The Self-Restrained Superpower

By Lake, David A. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Self-Restrained Superpower

Lake, David A., Harvard International Review

Entangling Relations and US Foreign Policy

Great power beckons the United States and threatens other nations. Effective leadership at home and abroad recognizes this tension and seeks creative solutions. In today's unipolar world, the United States has embedded itself into a series of collective-security mechanisms designed to constrain its freedom of action, bind its hands, and mitigate the threat its power would otherwise pose to the aspirations and ambitions of others around the globe. In short, the United States seeks to become an "ordinary" country. Forged in the crucible of the Persian Gulf War, this ambitious strategy to "tame" American power has been a central feature of foreign policy in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. The question is whether future leaders will have the strength to sustain this strategy and whether Americans will accept the diplomatic compromises that it requires.

The primary alternative to collective security is unilateralism--going at it alone in foreign affairs. Unilateralism is seductively simple, promising foreign policy success without constraints. It strengthens the illusion that American desires can be translated through power into international outcomes without distortion or compromise.

But like all illusions, independence crumbles on closer inspection. No state, not even the United States today, can achieve its objectives alone. The United States requires the support, if not the active aid, of other countries. US power unbound is more likely to breed resistance than acquiescence.

Contemporary unilateralists bristle at the constraints imposed on the United States by its allies and international institutions. They reject the notion that the United States should be ordinary. In an era of unrivaled power, limits on the use of that power are hard to swallow, yet today's unilateralists fail to recognize that such limits are the necessary price for securing support and cooperation abroad. Failure to respect these limits threatens to provoke the very political divisions and foreign enmity that enlightened leadership seeks to avoid. If the United States chooses to act alone in foreign-policy--to eschew limits--Americans should be careful that the independence gained outweighs the cooperation and amity lost.

Washington Farewell

Throughout its history, the United States has feared entanglement outside its borders. For its first century, the United States was a weak and peripheral state, growing in power and potential, but afforded the luxury of foreign policy choices that were not available to other states. The corner-stone of its foreign policy was laid by President George Washington in his final address to the nation, in which he warned his fellow citizens against permanent alliances. President Thomas Jefferson echoed this sentiment and declared the principles of US foreign policy to be "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." This injunction against foreign entanglements was elevated, over time, into an almost sacred precept of US policy and became the standard against which nearly all foreign policy initiatives were measured. Unlike other developing states, the United States could choose to act alone.

World War I was a turning point forsaken. With the Europeans locked in a bloody standoff, and its self-defined rights of neutrality under siege, the United States threw its weight onto the global scales. Taken with its new-found importance, it sought to reorder the postwar world. At home there was no consensus on how this should be done. The realists around former President Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge supported only limited alliances. The idealists, led by President Woodrow Wilson, envisioned a more expansive collective-security system, embodied in the League of Nations. Despite their disagreements, all agreed that the United States should use this opportunity to make the world safer--if not for democracy, then at least for itself. …

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