Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Graham Fuller and Superpower Fatigue
Has superpower fatigue set in? Clearly so, to judge by the administration’s own dwindling energy and its sober acknowledgment that changing the face of the world is a lot tougher than it had hoped. Of course, some degree of wear and tear is normal five years into any administration, regardless of policies. But fatigue emerges in direct proportion to the ambitiousness of the undertaking. From its early days, this administration adopted a strategic vision and peremptory posture whose implementation would prove exhausting under the best of circumstances. Administration documents and statements have regularly indicated that ”we are at the beginning” of “a long war” fought globally in well over one hundred countries, probably “lasting for decades”, until “victory over terrorism” is achieved. Even more, this is all ties in with “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” The task is Sisyphean, the enemy generalized, the goals unclear, the scope open-ended.
The taxing character of U.S. foreign policy betrays signs of morphing into “imperial over-reach.” And there should be no doubt that we are talking about empire here, albeit in a new form. Neoconservatives embrace the term openly, while the ultra-nationalists, headed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, do not disavow the concept. The extent of U.S. global reach—the overseas military installations and complex base-rights agreements that often dominate our relations with small nations, the peripatetic military-command representatives who overshadow ambassadors, a broad variety of active military presences, a worldwide intelligence and strike capability—are all well documented. The U.S. global “footprint”—a revealing word regularly employed by the Pentagon without irony—is massive and backed by the world’s most powerful military machine in history. While different in structure and intent than the British, French or even Roman imperial presence, current U.S. ambition for projection of power is sweeping. And pursuit of this goal generates ever newer challenges that quickly contribute to strategic fatigue.
Most empires ultimately founder on economic grounds. But the short-term economic cost of the administration’s policies, while high, has not yet become unbearable. Still, there are a number of longer-term indicators that do raise worries about American economic capacities on into this century: massive domestic debt, ever greater trade imbalance, the extraordinary and broadening gap in domestic wealth between rich and poor that has no parallel in other industrial nations, the growing outsourcing of jobs, and the rise of economic competitors who are hungry for a place in the sun. But it is the immediate political cost of the expansion of empire that is fatiguing, even before the economic cost fully bites in.
This exhaustion is perhaps most sapping at the domestic level. Americans are dying in meaningful numbers abroad; there is a lurking fear that the world is not safer, and maybe more dangerous because of Iraq; Americans prefer to be liked abroad and are uncomfortable with their isolation; U.S. international business is unhappy; and the budget is soaring out of sight, even if its costs haven’t yet touched the private pocketbook.
The intensified nationalist and neoconservative agenda within the administration, with its dramatic policy consequences, has greatly divided the nation. While the shock of 9/11 helped create a certain national “can-do” spirit of solidarity against foreign terrorists, that sentiment was rapidly depleted by Bush’s broader response to 9/11. The resultant ongoing bitter domestic divisions require administration foreign policy architects to drag along a large and hostile domestic minority even before dealing with an unsympathetic world as well.
Abroad, the administration now faces widespread international resistance. The honeymoon of the early post-9/11 days gave way to international reconsideration of the full implications of the Global War on Terror, particularly American doctrines of unilateralism and strategic pre-emption. In the last few years, diverse countries have deployed a multiplicity of strategies and tactics designed to weaken, divert, alter, complicate, limit, delay or block the Bush agenda through death by a thousand cuts. That opposition acts out of diverse motives, and sometimes narrowly parochial interests, but its unifying theme—usually unspoken—is resistance to nearly anything that serves to buttress a unipolar world.
But I don't think Fuller's deeper point is controversial in the long run. What isn't clear is how exhausted the American people are at this moment with intervention, as distinct from how exhausted they are with ends that are not in line with means. A nuclear attack on an American city, or some provocation elsewhere, could quickly bring support for a radical response. We are nowhere near a point where our power cannot match our will to use it, and a sufficient provocation could bring the will to use it more fully than we have in the last five years.
The real danger is not the waning of U.S. power but the risk that events will provoke its use in increasingly desperate and counterproductive ways.
The British Empire fell because, when it could have begun to form an inclusive world state, its leaders chose instead to deal with the world on a short-term basis, preserving a system in which a small electorate at home exercised power over much larger populations that eventually broke away. The United States does not have a formal empire in which it could offer to share power more inclusively. But America might think of its hegemony as something to be converted into a form of shared power that could still be strong enough and attractive enough to replace hegemony with participation.