The U.S. version of adult
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
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
"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
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
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
This is no fuzzy, long-term goal; it's present policy to
"dissuade future military competition." Beginning with
"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
"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
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
Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los
Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com