President Clinton likes to talk about building bridges to the 21st century, but there is no construction gang on the scene. The truth of the matter is that, nearly a decade since the end of the Cold War, the United States is still without a blueprint for the future. From the Bush administration's vacuous "new world order" rhetoric to the "engagement and enlargement" effluvia of the Clinton administration, the United States has substituted slogans for strategy.
Such policy drift is partly attributable to post-Cold War complacency, and partly to the triumphalist belief in the march of liberal-democracy that permeates American foreign policy attitudes. There are, of course, differences in the way foreign affairs practitioners view the world. Neo-Wilsonians believe that a rational and educable world will eventually adopt the same values. Realists believe that the United States must exert its power and coopt others into joining international posses that the American sheriff would naturally lead. American nationalists, so-called neo-Reaganites, contend that the United States bears a special duty to create a peaceful and moral international order, while neo-isolationists--America Firsters, libertarians, pacifists--oppose the political and economic cost of an American empire.
On the surface, these options appear to be quite different, at least in terms of what is required of the United States. Upon closer examination, however, they are all variations of American exceptionalism, and they all depart from the same premises about the contemporary international environment as it has evolved since the end of the Cold War.
The Mythology of Unipolarity
Debate about the nature and implications of global change is bounded by two broad assumptions. First, despite the spread of liberal-democracy, the world is far more complicated, unpredictable, and dangerous than it was during the Cold War. Second, the maintenance of a peaceful and stable international system accordingly depends on the moral and political leadership, if not hegemony, of the United States. Of the two propositions, the first is unequivocally true. The assumption that it is up to the United States--the world's "superpower"--to maintain peace and order in a potentially turbulent world is dubious.
The United States has been the stabilizing force in the transition from the bipolar order to the current messy multipolarity. It was the United States that rescued Kuwait from the clutches of Iraqi expansionism, produced the Dayton accords, and bailed out Mexico in 1995, and it is the United States that is taking the lead in addressing the global financial crisis.
But the image of an American paladin is also the product of post-Cold War hype. Increasingly, language defines politics. From NATO expansion, to the containment of China, to the defense of human rights in Kosovo, it is the rhetoric of unipolarity and superpowerdom that drives policy and supplies its content. Politically, the United States assumes leadership because political leaders believe the world will plunge into chaos without it; psychologically, because it strokes the nation's vanity.
America's friends and allies contribute to the hype. Although foreign governments may privately grumble about American hegemony, they happily defer to American power in times of crisis, as they did during the Cold War, because they expect the United States to come to their aid if things go wrong.
Post-Cold War U.S. global leadership is further reinforced by the myth of American exceptionalism. The original Puritan settlers and their descendants believed that they were "chosen" by God to build a community that others would emulate. Their descendants were uniformly convinced "that the entire past of the human race was only preparation for the appearance of American society."
In the aftermath of bipolarism, the same religious view inspires contemporary approaches to foreign policy, all of which aim to universalize the American liberal-democratic experience. …