The U.S. policy of world hegemony is back and bigger than ever, but can we back it up?
The National Security Strategy released last month by the White House may be the most significant U.S. foreign-policy statement since NSC 68, the 1950 paper that codified the containment doctrine. Yet oddly, most of the debate has focused on only one of its aspects - the promise that America will strike pre-emptively against potential threats.
Almost no one is criticizing President Bush's pledge to maintain American military hegemony. This silence is curious, considering the flap that occurred the last time such an assertion was made. In 1992, staffers working for Paul Wolfowitz (then the No. 3 Pentagon official, now No. 2) drafted a planning document that suggested the United States should "maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."
This mild language - which referred to "mechanisms," not brute strength - provoked fits in official Washington. As Andrew Bacevich reminds us in his forthcoming book "American Empire," Sen. Alan Cranston of California attacked the Bush administration for proposing to make the United States "the only main honcho on the world block, the global Big Enchilada."
An embarrassed administration hastily retracted this indiscreet language.
Now the Big Enchilada doctrine is back. The new Bush strategy proclaims: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." This is even stronger language than that used a decade ago. But now the reaction is ... pretty much zip. Why?
The obvious answer is Sept. 11, which showed us what a dangerous place the world can be. But the National Security Strategy doesn't call for a temporary, wartime buildup to fight terrorism. It calls for a permanent policy of maintaining U.S. military hegemony.
This is quite a change from U.S. tradition. Outside of major wars, we have seldom fielded powerful armed forces - and we've paid the price. American weakness has encouraged foes such as Germany and Japan to attack us. And from Kasserine Pass in North Africa to the 38th Parallel in Korea, U.S. soldiers have suffered heavily in the opening battles of many of our wars.
It's easy to forget this history of weakness, given America's current strength. The United States spends more on its military than the next dozen or so nations combined. This has bought unparalleled strength in every facet of warfare - full-spectrum dominance, in Pentagon lingo - that far surpasses the capabilities of such previous would-be hegemons as Rome, Britain and Napoleonic France.
By bringing this dominance out into the open, the NSC document suggests at least two important implications.
First, it means spending more on defense. Impressive as the American military dominance of the past decade has been, it was acquired, relatively speaking, on the cheap. America spends only about 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense, down from 4.4 percent as recently as 1993. U.S. power looks daunting in world rankings mainly because our enemy, the Soviet Bloc, collapsed, and our allies in Europe disarmed. But there aren't enough troops to carry out all our commitments, and the equipment they use is aging fast.
If America is serious about remaining the Big Enchilada, it will have to spend more for defense. This is not a welcome implication for the White House, which, after throwing a pork fest in the farm bill, wants to hold the line on the defense budget.
Democrats, for their part, can't be too happy with a second implication of the predominance doctrine: Any nation with so much power always will be tempted to go it alone. Power breeds unilateralism. It's as simple as that.
Oh, sure, American presidents may pay lip service to allies, but when push comes to shove, we just don't need anyone else's help very much. It's not just George W. Bush who feels this way. Judging by his unwillingness to defer to the United Nations in Bosnia (1995), Iraq (1998) and Kosovo (1999), so did Bill Clinton.
Get used to it. If the non-reaction to the National Security Strategy is any indication, we're all hegemonists now.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.