Friday, July 27, 2007


Plato would have been a terrible blogger. True, contemporary weblogs in many ways epitomize his style. They are dialogues with pulses, providing both contentions and space to refute them; yet, they are not conducive to the kind of reasoned, plodding, stuffy, rich, erudite, archaic and considered manner in which he and his classical contemporaries set out their arguments. This is not meant as a criticism of blogs (I am writing one, after all), but rather as a simple observation. Blogs are excellent places to hint at ideas, gain insight into others' thinking, test hypotheses and stab with but one eye open into the intellectual darkness. In that spirit, I initiate the first (somewhat shorter) follow up to my last post on grand strategy.

In that post, I identified three key questions that needed to be answered in developing a grand strategy for 21st century foreign policy. The first concerned goals. Somewhat shy of two years ago, I attended a foreign policy conference at West Point. The agenda for the various working groups was expansive, encompassing every inhabited inch of the Earth and every major international issue currently affecting its inhabitants. What I found most interesting about the gathering, though, was that the discussions all functioned under the premise that that United States constituted the indisputable epicenter of global politics and economics, and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. American hegemony was not debated, it was assumed.

I recall finding this consensus both intriguing and somewhat troubling, as I do not imagine my nation's position of prominence to be so pervasive or secure. For one thing, though other factors certainly matter, for most of modern history a nation's power has been roughly commensurate with it's relative GDP, and the American share of global wealth has been declining steadily since the end of the Second World War. For another, the United States is doing a woefully pitiful job making the necessary investments in technology and intellectual capital that will be necessary to arrest that decline in the next century. More significantly, though, I am not particularly bothered by the notion that my country's moment as global hegemon may be peaking. The temptations of empire, from Cuba to the Philippines to Vietnam to Iraq, have frequently demanded economic, political and moral costs far beyond their worth. What does concern me, though, is the type of international order that will predominate in what Tom Friedman has called the post-post-Cold War World.

Various theories about the vicissitudes of inter-state relations posit that the most dangerous periods in an international system are those in which great powers' positions are changing. Status quo states used to playing a central role tend to jealously guard their position and overestimate their own capabilities, while revisionist ones charge ahead, drunk on the possibilities of the future. Absent careful management, these frictions have in the past exploded into conflict. In the macro-historical sense, one can interpret the two great wars of the 20th Century as the earthquakes that accompanied the tectonic shift of global influence away from Western Europe and into Asia and the New World. All this to say that it is imperative for U.S. leadership not to overestimate American capabilities, wasting economic resources, political capital and human lives in a futile quest to retain global hegemony. A unified Europe, a resurgent Russia, a more independent Japan, a newly-empowered India and, of course, a rising Chinese juggernaut will all be jockeying for influence in the coming decades.

Rather than try to keep a lid on such developments, American leaders should prepare to settle into a global regime of "asymmetric multipolarity," in which the United States occupies a place similar to 19th Century Great Britain: as the most powerful state in a group of powerful states. America can expect to remain quite influential, but the era in which the U.S. can simply impose its will on the World is fast coming to a close (the era was, mercifully for all involved, short). The principal goals of American foreign policy ought to center around making this asymetrically multipolar world a decent place to live and conduct statecraft. To my mind, this means; a) maintaining and extending the regime of international commerce that serves as the principal hedge against major military conflict, especially in the presence of durable authoritarian capitalist powers like Russia and China, while beginning to construct institutions of global economic justice that will make such linkages politically solvent; b) engaging in an aggressive (but non-military) campaign of democracy promotion to ensure constructive outlets for political greivances and undercut the appeal of radically disruptive ideologies (such as salafist Islam); c) taking a position of serious global leadership on the issue of global warming and sustainable energy production in order to head off the one global issue with the potential to bring the whole system crashing down.

My next question had to do with obstacles to those goals' achievement. That is for another post. So much for limiting my verbosity and length. I would be interested in any comments.

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