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Pax Americana

Is there any alternative to U.S. primacy?

Feb 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 22 • By GARY SCHMITT
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The American Era

Power and Strategy for the 21st Century

by Robert Lieber

Cambridge University, 272 pp., $28

DISTRACTED BY THE RED-hot partisan debate over Iraq, one can easily lose sight of the underlying strategic imperative that now guides American foreign policy. Robert Lieber's The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century serves as an invaluable primer on the nature of that imperative, outlining in a comprehensive but accessible fashion the continuing need for American global leadership.

The core argument itself is not new: The United States and the West face a new threat--weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists--and, whether we like it or not, no power other than the United States has the capacity, or can provide the decisive leadership, required to handle this and other critical global security issues. Certainly not the United Nations or, anytime soon, the European Union. In the absence of American primacy, the international order would quickly return to disorder. Indeed, whatever legitimate concerns people may have about the fact of America's primacy, the downsides of not asserting that primacy are, according to The American Era, potentially far more serious. The critics "tend to dwell disproportionately on problems in the exercise of [American] power rather than on the dire consequences of retreat from an activist foreign policy," Lieber writes. They forget "what can happen in the absence of such power."

As clear as Lieber's core point is, his analysis is not a simple-minded account of the need for American primacy. He describes not only the elements that make up that primacy--military, economic, technological, and cultural--but also its limits. For instance, Washington can't force its allies always to agree with it. America's superiority on the battlefield provides no ready solution to the use of asymmetrical warfare by our adversaries. And American primacy cannot help but fuel the ideological and cultural animosities that inflame so many of our enemies. American primacy may be necessary, but it's not a free ride by any means. Even among our friends, a key dilemma of American power is that, when it is not used--as in Sudan or Rwanda--it draws almost as much criticism as when it is.

"There is," Lieber remarks, "a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't quality in the international reactions to U.S. interventions or the lack of them." One is reminded here of the schizophrenia in Europe during the Clinton administration. At the very time the French were accusing the United States of being a "hyperpower," they were also worrying that the impeachment of Bill Clinton would result in a distracted Washington, incapable of playing its necessary role on the world stage.

But neither is American primacy a sure thing, according to Lieber. Although the American military has no peer, even it, when forced to handle serial major conflicts (as is the case today), would be hard-pressed to handle anything new. Moreover, over the longer run, the federal budget is filling up with the obligations of the now-retiring Baby Boomers, increasingly squeezing funds for national security into a smaller and smaller share of the public pie. And finally, there is no guarantee that Americans, whatever the intrinsic merits of U.S. global leadership, will necessarily continue to support that role in the face of its incompetent exercise.

Yet, whatever the limits and problems associated with American primacy, Lieber argues that there is no real alternative if we want a stable and prosperous world. And the heart of his book is an examination of how this fact of international life remains so for Europe, for the Middle East, and for Asia.

In the case of Europe, after examining both the sources of tension and cooperation in current transatlantic relations, Lieber argues that Europe has no choice but to depend on American leadership and power. Europe's lack of unanimity over foreign policies, and its own lack of hard power, leave it with little choice but to rely on the United States when it comes to maintaining the world's security blanket. As for the Middle East, after making the case for going to war with Saddam's Iraq--a case that ultimately hinges on the risks of not acting--Lieber notes that it still remains the case that "only the U.S." can deter regional thugs, contain weapons proliferation to any degree, keep the Arab-Israeli peace process afloat, and keep the oil supplies flowing to us and our allies. And in Asia, it is the United States that "plays a unique stabilizing role . . . that no other country or organization can play." Absent America's presence, the region's key actors would face a dramatically different set of security concerns, in which more overt, "great power" competition would likely become the norm.