended. The Economist (February 23, 2002) was scathing in its review of his book Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagon Ethos. It is ``a confused sequence of historical observations, from which Mr. Kaplan makes undisciplined extrapolations and arrives, for the most part, at embarrassingly banal conclusions. His analysis of Tiberius leads to the daring suggestion that `our future leaders could do worse than be praised for their tenacity, their penetrating intellects, and their ability to bring prosperity to distant parts of the world under America's soft imperial influence'. From Machiavelli he learns that values are useless without arms to back them up. When he is not being banal, he is tweaking the evidence to support the propositions, familiar to readers of his previous writing, that the West needs to adopt a hard-headed realism about its ability to exert a civilising influence on the coming anarchy.'' (emphasis added, throughout), The lessons she wishes Advani to draw from this book can well be imagined.

New doctrines of power are being formulated. The exercises had begun much earlier. The Bush administration is more ambitious and explicit here. The ``Strategic Concept'' of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, adopted at its Summit in April 1999, envisaged a role for NATO in areas outside those covered by Article 5 of the Treaty of 1949 and without a mandate by the United Nations. David E. Sanger reported in The New York Times (June 17, 2002) that ``President Bush has directed his top national security aides to make a doctrine of pre-emptive action against states and terrorist groups trying to develop weapons of mass destruction into the foundation of a new national security strategy, according to senior administration officials drafting the document. Iraq is clearly first on the target list for such action.'' President Bush calls it a strategy of ``unilaterally determined pre-emptive self-defence''.

On July 2, Raphael Perl of the Congressional Research Service summed up the new doctrine crisply: ``From a policy of containment to one of pre-emption; from a policy of limited retaliatory use of military force to a policy of pre-emptive decisive use of military force; from a policy of limited covert activity to a policy of enhanced covert action where the emphasis is on action and not restrictions.''

Richard Haass, Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, formulated this doctrine on April 22: ``Sovereignty does not grant governments a blank cheque to do whatever they like within their own borders... When governments violate the rights of their people on a large scale be it as an act of conscious policy or the by-product of a loss of control the international community has the right and sometimes even obligation to act.''

In his view, ``the principal aim of American foreign policy is to integrate other countries and organisations into arrangements that will sustain a world consistent with U.S. interests and values...'' In a striking passage which all policymakers should note, he said: ``Why do we need a doctrine? A doctrine not only gives overall direction to policy, but it also helps establish basic priorities. It can help shape, size, and direct the allocation of resources, while allowing policymakers to conserve that most precious of all resources, their time. It also signals to our allies and our adversaries abroad, and to our Congress and public at home, where our policies are heading, what they will entail, and what can be expected from American leadership. A doctrine offers strategic clarity.'' What, pray, is the Indian doctrine on foreign policy?

Nicholas Lemann brilliantly described the background to this arrogant assertion of power in an article which won wide attention. (The Next World Order': The New Yorker, April 1, 2002). It went back to 1990 when Defence Secretary Dick Cheney, his Deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and a few others sought to `formulate a doctrine' at the grand strategic level.'' Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, prepared ``a competing and presumably more ideologically moderate, effort''. President George Bush (Senior) adopted the hawkish view. ``In 1992, The New York Times got its hands on a version of the material, and published a front-page story saying that the Pentagon envisioned a future in which the United States could, and should, prevent any other nation or alliance from becoming a great power.''

Those men are in high positions now under his son, George W. Bush, joined by National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice who can hardly conceal her intellectual limitations whenever she voices an opinion. In 2000 she was for the U.S.' withdrawal from the Balkans. In February 2001 she told Le Figaro: ``I sincerely believe that Russia constitutes a threat for the West in general and our European allies in particular. Neither they nor we are sufficiently vigilant as to the dangers which are represented by the nuclear arsenal and ballistic weapons of the Kremlin.'' In August she called President Saddam Hussein ``an evil man''. No such epithets are used for Ariel Sharon. No concern is expressed about Israel's weapons of mass destruction.

Rice bared her outlook in a widely noted article in Foreign Affairs (January-February 2000) entitled `Promoting the National Interest'. She has promoted herself successfully by loud proclamations of nationalism. Intellectually it is a pathetically shallow essay. Two passages provide a flavour of the whole besides reflecting an incapacity for sober reflections: "Power matters, both the exercise of power by the United States and the ability of others to exercise it. Yet many in the United States are (and have always been) uncomfortable with the notions of power politics, great powers, and power balances. In an extreme form, this discomfort leads to a reflexive appeal instead to notions of international law and norms, and the belief that the support of many states, or even better, of institutions like the United Nations is essential to the legitimate exercise of power. The `national interest' is replaced with `humanitarian interests' or the interests of `the international community'. " Simplistic and pedestrian.

Note the sneer. It is not absent in her promise: "Foreign policy in a Republican Administration will most certainly be internalist; the leading contenders in the party's presidential race have strong credentials in that regard. But it will also proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an illusory international community." The inference is clear. An international community does not exist. It is an illusion.

IN this clime, these books provide much instruction. Joseph Nye's is a powerful voice of dissent. Max Boot reflects the trend. Karin Von Hippel's is a record of U.S. military intervention in Panama, Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans. David Halberstam's is a vivid portrayal of the domestic chaos in which decisions on war and peace were taken under Presidents Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the atmosphere in which American policymakers function. It tries one's patience because it is heavily padded and is laced with trivia. (Cheney took a dislike for Norman Schwarzkopf because the General had, on a long flight, used a Major to stand for him in the line for the toilet).

He writes: ``Those who questioned Bush's preparation and readiness for the presidency, his right to lead the world's only superpower, and who were also bothered by what appeared to be glaring deficits in his attention span and curiosity, were reassured by their friends that if he was not exactly a big boy himself, he was surrounded by all the big boys from his father's administration.'' Cheney filled the deficiency in "gravitas.'' As Gerald Kaufman remarks, pity the man who relies on Cheney, Donald, Rumsfeld and Rice for counsel. George W. Bush himself has revealed pathetic political illiteracy by bracketing Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his ``axis of evil''.

Nye, Dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is well aware of the awesome reach of American power as also of the limitations to which it is subject. But the core of his thesis is that ``the largest power since Rome cannot achieve its objectives unilaterally in a global information age''. In his view, ``the danger posed by the outright champions of hegemony is that their foreign policy is all accelerator and no brakes. Their focus on unipolarity and hegemony exaggerates the degree to which the United States is able to get the outcomes it wants in a changing world.''

In this he is not alone. The latest issue of Foreign Affairs (September-October 2002) carries two pleas for sobriety in sharp critiques of Bush. Michael Hirsh, former Editor of Newsweek, writes: "Bush to judge by his actions, appears to believe in a kind of unilateral civilisation. NATO gets short shrift, the United Nations is an afterthought, treaties are not considered binding, and the administration brazenly sponsors protectionist measures at home such as new steel tariffs and farm subsidies. Any compromise of Washington's freedom to act is treated as a hostile act."

He warns that "On the whole... the Bush hard-liners are winning the policy battles. The diplomatically disengaged realism of Rumsfeld and Cheney seems to have the edge over the crusading neo-conservatism of Wolfowitz and others, who call for enlarging the `zone of democracy'. Even so, in practice most of these conservatives have become united under the banner of neo-imperialism, or `hegemonism'. This belief holds that the unilateral assertion of America's unrivalled hard power will be the primary means not only of winning the war on terror, but of preserving American dominance indefinitely, uncompromised for the most part by the international system or the diplomatic demands of other nations. Hailing mainly from the anti-dtente right-wing that dates back at least to the 1970s, the Bush hegemonists feel that for too long America has been a global Gulliver strapped down by Lilliputians - the norms and institutions of the global system. They feel vindicated in their assertion of U.S. power by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and of the Taliban a decade later, as well as by the relative ease with which they achieved a key goal, the dissolution of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Their next plan is to pre-emptively attack Iraq, perhaps by the end of the year." These are neo-Reaganites.

Prof. G. John Ikenberry concurs with Hirsh. He notes that according to the new doctrine, "No coalition of great powers without the United States will be allowed to achieve hegemony. Bush made this point the centrepiece of American security policy in his West Point Commencement address in June: `America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenges thereby making the destabilising arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.' The United States will not seek security through the more modest realist strategy of operating within a global system of power balancing, nor will it pursue a liberal strategy in which institutions, democracy, and integrated markets reduce the importance of power politics altogether."

According to the Rumsfeld camp, "The use of force will need to be pre-emptive and perhaps even preventive - taking on potential threats before they can present a major problem. But this premise plays havoc with the old international rules of self-defence and United Nations norms about the proper use of force. Rumsfeld has articulated the justification for pre-emptive action by stating that the `absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of weapons of mass destruction'. But such an approach renders international norms of self-defence enshrined by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter almost meaningless... The Bush administration's security doctrine takes this country down the same slippery slope. Even without a clear threat, the United States now claims a right to use pre-emptive or preventive military force."

He warns that the U.S. "appears to be degrading the rules and institutions of international community, not enhancing them. To the rest of the world, neo-imperial thinking has more to do with exercising power than with exercising leadership... The last thing the United States wants is for foreign diplomats and government leaders to ask. How can we work around, undermine, contain, and retaliate against U.S. power?... . It is a grand strategic vision that, taken to the extreme, will leave the world more dangerous and divided and the United States less secure."

Max Boot's book typifies the macho mood. He is unapologetic about citing Kipling as his role model.

Take up the White Man's burden And reap his old reward: The blame of those you better, The hate of those ye guard.

It was Kipling who, inspired by the war in the Philippines, urged the U.S. to fight the ``savage wars of peace''.

Max Boot is an editor at The Wall Street Journal. His book, written in the wake of 9/11, has been widely acclaimed. The U.S. has always been fighting its ``small wars'' and they contributed not a little to the rise of American power. The war was no aberration or anomaly. Even the pattern seems familiar. ``There is a terrorist attack on the American community. The President orders U.S. forces into action. For months American units, employing the latest military technology, comb the arid mountains and valleys in search of the mastermind of the assault. The fighting is sporadic but sharp. More than once the Americans appeared to have their quarry cornered, yet each time his knowledge of the terrain allowed him to slip away. After initially indicating that the goal of the operation was the capture dead or alive of the terrorist leader, the President was compelled to redefine the objective as the dismantling of his network and the neutralising of his ability to hit America again.'' This is as accurate a resume of U.S. armed intervention in Afghanistan as it is of its punitive Expedition to Mexico in 1916, conducted in retaliation for Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico.

THE author holds that America's small wars fall into three distinct periods. From the late 1700s to the 1890s, American soldiers and sailors were in action around the world in order to open up and protect trade routes. In pacification of the lawless Barbary coast in North Africa. Britain's Royal Navy was the world's policeman but ``the United States was a junior constable, often working hand in glove with the British to defend freedom of the seas and open markets in China, Japan and elsewhere''.

In the second period, from 1898, when the U.S. defeated Spain and grabbed some of its colonies, to 1941, when it entered a World War, America emerged as a great power. In the last decade, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has emerged as the sole superpower. ``The inner core of the American empire North America, Western Europe, northeast remains for the most part stable and prosperous, but violence and unrest lap at the periphery in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Balkans, and other regions teeming with failed states, criminal states, or simply a state of nature. This is where America has found itself getting involved in its recent small wars, and no doubt will again in the future. The Powell Doctrine (which dictates America should only initiate a war that can be won quickly and decisively) flies in the face of all wisdom, given past small war successes; and that if Vietnam had been fought as a small war instead of as a large-scale conflict, the outcome could have been in America's favour.'' It should have been fought as a guerrilla war, he holds.

The conclusion which Boot draws in the Chapter `In Defence of the Pax Americana' is that there is nothing ``novel'' about ``wars without a declaration of war... wars without exit strategies... wars that are fought less than `whole-heartedly'.... wars in which U.S. soldiers act as `social workers'... wars in which America gets involved in other countries internal affairs... wars without a `vital national interest'...'' and so on.

Where force is required, the U.S. can seek help from an ad hoc ``coalition of the willing'' or make use of the U.N., ``especially to legitimise its interventions''. Only American leadership can secure results. ``In deploying American power, decision-makers should be less apologetic, less hesitant, less humble. Yes, there is a danger of imperial overstretch and hubris but there is an equal, if not greater, danger of under-commitment and lack of confidence. America should not be afraid to fight `the savage wars of peace' if necessary to enlarge the `empire of liberty'. It has done it before.''

MORAL indignation never helps in sound analysis. It is out of place for another reason. Many in India as elsewhere, would hug those very doctrines were they to possess remotely comparable power. With far less power they tend to strut and preen themselves even more obstreperously. Unrivalled American power is a fact of life. The U.S. has a unique capability to project its power around the world. Its economy is twice as large as that of its closest rival, Japan.

More, every potential challenger will also pose a threat to and face opposition from its own neighbour were its prowess to reach anywhere near that of the U.S. Russia, China, Japan and Germany. For this very reason, the European Union is no challenger. Britain will ensure that. A challenger will be greeted with intense American hostility as well as that of its neigbhours. Both, Russia and China are careful to retain American goodwill.

This does not imply resignation to great power. It does require formulation of a policy, which reckons with it realistically and yet opens for the country avenues in which it can freely pursue its interests. Hanging on the coat-tails of the U.S. for realisation of petty regional interests is the worst way to set about this.

In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. spoke of rallying the world. A year later, it stands isolated from the world insecure and increasingly arrogant.

The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's only Superpower Can't go it Alone by Joseph S. Nye Jr.; Oxford University Press; pages 222; $26.

The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power by Max Boot; Basic Books; pages 428; $30.

Democracy by Force: U.S. Intervention in the Post-Cold War World by Karin Von Hippel; Cambridge University Press; pages 224; Rs.470.

War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals by David Halberstam; Bloomsbury; pages 540; 20.