Being the Oil in the World’s Engine

Sunday’s Washington Post published this article. The author surveyed Washington policy wonks who are busy promoting the “Next Big Idea”. The next big idea, in this case, is a successful foreign policy strategy that will promote American values, make the world a more peaceful place, and by implication, leave the United States as king of the hill. This next big idea seems to assume that neoconservative philosophy has proven bankrupt so something newer and shinier is needed.

What I found interesting was the article’s underlying premise: that the United States, by pulling the right levers can actually control the future direction of the world. Apparently, we here in the United States (or at least the policy wonks inside the beltway) still see our nation as The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. Our modus operandi seems to be that by making sure our Oz machine blows a little more smoke and emits a little more flame that the world will acquiesce toward our will. We still believe ourselves to be what we probably were fifty years ago, but simply are not anymore: the natural, if not the only moral leader on the world stage. Despite overwhelming recent evidence to the contrary, our assumption seems to be that we are still smart and clever enough to be the world’s master architect. We think that if we make a convincing enough case other nations will nod their heads in suppliance.

Count me as one of the skeptics. Our lesson in Iraq, which I documented in previous entries like this one, is that the United States is an empire in decline and we are in denial. We reveled in the role of benign superpower when Great Britain tired of it. Great Britain tired of it because it realized that running empires over many centuries is hard work. The bigger the empire became the harder it was to manage it. Imperialism is deceptive easy and great for conquering state in the short term. Nevertheless, eventually the natives demand their independence. It became much easier for Great Britain to acknowledge the reality that its imperialist phase was over than to fruitlessly try to hold on to it. Now they are left with its trappings: a British Commonwealth, which amounts to little more than member countries putting the queen on their currency.

The American empire does not look much like the British model. While we practiced imperialism, by Great Britain’s standards it was imperialism-lite. For the most part, we channeled Teddy Roosevelt: we spoke softly and carried a big stick. We invaded countries and set up puppet regimes when necessary, but most countries understood it was in their leader’s best interest to play nice with us. We sponsored institutions like the League of Nations and later the United Nations as a means of solving the world’s problems collectively. However, since neoconservatism began to take a foothold with the election of Ronald Reagan, we have started to use the big stick more often. We have given diplomacy short shrift in favor of cowboy posse diplomacy.

Like Great Britain when its empire was overextended, we are discovering that are our stick is not as big as it was, particularly when natives in many places are acting up at the same time. It can be leveraged when we need it to be leveraged, but using it in a large way for any extended period becomes ruinously expensive. Today, the realists in government understand that our military is really only effective as a lever. Lately our hardest job has been to understand when it is appropriate to use the military as a lever. We are now rediscovering that if we use our military we need to be very confident that it will affect the ends we desire. It is either that or we must keep our expectations very modest. The biggest lesson of the Iraq debacle should be that diplomacy and occasional swats from our big stick is far cheaper and is likely to be more effective in both the short and the long term than war.

President Clinton understood the limits of American military power and made it work to our advantage. With Iraq, he used a two-prong approach. First, he used diplomacy. With the weight of the United Nations behind us, international sanctions were imposed against Iraq. When sanctions were not wholly successful, he used our military as a pressure point that contained Iraq. Consequently, we had military flights over Iraq that kept Saddam Hussein’s government out of Kurdistan. To ensure our air superiority, we also lobbed occasional bombs at Iraqi radar installations. While it did not solve the problem of Saddam Hussein, it did contain the problem. Moreover, it did it in a way that did not overtax the United States military and allowed our economy to grow. Containing Iraq cost about one billion dollars a year. Now we spend about four times as much every week in Iraq in a fruitless attempt to control the anarchy there.

In short, Bill Clinton’s model of exerting American control and influence, while certainly not ideal, was reasonably effective. With this to give some context, let me put forth my own big idea. It begins with the realization that the United States now has a much more limited ability to influence events on the world stage. It deals with the reality that our country is now overextended, both militarily and financially. In order to leverage our stick at all, strategic military withdrawals are in our future.

For example, our country has already withdrawn some troops from South Korea to support the war in Iraq. We need to get them all out, not just because we need our troops elsewhere, but because it is time to end our presence there. After fifty years, the South Koreans need to control their own destiny. Moreover, China is not going to provide military aid to turn South Korea into a godless communist state. Our role should be to facilitate peace if we can but otherwise to use Cold War tactics: if the North Koreans are stupid enough to play their nuclear card, we have to let them know unambiguously that we will respond in kind. With any sane nation these tactics would not be necessary, but clearly there is not much sanity among the North Korean leadership. Naked power seems to be all they understand.

It is also probably time to withdraw many troops from places like Japan and Germany. World War Two is now a distant memory. While these countries serve as convenient bases for deployment of our forces to extended theaters, neither Japan nor Germany is likely to be a military threat to us again. Our troops need either to be redeployed or brought home. If they are brought home, clearly our troops need to refine their skills for the next conflict. Our military is now a broken shell.

Our military needs to be rebuilt again, of course. The fighting in Iraq has serious depleted not just our regular forces, but also our equipment. We should learn some lessons from Iraq. We need more military equipment that is designed for urban warfare and policing. We need as battalions of military police on standby. In short, if we are going to occupy a country, we need to ensure we can actually keep it secure, not just blow it up. It should also now go unsaid that we need an occupation plan that passes the sniff test. We did not have one in Iraq.

My hope is that we will get out of the occupation business. If we have to do it, it should only be under the umbrella of a broad multinational effort, preferably the United Nations. To succeed and thrive in the 21st century, what we really need the most are strong alliances. The Bush Administration sees India as an emerging power and partner. A strategic alliance with India is fine, but what we really need is a pragmatic and cooperative relationship with China. It is unlikely we will get China to embrace American democracy, so we should not press the point with them. However, we should be working with them on a whole range of issues with the goal of fostering trust in the military and diplomatic spheres. We should try to avoid setting our country up for yet another ruinously expensive superpower tug of war in a few decades. Together, we can wield a force that is greater than what one nation can wield. Admittedly, this kind of relationship will not be easy. For example, China’s actions in the Horn of Africa are the result of needing a secure oil supply. It has had the effect of causing unrest in the region. It is feeding disasters like the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Darfur. We need to foster a relationship of mutual codependence, primarily with China, but also with India. We also need to revitalize long-standing cooperation with Europe. We should emphasize humanitarian principles in all our actions.

Of course, we need to emphasize diplomacy rather than military force. It is not quite as important to have our way prevail, as it is to support a multinational consensus of the principle powers. There can be great diplomatic power in numbers. This will likely mean a new pragmatism from our president and our Department of State. The days of being unilateral are over. The nature of the 21st century is that we live in a much more crowded world where all nations will be competing for resources. Such competition is likely to inflame tensions, rather than calm them. However, if we all think globally rather than nationally, we can see that cooperation is in the interest of all. The United States needs to participate actively in this process. However, we must realize we are just one of many countries with positive ideas to bring to the table. Incessant parochialism will defeat our own interests as well as the world’s.

Over the last five years, we have learned that being stubborn and insular is counterproductive to our national security needs. It actually worsens and inflames tensions around the world. We must be cooperative to a fault. We must be the oil in the engine of the world, not its piston. This is where our true security lies.

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