Council on Foreign Relations
New York, NY
LESLIE H. GELB: (In progress.) You cannot applaud after everything we say. Second, no alcoholic beverages. Third, please turn off your cell phones. That's a cardinal sin. It ranks with -- well, let me leave out the Ten Commandments, but it ranks high. And then finally, and importantly, this meeting is on the record. (Laughter.)
I'm particularly fortunate to be the moderator this evening for Mike Mandelbaum, whom I think, and I've thought for most of my career, is one of the handful of top people in the national security field. That is, he is a serious thinker about theory, concepts, and also understands policy. Very few fall into that category. And he has the disadvantage of being lucid, which opens him up of course to attack by our colleagues in the field.
Mike has written -- this must be the tenth or twelfth book -- this one is "The Case For Goliath." He wrote one a few years back on "Ideas That Conquered the World." These are two very important books. I take particular pleasure -- I take pleasure in both, because he did that "Ideas That Conquered the World" while he was a senior fellow with us, as well as a professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington. And we had many a long talk and walk to discuss that book. And I take pleasure in this new one, "The Case For Goliath," because along with Vartan Gregorian and David Hamburg, who is here tonight, and Mike's terrific wife Anne, the book is dedicated to us, and I'm very proud of that. Thank you.
We're going to talk for a little while between ourselves, and then open it up to you. I thought the way to begin, Mike, was really to give you a chance to set some of the markers in your book so that people will know what the rest of the conversation is about. And I would ask you to tell them what you mean by the U.S. in effect being the government -- the distinction between the government and public goods, public services that you make -- and then almost jump to your conclusion about what would happen to the world if there were no Goliath -- just to give people a sense of the brackets.
MICHAEL MANDELBAUM: Well, thank you, Les. And before I do that, let me take just a moment to thank the council, to thank Richard Haass and Martina Donlon of the meetings programs for organizing this, and to acknowledge the Council members who are very important in the making of this book -- Patricia Rosenfield, the head of the Carnegie Corporation Carnegie Scholars Program, which gave me a grant so that I could take time off from teaching to write this book; Mort Janklow, the senior partner of Janklow & Nesbit who represented it, and Peter Osnos, the founder and publisher-at-large of Public Affairs, who published it. And let me also take this moment to acknowledge again two of the people to whom this book is dedicated, Les and David Hamburg. The dedication reads, "To them who are scholars and inspirers of scholarship in others." And I have received from them over the course of my career not only inspiration, but encouragement and support as well. And I am not alone. There are others in this room, and many more not in this room, who have similarly been the beneficiaries of their talent and judgment and wisdom, and I'm profoundly grateful to them and I'm happy to acknowledge that in the book. And I'm honored that they're here this evening.
Now, lest this meeting should turn into the Harold Pratt House version of the Academy Awards -- (laughter) -- let me respond to your questions. The thesis of the book is that the United States does for the world many, although not all of the things, that governments do within countries. What the United States does for the world can be roughly divided into security and economic services. Under the rubric of security, the United States provides what I call reassurance; that is, the American military presence in East Asia and Europe reassures the countries of those regions that their neighbors won't go off on a dangerous tangent. The United States performs, that is, an important service just be being there, just by showing up. And the United States has taken the lead in addressing what is, I think by common consent, the major security threat of the post-Cold War period, namely the spread of nuclear weapons to countries and groups that shouldn't have them.
Now, the way that the United States pursues the goal of nonproliferation can be and is controversial. American policies towards Iraq, Iran and North Korea are the subject of considerable controversy. But the goal is widely accepted. No serious country opposes it.
In the economic realm, the United States provides what one might call enforcement. That is, it provides the secure background for transactions without which commerce cannot and will not take place, and which it is the role of governments to provide within countries. It is after all the United States Navy that patrols the two greatest trade routes in history, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The United States also supplies the currency that most of the world uses, namely the dollar. In conjunction with the International Monetary Fund, the United States has acted, especially in the late 1990s in the face of the Asian fiscal crisis, as a kind of lender of last resort, which is what central banks do in the case of fiscal distress within countries. It's what our Federal Reserve Board does and other central banks do. And the United States also performs a role for the global economy that the English economist John Maynard Keynes said government should perform during times of economic downturn. The United States, that is, is the world's consumer of last resort. Most of the global growth of the last decade has been driven by American consumption. Now, that's not an uncontroversial policy either, because of the large current account deficit to which it leads, but nonetheless it is a governmental service. And finally, just as governments supply what we call public utilities, just as governments supply energy and power, so the United States is the guarantor of a mineral without which the world's industrial economies cannot operate, namely oil. The United States patrols and polices the region that is the source of the world's largest supply of readily accessible petroleum, namely the Persian Gulf. So that is the United States as the world's government.
Now, I also devote a chapter to the obvious question that arises, and that we can certainly discuss here, which is: If we're doing the world a favor, if we're such good guys, how come everybody hates us? And I do have some answers to that question. But I conclude, as Les notes, that without these quasi-governmental services the world would be a less secure and a less prosperous place. And even those governments, and perhaps those individuals who are most critical of the American role in the world, or at least of particular American policies, would be sorry to see it go. And, not only that, but I argue that many of them know that they would be sorry to see it go and don't want to see it go.
I devote a fair amount of time to the obvious candidate to take up the slack should the United States for whatever reason falter. And I also give what I -- an account of what I think is the major challenge to this American role in the world, which is internal rather than external. Well, the chief candidates who bear part of the American burden is of course the European Union. And although I'm a great admirer of the European accomplishment, and this is in no way a Euro-bashing book, I do conclude that for the foreseeable future Europe is going to do much by way of global government. The United States is, for better or for worse, or for better and for worse, abroad alone, whether we like it or not, for the foreseeable future where providing these governmental services to the world is concerned, it's up to us.
GELB: Let me see if I can strip your argument down to argumentative form. The United States is providing security that most of the world criticizes us for -- do it almost all the time. We provide it. And the United States is eating their lunch and borrowing their money to eat their lunch. And they're criticizing us for Americanizing the global economy -- an issue even before Bush. It was an issue under Clinton. And underneath it all, despite all the polls, they really love us for it.
MANDELBAUM: Well, that is -- the conclusion to which you come is a logical one, but it's not the conclusion to which I come empirically. They don't love us. They tolerate us. They secretly appreciate us, and they like to complain about us. They complain about us for two good or at least understandable reasons -- well, more than two. First of all, the world criticizes American foreign policy because Americans criticize American foreign policy. We shouldn't be surprised about that. Criticizing government is a God-given right -- at least in democracies. In fact, Churchill once said that you should never criticize your government when abroad or cease to do so when at home. Well, insofar as the United States is the world government, people and other countries who criticize it are simply carrying out their Churchillian obligations. (Laughter.)
GELB: We can change our government. They can't get rid of us. Can they?
MANDELBAUM: Well, that is yet another reason that they complain: because we affect them, and they cannot decide who will constitute the American government, although -- and therefore the United States does not have democratic legitimacy. That is one property of a government that we value that the United States does not have and cannot have. However, the United States has weaker forms of legitimacy, although we don't always notice them. First of all, I quote Will Rogers in the book, who said, of the weather -- everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. And that's true of the American role in the world as well. Other countries criticize us, but they don't really take serious steps to cut us down to size, which they could do and would do if they were genuinely unhappy with us and genuinely fearful. So I take that to be a kind of tacit consent.
Second, they have --
GELB: How would they cut us down to size?
MANDELBAUM: Well, they would arm themselves. They would spend an awful lot more money on armaments. They would produce serious military forces. And if we wanted to go do something that they didn't like, they'd say, "No, we'll stop you." That's the normal way it's been done in history, and that was the fate of other countries that were as relatively powerful as the United States is now. But that frightened other countries. That's what happened in Napoleonic France, to Germany in the two world wars, and to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They called into being blocking coalitions. There's no sign of any coalition, which there would be if other countries were as alarmed about the United States as their rhetoric sometimes suggest they are.
The other form of legitimacy that the United States has, a weak form of legitimacy to be sure, but relevant I think to the relative tolerance that other countries extend to the United States in the world, is that like people in the United States they have access to the American system. The American political system is so porous, it's so open, it's so frustrating for those who are trying to make policy. But the source of that frustration is also a source of strength, because any country or cause can get a hearing, can enlist somebody to plea it or its or their cause, can have some hope of prevailing in the policy skirmish. So other countries complain, yes. But they know that the United States does things that they believe in and pays for it. They know that the United States doesn't threaten them. And they know that on issues that they really care about they can have some say over American policy.
GELB: I think the question that's raised by your argument is whether what we consider public goods in the international arena as you've described them are really considered public goods by others or whether they really are the U.S. pursuing its own interests and calling them public goods, which would indicate, sure, that others would let us do it, even though they might not like it -- might not even like it a lot -- because it's too expensive for them to oppose us. The traditional way is opposition, but opposition now to the sole superpower is really a monumental task. The one country capable of arming itself, China, is kind of doing it -- slowly but surely. And the others just find it too expensive to try to compete with us just now on the military front. And on the economic front, you know, basically they're paying us to consume but are resisting our leadership in the international institutions where we traditionally exercise leadership. So this is just to press you one further step on whether or not what you call "public goods" really is a camouflage for American national interests.
MANDELBAUM: Good question. In some sense that is surely true. The United States doesn't do what it does in the world for altruistic reasons. Nobody set out to be the world's government. And indeed the policies that do provide these services, known to economists as public goods, depend for their sustenance on the American public believing that they serve American interests. So from the point of view of the American public, American foreign policy is self-interested, and were it not so wouldn't receive support. It just so happens that these policies serve other people's interests.
Now, you say it's too expensive to oppose the United States. Well, expense is relative. The Europeans are wealthy countries. They're far wealthier today than they were in the days, in the first half of the 20th century and in the centuries before when they were great military powers. If they wanted to devote a substantial fraction of their output to military tasks they could be formidable. But there's not a thought of that because they're not threatened, because they don't need to. I believe that if they felt genuinely threatened, if they felt that they needed a military as large as that of the United States, well, they'd supply themselves with one. People have a powerful instinct for self-preservation, and even the Europeans would behave that way if circumstances warranted. But they don't, and they don't in part because of the United States.
Now, finally, you know that they're not doing much to pay for these services, and indeed they're not, and in that sense they're behaving the way economist tell us free riders always behave. Public goods are undersupplied because, especially in the absence of a government that compels people to pay for them, while everybody has an interest in their being provided, nobody has an interest in paying for them, unless everybody can be sure that everybody else will pay. And since nobody can have that confidence, nobody pays. So the Europeans and others are enjoying the benefits of our public goods and are unlikely to take up the slack, even though in private they would concede that it would be in their interests to do so. That is in some sense the dilemma of American foreign policy. If we don't do it, nobody else is likely to do it. They'll be hurt and we'll be hurt. But as long as the American public believes first that these policies are in the interests of the United States and, second, and crucially -- and this I think may well come into doubt as entitlement costs soar in the United States as the baby boomers retire and Social Security and Medicare become far more expensive -- as long as the American public is persuaded that it can afford to pay the taxes that support these far-flung commitments.
GELB: And what would happen -- and you do discuss this in the book -- what would happen if we stop playing the international Goliath in providing the security public good? Would the world go to pot?
MANDELBAUM: Well, let me give you an example. The United States, to put it in perhaps oversimplified and even crude terms, baby-sits the Chinese and the Japanese in the sense that as long as we are around in East Asia, and as long as we extend a security guarantee to Japan, the Japanese do not feel that they have to have a far more robust military policy. And, in particular, they don't feel the need to get nuclear weapons, even though they have a nuclear-armed neighbor that's run by a communist party, and with which Japan has not always had friendly relations, namely China.
Now, if the United States were to pull back, the Japanese would inevitably reconsider their policy. What they would do, I don't know. But the pressure would mount for them to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Would this trigger a nuclear war? Not necessarily, but it would bring back at least some of the tension that we experienced routinely during the Cold War. It would make war at least thinkable in a way that it isn't now. And, incidentally, it would make East Asia look like a much less reliable place for inward investment. It would hurt the Chinese economically, because they depend so heavily on foreign investment.
Now, I like to think, or at least I hope that the Chinese leadership can in some sense understand this. But the answer to your question is that things would surely not be as certain, and not as certainly tranquil. There would be some deterioration and the potential -- although not the certainty -- of considerable deterioration.
GELB: I accept what you say. I happen to agree with it. But let's just follow the other side of the logic. That is, the U.S. has to continue doing this for all the reasons you said -- nobody else is going to do it. No one else would take any of that burden. So in perpetuity, if one were to follow the argument of your book, in perpetuity the United States has to do all these security wars around the globe, and the United States has to keep buying things we can't afford at the expense of eventually destroying our own economy. So our fate in serving the international public is to gradually undermine our own society and eventually our own international power.
MANDELBAUM: Let me divide the governmental services into security and economics for the purpose of answering that important question. For the United States to provide reassurance to the world, it's cheap -- it's very cheap. We've cut our defense budget in half in the wake of the Cold War as a proportion of the gross domestic product. And we can afford to do that, because no serious country is challenging us. As long as that is true, I think the United States, absent the pressure of domestic spending in the United States, the United States can afford to supply reassurance to Asia and to Europe, as long as the Chinese, the Japanese, the Germans and the Russians don't oppose us. A reasonably sized military will provide that service. And insofar -- if the world becomes increasingly peaceful -- if China turns out well -- the amount of military force that's necessary to reassure countries of East Asia will decrease. The amount of military force necessary to provide reassurance depends on how dangerous people think the world is. And that I think ultimately depends upon the kinds of government that hold sway in major countries.
Now, economically it's a different story. The United States surely cannot continue to be the world's consumer of last resort. The United States cannot continue to run these large current account deficits, or so economists tell us, and this seems plausible. At some point this has to stop. But this is one area where other countries can take up the slack. After all, every country consumes. The problem is that the Europeans and the Japanese have been mired in low growth. They've been mired in not exactly a recession, but very low growth. So this is an area where other countries will have to provide a quasi-governmental service. The United States cannot continue to do this. And that in turn depends upon the performance of the European and Japanese economies, which depends, I believe, on the progress of labor market reform in Germany and fiscal and banking reform in Japan. But that is something that could go wrong, because there surely is a limit as to what the United States can do there.
GELB: The other question that struck me in reading your book, which I commend to you all -- it's a very good read -- it's not a typical foreign policy book -- (laughter) -- is you don't tackle the question of the different ways to be Goliath. Goliath doing his thing -- by the way, he didn't come to a happy end, I will remind you, in the biblical story. Do you get the impression there's one way to be Goliath, and I know you don't think that. Clinton had his way of being Goliath, and Bush has his way of being Goliath. Do you have another way of being Goliath?
MANDELBAUM: One of the epigraphs to this book is from Samuel Johnson commenting on a dog walking on its hind legs, on which he said, and which one can say of the United States as the world's government, "It is not done well, but you are surprised to see it done at all." (Laughter.) I don't know that there's a perfect, or even a good way to do it. American policies can surely stand improvement. That's one reason we have the council on Foreign Relations to talk about what could be better. And there's no doubt that there's much more to say on this subject than I have the time or space to say in the case for Goliath. But let me focus on one particular criticism that's made of this administration having to do with the way it goes about being Goliath, and that is the charge of unilateralism.
There is something to it. But to me the United States acts unilaterally in general, leaving aside Iraq, and you may feel that that's one of those "But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" comments. But leaving aside Iraq, or putting Iraq in a larger perspective, the United States acts unilaterally as much by default as by design. In my view for the long term the problem of the world is not an overbearing United States; it's an underperforming rest of the world, especially Europe. Let me give you an example from Iraq, and as you know, Les, I originally set out to write a book about contemporary American foreign policy that would exclude entirely two words. One was "Bush" and the other was "Clinton." I didn't altogether succeed, but I really am trying to take the longer view and not write anything like a partisan tract. And I also want to shy away from what my friend and colleague Bob Lieber calls "reductio ad Iraqum"; that is, seeing Iraq as the whole, the sum and substance of American foreign policy. It surely is very important, and it's not to that at this point a very impressive performance, as you have pointed out, among others.
On the other hand, imagine this scenario. Imagine that there was such a thing as a common security in foreign policy in Europe, something to which the Europeans are committed rhetorically, but something that they have not actually enacted. And supposing the high representative for the European common security -- foreign and security policy, which they do have -- they have somebody to carry out something that doesn't exist. Supposing at the end of 2002 or at the beginning of 2002 he had come to Washington, and he had an audience with the president, and let's throw in the vice president, and he said the following -- he said, "We agree that Iraq is a problem, and we agree that at some point it may be necessary to go to war to unseat Saddam Hussein. But we don't believe that the time has come at present. We think there other things that we ought to try. And if you will follow the course that we suggest, and that some people in your own State Department are suggesting and some people in think tanks were suggesting -- if we follow this out and we then conclude that it's hopeless, that the only way to safeguard the security of the Persian Gulf and our interests is to remove Saddam by force, we will not only be with you -- we will commit 50 percent of the resources including the troops."
GELB: Good luck.
MANDELBAUM: Well, that of course is a fantasy, but it's not I think a fantasy because any American administration, including I think this one, would have rejected it; it's a fantasy because the Europeans would never say it, because they don't have the resources. So that I think is the foundation of American unilateralism. I'm all for more multilateralism. And, more to the point, the American public is more for multilateralism.
GELB: But you really can't have it.
MANDELBAUM: But there's nobody to supply it.
GELB: So what Bush is doing -- I mean, I hate to put a name on it and violate your book, but Bush is doing pretty much all he can, that his form of unilateralism is an inevitable course for an America left without tangible support from others?
MANDELBAUM: Well, let me retreat a little bit. (Laughter.) First of all, my point is made by changing slightly the title of the book Richard Haass published some years ago. He wrote a book about the American foreign policy, a Council book of course, and he called it, "The Reluctant Sheriff." One of the themes of my book is the reluctant posse. There is much to criticize about the way the Bush administration went to war in Iraq. But it seems to me the principal criticism is not the failure to get the rest of the world to line up -- although that is a legitimate criticism, and it would have been better to have the rest of the world line up with the United States. The principal criticism is the utter, and to me still perplexing failure to make any preparations for the postwar period. It would have been better had the United States gotten a U.N. resolution supporting the use of force as other countries wanted, and as some people in the American government wanted, and as serious people in the American government thought at the time was possible. We don't know whether it was possible, but it is surely the case that the Bush administration did not expend every effort to do so. And it's always better to have the U.N., because the U.N. gives you a seal of approval, and it's better to have a seal of approval than not have it. But, even better than that, is to have serious military forces. And I don't think it was ever in the cards to get much in the way of military forces, even if other countries had signed on. In fact, it seems to me that one reason, although not the only reason, that other countries were reluctant to endorse a military campaign to oust Saddam was that that would have put them in the position to be called upon to supply resources and military force, which they weren't prepared to do. So it is undoubtedly the case that one could conduct the foreign policy of Goliath somewhat differently and more smoothly. But I do think that there are limits to what other countries can be euchred or coerced or coaxed into contributing. And I suspect that when we see a more allied friendly administration -- I guess we're seeing one now -- that will be borne out.
GELB: Thank you, Michael. Michael and I would now invite you to join us in this conversation. The usual house rules. I'm very much a traditionalist when it comes to form. I would ask you after you're recognized to wait for the microphone. Please stand -- everyone always likes to see who is asking the question -- and make your question or comment as brief as possible so we can get as many in as we can. The floor is open. There's a hand right over here. Larry, wait for the microphone. I know it was hard to remember those instructions I said them so long ago. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Yes. It seems to me among the levers of power in the world are oil and gas. And Europe is going to become very dependent upon Russian gas, and we're all dependent upon the Middle East for oil. How does that fit into your theory?
MANDELBAUM: Good question. As I said, this is not a partisan book. It's mostly analytical. But I do severely criticize one American foreign policy, and that's energy policy. The United States is to the consumption of energy, or certainly to oil, what Saudi Arabia is to the production of it. That is, the American share of consumption is large enough for the United States to affect the price by its behavior, and our behavior is profligate, as the president himself has said.
The dependence on oil and the price of oil that has arisen because of that dependence and because of the demand for oil fuels many, if not most, of the bad things that are happening in the world today. It supports dictatorial and aggressive regimes. It funds terrorists. There is a war on terror, and we are funding both sides. It contributes to the American current account deficit. It worsens global warming. The United States could do something about that, and there's a straightforward way to do it. We could reduce our consumption through conservation, and the way to reduce our consumption is by raising the price of energy, and especially gasoline, by imposing European-style gasoline taxes. That would make the world a better place. I think that's the single thing within the power of the United States to do that would make the world a better place in our lifetimes.
But there's no constituency for that, and it has to be admitted -- well, two things have to be admitted. First, it would cause economic disruption in the short term. Every price spike, except the most recent one, has been associated with a recession. So it would cause economic hardship. People don't want to demote themselves into economic hardship. And second, although one can criticize our leadership, including the president who diagnosed the problem and then proposed a remedy guaranteed not to solve it, in the end it is the American public's reluctance to pay higher prices for gasoline that is at the root of the problem, to paraphrase Walt Kelly's cartoon character Pogo on this issue, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
GELB: Yeah, this is a perfect example to me. It is the perfect example of how, despite my love for our country, my basic agreement with the argument of your book, that it really is awfully hard to take us seriously, that a country like the United States would allow this energy dependence to -- "evolve" is not the word -- it sprout up almost immediately after the initial boycott of the '70s -- and we have this level of dependency to the point where we end up fighting wars there, and our economic stability, the heart of America, hinges on the stability of regimes we all have serious questions about -- makes it very difficult to treat the United States as a great power that can sustain being a great power. It's like your point about the public good in economics. We consume other's things and borrow the money from them to do so. This isn't the way a power can sustain ourselves -- sustain our democracy, continue to be the world's de facto government. All we're doing is behaving in an almost totally irrational way for any -- not long-term good, medium-term good or medium-term survival of our way of life. That's a bad Goliath -- bad dog. (Laughter.)
MANDELBAUM: It's an imperfect Goliath, I will grant you that.
GELB: Isn't it more serious than that? These really are fundamental flaws, Mike, not just little policy twitches.
MANDELBAUM: Well, if they are fundamental flaws, they are fundamental flaws in the only Goliath we've got, in the only remotely credible candidate for global governance -- I go through in the last chapter the alternatives -- the Europeans, the U.N., intergovernmental cooperation -- and I find them lacking to the point that they're not serious contenders. So if it's true that we are fatally flawed and fated to collapse, then the world is in for a rather rocky time.
GELB: Yeah, I think so.
QUESTIONER: John Temple Swing. Mike, I've known you for a long time, but I have to say I've seldom heard a proposition as you've made tonight with which I disagree more profoundly. First of all --
MANDELBAUM: Disagree or agree?
QUESTIONER: Disagree. First of all, I don't see a government out there for which you can say America is being the world's government. But that aside, I'll agree that's a philosophical question in a sense. But what I would like you to do now is go back and think about the rise and fall of the great powers. Pax Romana was Rome's idea of imposing order on the world. But Pax Romana went away. The British Empire had the same philosophy. They were providing exactly what you're now providing. It was in the British Empire's best interests, but in the long term was it in this world? No, I don't think it was. So your argument that the U.S., by being the sole superpower, is indeed providing governance for the world -- I really don't see a government out there for which it is providing the governmental services. There's no checks and balances, there's no anything else. It's American policy as America wants to do it, and not necessarily in the world's interests. Thank you.
MANDELBAUM: Well, it's good to see you, and thank you for that question. (Laughter.) It's a very good one. The United States is not the government in the sense that it has a formal bureaucracy. There is no world state. But the United States does do what governments do; that is, provide quasi-governmental services, as I noted in my introduction and as I note in the second and third chapters of the book.
Now, you mention imperial Rome and the British Empire, and I'm glad you did, because I begin the book by arguing that the term "empire," which is now commonly used to apply to the American role in the world, is inaccurate and inappropriate. It's inaccurate because unlike empires of the past the United States did not deliberately seek this role. It came about as a consequence of policies the United States undertook for its own self-interests during the Cold War. And like Topsy in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," these policies just grew until they came to supply global governmental services. But second, and even more importantly, the United States is not comparable to the empires of the past because the core of empire is governing people directly against their will. It's government by strangers. The United States doesn't do this, doesn't seek to do it. On those few occasions in which it has blundered into this role it has done it badly and can't wait to get out, and that is true in Iraq as well. So I think that in that particular sense those comparisons mislead more than they illuminate.
Now, you also mention Paul Kennedy's book, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," which is also germane here. In that excellent book, the distinguished Yale historian argued that there is a kind of self-canceling pattern to the great powers of history. They acquire these large international domains and they spend so much in keeping them up that their domestic economy falters, they become internally weak, and they're pushed aside in a great war by the upcoming great power which then takes their place. The syndrome to which they fall victim is what Kennedy calls "imperial overstretch." He thinks that in history we find great powers just spending too much on empire and weakening themselves.
I believe, and I argue in the case for Goliath, that the United States is subject to overstretch, but it's domestic overstretch. What is likely to bring down the American role in the world, if it takes place in the next several decades, is not an external challenge or a foreign war, which is the fate of great powers in the past that Kennedy chronicled. It is rather the rising cost of entitlements that will be competing claims on the public purse and will require such high taxes that the American public will balk at paying for the international services that they now supply. So I believe there is a parallel here. There is the danger of overstretch, but that it is domestic rather than imperial in nature.
GELB: Thanks, Mike. Over here.
QUESTIONER: Maurice Tempelsman, Tempelsman and Son. I start off with a sympathetic viewpoint on your thesis.
MANDELBAUM: But what I've said has led you in the other direction.
QUESTIONER: Well, just to even it out, but it's a snapshot of a particular time of history. It's a situation that developed certainly post-World War II and then the Cold War, and the world has changed and is changing increasingly rapidly in the coming years and is a major redefinition of power and a redistribution of the elements of power and wealth. In other words, other people have a lot to lose as well. Other nations have a lot to lose. They have a stake in this. Do you see this changing picture where there are other people with a stake in it that we can come up with a mechanism that makes it less of a unilateral burden? And, secondly, as a matter of policy in a situation where we carry the burden -- unfairly, and I agree with you, because there's nobody else to do it -- do you see that as a basis of policy withholding it and saying, "Okay, you don't like what's going on in Iraq? We're pulling out -- you deal with it"? I'm deliberately being provocative to make that point, but do you see that as a direction of policy?
MANDELBAUM: No, that's an excellent point. I'm not optimistic about burden-sharing. I think that other countries are behaving and will behave as economists say free riders do behave. I fear that other countries, even those that should be in a position to take up the slack, won't do so. And the problem is not that there is no acceptable mechanism for collecting taxes and mustering forces and legitimating actions. I fear it is that other countries have gotten used to this arrangement. They're inward looking. Domestic demands are very powerful. And so I'm pessimistic that any other country or group of countries would pick up the slack any time soon. I'd like to be proven wrong. I hope I'm wrong.
GELB: But let me rephrase Maurice's clearly very good question. Is there a way we can frame our policy so as to better encourage burden-sharing, or is this all a hopeless situation?
MANDELBAUM: Well, he put his finger on one kind of leverage that the United States has and has chosen not to use. We could threaten to go home. We could threaten to withhold our services. That would be cutting off our nose to spite our face in some sense, and it's certainly been the view of the people who have been responsible for policy that that is not a threat that the United States should make, but we could make it. Let me give you an example. We're trying to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program, and we're not having much success. And one reason that we're not having much success is that countries in a position to exert serious leverage on North Korea, namely China and South Korea, are not willing to exert maximum leverage. They're not willing to threaten a total economic boycott. Now, there are various reasons for that, mainly having to do with the fact that the last thing in the world they want is a collapsed North Korea, because they have to pay the price for it. Nonetheless --
GELB: They have other interests just as we have interests.
MANDELBAUM: Right, they have other interests. Nonetheless, we could conceivably go to the Chinese and say, "If you don't help us with this, and you're in a position to do so, we'll leave." If you're not going to help us solve a problem, we can't solve it and we'll get out of East Asia." And then our allies will have to think about their own security and will have to think about nuclear weapons themselves -- the South Koreans and the Japanese would have to think about going nuclear, which is the last thing the Chinese want, the last thing that the Japanese and the South Koreans want, the last thing that we want. Nonetheless --
GELB: Play it out to the end, Mike, because there's several other people with their hands up. Let's say we did that. Let's say we did the unbelievable, the unthinkable. We said, A, we're washing our hands of this -- and you know what the consequences would be, even if most of it won't happen. If we did that, what would China do?
MANDELBAUM: Well, I don't know. They might be more accommodating, and they might say, We don't believe you. Or they might say, Okay, we'll live with that. I don't know. But it's not a threat that we've ever made publicly. As far as I know we've never made it privately. And there's a lot to be said against making it, not least the fact that if we did make it and they called our bluff, then we'd be in a real pickle, because we either have to follow through on it, which will hurt us, or be stripped of our identity.
GELB: Again we're condemned to unilateralism.
MANDELBAUM: I don't see a good alternative.
GELB: Somebody -- right here.
QUESTIONER: John Washburn with the United Nations Association. We have had in the face of this apparent inevitability of unilateralism a couple of chances which this administration has rejected to get on board with burden-sharing activities, or at least government good activities, that other countries have been very interested in in the area of what you could call the good of environmental regulation we've had the global warming situation. In the area of international criminal justice institutions we've had the International Criminal Court. Does it make sense for us to be so severe in rejecting these efforts in which other countries are prepared to take the leadership and apparently are prepared, and in the case of the International Criminal Court actually have, to provide most of the resources to make them work, particularly when these two sets of examples, and others we could provide, have produced so much internal debate and dissension inside the U.S.?
MANDELBAUM: To give a brief answer on global warming, the United States is surely the world's biggest offender, but the European record isn't all that impressive either. The targets set by Kyoto seem to have been set so that the Europeans could comply with them without much strain, and so that the United States would be in violation so they could blame the United States. And even then some of the European countries are not meeting their targets. So although the United States doesn't deserve high marks, I don't think the Europeans are paragons there either.
GELB: First down here, and then over here.
QUESTIONER: Marty Gross, Sandalwood Securities. Hi, Michael. In recent years we've been witness to a pervasive anti-Americanism, both in the Arab world as well as in Europe. How important is it that we deal with this? Is this a new phenomenon? How seriously should we take it?
MANDELBAUM: Well, I could give you a long and I hope eloquent answer. But I'll give you a short answer.
GELB: Short eloquent answer.
MANDELBAUM: That's a tough combination for me. It's always been around. It spiked because of Iraq, and also in Europe, as I explain in the book, because of this administration -- not because of its policies but because there is no analog to the Republican Party in Europe, and that makes Republicans in power seem alien and make Europeans feel more uncomfortable. But it's always been with us. It's at a plateau now, at a peak now. It will go down. But I think it will never disappear as long as the United States plays this role.
I have an anecdote, which seems to come from 2003 but in fact comes from 1953. It's always been around.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Felice Gaer, the Jacob Blaustein Institute. It's very refreshing to think of the United States as the world's government. But if you do that, I wonder what role or what analogous position you would give to the United Nations in that context. Is it the disgruntled -- I mean, after all, people have been talking about the U.N. as not being the world's government for years. Is it the disgruntled pretender? Is it some form of judiciary? Does it play some kind of a role as civil society, or is it just an instrument?
MANDELBAUM: The United Nations is the trade association of sovereign states -- (laughter) -- and --
GELB: A very good way to put it.
MANDELBAUM: The United Nations suffers from unrealistic expectations. The United Nations can no more provide these services than the Trade Association of Hospitals can perform heart surgery, and we shouldn't expect it to. The United Nations does play a legitimating function. That is important. There is no other body to do it. But to expect the United Nations to provide these services is unrealistic, because you can only do that if you have real resources, and only states have them.
QUESTIONER: Rod Nichols. Is terrorism a gnat annoying the Goliath or potentially a competing Goliath?
MANDELBAUM: It's certainly not a competing Goliath. I think it's a gnat with two caveats. That is I don't think this is a threat to the American position in the world. I'm not sure that the danger is as serious as it is sometimes portrayed. But I am happy for the American government to conduct itself as if it is as serious as sometimes portrayed. The two exceptions are: one, the explosion of a weapon of mass destruction in a major Western city -- not I think likely, but not inconceivable; and, second, terrorism that puts a major dent in the world's supply of energy, which is possible.
GELB: Could you identify yourself?
QUESTIONER: What? Norton Zinder, Rockefeller University.
GELB: Thank you.
QUESTIONER: You're welcome.
The United States is rather lucky during the Cold War that we really didn't have dual Goliaths -- but it could have been. I want to know why you seem so sure that the Chinese will not become a dual Goliath with the United States and what if that state of dual Goliathisms exists -- what happens then?
MANDELBAUM: Well, China is, as they say, rising, and will probably although not certainly continue to rise. But I don't think China is likely to assume a global role in the next decade or two. This book comes with an unwritten warranty for two decades. After that, all bets are off. (Laughter.) China is too poor, has too many internal problems, has too many contradictions in its own governance, is too focused inward to play this kind of role for the foreseeable future. Sometime it may be. I'm sure that if we were to have this meeting at the end of this century, if somebody else were to write such a book, it would look different. I don't know how it would look different, but my guess is that with the caveat that I give it's going to look this way for the next decade and a half or two.
QUESTIONER: Jessica Mathews, the Carnegie Endowment. Mike, I think -- let me try an alternative argument with you which I think at least you can make a pretty good case for, which is even on the security front, and notwithstanding the role that we play as the buffer between the Chinese and the Japanese, that the U.S. in recent years is subtracting more from net global security than it's adding. And I would just cite three examples in the interest of obeying Les's directions, but you could make a longer list. I think U.S. policy has been principally responsible for the weakening, if not the imminent demise of the nonproliferation regime. I think U.S. democracy promotion policy has been the source of a huge -- and we don't know where it's going to end -- destabilization of major parts of the world. And I think on global warming we have been for quite some time the major block against effective global action. And, by the way, your description of how the Kyoto targets were set is simply incorrect. So I think on the nonproliferation front our failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban, our failure to agree to talk either to North Korea or to Iran. And I would argue our leverage on North Korea is much bigger than China's or South Korea's, because what they really want we know, which is to talk to us. And the recent policy shift of this administration which has changed a 45-year policy that nuclear weapons are bad to nuclear weapons in the wrong hands are bad -- you put that all together, and we've been the principal weakener I think of this centerpiece of global security. So try that as an alternative mode of looking at your argument.
MANDELBAUM: Well, that's a very eloquent case for Les's bad Goliath argument. I'm not happy with American nonproliferation policy, although I suspect that my assessment of where things would stand if the United States had behaved differently -- I mean, I think we probably agree on how it should behave -- I think you're probably more sanguine about where we would be if not for this behavior than I am. I don't personally regard the limited test ban treaty as all that important, but that's a matter of judgment. And I do -- and now we're getting down into the weeds -- I do think that the way the administration has gone about this India business is harmful for precisely the reasons that you suggested.
On democracy promotion -- and, again, this is a longer conversation -- but to be blunt and oversimplify, I don't take it seriously. I think it's just rhetoric. That is, I think democracy is a very powerful current in the world, but the policies of the American government have relatively little to do with that.
And, third, on global warming, again that's a matter of a (detailed ?) opinion and Jessica Mathews, for those of you who don't know, is very well informed on this -- I would hesitate to disagree with her on the facts. But I will say this: I am not much impressed with the European performance, but the American performance is worse. And global warming is a problem that can only be addressed seriously I think with American leadership, and that the United States has certainly not taken.
GELB: Forgive me for claiming the last question, but as I said, Michael, I agree with most of the things you say in the book, particularly the need for the United States to do almost everything you describe. But you would forgive me again if I would say if I were to write this book, I'd call it "The Case For David" -- (laughter) -- because David beat Goliath, and Goliath overstates, to me, America's power in this world; that is, you ask too much of Goliath, even in performing these duties, that David did it better. He beat him and he began what was a very successful family business -- (laughter) -- for many years to come.
MANDELBAUM: Still going strong. (Laughter.)
GELB: So why is it Goliath that we have to be? That colors so much of the good argument about the things we have to do because nobody else would do them.
MANDELBAUM: Well, I call the book "The Case for Goliath," because other countries see us as Goliath. They see us as the big guy. We're cast in the Goliath role, whether we like it or not. We're doing better than Goliath, since he lost. And an excerpt from this book was published in a journal of foreign policy, which I won't name, because it's not Foreign Affairs, and the editors came up with what I thought was a very good title that captures the spirit and the thesis of the book. They called it, "David's Friend Goliath." (Laughter.)
GELB: We were very lucky to have Michael here today. We were very lucky to have him for almost 20 years a Council senior fellow. Thank you. (Applause.)
(C) COPYRIGHT 2006, FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC., 1000 VERMONT AVE.
NW; 5TH FLOOR; WASHINGTON, DC - 20005, USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ANY REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED.
UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION CONSTITUTES A MISAPPROPRIATION UNDER APPLICABLE UNFAIR COMPETITION LAW, AND FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. RESERVES THE RIGHT TO PURSUE ALL REMEDIES AVAILABLE TO IT IN RESPECT TO SUCH MISAPPROPRIATION.
FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. IS A PRIVATE FIRM AND IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. NO COPYRIGHT IS CLAIMED AS TO ANY PART OF THE ORIGINAL WORK PREPARED BY A UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE AS PART OF THAT PERSON'S OFFICIAL DUTIES.
FOR INFORMATION ON SUBSCRIBING TO FNS, PLEASE CALL JACK GRAEME AT 202-347-1400.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT.