by Michael Mandelbaum
(New York: Public Affairs, 2005), 270 pp., $26
In the post-Cold War era, does the world still need an anchor? Does America play such a role? If so, does it perform that role well? And does the rest of the planet, at least the rest of the West, recognize the benefits it gains from America?
Such are the important questions Michael Mandelbaum asks in his most recent book The Case for Goliath (a somewhat dangerous title, perhaps, considering the fate of the famous giant of the Bible). The first and last of these questions are the easiest to answer; the second and the third are trickier.
The world’s need for an anchor is deeply felt, so deeply in fact that this need may define the psychological climate of global politics at the beginning of the 21st century. International terrorism, whatever its long-term historical importance turns out to be, is far from being the only reason for this. A completely obscured view of the decades ahead, along with a sense that the world will surprise us in unpleasant ways, permeates our daily life and troubles us more than we want to acknowledge. Indeed, while the threat of a “surprise attack” from the Warsaw Pact seems to be gone for good, other potential strategic surprises and setbacks are so numerous that the search for stability is perhaps more vigorous than ever.
Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, endowed with atomic weapons, may open an unpredecented and frightening chapter of nuclear history. How can one build anything close to nuclear deterrence against such queer fish?
China’s fervent nationalism coupled with its aggressive military modernization campaign disturb the whole of East Asia and beyond: What is the purpose of all those next generation aircraft, those new generation submarines or those amphibious-landing capabilities, acquired by means of the fastest growing defense budget in East Asia?
Globalization, too, facilitates the flow of information and technologies in areas where international security is at stake. Clandestine networks appear ready to sell bomb designs to anyone able to pay for them.
Even nature itself looks more unpredictable, with devastating earthquakes and hurricanes claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. So who would dispute the need for an anchor? Only perturbed spirits, it seems.
As to our fourth question—here, too, a consensus may be discerned regarding the way America is perceived in the world. Very few, even in the West, are inclined to recognize the benefits gained from the role America plays in the post-Cold War world. For that recognition to sink in, America would have to stop playing its role. Then and only then would its retrospective absence be noted. As Mandelbaum concludes: “They will not pay for it; they will criticize it; and they will miss it when it is gone.”
This should surprise no one. After all, even during the long confrontation with the Soviet Union, when Western security rested so obviously on America’s shoulders, its role was the subject of prolonged and often heated debates in Europe. Why should it be different at a time when the strategic situation is far less clear, when actors are more autonomous, and when America’s power is no longer matched by any other nation—indeed, at a time when America’s presence on the ground, in the seas, in the air and in space raises for some the specter of a global empire?
Empire: This is the word of choice for America’s adversaries today, as it was yesterday. One of the great merits of The Case for Goliath is the way it wrings the neck, so to speak, of the “American empire” fantasy. The United States has not acquired its power by design, but by chance. This is something that Europeans, whose self-destructive behavior was so decisive in the rise of American power in the 20th century, should never forget. And America still lacks the desire to behave as an imperial power. Indeed, the problem, as Mandelbaum understands well, is just the opposite of a will to empire: It is the ambivalence of the American public over supporting an active global role for the United States, considered by most to be a burden rather than an opportunity.
An additional argument, which Mandelbaum does not press, is America’s lack of anything close to the British imperial bureaucracy, so necessary to keep an empire going. Americans do not colonize; they come and go. American forces do not impose themselves; they are based, when they are based, according to agreement among sovereign states. America does not maintain imperial power by using force to subordinate, coerce or violate the right of self-government. American influence is considerable but, as Mandelbaum puts it, the “United States does not control, directly or indirectly, the politics and economics of other societies, as empires have always done.” In short, America may not be liked, but it is a very unlikely candidate for assuming an imperial role, not least because of its own origin in a struggle against the most impressive empire of the time.
The tricky questions are whether America actually plays the role of an anchor in these turbulent times, as Mandelbaum claims, and if so, whether it does so effectively. The United States is the defining element in world affairs after the demise of the Soviet Union, with a unique ability to shape events. But does the United States really function as the world’s government?
At first glance, the assertion seems to contradict the American image. In the eyes of many, America is too self-centered and ignorant of the rest of the world to be suited for transnational governance. Even American goodwill is often mixed with clumsiness, bringing unnecessary disorder together with order. And the well-known American tendency to seek a quick fix to the most complex problems is hardly a good predisposition for governing the world.
All this would matter enormously if Mandelbaum meant government in contractual terms; in other words, some sort of explicit understanding between the United States and other states. But this is not Mandelbaum’s argument. Rather, he argues that the United States essentially furnishes services to other countries analogous to those public goods that governments provide to those they govern. First and foremost, the United States provides security, now mainly by reassurance rather than by deterrence, by humanitarian interventions rather than self-interested ones (notably in the 1990s). State-building in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan have also helped those nations put in place an apparatus of decent government. In addition, the numerous security commitments Washington has given in the most troubled areas of the world, including the Middle East and East Asia, compose another essential part of the American contribution to international security. They keep at bay a number of tensions or conflicts that might arise without American troops on the ground or the U.S. Navy patrolling the seas.
This picture is not false: America does contribute in crucial ways to keeping the world in order. But there are significant limits to America’s power, its attention span and, not least, its good judgment. For instance, however one regards the Iraq campaign of March 2003, its lasting contribution to regional and international security is still unclear. And Iraq’s future may not be the central point in this respect. History is no doubt on the side of the courageous Iraqi voters who impressed the world in 2005, not that of the suicide bombers. Equally, Iraq may not be the ideal training ground for terrorists that some observers fear: There are increasing indications of an Iraqi/al-Qaeda split. But other consequences of Operation Iraqi Freedom should be taken into account as well: U.S. military commitments in Iraq, for instance, are undoubtedly a constraint when it comes to dealing with Iran. They also narrow the American presence and influence in Southeast Asia and East Asia, a phenomenon that China has noticed and already exploited. This may bring trouble in coming years, a concern that American allies in the region are already expressing to Washington.
According to Mandelbaum, America also provides global governance in economic affairs, in particular by ensuring global access to natural resources—particularly adequate supplies of energy. This is very similar to the way governments deliver water and electricity to their citizens. The security of sea lanes, particularly to and from the Middle East, is a significant American achievement in this respect, oil being the most decisive natural resource in international relations. Neither Russia nor Iran would disagree with this judgment, but unlike America they use oil and gas to blackmail their neighbors and sometimes the wider world, too. It is easy to imagine what kind of world we would have if they were in charge of energy, along with Hugo Chavez.
Concerning energy, though, there is also a black spot in the picture, namely the American inability, one may even say unwillingness, to put in place anything resembling a serious energy policy, for instance by limiting its own consumption. Mandelbaum stresses the point: “The worst 21st-century offense of the United States is the American pattern of energy consumption, which far exceeds that of other countries on a per capita basis and makes virtually every other country more vulnerable than it would otherwise be to economic damage in both the short and the long term.”
In the economic sphere, however, Mandelbaum misses the fact that America is also the largest debtor in the world. Its dependency on China may be grossly exaggerated, its economy may be very dynamic, its stock market robust, its inflation low, and its record impressive. But, as many observers have warned, its long-term health is uncertain on account of its heavy burden of debt.
Finally, the tacit support Goliath enjoys in the rest of the world may also be short lived, and may encounter a substantial setback relatively soon. That setback may come at the hands of a postmodern version of David, much less charming than the original, at a time when asymmetric strategies are fashionable. That setback may also take the shape of another potential Goliath, one of a very different kind than America, less benign, hungrier, and with no reluctance to play large: China. If one of these two unfortunate scenarios does materialize in coming decades, American power would no doubt be seriously missed all over the world. Everyone would then be all too aware of the meaning of either sheer chaos or imperial will.