You are on page 1of 8

Emporium Current Essays

379

8TORLB-V

8iH«

For 45 years the Soviet Union gave the US a global role, one amply supported by both
the American people and much of the Western World. Behind the country's leadership,
unprecedented in modern history, lay not only an abundance of power, economic and
military, but also the relevance of that power to the perceived wants of others. By mid-
century the US possessed more global influence than did Britain ..< its days of imperial
glory. The alignment of Western power and intentions enabled the US to meet the Soviet
challenge on every cold war front: military, economic, diplomatic and ideological.
Containment bought time, time enough for the massive inconsistencies in the Soviet
system to undermine it. No American leader at mid-century could have framed a more
satisfactory" and promising conclusion of the East-West confrontation than that which
actually occurred.

Unfortunately for the US, the heavy price of success assured the decline of its global
leadership as well. The economic primacy of the post-war decade had given way by the
1980s to massive deficits at home, huge adverse trade balances abroad and the rise of
powerful, competing economies, especially in Germany and Japan. Possessing 11 of the
world's 20 largest banks, Japan had replaced New York as the world's leading centre of
international finance. Its stock exchange led the world in turnover. Not even in its
industrial innovation and efficiency had the nation sustained is longchallenged primacy.
But as long as the USSR appeared to Americans and Europeans as a still-dangerous
antagonist, military power, amplified at huge cost by the Reagan budgets, assured the I
US a pervading role in world affairs.

It required only the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989

and 1990 to challenge America' global leadership where the US still

claimed predominance - in its military power. Throughout the

I decades of the cold war, the nation's special role assumed the

I presence of an archenemy, recognised as dangerous by much of the

I external world. But Mikhail Gorbachev's withdrawal from the old

I East-West rivalry eliminated the face-offs.

t380
Emporium Current Essays

The mlrrjir by which the US has defined itself was gone. It

ROW faced the task of discovering an identity based on what it was

rather than what it had appeared to be. The unravelling of the

Soviet system in Eastern Europe merely deepened the identity crisis

j&ecausc it threatened to unravel Western Europe as well.

Througboiit the cold war America's European role demanded the

presence of a different, threatening East; the Iron Curtain, now

gene, symbolised the presence of that danger.

i President George Bush's war in the Gulf, whether

;purposefwlly or not, gaVe-American global leadership a new lease on

life by apparently r.^-establishing the role of military power in world

-affairs, l^ot since the Spanish American War, perhaps never before

in its history did the US wage such a relentlessly successful war. The

.country's huge defence expenditures and technological supremacy in

^weapons had paid off. The war assured the demise of the USSR as a

superpower. Smart bombs had apparently enabled the US to

reclaim world leadership despite its huge indebtedness, budget

-defieils and need of foreign investments.

As a ready programme for dealing with future aggression, one definsiig the country's
recovered international role and building on its latest exertion of leadership, the President
proclaimed a new world order. The President proclaimed a new. world order. The
president recalled the Gulf War itself where an impressive alliance, granted purpose an
moral sanction by the UN, seemed to offer those elements of power capable of
guaranteeing future peace and security. Actually Desert Storm was no seminal event; it
suggested no post-war role for the US or offered any preview of future action. Bush had
invited the conflict against doubtful public support. During the months that separated the
Iran-Iraq war from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Washington created no consistent
response, one based on White House co-ordination with the Departments of Commerce,
State and Defence, to Saddam Hussein's suspected military and territorial ambitions.
Although the Baghdad regime had become the bulwark of the country's anti-Iranian
policy in the Gulf, the administration revealed no, appreciation for the deep historic and
economic frustrations that Kuwait's borders and oilpricing policies imposed on the Iraqi
Government.

Having issued on recognisable warnings, the President, following the Iraqi invasion,
reversed course. After September he launched an incredibly successful campaign of
dcmonising Saddam to build both an image of global danger and the necessary domestic
and foreign support for a policy of liberating Kuwait. Saddam rendered the task easy.

Emporium Current Essays

381

President Bush had anchored his pursuit of international support, not to an


accommodation with Iraq, but to the uncompromising demand for withdrawal. As late as
January 14, Saddam asked UN secretary-general Javier Perez dc Cullar, then in Baghdad,
for terms. Cuellar responded that he was free only to demand Iraq's immediate
withdrawal from Kuwait without conditions. Given the choice between capitulation and
war, Saddam predictably chose war. Having based his international support on the
liberation of Kuwait alone, the President denied himself the right to pursue the war into
Iraq, permitting Saddam Hussein not only to survive but also to punish his domestic
enemies the Shi'ites in the south and the Kurds in the north. The •disillusionment among
those who took Bush's crusade against Saddam seriously was profound. Whether the US,
in response to another Iraqi aggression, would "operation, or cobble together another
alliance with UN support, was doubtful. The Gulf alliance had revealed vastly disparate
interest and objectives. Only Britain, with its long and recent attachment to Kuwait,
entered the alliance with enthusiasm. Except for the astonishing efforts of the Bush
Administration, there would have been no alliance at all. Even then the war, like the
similar venture in Korea 40 years earlier, remained largely an American affair.

For many Americans the new world order never rested on alliance or the UN, but on the
power of the US as demonstrated in the Gulf. The American nation would be the
guarantor of international stability, using, its lone superpower status to assure conditions
favourable to world peace. The absence of competing power had apparently created
unique global environment, one unprecedented in modern times, that empowered the US
to establish a global Pax Americana.

Unfortunately, the notion that American power carried its own responsibility for action
against infractions of the peace ignored the historic admonition that legitimate resorts to
force must contribute to the defence of perceived national interests. The Gulf War
demonstrated the military supremacy of the US, but that supremacy had the bearing on
the normal life of nations. It could not influence those who did not fear it, or those who
no longer needed it for protection. The international community might prefer peace and
stability to turmoil, but it harboured no desire for a selfappointed global policeman. US
weaponry, as deployed in the Gulf, existed in a world without a hegemonic antagonist.
No enemy soldiers or nuclear arsenals threatened American or European security on a
global scale; no enemy navies traversed the world's oceans. President Reagan's evil
empire no longer demanded382

Emporium Current Essays

Emporium Current Essays

383

forward deployments in Europe of heavy infantry and armoured divisions. No adversary


possessed an industrial-technological base capable of building dangerous levels of
ballistic missiles or sophisticated conventional weapons. Local and regional strife could
still cause trouble, but not comparable to that posed by Hitlers Germany of the post-war
USSR. The Soviet collapse, rather than permitting the expansion of US influence as the
unipolarists predicted, vastly curtailed it. For more than 40 years America's leadership in
world affairs rested on bipolarity; without the presence of a powerful threat, one
generally recognised, military power ceased to underwrite an effective, consistent
American role in world affairs. The "sole-rctaaining-superpowcr-syndrome" suggested no
programme at all.

.But the retreat of war embarked far more that the diminution of the Soviet threat. With
the end of the cold war, some writers, among them John Mearsheimer of the University
of Chicago, predicted the revival of historic tensions among those Western powers
responsible for most wars of modern times. The return of major conflict, he wrote, would
cause Americans to regret the passing of the cold war. Already it seemed apparent,
however, that the experience of the 20th century had taken its toll of war. The stockpiles
of nuclear weapons assured limitless devastation in any war that employed them. Recent
memory suggested that another major conflict limited to conventional weapons would be
an unacceptable disaster. Television reminded the public of .even a limited war's brutality
and horrors. It is not strange that no Cold War issue not even the Cuban missile crisis,
approached a military .solution. The US accepted a stalemate in Korea an total defeat in
Vietnam as preferable to any enlargement of the conflicts, despite official rhetoric that
equated such outcomes with the loss of the world. The Soviet Union backed away from
the Cuban missile crisis and ultimately permitted the collapse of the entire Soviet system
rather than risk a resort to force. Communism had no staying power commensurate with
the cost of war. As historian Robert O'Connel concluded, "The very fact that the [Soviet]
ruling class ~ armed to the teeth and wedded to an institutional culture which lionised
coercion - would give u without a fight, speaks volumes on the inutility of warfare.'

American who anticipated a continuing US role, based on military power and the
willingness to use it, quickly discovered new .global challenges in the from of resurgent
nationalism, ethnic strife, border disputes, economic and social chaos and civil war.
Historic tension, frozen by decades of the cold war, suddenly burst forth

across much of Eurasia. By 1991 the era of the Cold War suddenly appeared stable and
reassuring by comparison. It is not strange that President Bush, suddenly confronted by
problems that defied ready, historic responses, drooped his plans to define is new world
order in a planned series of public addressed.

Whether the world's burgeoning turbulence offered a promising role for American
power was questionable from the outset. Africa, with its thousand ethnic and linguistic
groups scattered over some 50 states, with borders imposed by colonial masters,
unleashed levels of violence that defied description. Ethnic rivalries were especially
ruinous in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa, Rwanda, Burundi and Angola. Across
India, Hindu-Muslim warfare and historic Opposition to the Hindu caste system left
hundreds dead in Srinagar, Bombay and other Indian cities. In Sri, Lanka, Tamil
guerrillas unleashed unrestricted violence in queues of a separate Tamil state that killed
thousands every year. Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington proclaimed a Muslim-Western
clash of civilisations across the Middle East as the next global confrontation. The
brutalities of religious fundamentalism were apparent from Pakistan and Afghanistan to
Egypt and Algeria. Much of the ethnic conflict, unleasing decades, if not centuries, .of
pent-up hatreds, reached levels of virulence and genocide that shocked the world's
sensibilities. The death and destruction were a measure of the inexhaustible supply of
weapons all over the world. Because the ethnic wars remained internal, they rendered
external interest ambiguous. Observers and analysts warned that humanitarian
interventions in ethnic strife were doomed to end in exhaustion and retreat. "If we want to
a void needless, thankless deaths among our own country-men," concluded Ralph Peters,
a US Foreign Service Officer studying the Soviet collapse, "we must try to learn to watch
others die with equanimity." Clearly the post-cold war global environment offered the
US no inviting arena for^the ready employment of its vaunted military might.

Nothing in the international arena recommended a proper level of national defence. The
presumed military capabilities of the USSR no longer served as both incentive and guide.
To Pentagon officials, the US required a defence structure sufficient to maintain its
superpower status as well as the independence of the world's oil supplies and industrial
centres. They insisted that the country be prepare to fight two major ward concurrently.
Still the list of potential aggressors remained implausible. The Pentagon, under pressure,
named seven: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, China, and Cuba. Some would add
one or more of the former Soviet384

Emporium Current Essays

republics. Precisely how these countries would endanger historic US interests remained
obscure. Equally nuclear was the obligation of other states to protect their interest which
would, in any crisis, be challenged far more directly than world those of the US.
Europeans seems capable of defining their continent from any conceivable assaults.
Whatever the elusivencss of possible dangers and the corresponding difficulty in judging
future military requirements, the projected Pentagon budgets continued to hover above
S250 billion, with localities clinging to their bases and defence industries. Expenditure
even at that level could not overcome the constraints on US military action imposed by
the predictable incoherence among interests, costs and public approval in a limited war.
The absence of dangers required to assure a national consensus did not dictate an
American retreat from national preparedness, but it rendered the definition of a necessary
military structure exceedingly difficult.

This was not strange. Aside from its defence of discernible national interests under actual
or potential threat, military power always exists in a policy vacuum, irrelevant to most
global issues that capture the headlines. Rhetorically the Soviet danger exceeded all
others of modern history. Still, Washington's globalisation of the danger rendered it so
abstract that the country could never determine precisely what strategies it programme of
containment required. It scattered its forces around the whorl without knowing where, or
to what extent, it would encounter any proclaimed Communist aggression. Meanwhile,
the US and it European allies, pursuing their narrow security interests did not response
with force to prevent or mitigate countless local and regional conflicts that took the lives
of millions: civil strife in Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Chad, Nicaragua and El Salvador;
wars between Iran and Iraq, Israel and the Arabs, India and Pakistan; violence and
massacres in Indonesia, China, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Cyprus. The discipline that the US
and the USSR imposed on their allies preserved stability and discouraged aggression
where the general peace demanded it, in Europe and Japan especially. But the Western
goal of maintaining a cold war peace never included peace where strife did not endanger
Atlantic security. Democratic peoples, under any conditions, have always demanded to
know the interests for which they were expected to fight and die. If the US and its allies
assented readily to previous assaults on humanity that did not touch their interests, they
would assuredly do so again.

Even the Euro-American relationship that underwrote the country's.primary in global


politics rested on mutual interests that

Emporium Current Essays

385

were always tenuous. For. 300 years before Pearl Harbor Europeans pursued interests of
their own and assumed responsibility for their defence. During the Cold War the US
remained on the European scene because American and European interests coincided In
the protection of the Atlantic world against direct Soviet attack. In China, Indo-China, the
Middle East and Latin America, US and European security interests, even amid
assumptions of global dangers, scarcely met at all. TKeHSulf War seemed to offer a
model in burden-haring in defence of international law and Arab oil. Yet , that war was,
in large measure, another American venture for which the Bush Administration claimed
full credit. Throughout the cold war and after, .this country's global role rested
overwhelmingly on unilateral decisions. Confronted by the complicates of the new ,
international environment, that tradition of unilateral action faced serious limitations.
Nowhere in Eurasia or Africa could the US address the chaos alone and no existing
challenge demanded that it should. The persistent injunctions of officials and writers,
both American and European, that the US alone could Ecad the post-Cold . War world,
reflected less a loss of capability or a pica for collective security than Europe's habit of
relying no American resources. Policies designed to meet the world's problems though
multilateral agreements on manpower and costs would merely reaffirm the external
limitations on national action. On no issue was there a postCold War international
consensus. Burdened by such constraints on its freedom of decision, the US, only with
difficulty, could design a role for its military power, accepted by most and recognised by
all. Determined to restore the nation's credibility and thereby its influence in world
affairs, many advocated higher defence expenditures and a renewed propensity to
Address the world's instabilities with force. But military preparedness, as the entire cold
war experience demonstrated, could establish credibility only where ' widely recognised
national interests recommended some resort to violence. Credibility flows alone from
expectations of what a country can and should do abroad. Those who lamented the
decline of American influence an credibility and anticipated a more assertive US
role in international affair, could discover no arena for US military action where interests
were commensurate with the potential costs of intervention. Any attempt to extend
credibility with greater reliance on excessive rhetoric could only Scad to confusion,
validation and unrealistic expectation of support that would never come. "Although some
ambiguity in official statements in inevitable" advised former under-secrctary of State,
David C.. Ncwsom, "high-level declarations should be carefully crafted, sparingly
used and as consistent as possible." International386

Emporium Current Essays

leadership, anchored to high levels of credibility and influence based on readiness to


employ power, could not transcend the diminishing threats to the country's vital interests.

If the external constraints on America's post-cold war international involvements were


not compelling enough, the domestic limitations were no less severe. Public opinion was
perhaps the most pervading. The alleged eradication of the Vietnam syndrome during the
victorious Gulf War suggested that the American people thereafter would welcome an
active role in world affairs, including heavier reliance on force in pursuitity. But the
Vietnam syndrome taught only that the US should avoid unnecessary wars where victory
was elusive and interests not equal to the costs. Never did the American public believe
anything else. The brief, popular war in the Gulf did not create an Iraqi syndrome. Both
the Vietnam and the Gulf wars were totally unique; one was the easiest victory in
American history, the other was no victory in American history, the other was no victory
in American history, the other was no victory at all. Neither could dictate the country's
future course or the status of public opinion. The Gulf War did not no to demonstrate that
aggression does not pay, any more than the successful, if limited, uses of force in
Grenada, Libya and Panama sent a warning to Saddam Hussein. Military deterrence has
about the same effect on nations that police forces and capital punishment have on
society. If Americans, responding to the euphoria of easy victory, approved of the use of
power in the Gulf, they were hot committed to its use elsewhere.
Polls revealed that the country remained reluctant to engage in war, especially when the
interest pursued defied accurate definition. In an Associated Press poll of July 1993 a
large majority denied that the US had any responsibility for civil disorders around the
globe. Even Americans who acknowledged some national obligation to address human
rights abuses demanded that Washington limit the price to what the national interest
required. No longer concerned with the Communist danger, many Conservatives,
concerned with fiscal responsibility, condemned those who would learn the country into
unnecessary foreign pursuits. President Bush advised a West Point audience in January
1993 that the country should consider resorts to military force only wliere the stakes
warranted it, where the-application could be limited in scope and time and where the
escape from intervention was as well defined as the way in US> military power was real,
but the public support for putting Americans at risk,waS not, Without that support the
country's appellation as a superpower was

Emporium Current Essays

387

irrelevant. No longer did the US -possess the unchallengeable economic and financial
resiliency that had earlier underwritten its global role. The US after 1990 remained both
the world's richest country and its leading debtor. From George Washington to Dwigth
Eiscn Hower, a period of 160 years, the country'had little public debt, chiefly the S200
billion left over from Wor|d War II. The debts began to accumulate in the 1960s when
President Lyndon Johnson chose to finance the Vietnam War and the Great Society
through borrowing. In 1980, the year of Reagan's election, the national debt sto'od at
$909 billion. It reached SI trillion in 1982. S2 trilliort in

! 1986, S3-trillion in 1990, S4 trillion in 1992 in January 1994 it reached S4.8 trillion,
with projections of over S6 trillion by 2000. Interest payments tailed only defence and
Social Security.

K Unfortunately, the huge annual deficits responded to the demands of citizens who
believed themselves entitled to benefits for which they had to intention of paying.
Congressmen kept their constituents contented by permitting the national debt to climb,
institutionalising the nation's indebtedness in the process. Der Spiegel, Germany's noted
news magazine, observed in 1992: "No one in the administration and no one the
American people how deeply their nation has slid into a structural crisis." The country's,
tragic " economic flaws discounted the importance of its military might. A country that
could not raise revenues to meet its costs could not perform as a superpower. ,. , . ;