Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Superpower, Not a Superhero

My colleague here at the Naval War College, Derek Reveron, likes to say that "a superpower is not a superhero." The United States cannot accomplish anything it desires, certainly not by an act of will alone.

Derek used the phrase in his contribution to a volume he edited last year, Shaping the Security Environment. It is a useful "bumper sticker" notation because it avoids the twin extremes of thinking we can do everything or that we can do nothing. It reminds us about the need for setting priorities and working to set up usable partnerships with other states.

The rest of the volume--including a fascinating contribution by General Zinni--is well worth a read.

Well, that's a phrase you won't hear the politicians use ...
Fundamentally all foreign policy is about "shaping the security environment". However, the problem that is inadequately addressed here is the impact that the tools that states use to shape that environment have on other states. Whatever the intentions of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War have been (and I think Prof Reveron has summarized these accurately), the reliance on the military as the primary tool of US diplomacy has played a key role in creating the increasingly unstable security environment that we live in today. Who conducts diplomacy and how it is conducted clearly shapes the perceptions of a country's intentions by its partners and opponents.
Well, then blame Congress and the State Department; Congress for preferring the military and State for not taking up the missions.
Quite happy to do so, but there are historical and structural reasons for those behaviours. Eisenhower pointed out the problems of the military-industrial complex: members of Congress now have an electoral investment in the continual development of the US military. They also have a short-term outlook due to their short term of office. Arguably the State Department has not been a key tool of US foreign policy since 1945 (I was tempted to say 1898, but that might be provocative).

Anyway, I'm not sure I want to be in a blame game. It just seems to me that the next President needs to think about how he wants to achieve things more than what he wants. As realists, surely these are pretty well given.
I do have to say though that it is a good line, superpower not superhero. Also because unlike a superhero even a superpower can get hurt--as the anniversary of 9/11 today reminds us.
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