In the international jungle, the United States remains the 800-pound gorilla--a creature of commanding and unparalleled strength, able to quash anything underfoot. But the United States' military and economic might does not always translate into easy attainment of US objectives. Even before the war on terrorism, US foreign policy repeatedly demonstrated the importance of multilateralism and public diplomacy--witness the vigorous campaign conducted by President George Bush and his administration in Europe and Russia to win support for missile defense, the delicate coalition-building in Kosovo by the administration of President Bill Clinton, and the post-1998 stalemate of US policy toward Iraq. In each of these instances, US success or failure depended on its ability to manage its own internal politics, to build and sustain political coalitions, and to restrain itself when tempted toward unilateralism. Understanding these limits to US power--some self-imposed, some forced on the United States by second-tier pow ers, and some cleverly applied by weak states--is crucial to uncovering what power itself means in today's international system and to making policies that will succeed in that system.
A Pattern of Weakness
First, the domestic politics of the United States limit its international freedom of action. Although the president may have the world's finest military at his command, he often lacks the combination of public and congressional support he needs to maximize its advantages. Foreign policy surveys show that US citizens remain casualty-averse unless vital US interests such as preventing terrorism seem to be at stake. And except for a brief period of bipartisan-ship after September 11, the notion of politics stopping at the water's edge now seems as quaint and obsolete as Cold War air raid drills. Internal divisions frequently prevent the United States from acting as quickly, decisively, or forcefully as its material resources would allow. This reality does not go unnoticed by other nations: what seems like democratic debate to US citizens may appear to others as a lack of resolve or an opportunity for political manipulation, further complicating the execution of US foreign policy.
Second, the complexity of international politics poses a serious challenge to the exercise of US power. Despite its military prowess, the United States remains fundamentally dependent on support from local allies when it operates abroad. The geographic position of a weak state may endow it with a powerful bargaining chip when the United States needs basing rights or access to airspace. This leverage requires diplomatic finesse and sensitivity to those foreign leaders' own domestic constraints. Political skill turns out to be just as important as military strength--and, unfortunately for the United States, much more evenly distributed. Even relatively weak states can often exploit political cracks in the United States' relationships with its allies, providing third parties with leverage over the United States despite their material inferiority.
Third, even when the United States is capable of capturing an advantage by acting unilaterally, it often finds itself trapped in what Bruce Conin has called the "paradox of hegemony." The United States certainly has the ability to act as a great power and pursue its short-term interest in a particular case: for example, by intervening in a foreign country to secure oil. Actually doing so, however, would undermine its role as a hegemon trying to lead the international system according to a set of rules (in this case, the UN Charter) which benefit its long-term interests and help legitimize its power. Moreover, in pursuing its short-term interest of securing oil, the hegemon would undermine its provision of the public good of law and order that helps other states tolerate the hegemon's power. Other states might then begin to balance more actively against the hegemon, hastening its decline. …