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3:17AM

America's Place in the World

afghan_elders.png

We Americans tend to have an overly inflated sense of our place in this world. If there is an enemy, we must defeat it. If a global challenge looms, we must lead the way forward. When somebody reaches for a weapon, we must strike before they can use it (against us, naturally). And should we fail to do so, we would be to blame for whatever tragedy might result.

Continue reading this week's New Rules column at WPR.

Reader Comments (6)

Tom, your article assumes that neither Iran or North Korea would make a nuke available to terrorists. As Prez, I would not want to live with that assumption.
February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam R Millan
I think that your overall thesis as advanced in your works such as the Pentagon's New Map is both sophisticated and very useful in terms of gameplanning US geostrategy. However, though I may be somewhat of a contrarian, how can you be so sure these rule sets will become permanently ensconced in international relations?

Contemporary trends may favor your overall argument, but discontinuities throughout history have taken place, usually because something unanticipated happened.

Niall Ferguson has a fascinating new piece in the current Foreign Affairs (March/April 2010) about how stunningly quickly collapses in order (including imperial orders) can transpire. In a sense, this piece is the anti-Gibbon, Spengler and Toynbee. Rather than long-term trends of decline that become obvious in retrospect, he raises the prospect that relatively small disturbances within systems can destroy the balance of those system and yield chaos.

Obviously, redundancy in any system can ameliorate this, but how do we really know what the impact of a nuclear or biological attack on a major American city be? What will that do to international trade? What will it do to America's already ballooning deficits?

Will a future generation of Chinese leaders feeling more confident be less pragmatic and see "Western" weakness as an opprtunity to be exploited as opposed to a challenge to be overcome?

I do not think it is histrionic to be concerned with these possibilities. No order in the history of the world has yet proven itself permanent. Why is the order of this era any different?

If Rome could collapse, the empire of Qin Shi Huangdi collapse and the Sun set on the British, how can we be so sure we have found the "solution?"

I ask this in all earnestness and not to be controversial. Given your reputation, I would be most interested in your response.
February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGreg R. Lawson
Any chance Friedman reads this one?
February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJarrod Myrick
The reason it won't collapse is because it isn't *our* order any more. The British empire collapsed, and now is a comfortably off globally upper middle class country in western Europe. But did the Industrial Revolution suddenly go into reverse? Did parliamentary democracy see irreversible decline post WWII? (The Brits were working on their democracy long before Americans got into the act... mind you, it was a work-in-progress for longer.) If during the 20th C most of western Europe lost its colonies, did that make for the decline of Western civilization? Not if the East takes it up as well!

Most people like proclaimed US values. They just think that we're being cynical. But if they take up these values and set them in their own society, re-create in their own way, these US values will not lose, just re-created. Never exactly the same. In this way, these values/rule-sets will not fail as empires have always failed.
February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Stewart
“So far, our reaction to this perfectly predictable resistance has been framed in the most rigid of dichotomies. Our first reflex amounted to a global crusade in the form of sequential pre-emptive war. The isolationist backlash we see arising now amounts to accepting their offer of civilizational apartheid. Fortunately, there is a middle ground, because even though we set this modern form of globalization in motion, we no longer control it: Globalization is all grown up now, and no longer lives in his parents' basement! It moves forward of its own momentum, primarily driven not by some "elite conspiracy," but by the unprecedented demands of its emerging middle class.”

The US and its allies did well/good in Iraq in spite of everything. The US and its allies will do well/good in Afghanistan. That has (and will) raise US status and lower that of extremist apartheid and terrorist organizations. For a time yet what we’ve learned may be useful again so we should maintain a comfortable level of readiness as part of a middle course approach to our continuing (strategically guided and restrained) role as (most reliable, most trustworthy, and most competent) global problem solver. The middle course toward Iran and North Korea should be to let them know that we are watching them and will respond to protect ourselves, to watch and wait for them to feel demands of their people and see opportunities opening up with connection to the world, and to watch and wait for them to see how, in places not far, people not very different from themselves are doing and living better than ever before.
February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGilbert Garza
Greg,

Echoing David Stewart, the major difference--and it's gargantuan, is that ours is the first "empire" (if you must use that term) that's empowered and enriched masses of individuals instead of merely elites. As such, its spread is achieved as a demand function, not a supply function, so it expands, it needs us less and not more.

Are we yet used to this reality? No. But growing up is a constant process.

As for why ours is the oldest continuous constitutional democracy in the world?

Same reason.

Bill,

By that argument we should have initiated pre-emptive war against the Soviet Union, which supported terrorist networks to a degree North Korea and Iran could only dream of. Yet we did not and they did not give a nuke to any terrorist group. Why is that? And how can you be so sure of this danger WRT Iran and North Korea? And if it did happen, the traceability would be there, and the same retribution would occur.

More specifically, if that's your argument, then we should clearly be invading Pakistan this very minute. But 177m Muslims are a terrible thing to tame.

Given the traceability (more than an assumption on my part), why should I let Pyongyang or Tehran or Tel Aviv decide when the U.S. goes to war?

Nine US presidents lived with the assumption you cite, and ones far worse to imagine, and yet never resorted to fear-based analysis to drive their thinking regarding nuclear war.

I think every president we've had with this capability, and even one we'll never have, would prefer to fire the second nuclear round rather than the first--given the great stakes involved.

And I would prefer living in a country with such leadership, especially since it has overseen almost seven decades of no-great-power nor nuclear war by following this philosophy.

If somebody else breaks this rule, then we break them, and the rule is that much stronger.

But if we break this rule, then it's really broken.

As for doing it all conventionally, it's a wonderful gamble, but I don't care for gamblers in the White House.
February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTom Barnett

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