The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
The Dilemma of the Last Sovereign
Published on September 1, 2005

America today is the world’s most sovereign state. To be sure, in our time the concept of sovereignty has been largely drained of content by the reality of increasing interdependence among states. For most states, sovereignty now verges on being a legal fiction. Even in the case of the more powerful few, practical rationality lessens the temptation to arbitrarily assert sovereignty. Ultimately, of course, any state (or rather, its leadership) can commit even a suicidal act of folly, but the scope for such self-assertion is increasingly constrained by the overlapping interests of some 200 states in a more politically congested and interwoven world.

In that context, America’s military action against Iraq and its less dramatic but also largely solitary stance on the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Treaty were striking assertions of the unique status of the United States as the last truly sovereign state. These steps and others like them reflect, especially after 9/11, the deep conviction of the Bush Administration that to protect America’s national interest the United States must have a free hand: The sovereign Gulliver must not be tied down by feckless Lilliputians.

America’s post-9/11 political rhetoric and the related strategic reorientation involve a sharp break with five decades of bipartisanship in the shaping of U.S. global policy. Though a few leading Democrats were outspoken in their criticisms of the Administration’s formulations, the predominant inclination in the Democratic foreign policy establishment has been to tacitly accept the new strategic premises of the Bush worldview, and some Democratic leaders initially even acted as its cheerleaders. As a result, most Democratic foreign policy prescriptions acquired a “Bush lite” taste.

The issue for the longer run is not whether a revision of existing doctrines and national strategy was needed, for 9/11 clearly signaled that a rethinking was necessary. The key issue today is whether the diagnosis undertaken in the wake of 9/11, and particularly the concentration on terrorism, constitutes a wise response for America and for the world. After all, even the undeniable reality of America as the sovereign power of last resort still begs the question: Sovereignty for what? Doubtless many would answer: for the sake of America’s national security. But that reply begs a deeper question: Might not efforts to perpetuate America’s unique status as an unconstrained sovereign eventually come to threaten America’s national security, and its civil liberty as well?

America needs to face squarely a centrally important new global reality: that the world’s population is experiencing a political awakening unprecedented in scope and intensity, with the result that the politics of populism are transforming the politics of power. The need to respond to that massive phenomenon poses to the uniquely sovereign America an historic dilemma: What should be the central definition of America’s global role? Serious discussion of this crucial issue has barely begun.

The Foreign Policy of 9/11: Political Triumph and Strategic Vulnerability

The Bush Administration had no foreign policy to speak of prior to September 2001, so it is no surprise that its policy since then largely has been shaped by the shock of 9/11. It is a policy derived from a single traumatic event, formulated in an atmosphere of public outrage, and that both rests on and exploits the anxieties that this event understandably unleashed. The Administration’s immediate response was a campaign to imprint on the public mind its own definition of the new challenge faced by America, followed by the articulation of a more comprehensive global response to that challenge. Both focused on 9/11 as the defining moment and as the source of inspiration. The result has been a policy as narrow in its focus as it is far-reaching in its implications.

The intellectual core of the foreign policy of 9/11 is the notion of a fundamental strategic discontinuity in world affairs. The menace of terrorism, abetted by irresponsible “rogue” states and made more ominous by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, is said to have largely replaced the dangers posed by the more traditional rivalry among major powers. In that context, the emphasis on the “global war on terror” has been symbolically central, fostering patriotic mobilization and legitimating actions that otherwise could be viewed as extra-legal or even outright illegal. To the framers of the new strategy, 9/11 legitimated the de facto suspension of habeas corpus even for U.S. citizens, “stress interrogation” (a.k.a. torture) of detainees, and unilateral military action–just as Pearl Harbor eventually legitimated Hiroshima in the public mind. These are, it was felt, the inescapable, painful, but ultimately necessary attributes of waging a just war.

The focus on terrorism was also politically expedient because of its intrinsic vagueness. After 9/11, every American knew, without having to be told, what the word “terrorism” implied. As a consequence, there was no need to explain how a “global war on terror” had to be waged, or how one would know when such a novel war against an elusive foe had ended. There was no need to be more precise as to who the terrorists actually were, where they came from, or what historical motives, religious passions or political grievances had focused their hatred on America. Terrorism thus replaced Soviet nuclear weapons as the principal threat, and terrorists (potentially omnipresent and generally identified as Muslims) replaced communists as the ubiquitous menace.

The prompt articulation by the Bush Administration of a new worldview was pushed at the upper levels of the White House and the Department of Defense by an energetic group highly motivated by a shared strategic orientation. Internal cohesion fused with external public outrage, anxiety and thirst for action to preclude any lengthy or divisive political debate. Each of the now well-known three key components of the new strategy stressed historic discontinuity: 1) unilateralism, justified by the right to self-defense, replaced the notion of collective security based on the Atlantic Alliance and the need for legitimacy through UN sanction; 2) the right to forcibly prevent or even preempt a grave threat overshadowed deterrence as one of the key concepts of national defense (though the risk that poor intelligence might prompt a military intervention on mere suspicion was not initially recognized, and became the cause of major embarrassment subsequent to the invasion of Iraq); 3) reliance on ad hoc coalitions simultaneously downgraded the political centrality of existing alliance relationships (like NATO) and elevated the utility of expedient security arrangements with partners of tactical convenience (like Russia).

There is no gainsaying that the new strategy was responsive to both the Zeitgeist and the Angst of the moment, and in some measure also responded to the novel requirements of the post-Cold War era. The War on Terror made for an historically appealing formula. The most immediate demonstration of the new strategy was the prompt and effectively conducted military operation undertaken in the fall of 2001 to wipe out the hornets’ nest in Afghanistan. It was an action applauded at home and largely supported abroad. The quick defeat of the Taliban and the dispersal of the al-Qaeda high command provided the public with welcome proof that the global war on terror was both real and winnable. Victory was in the air.

Alas, Afghanistan, which justifiably could have been viewed as a strategic triumph, was soon relegated to only a tactical success largely by the Administration’s own doing. For motives widely debated though not yet clarified, those in charge of shaping U.S. strategy conflated the campaign against Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda with a military operation to change the regime in Iraq, and did so regardless of international sanction. Iraq was thereby elevated into the central strategic theater of the global war on terror.

The public campaign alleging a grave terrorist threat continued even after the military successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and lasted through the presidential election season of 2004. Since the mass media are naturally drawn to compete in the business of fear, hardly a week passed without the public being treated–on television or in graphically-illustrated newspaper stories–to ever new potential horror scenarios. A legion of terror entrepreneurs (a.k.a. “experts on terrorism”) also promptly sprouted. One can only speculate what would happen, for instance, if day after day both the mass media and the country’s highest political authority admonished the public that everyone’s health was rapidly deteriorating: that our hearts were weakening, our memories fading, our key organs wearing out, cancer spreading, and that a personal physical breakdown was inevitable. The result would surely be a nation of acute hypochondriacs.

No wonder then that–with frequent colorful official alerts of impending but otherwise unidentified danger triggering and sanctioning a widespread psychosis of fear–a self-confident America was being transformed into a fear-driven nation. Moreover, the term “war on terror’ became a “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” political formula. The absence since 9/11 of any terrorist attacks in America could be cited as evidence that the President was winning the war, while any reoccurrence of terrorism would be proof that the notion of continuing war was justified.1A study by Robb Willer (“The Effects of Government-Issued Terror Warnings on Presidential Approval Ratings”, Current Research in Social Psychology, vol. 10, no. 1, 2004), concludes that there is “consistent evidence supporting the hypothesis that government-issued warnings led to increases in President Bush’s approval ratings.” In a public discussion held after the 2004 elections former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge stated that he often disagreed with other senior officials who insisted on elevating the threat level to orange, noting, “There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it.” USA Today, May 11, 2005. Not surprisingly, and in keeping with historical precedents, the “wartime” re-election campaign of the incumbent “Commander-in-Chief” turned out to be successful.

Political triumph for the Administration, however, has not brought strategic success for America. The war in Iraq, undertaken unilaterally in 2003 under false pretenses, proved in every respect to be much more costly than initially expected. Not only did many Americans continue to die even two years after the “end” of the war, with thousands more returning home maimed, but the aftermath of the war’s major combat phase was badly mishandled, and its overall financial costs soon came to be measured in hundreds of billions of dollars. Internationally, the effect was the surfacing of historically unprecedented hostility toward America and a monumental loss of American (and especially presidential) credibility. Contributing to the decline of America’s stature were the demagogy surrounding alleged weapons of mass destruction, the disgrace of America’s honor (and of its top officials) in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the dangerous over-stretching of U.S. military capabilities, and the concomitant decline in America’s ability to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons.

A special source of concern has to be the increased hostility toward America throughout the world of Islam. Though the Administration eschewed all anti-Islamic rhetoric, the thrust of its emphasis on the terrorist threat–abetted by TV serials, movies and home-grown anti-Arab vigilantes–has fostered the image of a lurking Muslim terrorist ready to strike at America. Coupled with Muslim resentment of the massive American support for Israel and of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the anti-Islamic undertones of America’s public discourse played into the hands of Muslim fundamentalists propagating their hateful portrayal of America as “the Satan.” The 9/11 Commission Report makes a powerful point to that effect. The ongoing civil war within Islam between fanatics and moderates was thereby being transformed into a conflict between Islam and America, to the disadvantage of Muslim moderates and of America itself.

Even more potentially dangerous to America’s long-term interests has been the surfacing global trend toward regional coalitions with a thinly veiled anti-American orientation. Distancing oneself from the U.S. government and all things American has become politically popular in Asia, Europe and Latin America. That mood is facilitating China’s efforts to quietly exclude the United States from its region by exploiting a rising pan-Asian identity in East and Southeast Asia; it gives a much less Atlanticist flavor to the continuing European effort to shape a more politically-minded European Union; and it encourages a cluster of new, democratically-elected but rather leftist Latin American presidents to cultivate closer relations with Europe and China. The emergence of strong pan-European and pan-Asian communities, rather than Transatlantic and Transpacific ones, would intensify America’s global isolation.

By late 2004 and early 2005, recognition of these hazards started dawning even within the Administration, prompting a public redefinition of the central justification of its foreign policy. Henceforth its rhetoric was to be less about the war on terror and more about the global struggle for freedom. Concepts derived from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter and Jimmy Carter’s human rights campaign, not to mention Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, were boldly incorporated into the January 2005 Inaugural rhetoric that grandly launched the crusade for freedom. Foreign skeptics could not fail to note, however, that the principal examples most frequently cited by the Administration of claimed success for the new democratic crusade were Afghanistan and Iraq, both subject to U.S. military occupation, and the Palestinian territories, still under Israeli occupation.

In brief, America’s post-9/11 foreign policy is too short range in its focus, overly alarmist in its rhetoric, and has been too costly in its still early consequences. Its overall effect has been to increase America’s national vulnerability while undermining the legitimacy of its international primacy. Even worse, the strategic diagnosis on which it rests does not provide an historically relevant, nationally unifying or internationally legitimating definition of America’s long-term global role.

America and the Global Political Awakening

The policy diagnosis that follows accepts the proposition of historical discontinuity from 9/11 but argues that the central challenge of our time is posed not by global terrorism, but rather by the intensifying turbulence caused by the phenomenon of global political awakening. That awakening is socially massive and politically radicalizing. The challenge it poses to America’s sovereignty is not that Gulliver prevent the anti-American Lilliputians from tying him down, but that Gulliver muster the rapidly-growing Lilliputians in a common effort to shape by stages an increasingly effective global community.

Though the global scope of today’s political awakening is novel, the phenomenon itself has a considerable history. It was the French Revolution of 1789 that generated a contagious populist activism, first in France and then throughout Europe. Its intensity and social scope were unprecedented. An aroused mass political consciousness was stimulated by the spread of literacy–notably pamphleteering–and the country was galvanized by populist rallies, manifestos and flaming rhetoric on the public squares of urban centers, within numerous political clubs and even in remote villages. That burst of activism provoked not only the new bourgeoisie and the new urban lower classes (the sans culottes) but also the peasants, clergy and aristocrats.

The mythology of the French Revolution enshrined the noble concepts of Libert√©–Egalit√©–Fraternit√© into the pantheon of political values. But the reality of the French Revolution was also the exaltation of orgiastic terror, revolutionary tribunals, nationalist passions and brutal class warfare–not to mention the exportation of revolution across Europe through wars of “liberation.” Indeed, the notion of terror as a deliberate tool of political intimidation owes its origins to that revolution. Idealism and passion together made for a potent brew, transforming modern politics through the emergence of a socially powerful national consciousness.

During the subsequent 216 years, political awakening has spread gradually but inexorably like an ink blot. Europe of 1848, and more generally the nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reflected the new politics of populist passions and growing mass commitment. In some places that combination embraced utopian Manichaeism for which the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Fascist assumption of power in in Italy 1922, and the Nazi seizure of the German state in 1933 were the launch-pads. The political awakening also swept China, precipitating several decades of civil conflict. Anti-colonial sentiments galvanized India, where the tactic of passive resistance effectively disarmed imperial domination, and after World War II anti-colonial political stirrings elsewhere ended the remaining European empires. In the western hemisphere, Mexico experienced the first inklings of populist activism already in the 1860s, leading eventually to the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century.

It is no overstatement to assert that now in the 21st century the population of much of the developing world is politically stirring and in many places seething with unrest. It is a population acutely conscious of social injustice to an unprecedented degree, and often resentful of its perceived lack of political dignity. The nearly universal access to radio, television and increasingly the Internet is creating a community of shared perceptions and envy that can be galvanized and channeled by demagogic political or religious passions. These energies transcend sovereign borders and pose a challenge both to existing states as well as to the existing global hierarchy, on top of which America still perches.

Today, one cannot analyze the future of China or India without considering the likely behavior of populations whose social and political aspirations are now shaped by impulses that are no longer exclusively local in origin. One cannot help but be struck by the political similarities of the recent turmoil in Kyrgyzstan, Egypt and Bolivia. The Muslims in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and a growing number of them in Europe–and Indians in Latin America, too–increasingly are defining what they desire in reaction to what they perceive to be the hostile impact on them of the outside world. In differing ways and degrees of intensity they dislike the status quo, and many of them are susceptible to being mobilized against the external power that they both envy and perceive as self-interestedly preoccupied with that status quo.

The youth of the Third World are particularly restless and resentful. The demographic revolution they embody is thus a political time-bomb, as well. With the exception of Europe, Japan and America, the rapidly expanding demographic bulge in the 25-year-old-and-under age bracket is creating a huge mass of impatient young people. Their minds have been stirred by sounds and images that emanate from afar and which intensify their disaffection with what is at hand. Their potential revolutionary spearhead is likely to emerge from among the scores of millions of students concentrated in the often intellectually dubious “tertiary level” educational institutions of developing countries.2Depending on the definition of the tertiary educational level, there are currently worldwide between 80 and 130 million “college” students. Typically originating from the socially insecure lower middle class and inflamed by a sense of social outrage, these millions of students are revolutionaries-in-waiting, already semi-mobilized in large congregations, connected by the Internet and pre-positioned for a replay on a larger scale of what transpired years earlier in Mexico City or in Tiananmen Square. Their physical energy and emotional frustration is just waiting to be triggered by a cause, or a faith, or a hatred.

To sum up, the ongoing political awakening is now global in its geographic scope, with no continent or even region still largely politically passive; it is comprehensive in its social scale, with only very remote peasant communities still immune to political stimuli; it is strikingly youthful in its demographic profile and thus more receptive to rapid political mobilization; and much of its inspiration is transnational in origin because of the cumulative impact of literacy and mass communications. As a result, modern populist political passions can be aroused even against a distant target despite the absence of a unifying doctrine (such as Marxism), with America increasingly the conflicted focus of personal admiration, social envy, political resentment and religious abhorrence.

Terrorism is a destructive and extreme symptom of a widespread new reality of resentment, but terrorism as such–whether Islamist or otherwise–does not define the essence of international affairs in our time. It is undeniably a tactical threat to national security, and in the future a potential strategic one.3According to official World Health Organization and Department of State statistics, global deaths per year due to physical violence amounted to 1,600,000 (2002), traffic accidents 1,200,000 (2004), and terrorism 625 (2003). But to make terrorism the daily preoccupation of millions of anxious Americans would be as if American domestic politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s had focused mainly on reactions to the threat posed by the Black Panthers rather than on the need to redress the denial of full civil rights to African Americans. In today’s world the elevation of terrorism to an almost apocalyptic threat can similarly result in an under-reaction to the wider global context that favors the rise of extremist violence. The majority of states existing today no longer rule relatively pliant populations, and many are vulnerable to being swamped by populist demands that transcend their capacity to respond effectively.

Recasting America’s Global Mission

It will require increasingly supranational cooperation, actively promoted by the United States, to compensate for the weakness of nominally sovereign states that in fact are becoming ever less sovereign or even self-sustaining. The nation-state framework has become too narrow for the political solutions, economic remedies and social “depressurization” that a majority of populations urgently need. Globalization is intermingling domestic desires and grievances with a transnational awareness of “greener grass” being elsewhere, whether nearby (e.g., the European Union seen from Ukraine) or far away (e.g., the United States seen from Sri Lanka).

While no major international problem can be resolved without America, America cannot resolve any major international problem on its own: neither that posed by North Korean nukes nor the Iranian quest for them; the persistent absence of a fair settlement of the Palestinian issue; the slaughter in Darfur; the long-range issue of China’s rising power; the brutal excesses in Chechnya by Russia’s declining power; nor even the destructive regional consequences of America’s preponderant power in Iraq.

To address these and other issues, America needs partners. Europe is America’s historic ally, and hence the European Union’s unity as well as its expansion is in America’s interest. Japan is essential to a new Asian triangular balance of power involving the United States and China. But to have these friends and others, America must be prepared to address issues in common and seek a shared understanding of our historical era. A globally disliked America, which reduces world problems to slogans about terrorism and democracy, cannot do so. That case needs to be made explicitly if the American people are to have a genuine, not a “Bush lite”, alternative to current policies.

The promotion of democracy is at best a partial response to the large and difficult challenge before us. Politically awakened mankind craves political dignity, which democracy can enhance, but political dignity also encompasses ethnic or national self-determination, religious self-definition, and human and social rights, all in a world now acutely aware of economic, racial and ethnic inequities. The quest for political dignity, especially through national self-determination and social transformation, is part of the pulse of self-assertion by the world’s underprivileged.

It therefore follows that America needs to shore up its international legitimacy by a demonstrable commitment to shared political and social goals. Democracy per se is not an enduring solution, for without a socially developing and politically mature civil society, a hasty imposition of democratic processes–for example, in the Middle East–is likely to be exploited by radically resentful populism, often with strong anti-American overtones cloaked in electoral legitimacy. Democracy for some without social justice for the many was possible in the aristocratic age, but it is no longer possible in the age of mass political awakening. Today, one without the other is self-defeating. The promotion of democracy must therefore be linked directly to efforts seeking the elimination of extreme poverty and a gradual diminution in global disparities.

The historic paradox of our time is that supranational cooperation toward these major goals is only possible if the lead is taken by the last sovereign state, and joined by the more resilient regional powers willing eventually to subsume their own sovereignty under more effective supranational arrangements. However, a comprehensive strategy for guiding the volatile and politically restless global mindset cannot be championed by a fear-driven country seeking refuge in a nation-wide gated community. An effective response can only come from a self-confident America genuinely committed to a new vision of global solidarity.

Let it be said right away that supranationality should not be confused with world government. Even if it were desirable, mankind is not remotely ready for world government, and the American people certainly do not want it. America must instead become the pacesetter in shaping a world that is defined less by the fiction of state sovereignty and more by the reality of expanding and politically regulated interdependence. With globalization no longer redefining just economic affairs but increasingly also transforming political relations, U.S. sovereignty harnessed in the service of the common good is likely to enjoy greater and longer global acceptance than America’s current preoccupation with its own security.

The promotion of socially responsive and politically stabilizing global solidarity in our increasingly restless world will have to move along both formal and informal tracks. Opportunities for formally institutionalized cooperation are greater currently in the socioeconomic and humanitarian areas than in the political-security domains. In the latter, for some time to come, informal arrangements among key power brokers will have to substitute for the inability of the some 200 nominally sovereign states to legitimate a decision-making process that reflects the realities of power. These informal arrangements will therefore have to be sought alongside existing UN structures.

Unfortunately, insofar as the global socioeconomic and humanitarian agenda is concerned, America’s current global posture is sorely lacking. The U.S. position regarding the rising threat to the global environment has been perceived worldwide as essentially negativist. Whatever the merits of the official American reservations regarding the Kyoto Treaty, the decision not to ratify it was taken in a manner that conveyed to much of the international community a self-serving disregard for the common interest. The absence so far of any serious U.S. effort to develop an internationally acceptable alternative has reinforced that negative impression.

Though there has been some measurable progress during the last decade in meeting the Millennium Development Goals, the United States has been less than forthcoming in meeting the commitment made in Monterrey in 2002 to substantially increase the low level of its official development aid. The failure to do so stands in striking contrast to the massive rise in recent years in U.S. military and homeland security spending. The outcome of the ongoing WTO negotiations (the Doha Round) to resolve major disagreements with the developing countries regarding agricultural subsidies and access to markets is also quite uncertain. The privileged positions of the United States and the EU are being contested by a semi-organized bloc of developing countries led by China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Agreement is urgently needed because U.S. fast-track legislation will expire in 2007, thereafter making ratification by the U.S. Senate of any far-reaching compromise improbable at best.

Practical as well as moral reasons also dictate the desirability of enlarging the scope of supranational rules of conduct guiding interactions among states. The need for such rules is recognized and accepted in the commercial domain, and the rule-enforcement role of the WTO has been promoted by America. America remains more skeptical regarding supranational jurisdiction in the area of justice. However, despite official U.S. reticence, The Hague’s ongoing war crimes prosecutions are gaining international support. In time, this should lead to a reconsideration of the increasingly isolated U.S. position against the International Criminal Court.

In the realm of international security, progress toward more inclusive political cooperation will have to move forward largely along an informal track. Although America’s massive military power will continue to give credence to America’s sovereign right to self-defense, and though deterrence still makes sense in relations among the major powers, major war as the highest form of absolute sovereignty is simply becoming old-fashioned. The new threats are fundamentally related to the rise in global restlessness. Nuclear proliferation is a persistent danger, in large measure because the desire for nuclear weapons is politically appealing. Moreover, percolating ethnic and religious violence in many parts of the world may at some point escalate to massively lethal levels, with the use of biological agents (inherently indiscriminate but more accessible than nuclear devices) probably posing the greatest long-range threat to international well-being.

Because these threats are derived from a variety of local conditions and historical impulses, and especially because they are dispersed almost throughout the entire world, it follows that only deliberate international coordination can generate even a rudimentary global security policy. That coordination currently cannot be achieved either through the United Nations or through the existing major alliances. Neither the UN Security Council nor NATO provides the needed geographic universality, and neither truly reflects the actual distribution of global power. Moreover, the ongoing efforts to expand the UN Security Council are being checkmated by regional rivalries. Hence, a new mechanism for consultations among countries capable of making a serious contribution to global security has to be devised, though initially on an informal basis.

A semi-institutionalized even if still essentially consultative Global Security Summit, constituted with a membership designed to give it both universality in geographic scope as well as some reality in terms of power, would help to fill a persisting gap. A Global Security Summit could be reinforced by a standing secretariat to permit a more effective process of consultations. Its membership might include, in addition to the United States:

  • Three European powers: Great Britain and France (since both of them are veto-wielding UN Security Council members as well as nuclear powers, and also have longer-range rapid reaction forces) and Germany, (which has significant economic and military potential);

  • Russia (a Eurasian power with a veto in the Security Council and a significant military power);
  • Five Asian powers: China (with a veto in the Security Council), India (together with China accounting for a third of the world’s population, and also nuclear-armed), Pakistan (a major nuclear-armed Muslim state), Indonesia (the most populous Muslim country), and Japan (a global economic power and worldwide lender);
  • Two African states: Nigeria and South Africa (which have played leading roles in African peace-keeping missions);
  • Two Latin American states: Brazil (which has played a role in peacekeeping in Haiti) and Mexico (a major force in the Central American and Caribbean regions).

An annual Global Security Summit among the proposed G-14 would not produce a global security policy overnight, but a mutually shaped perspective on proliferation or terrorism could further more genuine cooperation in dealing with such global dangers. A G-14 for global security would have the added advantage of engaging both China and India, each of which could become a disruptive force because of intensifying nationalism and growing muscle.4A G-14 designed along the above lines would also provide a more responsible and inclusive response to the new global threats emanating from a politically-stirring world than the scheme quietly mooted by some Russian strategists to seduce the United States into a new “Holy Alliance”, perhaps with Israel and India, ostensibly against global terrorism but in reality directed against the Muslim world and China, both of which Russia views as its principal long-range adversaries. Such an alliance could be fatal for America, for it would make it the central target of resulting resentments even while acting as a shield for Russian interests. Indeed, it could even replace the increasingly anomalous G-8 in dealing both with security and socioeconomic issues. In any case, it would clearly benefit the United States to take the lead in convening such a club, though that process would also require a U.S. willingness to accept shared decisions in return for shared burdens.

A wide-ranging and ambitious redefinition of America’s global role, in keeping with new historical realities, might help the United States to avoid some of the dire prospects foreseen in the influential writings of three major 20th-century political theorists: Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Samuel Huntington. Each wrote at the cusp of a cataclysmic era: Spengler right after World War I and the collapse of his Imperial Germany; Toynbee in the aftermath of World War II, which exhausted his Great Britain; and Huntington in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and his America’s emergence as the world’s only superpower. Each approached the issue of the rise and fall of great powers from a different vantage point, but each reached conclusions that have an eerie relevance to America’s contemporary global dilemmas.

Spengler saw the future of the West as the culmination of a process of political decay in which a vital national culture devolves into an overly ambitious and increasingly Caesarean civilization. In that civilization money rules the roost (“It is the money-spirit which penetrates unremarked the historical forms of the people’s existence, often without destroying or even in the least disturbing these forms.”) and creates conditions in which the manipulated people “clamour for weapons and force their leaders into a conflict to which they willed to be forced.” In such conflicts, “the place of the permanent armies as we know them will gradually be taken by professional forces of volunteer war-keen soldiers. . . . In these wars of theirs for the heritage of the whole world, continents will be staked, India, China, South Africa, Russia, Islam, called out, new techniques and tactics played and counter-played.” The result could even be “the slavery of an entire humanity under the regimen imposed by a few strong natures determined to rule.”5Spengler, The Decline of the West: An Abridged Edition, ed. Helmut Werner, trans. Charles F. Atkinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 26-7, 376, 382 and 395-6.

Toynbee takes a different tack but one no less ominous. He warns us to remember that “Militarism . . . has been by far the commonest cause of the breakdown of civilizations during the last four or five millennia.” The reason for this, he argues, is that a dominant but also militant civilization, convinced of its own righteousness, unintentionally tends to replicate the barbaric evil that it has been contesting, with the result that “the alien universal state . . . becomes more and more unpopular. Its subjects are more and more offended by its alien qualities.” Toynbee concludes that “the destruction which has overtaken a number of civilizations in the past . . . has always been in the nature of an act of suicide.” He has a pithy phrase for it: “Suicidal statecraft.”6Toynbee, A Study of History: Abridgement of Volumes I-VI, ed. D.C. Somervell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 190, 419 and 422.

Huntington makes a compelling case that globalization, far from creating a common civilization, is spawning intensifying inter-civilizational clashes, of which the emerging collision between the West and Islam is the most threatening. He sums up by asserting that “European colonialism is over; American hegemony is receding. The erosion of Western culture follows, as indigenous, historically rooted mores, languages, beliefs, and institutions reassert themselves.” He therefore warns that “democracy is inherently a parochializing not a cosmopolitanizing process” in which “the result is popular mobilization against Western-educated and Western-oriented elites.” That mobilization is marked by a religious resurgence that, in the case of Asians and Muslims, involves also a strong sense of “the superiority of their cultures to Western culture.”7 Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), pp. 91, 94 and 102.

Spengler’s notions of manipulated masses clamoring for a war willed by their leaders, Toynbee’s of suicidal statecraft that undermines its own imperial power, and Huntington’s of culturally antagonistic democratization have particular relevance to President Bush’s foreign policy. For 250 years America’s message to the world has been: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Lately, it has been: “If you are not with us, you are against us.” Today, after 9/11, the politically aroused world expects better from America: that it reach out with a serious commitment to uplift the human condition. Only with America’s sovereignty dedicated in an historically relevant fashion to a cause larger than its own security will the American interest again coincide with the global interest.

1 A study by Robb Willer (“The Effects of Government-Issued Terror Warnings on Presidential Approval Ratings”, Current Research in Social Psychology, vol. 10, no. 1, 2004), concludes that there is “consistent evidence supporting the hypothesis that government-issued warnings led to increases in President Bush’s approval ratings.” In a public discussion held after the 2004 elections former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge stated that he often disagreed with other senior officials who insisted on elevating the threat level to orange, noting, “There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it.” USA Today, May 11, 2005.

2 Depending on the definition of the tertiary educational level, there are currently worldwide between 80 and 130 million “college” students.

3 According to official World Health Organization and Department of State statistics, global deaths per year due to physical violence amounted to 1,600,000 (2002), traffic accidents 1,200,000 (2004), and terrorism 625 (2003).

4 A G-14 designed along the above lines would also provide a more responsible and inclusive response to the new global threats emanating from a politically-stirring world than the scheme quietly mooted by some Russian strategists to seduce the United States into a new “Holy Alliance”, perhaps with Israel and India, ostensibly against global terrorism but in reality directed against the Muslim world and China, both of which Russia views as its principal long-range adversaries. Such an alliance could be fatal for America, for it would make it the central target of resulting resentments even while acting as a shield for Russian interests.

1 A study by Robb Willer (“The Effects of Government-Issued Terror Warnings on Presidential Approval Ratings”, Current Research in Social Psychology, vol. 10, no. 1, 2004), concludes that there is “consistent evidence supporting the hypothesis that government-issued warnings led to increases in President Bush’s approval ratings.” In a public discussion held after the 2004 elections former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge stated that he often disagreed with other senior officials who insisted on elevating the threat level to orange, noting, “There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it.” USA Today, May 11, 2005.

2 Depending on the definition of the tertiary educational level, there are currently worldwide between 80 and 130 million “college” students.

3 According to official World Health Organization and Department of State statistics, global deaths per year due to physical violence amounted to 1,600,000 (2002), traffic accidents 1,200,000 (2004), and terrorism 625 (2003).

4 A G-14 designed along the above lines would also provide a more responsible and inclusive response to the new global threats emanating from a politically-stirring world than the scheme quietly mooted by some Russian strategists to seduce the United States into a new “Holy Alliance”, perhaps with Israel and India, ostensibly against global terrorism but in reality directed against the Muslim world and China, both of which Russia views as its principal long-range adversaries. Such an alliance could be fatal for America, for it would make it the central target of resulting resentments even while acting as a shield for Russian interests.

5 Spengler, The Decline of the West: An Abridged Edition, ed. Helmut Werner, trans. Charles F. Atkinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 26-7, 376, 382 and 395-6.

6 Toynbee, A Study of History: Abridgement of Volumes I-VI, ed. D.C. Somervell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 190, 419 and 422.

7 Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), pp. 91, 94 and 102.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a founding board member of the AI, is trustee and counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and served as National Security Advisor to President Carter.