General Strategies: How the United States Makes War

Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

General Strategies: How the United States Makes War


Recently you have written about the United States as a "reluctant warrior" in international affairs. Could you elaborate on your views about the unique nature of the US role in global affairs in the post-Cold War and post-September 11 era?

You used the right word when you said "unique," and that is the problem. There has not been any country, certainly since Rome--and that is not a good comparison--that has had the kind of power in the many different dimensions that the United States has today. The United States possesses not just the largest economy ever seen by a very wide margin, but also enormous and overwhelming military power. Furthermore, it also has a tremendous amount of what is misleadingly termed "soft power," which refers to a tremendous cultural influence, including academic leadership in graduate schools and universities and tremendous resources in innovation and creativity in science and technology. This unprecedented situation for the United States reminds me of something US President Abraham Lincoln once said: "As our circumstances are new, we have to think anew." The problem is that there are not many historical parallels to provide guidance for the contemporary situation.

I think there are a number of things that flow from this. The United States is going to find itself getting involved in many parts of the world willy-nilly. In many ways, it seems to me that a lot of the debate about the US role in the world has been beside the point, because it gives the impression that the United States or US political leaders really have an enormous amount of control over where or how they get involved. In fact, the degree of freedom of choice is less than people think, which is a somewhat troubling thing no matter where you are on the political spectrum.

The other issue that I find myself thinking more and more about these days, particularly as a long-term consequence of the most recent Gulf War, is the amount of and-US sentiment in the world, which has many different sources. There are some sources that the United States can remedy, and others that it cannot. But, in any event, these feelings are a tremendously important phenomenon that I suspect will not go away anytime soon.

How can the United States counter this anti-US sentiment, and how important is it that the perception be countered?

I think it is very important. The United States sometimes does things that are dysfunctional. It is important not to bluster or appear to bluster, and not to threaten or appear to threaten. Now, the United States may have to do things. But it is very important to be selective about how those things are done.

The truth of the matter is that everybody in government, and very much in the administration of US President George Bush, understands that if the United States is going to do anything overseas, it has to be able to work with other countries. Even in the most recent Gulf War, the United States needed overflight rights and things of that "kind. Obviously we have to be ready to work with other countries.

A more difficult circmnstance emerges if there is a classic balance of power situation, in which there are other countries that are going to try, to rally against the United States. In this case, the balancing forces have been led by France. To deal with that, the United States has to resort to some fairly old-fashioned balance of power politics itself. In this case, that means keeping the French alienated from potential allies. The French have actually done a wonderful job of doing that for the United States, and all that the US leadership needs to do is not get in their way as they alienate the Eastern Europeans, Spanish, Italians, and British. But there may be things that the United States could do to help prevent a countervailing coalition from emerging.

To what extent do yon think the United States is actually taking the lead as opposed to having this leadership role fall to it? …

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