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SEARCH RESULTS - STORY
The U.S. version of adult supervision
Washington thwarts allies' aspirations at great peril
 
Matt Welch
National Post
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LOS ANGELES - When American advisors and democracy-building consultants poured into Central Europe after the collapse of Communism, one of their favourite sermons was about the liberating virtues of decentralization, or the devolution of governing power from the politburo in the capital to the publicans in the village. The thinking, which has animated U.S. policy from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton, was that people tend to act far more responsibly when they are given more responsibility for governing their own affairs.

Over the past few weeks, the Bush administration has made it abundantly clear, in deed and doctrine, that this principle has no real relevance to the United States' own super-sized role in global affairs. The perils of concentrated power that the democracy-builders could rattle off by rote -- inefficiency, arrogance, corruption, abuse -- are rarely even mentioned in the public debate over who should be the next target in Washington's open-ended war on terror.

Much ink has already been spilled about George W. Bush's radical new operating strategy of "anticipatory pre-emption," in which we reserve the right to get bad guys like Saddam Hussein, unilaterally if necessary, before they can get us. But another, quieter doctrine has emerged right alongside, one that might be summed up as, "We'll be responsible, so you don't have to be!"

Both are spelled out, explicitly and implicitly, in a remarkable 30-page foreign policy primer the White House handed out last month, titled The National Security Strategy of the United States. The new blueprint starts out reasonably enough, at least from the unique vantage point of the United States's unabashed foreign-policy idealism and triumphalism:

"The great struggles of the 20th century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom -- and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise. In the 21st century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children -- male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labour. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society -- and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages."

Sounds nice, but what structure will see to it that these worthy ideals be pursued? The White House envisions the post-Cold War world as one that no longer depends on a balance of power between two mutually hostile ideological camps, but rather on something it calls "a balance of power that favours human freedom."

This new balance is not between powers, but rather of a single power -- the U.S. military --presumably trying not to stumble while attempting to bestride the globe.

The rest of the world, free from the hassles of defence research and arms races, can get on with economic growth and political liberalization.

This is no fuzzy, long-term goal; it's present policy to "dissuade future military competition." Beginning with China.

"In pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region," the document warns, "China is following an outdated path that, in the end, will hamper its own pursuit of national greatness. In time, China will find that social and political freedom is the only source of that greatness."

For China, that is. The United States has found social and political freedom is quite advantageous, while having the most powerful military in the history of the world.

"The unparalleled strength of the United States armed forces, and their forward presence, have maintained the peace in some of the world's most strategically vital regions," the pamphlet boasts, not unreasonably. "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States."

What's good for the United States is not only bad for our Chinese rivals, but for our Japanese and European allies as well. And this has been so for more than half a century now.

"Almost all American policymakers held that the United States had to contain its allies as much as it had to contain Moscow," Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne wrote in a cover story in The Atlantic magazine this January. "By providing for the security of Britain, France and (especially) Germany and Japan -- by defending their access to far-flung economic and natural resources, and by enmeshing their foreign and military policies in alliances that America dominated -- Washington prevented these former and potential great powers from embarking on independent, and (from the U.S. perspective) possibly destabilizing, foreign policies."

In the aftermath of the Second World War, few wept at the sight of German and Japanese expansionists being neutered by their Yankee conquerors, and Western Europe benefited greatly from focusing on rebuilding and rapprochement, rather than on another round of bluster and war.

In the decade-old words of Paul Wolfowitz, now an influential deputy secretary of defence, then a Defence Department policy wonk, the world needs the kind of "adult supervision" only the U.S. is grown-up enough to provide.

This condescension does contain a loud ring of truth. No other country could have led a coalition to roll back Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Europe failed for nearly a decade to halt the bloodshed in its Balkan back yard. The European Union and United Nations have been sidemen in such crises as the India-Pakistan standoff, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and China's expansionism. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out in The New Yorker, even the dopey "war" between Spain and Morocco over a Mediterranean rock was diffused only after the intervention of Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State.

But kids don't learn how to take responsibility for themselves until after they're kicked out of the nest. Europeans and others enjoy complaining about U.S. military "hegemony," yet duck out when it comes time to boost their defence budgets. Meanwhile, the United States has discouraged the E.U. from developing any significant military capability outside the NATO framework. This U.S.-controlled body is still in charge of guaranteeing Western European security, 11 years after that last made any rational sense.

But people who are not given, and do not take responsibility, have a maddening tendency to act irresponsibly. This banal concept underpins much of the growing divide between Europe and America since Sept. 11.

Example: Germans, who have had very little to say about their own security or global military affairs in general during the past 50 years, tend to be tetchy about the U.S. using force to settle disputes. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, facing a tough re-election last month, exploited this anti-American sentiment, and rode it to victory.

Instead of shrugging off Schroder's sop to domestic politics, Bush petulantly punished him by not congratulating him on his re-election, and letting his Cabinet rip Schroder's coalition members in the press. If any Germans were still on the fence about America's regal attitude, Bush's juvenile snub surely sealed the deal.

Taking on adult supervision for the world leads not only to the infantilization of the supervised, but also threatens to leave the lone grown-up drunk on the power. The post-communist country of Slovakia also had elections last year, and every NATO official and unnamed American diplomat in sight warned Slovaks for months there would be hell to pay if they elected the thuggish former prime minister Vladimir Meciar to form another government. The warnings worked, but think of the lessons learned: Slovaks now know that the U.S. and the West don't trust them to elect their own representatives, and will happily exert overt influence on a sovereign country's election should that suit their needs.

What elections will the U.S. lean on next? Since there was virtually no criticism of its meddling in Slovakia this year, or Nicaragua the year before, what's to stop a little nudging in a basket-case state like Colombia, which the new Bush doctrine has identified as one of just five countries in the Western Hemisphere that "share our priorities?"

Since Sept. 11, domestic criticism of American overreach has come mostly from three sources: the isolationist Right, the anti-imperialist Left and a smattering of think-tank libertarians. These three groups have in common their vast remove from anything resembling actual political power or influence.

Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com

 Copyright 2002 National Post
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