Commentary in June 2013 published reflections by Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution on American hyperpower. Excerpts below:

…the United States remains unquestionably the world’s predominant power. As my Hoover Institution colleague Kori Schake has observed, nowadays America has the luxury of not having to win its wars. For a country to find itself in such a position, with so much margin for error, must be some sort of triumph of grand strategy.

But no one in America feels triumphant, and no one is satisfied.

Domestically, if ever was a moment for a resurgent radicalism, surely it came in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008—yet no serious proposal for systemic change to make us happier, wealthier, and freer has sparked the national imagination. Democracy and capitalism, American-style, remain in force. Yet no one in America, left or right, seems to think our system is healthy.

How did we get to a moment in which America and the American system are without clear rivals, but Americans feel burdened and weakened? Barack Obama is the world’s preeminent figure, yet uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The president carries American power heavily, as though it discomfits him. Alas for Obama, he can find no way to relieve himself of it. He would clearly like to wield it less and, in all cases, avoid flaunting it.

But the world won’t let him.

The United States at the end of the Cold War was a rich and powerful country suddenly dealing with a world order whose familiar contours were gone. What were the decisive characteristics of the international system now that one of its formerly decisive characteristics, Soviet power, had vanished? What would the role of the United States be in this new system? What should the United States do in such a system? How much would America’s action stem from its liberal character as opposed to its global standing? How would others, moreover, respond to the post–Cold War transformation of the system and to the new position of the United States?

Samuel Huntington published the  prophecy  “The Clash of Civilizations” in his landmark 1993 essay. Western civilization would be ill served, he wrote, by the assumption that its liberal principles were universal. The conflicts to come would not be, primarily, ideological or economic but cultural in origin.

If not civilizational clash, then perhaps classical Great Power rivalry would soon reassert itself. So the neorealist theorist John Mearsheimer predicted in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Why should the power and influence of the United States be immune to efforts from others to balance it? Perhaps a newly unified and stronger Europe would chafe under the American yoke and seek a path not in an ongoing alliance but as an independent actor and counterweight, as Charles Kupchan suggested in The End of the American Era. And perhaps, in any case, the Soviet pursuit of hegemony had less to do with Marxist ideology and more to do with old-style Russian imperial ambition, an ambition that would persist despite the fall of the Communist regime. China, having taken a decisive turn in the direction of a market economy, was surely on the rise, but would it be content to turn itself into a worldwide economic force that would at some point democratize and accept a position in the status quo of wealthy nations? Or would it seek to challenge and remake the international order in its own image, whatever that might be?

As it turned out, all these theoretical proposals were tested empirically, in the form of four real-world crises from the 1990s. Two served to reveal the extent of American power by its exercise, and two served to reveal the significance of American power in the world by the consequence of the failure to exercise it. Remarkably enough, those examples continue to reflect the conundrum of the American hegemon—peerless yet still capable of losing. And even more capable of defeating itself.

First Iraq Crisis

The first crisis came in 1990, when a broad coalition led by the United States drove Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, a country he had invaded and claimed as Iraq’s 19th province. The Gulf War was the first significant use of American military power since the Vietnam War. Although the coalition that President George H.W. Bush assembled was large, and numerous countries contributed military assets, U.S. capabilities far outstripped those of any other nation, and everyone knew it. American opponents of the war had issued dire warnings about the dangers the United States faced, including casualties in the tens of thousands. They were mistaken. The contest was entirely one-sided. A weeks-long campaign of aerial bombardment preceded a ground attack that lasted only 100 hours, culminating in a decision to halt the fighting rather than destroy Saddam’s retreating army on the so-called Highway of Death. Coalition forces took thousands of Iraqi prisoners and suffered fewer than 200 combat deaths.

The Breaking Up of Yugoslavia

The second crisis came in 1992, with the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. As the international community failed to mount an effective response, the catastrophe turned genocidal in Bosnia. The same Bush administration that had acted so effectively to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait declined to take a leading role in dealing with the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic and his Serb allies inside Bosnia. The United States, finding no compelling U.S. interests at stake—Secretary of State James A. Baker famously said the United States had “no dog in this fight”—deferred to the Europeans, who were unable to achieve results through diplomacy as the situation deteriorated and atrocities mounted. At last, in the summer of 1995, when most of the principal U.S. policymakers were vacationing, their deputies convened in Washington and planned an air campaign that ultimately halted a Bosnian Serb offensive and forced Milosevic to the bargaining table. The inescapable conclusion was that in the absence of the judicious application of American military power, diplomatic progress was impossible—and when that power was applied, the effects were swift and favorable.


The third crisis returned us to Yugoslavia, this time to the then Serbian province of Kosovo, populated by Serbians and ethnic Albanians. Milosevic was determined to execute a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in response to the escalating strife there in 1998–99. The United States and its NATO partners issued an ultimatum demanding that Milosevic stand down. He ignored it, and NATO launched a bombing campaign to compel his compliance. Although it seems apparent that many officials expected Milosevic to capitulate quickly, he did not, and the campaign continued for weeks and then months, culminating in discussion of the possibility of introducing NATO ground troops (an unappealing prospect for the U.S. administration). Eventually, Milosevic caved. Once again, the United States achieved its war aims through the application of unmatchable military power at minimal risk to its service members—and did so, moreover, after reaping a post–Cold War “peace dividend” of shrinking military budgets during the previous decade.

So it was that the United States discovered the virtue of being the hyperpower. Its strength could prove decisive in shaping events. And the events being shaped could pertain not only to the raw pursuit of U.S. national interests, but also to the pursuit of humanitarian and moral purposes—moral purposes shared broadly enough internationally to allow the United States to enjoy wide support for intervention.

As the 20th century came to an end, international politics still included a number of bad actors and many states wary of the preponderant power of the United States. And certainly there were lines the United States would never think to cross, such as direct confrontation with Russia over the treatment of Chechnya or with China over the treatment of Tibet. It would have to remain prudent in avoiding direct confrontation with the few remaining nuclear powers that could put up a serious fight.

At the time, it had become an axiom that American power could be effectively countered only by a nuclear threat. It was unsurprising, therefore, that the “rogue states” of the period, those that had drawn the disfavor of the United States and its allies, had entered into hot pursuit of nuclear weapons of their own. But there was little manifest will in the conventional state system to do something about American military power. To criticize it, yes; to deter it, perhaps; to balance it, no; to confront it, unthinkable.

Among nation-states, that is. What the United States learned on 9/11 was that not all threats come from states—that an international system essentially respectful of the United States as the world’s leading power can nevertheless harbor non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda, capable of inflicting serious damage.

The United States’ initial response to 9/11 was state-centered. Al-Qaeda operated out of Afghanistan, which was then under the control of the Taliban. So the United States issued an ultimatum to the Taliban government, and when it went unheeded, the United States acted to topple that government.

A few months later, President Bush delivered a speech in which he spoke of an “axis of evil”—North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. This phrase was controversial at the time…It sought to conceptualize what would become the “global war on terror” in terms of an alignment of states against the United States and its allies.

…the United States went to war against Iraq for a second time. This time, however, the coalition was smaller than in 1991–92, with several noteworthy absences, France and Germany chief among them.

There was little debate in Washington’s policy circles about what should succeed Saddam’s regime: a democratic, pluralist, rights-regarding government. It would not be acceptable simply to find another Baathist general and put him in charge of the country after giving him a stern warning against the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Some have claimed that George W. Bush went to war in order to bring democracy to the Middle East. That is unquestionably a post-hoc revision, an effort to reframe the war’s justification once caches of genocidal weapons turned out not to exist. But it is certainly true that Bush had a view of freedom and its political progeny, local democracy, as a universal human desire, implanted by a loving creator-God. His second inaugural address in 2005 left no doubt on the point.

Some proponents of the Iraq war suggested that Iraqis would welcome the American troops as liberators. The premise behind the prediction was simple. Iraqi society was in theory latently liberal, especially after decades of living under a monstrous tyranny.

It seems likely that Bush’s thinking was under the influence of recent historical experience—the stunning transformation of all the nations of the former Warsaw Pact as well as the newly independent Baltic states into reasonably well-functioning democracies once the shackles of Soviet influence came off. The prevailing view within the administration and the foreign-policy establishment in Washington was that planting democracy in Iraq would be a challenge, but a manageable and necessary one. Afghanistan was an even bigger problem on the question of a successor regime, since the country had been ravaged by war for more than a generation. But at a minimum, its new government should be more participatory and proffer such public goods as schooling for girls.

“Regime change,” an expression that has fallen out of favor, has two components: out with the old, in with the new. It turns out that removing an offending regime is much easier than “standing up” a new, liberal regime in its stead. American power can achieve extraordinary results by the standard of the capabilities of any previous military. But it is unsuited to the task of remaking societies into liberal democracies in the absence of decades-long commitments.

It has proved simpler just to abandon the effort. In this regard, our most recent military adventure was instructive: In Libya, the United States and its NATO allies made the decisive difference in the ability of rebels to overthrow the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

…after Qaddafi’s downfall, the United States and NATO did not do much of anything with regard to the aftermath. They left the matter almost entirely to Libyans. Although U.S. intelligence assets no doubt played a role, there would be no “boots on the ground.” The result of our covert engagement—including the slaying of the American ambassador in Benghazi and the migration of weapons to al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Mali—can hardly be called successful. And in Syria, with scores of thousands dead, we are back to doing nothing.

What’s next? Sincerely or not, the Obama administration has lately been emphasizing its willingness to use American military power if necessary to prevent the Iranian regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Now, if there is a military campaign, it is likely (at least at first) to be focused narrowly on targeting the Iranian nuclear program. Its objective is unlikely to include the downfall of the Tehran regime. But if the regime does fall, no one, for better or worse, is talking about any kind of American role on the ground in shaping its successor.

In 2009, the Obama administration quietly embraced many of the practices of the Bush administration in the “global war on terror,” now called by a different name (or rather, no name). This seemed tacit acknowledgment that the U.S. government understood itself as the locus of liberal power in an international system that was disinclined to challenge its liberalism and its might—while being plagued by a number of non-state actors who were committed to challenging its liberalism and might. The United States understood that it would still face challenges of potentially extreme danger from actors without a distinct return address—terrorist groups and insurgents, of course, but also anonymous cyber attackers, perhaps facilitated by the covert capabilities of governments unwilling to challenge the United States openly. The disposition to deal with problem states by airpower and covert action rather than large armies, to deal with terrorists by drone strikes, and to disengage U.S. “boots on the ground” in favor of letting the locals sort matters out for themselves—these are the practical consequences of President Obama’s May 2012 statement that “after more than a decade of war, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”

There is no evidence, either from recent history or history from time immemorial, that the power at the center of world order can turn its attention inward without jeopardizing that order. In the case of the United States, that includes jeopardizing such liberal moral principles as the imperative to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. Yet the hyperpower today is moody, out of sorts, uncertain…and the disorder is growing.



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