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The Power Paradox

History teaches that holding a monopoly on might--as the United States now does--is likely to provoke a backlash.

October 06, 2002|CHRISTOPHER LAYNE | Christopher Layne is visiting fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.

Conventional wisdom holds that Sept. 11 "changed everything," particularly with regard to foreign policy. But long before the Al Qaeda attacks, the key foreign policy debate centered on the issue of U.S. hegemony, our geopolitical dominance by virtue of overwhelming military and economic capabilities. Since Sept. 11, hegemony has become an even more crucial issue.

By removing the only counterweight to U.S. power from the geostrategic equation, the Soviet Union's collapse vaulted the United States into the seemingly enviable position of global preeminence. Since the Cold War's end, three successive administrations--Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II--have explicitly embraced the strategic objective of maintaining this hegemony. But it's a dangerous business.

Hegemonic powers are like monopolistic corporations. Monopolists--and hegemons--don't like competition, and they act strategically to prevent the emergence of rivals. The new National Security Strategy of the United States that President Bush presented to Congress last month is clear on this point, stating that the objective of American strategy is to prevent any other state from building up military capabilities in the hope of "surpassing, or even equaling, the power of the United States." American strategy aims not only to thwart the emergence of the "usual suspects" (a rising China or a resurgent Russia), but also the rise to great power status of America's principal Cold War allies (Western Europe and Japan). To ensure that the U.S. remains "king of the hill, top of the heap" geopolitically, the Bush National Security Strategy constitutes the U.S. as a kind of global "Department of Pre-Crime" empowered to act preemptively to cut down future rivals before they become actual ones.

So, why is this a problem? If power matters in international politics--and it matters a lot--why should the United States not seek to amass overwhelming power? Can a country ever, to paraphrase the duchess of Windsor, be too rich, too powerful or too well-armed?

Some armchair strategists residing in leading universities and think tanks--the so-called "offensive realists"--argue that hegemony is important for maintaining world order, that international systems dominated by a hegemonic power are more stable and peaceful than systems where power is more or less equally distributed among multiple great powers. They believe that the U.S. will attain the greatest security in a world where there are no other great powers. Needless to say, offensive realism has found a receptive audience among the current crop of U.S. policymakers.

There is a problem with this picture, however. The historical record shows that in the real world, hegemony never has been a winning grand strategy. The reason is simple: The primary aim of states in international politics is to survive and maintain their sovereignty. And when one state becomes too powerful--becomes a hegemon--the imbalance of power in its favor is a menace to the security of all other states. So throughout modern international political history, the rise of a would-be hegemon always has triggered the formation of counter-hegemonic alliances by other states.

History is littered with the wreckage of states that sought hegemony, and were defeated by such alliances--the Hapsburg Empire under Charles V and Philip II, France under Louis XIV and Napoleon, Victorian Britain, Germany under Hitler. The big question is whether the same fate will befall a hegemonic America, or whether the United States somehow is exempt from the lessons of history.

U.S. strategists believe that "it can't happen to us," because the United States is a different kind of hegemon, a benign hegemon that others will follow willingly due to the attractiveness of its political values and culture. While flattering, this self-serving argument misses the basic point: Hegemons are threatening because they have too much power. And it is America's power--not the self-proclaimed benevolence of its intentions--that will shape others' response to it. A state's power is a hard, measurable reality, but its intentions, which can be peaceful one day but malevolent the next, are ephemeral.

Hegemony's proponents claim that the United States can inoculate itself against a backlash by acting multilaterally. But other states are not going to be deceived by Washington's use of international institutions as a fig leaf to cloak its ambitions of dominance. And in any event, there are good reasons why the U.S. should not reflexively embrace multilateralism. When it comes to deciding when and how to defend American interests, Washington should want a free hand, not to have its hands tied by others.

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