Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 256 | Noviembre 2002



The US Power Complex: What’s new

These three elements, in qualitatively increasing doses, are what make President Bush’s strategy so alarming: an aggressive anti-multilateralism, total militarism and moral absolutism, all clothed in anti-terrorist language.

Tom Barry

To discern what’s new about US foreign policy and its power trip through history, there is no need to follow the debates in the foreign policy journals or in Beltway policy circles. The emerging grand strategy of US foreign policy is readily evident in the pronouncements of President Bush and his top officials. It is an agenda distinguished by a “moral clarity,” according to Bush, who has told the world that the United States has launched an “endless” war against “evildoers.” His moral clarity about the “axis of evil” and his warning that you are “either with us or with the terrorists” reflect an unnuanced approach to using US power.

Reagan paved the way for
what George W. is doing now

The grand strategy developed by the Bush administration extends beyond the war on terrorism to a radical reassessment of US foreign and military policy in this unipolar world. As high US officials explain, the United States is intent on pursuing policies that prevent the rise of a “peer competitor.” Tossing aside the traditional “realist” approach to US security affairs, President Bush outlined a supremacist or neo-imperial agenda of international security in a key foreign policy speech at West Point in June 2002. Not only would the United States no longer count on coalitions of great powers to guarantee collective security, it also would prevent the rise of any potential global rival—keeping US “military strengths beyond challenges.”
As the devil is in the detail, the small things about the Bush administration rather than its major policy pronouncements best reveal the character and dimensions of the new US foreign and military policy. As part of the housekeeping underway in the administration’s foreign policy apparatus, the Defense Department in early 2002 announced the closing of the Army’s Peacekeeping Institute (PKI). With its $200,000 operating budget, the PKI has been the only government agency devoted to studying how to secure peace in failed nations or post-conflict situations. “This is not our strength or our calling,” candidate Bush said in an address delivered at The Citadel in September 1999, when he emphatically rejected a US role in peacekeeping. Close observers inside and outside the Pentagon said that the announced closure of the peacekeeping institute reflected the disdain that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and other hawks have for the soft side—the liberal internationalist side—of international relations.
The Bush administration’s decision to renounce its predecessor’s signing of the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court made international news. Arms Control Undersecretary John Bolton’s statement that signing the letter to that effect “was the happiest moment of my government service,” however, told more about the administration’s ideologically driven campaign against multilateral constraints on US power. Similarly, while the administration’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change is well known, its determination to undermine all efforts to establish international norms on fossil fuel usage can be appreciated in its maneuvering to replace Robert Watson, respected chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as a way to undermine the panel’s credibility. The power of petropolitics in shaping US policy, specifically on this issue, was exposed in a leaked memo from Exxon Mobil that had asked the White House: “Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the US?”
Such details underscore the fundamental shifts in the Bush presidency’s policy discourse. What is at stake for the Bush foreign policy team is nothing short of the future of US power. To make the 21st century the new American century, the hawks and neoconservatives who have gained the upper hand in the administration want a fundamental reordering of the strategy of US global engagement.

It’s a “unipolar moment”

The old strategies of realism and liberal internationalism that worked in tandem to ensure that America reigned hegemonic during the 20th century are, they argue, outdated in today’s world in which US power is no longer constrained by another superpower. Realism—with its attendant balance-of-power politics, great power alliances, deterrence and containment—is no longer applicable in a unipolar world characterized by major power imbalances between the United States and all other nations. Likewise, the Wilsonian and Rooseveltan strategies of enlightened self-interest designed to build economic and political alliances under US benign hegemony are also deemed, for the most part, unnecessary and out of touch with today’s global power structure. So, too, are liberal geopolitical strategies such as the democracy-“enlargement” policies and humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s, which stressed inclusion and rules-based systems. For the Bush foreign policy team, the United States should now exercise power unimpeded by partnerships, alliances and rules—and without apology for its imperial status.
What is needed, they argue, is a grand strategy of supremacy. No other nation has wielded such undisputed power—economic, military, technological, diplomatic and cultural—over so much territory. The United States should rid itself of its power complex—its liberal guilt and ambivalence about its supremacy—and pursue with conviction a grand strategy of neo-imperialism.
Proponents of this neo-imperial strategy of global engagement rest their case on two indisputable facts of post-cold war international relations: the depth of US power and the absence of alternative manifestations of global leadership backed by military might. If one thinks first about US national interests and national security, then the objective of any grand strategy, according to the new imperialists, should be to maintain and enhance this US power—to prolong what neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer calls the “unipolar moment.”

Were US hegemonic designs ever benign?

America has had hegemonic ambitions to shape the development of the international political and economic systems since the 1880s, first as a junior partner to Great Britain. It came into its own right as the world’s military and technological superpower with the leadership that proved key to defeating the Axis powers and setting forth the ideological vision of a postwar framework of capitalist international relations managed by a system of multilateralism under US management.
The industrialized capitalist nations commonly regarded US hegemony as benign—managing an economic system in which all major players benefited, including former Axis nations, and providing a military umbrella that offered security without financial burden. But the ideological and military rivalry of the cold war checked the geographical reach of US hegemony. The lofty visions of multilateralism, international cooperation and international rule set forth by the architects of the UN system of global governance still largely framed the official discourse of global affairs, although the chessboard politics of the superpower rivalry defined the era. The Whites under US hegemonic leadership and the Reds under the imperial sway of the Soviet Union kept global affairs firmly rooted in balance-of-power politics.

The bipolar power balance kept the United States in check—constraining its unilateral, interventionist impulses while obliging it to rely on the “soft power” of aid and diplomacy to maintain allegiances. By the 1980s the realpolitik constraints on US power began to loosen, as the United States sensed deepening deterioration of Soviet power and of the credibility of the socialist alternative. At the same time, the Reagan administration—benefiting from a new fusionist trend in rightwing thinking uniting anti-socialists, national security militarists, social conservatives, free market ideologues and neoconservatives—mounted a military and ideological offensive. Its confident assertion that there is no alternative to “free-market democracies,” its move from “containment” to “roll-back” strategies and its new military build-up foreshadowed and laid the groundwork for the global power trip of the George W. Bush administration. Although the Reagan administration’s militarism did re-ignite the type of transnational opposition to US global leadership that arose during the Vietnam War (reviving talk of US imperialism), the upsurge in backing for US-style economic and political liberalism actually strengthened US hegemonic influence. In the 1990s, the strong US hegemonic position was well illustrated by the acceptance by most governments of the neoliberal principles of the “Washington Consensus.”

Back to “America First” in the mid-nineties

The end of the cold war left US foreign policy without a defining legacy. In the absence of the anticommunist core of foreign policy, no political sector—left, liberal, centrist, conservative, right—could persuasively articulate a new vision for US global engagement. The “New World Order” of the Bush Sr. administration was met with derision from the right, as was the “assertive multilateralism,” “strategic partner” policies and revived liberal internationalism of the Clinton administrations. The Left focused almost exclusively on backlash politics, opposing the new liberal-conservative consensus on free trade while alternatively supporting and critiquing the liberal-centrist consensus around humanitarian interventionism. The right, also focused largely on backlash politics against the perceived liberalism of the Clinton presidency and essentially bereft of their core anti-communism, initially reacted rather than proposed a new vision of US foreign and military policy.
In the mid-1990s, however, a new coherent vision of US foreign and military policy started taking shape. It brought together the traditionalist concerns of the social conservatives (culture wars, dominion of the Christian Right), military/industrial complex advocates and the neoconservative ambition to reassume control of the foreign policy apparatus. Dismissive of arguments about new transnational threats to global stability (climate change, resource scarcity conflicts, infectious disease), the new vision was at once simple and grandiose. It was simple in that US foreign and military policy should not get bogged down in conflicts and humanitarian crises that had no direct bearing on US national security and national interests. While the latter are rarely well defined, the US government has in practice defended the interests of corporate America and not the broader ones of the polity. It was grandiose in that US foreign and military policy should embrace US global dominance and do whatever is necessary to maintain US supremacy. The radical agenda, clearly articulated and promoted by administration hard-liners from the outset of the Bush presidency, advanced quickly after September 11th.

Victory of the supremacists

But what really is new about US foreign and military policy? After all, the United States has a long history of throwing its weight around, intervening militarily, sidelining the United Nations and allying with dictators and human rights abusers while asserting for itself the high ground of morality and the blessing of the almighty. It has even dropped the big one—twice—to demonstrate its overwhelming power.

What is both different and alarming about the new US grand strategy are three qualitatively different foreign and military policy components: aggressive anti-multilateralism, warlordism and moral absolutism. Underlying and fortifying all three is the language of antiterrorism, which has replaced anticommunism as the core organizing and unifying principle.

Like anticommunism before it, a foreign policy framed by antiterrorism assures bipartisan consensus and has popular resonance. It establishes a logic for strategic alliances with unsavory partners (from Israel to Saudi Arabia), justifies military budget hikes, and provides a persuasive rationale for an “endless war” against evil. As part of the “new realism” emerging in Washington, the focus is on coalitions and alliances of convenience with both minor regional powers such as Pakistan and second-tier “great powers” such as Russia.

Aggressive anti-multilateralism

The threat of global governance, blue-helmeted peacekeepers, multilateralism and international rules and treaties has always featured prominently in rightwing agendas. In the Reagan administration, this anti-multilateralist agenda came thundering out of the White House’s bully pulpit. Deprived of anticommunism as the belief holding disparate rightwing forces together, the populist right in the mid-1990s found that attacks on the UN and all forms of global governance resonated with an economically and culturally more insecure America. Rejecting Madeleine Albright’s “assertive multilateralism” as liberal hogwash, the Republican Congress appealed to American individualism, making simultaneous cases against big government and for US unilateralism. The team around George W. Bush departed from the internationalism and moderate conservatism of the Bush Sr. administration. While steadily chipping away at a target list of international treaties and conventions that constrained US freedom of action, it ensured at the same time that the officials appointed to UN agencies and commissions would do the US bidding.

John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, is the most outspoken opponent of multilateralism within the administration, representing the Right’s ideological opposition to global governance. National Security Adviser Condeleezza Rice has best articulated the administration’s pragmatic posture with respect to multilateralism, however. During the campaign, she criticized the Democrats for subordinating US national interests to “the interests of an illusory international community” and maintaining the liberal “belief that the support of many states—or even better, of institutions like the United Nations—is essential to the legitimate exercise of power.” While not completely rejecting all instances of multilateralism, the administration would pick and choose—what the State Department’s policy planning director called “multilateralism a la carte.” It has long been accepted that nations must act unilaterally to defend their most basic interests—a practice the Clinton administration described as “multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must.” The Bush administration, in contrast, rejects the post-World War II premise that multilateralism is generally the best route in the pursuit of national interests.

Critics of the different instances of multilateralism, be it the climate change treaty, arms trade convention or any other attempt to institute international norms and rules, argued that long-term US interests and national security were being undermined, not protected. The thickening web of multilateral regimes and treaties is regarded, as one astute observer of multilateralism noted, as Lilliputian attempts to tie down Gulliver. The growth of this multilateral web is not the paranoiac perception of rightist ideologues but a fact of international relations. As Stewart Patrick points out in his chapter of a recent book titled Multilateralism and U.S. Foreign Policy, “Between 1970 and 1997, the number of international treaties more than tripled, and from 1985-1999 alone, the number of international institutions increased by two-thirds.”

Bush is tossing “human security”
into the dustbin of history

Even more alarming than the adverse impact of the US attack on any one international problem addressed by these multilateral efforts is the possibility that the net result may be the disintegration of the entire post-World War II multilateralist framework. This would thrust global affairs finally into a Hobbesian world where power prevails over reason. The Bush administration is tossing into the historical dustbin the shared vision of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt—who respectively ruled before and during US participation in the two world wars—of an inter-governmental framework to prevent war, promote peace and prosperity and protect rights. Confident of its own military superiority, the US government today believes it can respond to all security threats.
Leaving aside the concern that as global sheriff the United States will address only military threats to its own security, the Bush administration’s dismissal of multilateralism deprives the world of international mechanisms to respond to nontraditional security issues such as resource conflicts, rise in infectious disease, international crime and environmental degradation. Hardliners such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Richard Cheney hold a traditional view of national security that leaves little room for inclusion of threats to “human security,” let alone consideration of proposals for new forms of global governance to address these nontraditional yet very real threats.

The rise of a new “warlordism”
in the US government

Ironically, the Pentagon’s influence has increased since the end of the Cold War while State Department control over foreign policy has steadily diminished, with 93% of the US international affairs budget dedicated to the military and 7% to the State Department. In the 1990s, foreign economic policy trumped traditional diplomacy, giving the imperatives of the Commerce and Treasury Departments a central place in US international affairs. While the State Department and its Agency for International Development were being downsized, the power and responsibilities of the Pentagon’s regional commands deepened as training programs, joint military exercises and US military presence expanded around the globe—particularly in Africa, Latin America and Eurasia. It was a decade framed by two post-Cold War wars, starting with the massive Persian Gulf deployment and ending with the bombing of Yugoslavia. In this new era, the US military found new freedom to act without fear of Soviet reaction and largely free of anti-interventionist backlash at home. Indeed, progressives and liberals were among the main proponents of a more assertive US military, especially in cases of purported humanitarian intervention.

From this base, the national security militarists have seized control of the Bush administration’s foreign and military policy. Strategic outlooks, doctrinal changes, vast increases in military/homeland defense budgets and dismissive treatment of the traditionalists and soft-power advocates—all summarized in the administration’s “National Security Strategy of the United States” released in September 2002—constitute the rise of a new warlordism in the US government. Reveling in US military superiority, the administration left behind the stock strategic thinking about balance-of-power and common security arrangements. Instead of the realpolitik that characterized conservative foreign policy strategizing, the United States has reverted to what neoconservative and other analysts are currently calling “machtpolitik” or the exercise of sheer military power, unconstrained by international norms, treaties, or alliances.
In launching its raids, policing actions and invasions, the United States still recognizes the need for partners to increase credibility and logistical operating room. But these would be ad-hoc coalitions of the willing, not preexisting alliances such as NATO—and the United States will always define the mission and lead it. In the early days of the Afghanistan bombing campaign, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld brushed aside diplomatic considerations and spoke with the confidence of a warlord: “The mission must determine the coalition; the coalition must not determine the mission. If it does, the mission will be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator and we can’t afford that.”

The new doctrinal basis: the “sum of all fears”

The doctrinal changes follow logically from this powerball perspective. Instead of what Pentagon officials call a “threat-based” military doctrine, they are now moving toward a “capabilities-based approach.” Instead of defining real and imminent threats to national security, US military doctrine is pursuing permanent military superiority that will give the United States the capacity to defeat any conceivable attack. This “break-out” strategy of ensuring military predominance did not emerge full-blown out of the Bush administration, but was developing since the early 1990s as military strategists and military complex lobbyists searched for a new bogeyman to replace the Soviet Union. It is what one Defense Intelligence Agency analyst identified as the “sum of all fears” approach.

To ensure this “endless military supremacy,” the Pentagon wants—and is getting—lots of money. The largest military budget increase since the Reagan years provides plenty of pork for the “legacy” systems of traditional warfare along with hefty allocations for “transformative” systems, including national missile defense, designed to ensure US military supremacy far into the future. In keeping with the supremacy doctrine, President Bush shocked the international community with his announcement during a speech at West Point that the United States was shedding the old containment and deterrence doctrines in favor of preemption. It would no longer wait until attacked but would preempt future aggression with its own first strikes, not just against terrorist networks but even against nation-states. Political scientist Richard Falk warned that the United States is claiming “a right to abandon rules of restraint and of law patiently developed over the course of centuries.” The administration’s new nuclear doctrine is piggybacking this new preemption doctrine. Rejecting half a century of attempts to constrain proliferation and use of nuclear weapons, the new US proposal is that it consider using nuclear weapons against five non-nuclear countries if Washington determines that they are developing biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. At the same time, the U.S. will develop a new arsenal of nuclear-tipped conventional weapons for itself. This is all part of what the administration calls its “counterproliferation” policy.
US warlordism doesn’t tolerate rivals, validates first-strike warfare and spurns conflict-prevention strategies and negotiating frameworks. The new warlordism keeps counsel not with diplomats but with arms merchants. As is now commonly observed and acknowledged, Rumsfeld’s war department “doesn’t do windows.”

US moral absolutists and their
weak-kneed European partners

Our leaders have invariably couched US foreign and military initiatives in the rhetoric of political idealism. This practice of dressing US international engagement in the values of freedom, democracy and rights came to be known as “liberal internationalism.” Bush’s foreign policy explicitly rejects the imperatives of liberal internationalism, but it is nonetheless heavily value-laden. The new supremacy agenda taps America’s deep moral roots and sense of messianic mission. Instead of liberal political values, the supremacists driving US foreign policy are more comfortable with stark moral contrasts, linking America’s foreign policy mission to the apocalyptic conflict between good and evil.
This new moral absolutism has helped ease the transition from the targeted war on international terrorist networks to the much broader confrontation with the “axis of evil” nation-states. The grand moral scale of Bush’s foreign policy has also been used to justify its focus on the end goal of conquering evil and its dismissal of concerns about the means employed. Allying ourselves with repressive regimes, overriding human rights conditionalities on US aid, violating the conventions of international law, and standing behind a policy of “regime changes” and first strikes are all acceptable means in Bush’s endless war against evil.
The America First convictions of the Bush supremacists echo the “city upon a hill” belief structure of America’s Puritan underpinnings, as articulated in 1630 by John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts. In a precautionary addendum that may speak to US supremacist hubris, Winthrop warned that should we fail to make our city on the hill a model of hope and virtue and should we “deal falsely with our God,” then we would be cursed. Over the past five centuries, American society has continued to believe in its own moral transcendence, but our city on the hill has undergone major urban renewal. For the first several centuries, our vision of a moral beacon was decidedly US-centric, explaining in part America’s isolationist tendencies when dealing with Europe. In the 20th century, especially after the start of the Cold War, the moral values of our blessed city were commonly regarded as core Western principles. The neoconservative “end of history” and “clash of civilization” interpretations of history fortified American conviction that our Judeo-Christian transatlantic culture constituted the epitome of civilization. With the recent rise of US supremacy thinking, “West against the rest” imaginings have been set in favor of America First principles and exceptionalism. Our new moral absolutism regards Europeans as moral relativists, political opportunists and weak-kneed partners afraid to speak evil’s name. Robert Kagan, a leading neoconservative strategist and founder of the Project for the New American Century, led his article for the June/July 2002 issue of Policy Review with the following advice: “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.”

Are we at a critical turning point?

America is suffering from a power complex that is distorting national priorities. So wrapped up in its conviction of supremacy, the US government is forging ahead with its new foreign policy directions while ignoring the mounting global outrage, blowback and impact of its aggressive unilateralism.
Politics, like history itself, is marked by cycles and pendulum swings. It may be that the recent rightward shifts in US foreign and military policy will be turned back by the next administration or Congress. There are also signs that as the hawks and hardliners pursue their neoimperial agenda they are coming up hard against the exigencies of realpolitik—the need for alliances, the importance of multilateral cover, and the successful diplomatic maneuvering of other powers to set alternative agendas in motion. They are also faced with the need for the State Department’s soft power and moderate multilateralism as well as for nation building and peacekeeping following war.

Might the citizenry ultimately balk
at the country’s deepening power complex?

Both politics and history are also marked by turning points when the confluence of events and human intervention cause fundamental shifts in prevailing ideologies and systems. The creation of a multilateral framework for managing global affairs at the close of World War II was certainly one of those major turning points.
It remains to be seen whether the Bush administration’s supremacy agenda—with its dismissal of international cooperation, its “peace through strength” credo and its unending war on evil—will be a mere passing political moment or the ideological and operative framework for international relations in the early 21st century. At least part of the answer will depend on the willingness of Americans to reach beyond their deeply felt sense of victimization in the aftermath of September 11, 2002 and commit to some serious soul-searching about this country’s deepening power complex. Only then might America regain the capacity to exercise its power responsibly.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>



The Myrna Mack Case: An Historic Verdict

What Is Good Governance? And How Do We Measure It?

Perverse Political Ambitions Behind Institutional Masks

The Puebla Panama Plan In a Nutshell

The US Power Complex: What’s new

What Lies Ahead for the Xicaques, Kunas, Garífunas and Mayas?
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development