Defining America's Role in a Unipolar World

By Graebner, Norman A. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Defining America's Role in a Unipolar World


Graebner, Norman A., The Virginia Quarterly Review


William Clinton's chief foreign policy legacy was a nation more divided on matters of external affairs than at any time since the culminating isolationist-internationalist clash of 1941-one resolved quite conclusively by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The American public divided sharply over the war in Vietnam, but the bitter wartime debate, except for a deeply committed minority, would not outlast the termination of the war itself. Unlike the domestic conflict over Vietnam, the Clintoninspired foreign policy debate was less pervasive, yet more fundamental. It was less pervasive because the country was not trapped in a perennial, largely inexplicable war. It was more fundamental because it addressed the country's world relationships through a timeless and unpredictable future. At issue was the requirement of defining the role of the world's lone superpower for as long as that unipolar condition persisted. The challenge was not unlike that which confronted the strongest boy on any city block, as he sought to maximize his sense of security, well being, and self-satisfaction. He could be anything from a benign source of strength and wisdom to a feared and hated bully. It was only the absence of immediate necessity that muted this inescapable choice for the government and people of the United States.

The world's traditional mode of diplomatic behavior was long established in literature and practice. John Quincy Adams, America's greatest diplomatist, was preoccupied with style as much as substance in his conduct of foreign affairs. Similarly, George F. Kennan observed that "manner of execution is always a factor in diplomacy of no less importance than concept." Kennan recalled that during his long diplomatic career he was concerned less with what others "thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it." For Kennan, as for Adams, good form in outward behavior was "a value in itself, with its own validity and effectiveness ." Francois de Callieres, whose book, On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes (1716), remains the finest book ever written on diplomatic practice, emphasized the importance of courtesy and deportment in the conduct of diplomacy. For him, an open, genial, civil, and ingratiating manner was indispensable to the profession of diplomacy-as was the capacity to listen. The more powerful the prince, Callieres observed, the more moderate and reassuring the diplomacy. Military power, generally recognized, could speak for itself; diplomacy, limited to the power of persuasion, responded to the pursuit of common interests, not the dictates of power. For Callieres, "all negotiated agreements rested on mutual advantage; diplomacy that failed that test was no diplomacy at all."

Whatever its limited role in eliminating the 20th century's Nazi and Communist assaults on Western civilization, the United States, between 1945 and 1989, provided most of the military power that stabilized the Cold War confrontation across Europe, even as its economic power underwrote an era of unprecedented prosperity. In the process, the United States set an admirable standard of international leadership. Such creations as the Marshall plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the West German State-all fundamental to the remarkable stabilization of continental Europewere the product of months of imaginative diplomacy among the United States, Great Britain, and the powers of Europe. What underwrote much of the postwar American-led international order were such multilateral institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Together, these institutions, with the restraints they imposed, created a stable, agreeable environment which promoted the interests of all. At the same time, the rule-based structure of international cooperation minimized the possibilities of American hegemonic dictation. Historian Geir Lundestad aptly defined the American-led postwar order as "an empire of consent. …

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