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Cold War's Over, Supercop Can Go Home : Geopolitics: Our vital interests can't be harmed by Iraq, so America should stop being the global protector. Let those threatened take action.

Second of Three Parts Next: Preserving vigorous U.S. nationalism while avoiding insensitive unilateralism. Toward a world of law, by Alton Frye.

September 18, 1990|CHRISTOPHER LAYNE | Christopher Layne is a Los Angeles attorney and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

The Persian Gulf may indeed be the first worldwide crisis of the post-Cold-War era, but it is clear that American foreign policy is still driven by Cold War thinking--the same vision of "world order" politics that has shaped U.S. foreign policy since World War II.

The fundamental question of statecraft is this: What are the nation's vital interests--those for which it will risk war? Following in the footsteps of their Cold Warrior mentors, today's war hawks have a simple answer: Any aggression anywhere vitally affects American interests. Like Woodrow Wilson, these hawks believe that democracies are responsible for maintaining world peace by opposing aggressors and overthrowing dictators. They believe that America must play global policeman because no other nation can uphold U.S. concepts of international law, freedom and political stability.

World-order politics was superficially plausible during the Cold War, when it could be argued that any Soviet gain was a U.S. defeat, but it makes little sense in today's world. Communism has collapsed and the Soviet Union has been marginalized as a geopolitical factor. And as the Helsinki summit demonstrates, the superpowers are moving from enmity to entente.

A multipolar system marked by the spread of economic and military power to other nations is emerging. Cold War bipolarity has been replaced by a more nuanced international system in which North-South issues and Third World nationalism are at the fore. In today's world, most regions are of strategically peripheral importance to the United States, and other nations are capable of upholding regional power balances.

It is time to see the world as it really is, and the first step is to stop using the concept of vital interests promiscuously. Because of its geographic position, large nuclear arsenal and strength in all indicators of great-power status, the United States has few truly vital interests to defend in the world. The United States cannot be indifferent to events abroad, but it can afford to react deliberately to them precisely because it is a superpower, insulated from most global trouble spots and not directly affected by world instability.

America's ideals may be offended by Iraq, but its vital interests--physical security and territorial integrity--are not. The Munich analogy's trite cliches are irrelevant to the Persian Gulf crisis. Even if Saddam Hussein is another Hitler, Iraq is not another Nazi Germany. Hitler controlled a powerful nation of 80 million people with a first-class economy and military capable of upsetting the world balance of power and possibly threatening America. Iraq has no such capability. It might be different if Iraq had nuclear weapons. But it will not for some years, and Iraq can be prevented from becoming a nuclear power without risking a major Middle Eastern land war.

Iraq doesn't threaten vital American interests, but it is a clear and present danger to Western Europe and Japan--which depend to a far greater extent on Persian Gulf oil--and other Middle Eastern powers--which figure to be Saddam Hussein's next victims. Yet the United States is bearing the brunt of containing Iraq, calling up reserves and deploying 200,000 ground troops to Saudi Arabia. Only France and Britain in all of Western Europe have sent or promised troops, and Japan has only recently and grudgingly promised even financial assistance. Friendly Arab states are providing mainly token forces. But Washington's complaints that our allies aren't doing their "fair share" are incongruous, coming from those who urged Washington to plunge into the Persian Gulf. By playing world policeman, the United States gives other nations a strong incentive to ride for free on America's back. If other nations know that America is going to assume the risks and costs of defending their interests, it makes sense for them to let America do so.

Instead of global interventionism, Washington should adopt a policy of strategic independence. America's objective should be burden-shifting, not burden-sharing. While being prepared to back up collective defense with logistic support and limited air and naval power, the United States should not be the point man in every international crisis. Our soldiers are not Hessians.

The United States should make it clear to our allies that monetary contributions to U.S. security efforts are not enough: Those with the most at stake must bear the primary responsibility for defending their interests with troops on the ground.

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