How America Does It

Josef Joffe. Foreign Affairs. Volume 76, Issue 5, September/October 1997.

Unmatched and Unchallenged

The principal paradox of the post-Cold War era is the unchallenged primacy of the United States. Though America is the “last remaining superpower” in the year A.B. 7 (After Bipolarity), no nation has flung down the gauntlet. None has unleashed an arms race, none has tried to engineer a hostile coalition. The United States faces neither an existential enemy nor the threat of encirclement as far as the eye can see.

This was not supposed to happen after the self-dismemberment of No. 2, the Soviet Union, on Christmas Day 1991. History and theory tell us that the international system abhors primacy. Hence the United States should have become the object of mistrust, fear, and containment. Its Cold War alliance system should have collapsed, and its members should have defected to aggregate their power against the United States. The signal from Nos. 2, 3, 4, etc., should have been: We shall draw a new line in the sand; you shall not enjoy the fruits of your exalted position.

But instead of eroding, the American alliance system is expanding. At the July NATO summit in Madrid, three eager candidates were invited to join, leaving half a dozen other frustrated hopefuls behind. Why should this be counterintuitive and counter-historical? The answer is simple: no alliance in history has ever survived victory.

The all-European coalition against Napoleon, victorious in 815, had unraveled by 1822. The World War I entente against Germany was a dead letter by the early 1920s. The Soviet-American partnership of World War II was the most dramatic instance. It survived triumph by only a few months; by 1948 Moscow and Washington were mortal rivals, straining to contain each other.

Nor is this deadly disease just an accident of history. For victory robs alliances of their raison d’etre. When the threat disappears, so does the glue that binds nations in alliance. Worse, once partners no longer need to worry about a common foe, they begin to eye each other. They ask: How will yesterday’s comrade-in-arms use its unshackled power tomorrow? With nothing to absorb its attention, will it not turn against me? Rivalry flares-or resumes-as the victors face only one another. Hardly had the Versailles Treaty been sealed in 19 when Britain returned to its older strategy of balancing against France, even though the real threat emanated from revisionist Germany.

Why, then, aren’t others ganging up on No. 1? Why does America not suffer the same fate as the Hapsburg empire of Charles V and Philip II, the France of Louis XIV and Napoleon I, the Germany of Wilhelm and Adolf, the Russia of Stalin and Khrushchev?

Is it because America is like Rome in its imperial heyday, a power that simply defied resistance? Rome was a unique exception. Nobody balanced against Rome because it was practically identical with the international system itself-the lands that stretched from the British Isles to North Africa, from the Levant to Lusitania. Having undone rivals like Carthage and Macedonia, Rome had to contend only with rebellious tribes such as the Gauls and Germans, not with states or other empires. Nobody balanced against Rome because there were no balancers.

But the United States does face worthy competitors capable of containing it, if not singly, then in combination. There is the European Union (EU), with two nuclear powers and an economy larger than America’s. Minus its Soviet empire, Russia still stretches across 11 time zones and retains a mighty nuclear arsenal. There is Japan, with the second-largest economy in the world, and there is nuclear China, with the largest population and a history of hostility to the United States. India is a secondary could-be.

Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin huddled in Moscow in April and came up with a “strategic partnership” against culprits unnamedagainst those who would “push the world toward a unipolar order.” In May, it was the turn of French President Jacques Chirac and the Chinese president to make anti-hegemonic noises, invoking a new world order with other “power centers besides the United States.”

In the nineteenth century, such textbook moves would have shaken chancelleries and general staffs around the world. This is what nations have always done to squeeze No. 1: join forces, craft outflanking alliances. The purpose was to neutralize its power or diminish it by force of war. This time, Presidents Yeltsin and Chirac barely made the evening news when they embraced Jiang. The Chinese connection appeared a sheer anachronism, a pale copy of a mainstay of statecraft in centuries past.

The Classical Balance of Power

How DOES one crack the paradox of America’s unchallenged primacy? First, let us look at the nature and behavior of this peculiar American beast.

In the days of Charles and Louis, counter-alliances formed rapidly because expansion and war was the full-time job of those potentates. Consider an upstart like Frederick the Great. Hardly anointed as king of Prussia, he embarked on a career of conquest. But even against such a minor player, the system did kick in. At the beginning of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), a Franco-Austrian treaty pledged to reduce his power “within such boundaries that he will not in the future be able to disturb the public tranquillity.”

America is different. It irks and domineers, but it does not conquer. It tries to call the shots and bend the rules, but it does not go to war for land and glory. Indeed, the last time the United States actually grabbed territory was a hundred years ago, when it relieved Spain of Cuba and the Philippines. For the balance-of-power machinery to crank up, it makes a difference whether the rest of the world faces a huge but usually placid elephant or a carnivorous Tyrannosaurus rex. Those who coerce or subjugate others are far more likely to inspire hostile alliances than nations that contain themselves, as it were.

The grand strategy of this mammoth is also quite different. Short of reaching for hegemony, as did the Hapsburgs and the Hitlers, a power like the United States faces only one choice: keep everybody else from uniting against it. How? History and logic offer only two alternatives. The paramount power tries to render hostile coalitions either impossible or unnecessary; it seeks to prevent or preempt them. “Britain” and “Bismarck” provide useful labels for these two approaches.

Imperial Britain’s strategy was to capitalize on its great advantage of insularity-to stay aloof from the quarrels of Europe, if possible, and to intervene against the hegemonist of the day when necessary. The purpose was to reduce the other powers’ incentives for ganging up, or to break up the gang when it formed nonetheless.

Bismarck’s grand strategy was the opposite extreme: not intermittent intervention, but permanent entanglement. To banish his “nightmare of coalitions,” the Iron Chancellor sought to cement better relations with all contenders than they might establish among themselves. As long as all these relationships converged in Berlin like spokes in a hub, Germany would be the manager, not the victim, of European diplomacy. Consciously or not, the United States has adopted a grand strategy that is less and less “Britain” and more and more “Bismarck.”

Balancing a la Britain

Henry VIII was the first to make his country’s grand strategy explicit with the maxim Cui adhaero praeest, “Whom I support, will prevail.” By 1577, Elizabeth I was the “Umpire betwixt the Spaniards, the French, and the Estates,” wrote the historian William Camden in 1615. “France and Spain are as it were the Scales in the Balance of Europe, and England the Tongue or the Holder of the Balance.”

In the words of Winston Churchill, speaking in 1936 to the conservative members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, “For four hundred years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent … Faced by Philip II of Spain, against Louis XIV under William III and Marlborough, against Napoleon, against William II of Germany, it would have been easy … to join with the strongest and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the continental military tyrant.”

This is the traditional, if idealized, rendition of British grand strategy. In the great European struggles for supremacy, Britain engineered those continental coalitions that brought down the Hapsburgs and the Hitlers. It would fight with and against France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Prussia-Germany. The basic principle was anti-hegemonism without entanglement. In the words of Castlereagh in a confidential paper in 1820, “When the Territorial Balance of Europe is disturbed,” Britain “can interfere with effect … We shall be found in our Place when actual danger menaces the System of Europe; but this Country cannot, and will not, act upon … Principles of Precaution.” And in a letter in the same year, “[O]ur true policy has always been not to interfere except in great emergencies and then with a commanding force.”

Extraordinarily successful, this strategy secured Britain’s exalted status as the only global power for about two centuries. Until World War I, when Britain lost an entire generation in the trenches of Flanders, the strategy was also enormously economical. As Spain, France, Austria, and the Netherlands exhausted themselves in an endless series of continental wars, Britain played out the essential advantages of an island-based sea power.

Analogous to the situation of the United States, insularity granted Britain the rare gift of immunity from direct attack as long as the Royal Navy controlled the seas. Mastery of the seas multiplied options and reduced costs. Compared with the expense of keeping and moving large armies, dispatch of the fleet (in the U.S. case, add the air force) was not just cheaper; it allowed for speed, hence strategic surprise at points chosen by the attacker. Like America’s decisive battles at Midway, Britain’s decisive battles were won at sea-against the Spanish Armada and at Trafalgar-and at far smaller cost than Napoleon’s victory at Borodino.

The name of the game was balance, not conquest-at least not in Europe. Tipping the scales is cheaper than providing the full weight of countervailing power. Even more economical than breaking up hostile coalitions is to preempt them by providing no incentives for ganging up. By withdrawing from the European system after victory, Britain removed itself as a target. The no-conquest rule also reduced future costs by leaving no permanent enmities on the books. Unlike those archenemies France and Germany, Britain could thus maximize alliance options in the next round. And so, Britain could always mastermind those superior coalitions that brought down the hegemonist du jour. This was, mutatis mutandis, American grand strategy in World War I and World War II.

Bismarck’s League of Peace

The opposite paradigm, and one more apropos of contemporary America, was designed by Bismarck after Germany’s unification in 871. This new player was now the mightiest actor on the European stage-akin to the present-day United States globally. “What had become clear to Europe was that primacy had passed from France to Germany,” notes the British historian John A. Grenville in his 1976 book Europe Reshaped, 1848-1878, and he quotes Disraeli to make the point: “You have a new world … The balance of power has been entirely destroyed.” But precisely for that reason, the Second Reich was also the most vulnerable player in the great-power game.

Isolation a la Britain was impossible, encircled as Germany was by four great powers, one of which, France, harbored a permanent desire for revanche. Bismarck’s enduring problem was Frederick’s cauchemar des coalitions on a grander scale. Germany could hold off any challenger, but it could not dominate all of them at once. The solution was limned in the famous Kissinger Diktat, formulated by Bismarck at his summer retreat, Bad Kissingen, in June 1877: the creation of a “universal political situation in which all the powers except France need us and, by dint of their mutual relations, are kept as much as is possible from forming coalitions against us.”

Bismarck’s metaphor for the Second Reich was the Bleigewicht am Stehaufmannchen Europa, the dead weight in the tumbler doll that was Europe. Germany had to manage Europe’s fragile equilibrium from the center. Berlin had to neutralize the forces that drove Russia and Austria toward collision in the Balkans, that threatened to embroil Britain and Russia in the arc of crisis running from Turkey to Afghanistan, and that might tempt each of the three to look for French help.

How to play the “dead weight”? For a few years, Bismarck tried going it alone a l’anglaise. But when he realized that Germany lacked both gravity and invulnerability, Bismarck contracted a lasting case of pactomania. The centerpiece was the 1879 Dual Alliance with Austria against Russia. Two years later, that axis was embedded in a revived Three Emperors’ League with Russia, where each ruler pledged benevolent neutrality to the others in a war with a fourth power, that is, France.

Thus Bismarck added the “Saburov Rule” to the Kissinger Diktat. “All politics,” he told the Russian ambassador in Berlin, “can be reduced to this formula: Try to be in a threesome as long as the world is governed by the precarious equilibrium of five great powers. That is the true protection against coalitions.”

By 1883 Bismarck’s alliances covered half of Europe, including Serbia, Romania, and Italy. Finally, after the Three Emperors’ League had collapsed under the weight of Austro-Russian rivalries, Bismarck struck a secret deal with the czar: the legendary Reinsurance Treaty of 1887. Each pledged benevolent neutrality in case the other was attacked by its principal foe-Germany by France, Russia by Austria.

What was the purpose of these contradictory commitments? Bismarck did not construct his system to aggregate power, but to devalue it-balancing and stalemating like the British, but in totally un-British ways. He dreaded the marriage of Germany’s flanking powers. And so this intricate web would preserve Germany’s position by making hostile coalitions-indeed, war itself-impossible. If all but France were bound to Berlin, if none could move without being tripped by that net, each would stay in place-and with it the European status quo profoundly destabilized by the enormous but not supreme power of the Second Reich.

The Global Game

Recalling these two paradigms helps one understand why the United States remains in the cozy position of an unchallenged No. 1. America is a bit like Britain and a lot like Bismarck’s Germany, but with far more clout than either, and on a global scale. To Britain’s insularity and superior navy, the United States has added an unmatched air force and the greatest deterrent of all: nuclear weapons. Though virtually neutralized as an offensive weapon, this revolutionary technology has unhinged one mechanism of the balance of power. Nuclear weapons cannot be aggregated like the armies of yore. Even if Russia, China, et al. coalesced, the United States could still deter them as long as it could inflict unacceptable damage on each and all. In the conventional arena, numbers mattered. On the nuclear chessboard, it is the speed, reach, and invulnerability of weapons and C-3 (command, control, and communications) systems. In the nuclear age, ganging up does not threaten America’s core security. Indeed, because they can deter all comers, nuclear weapons are an isolationist’s dream.2 But unlike yesterday’s Britain, the United States no longer has the isolationist option. Britain was not really part of the European greatpower system; by regularly shifting to overseas expansion, Britain rarely offered a target for countervailing alliances. But contemporary America is more like Bismarck’s Germany writ large. Its interests and its presence span the globe; the United States is always in harm’s way. Nor can the United States rely on the other great powers to stalemate each other. (How would the EU balance China?)

The United States plays the British game only regionally-when it masterminds a coalition against Saddam Hussein or tips the scales in favor of NATO’S intervention against the Serbs in the recent Balkan conflict. Like Britain, the United States minimizes itself as a target by staying offshore as an over-the-horizon presence in the western Pacific and Mediterranean. Where the United States does commit ground forces, as in Japan, South Korea, and Western Europe, their presence is accepted as legitimate.

But the global game is essentially a Bismarckian one, and that explains why the rest of the world is not moving in on the United States. Recall the Kissinger Diktat. The task was to work out a “universal political situation in which all the powers except France need us and … are kept as much as is possible from forming coalitions against us.” The appropriate metaphor is that of hub and spoke. The hub is Washington, and the spokes are Western Europe, Japan, China, Russia, and the Middle East. For all their antagonism toward the United States, their association with the hub is more important to them than are their ties to one another.

In the Pacific, the United States has fought wars against Japan, North Korea-China, and North Vietnam (supported by the Soviet Union). Yet today the United States has better relations with Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea (and of course Taiwan) than these states have with one another. Lesser states like Thailand or even Vietnam would rather huddle under the American umbrella than be exposed to the larger Pacific powers. Despite their newly minted “strategic partnership,” China and Russia look to the United States as an implicit ally against each other. All Asia counts on the U.S. security guarantee to keep Japan from converting its economic richesse into military prowess. And though each has played its own game with North Korea, China and Russia have been quite content to let the United States carry the burden of constraining Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

In the Middle East, the world’s most labile region, the United States inserted its spoke 4o years ago by ending the imperial careers of Britain and France during the 1956 Suez War. Now everybody but Iraq and Iran looks to Washington to help sort out their ancient quarrels, with the United States dispensing side payments in the form of economic and military aid to its various clients and tacit guarantees of everybody’s security against everybody else. When the Palestine Liberation Organization and Jordan made peace with Israel in 1993 and 1994, the signings took place in the White House Rose Garden. When local culprits like Iraq needed chastening, the United States organized the international posse. Bismarck could not even have dreamed of such a successful hub-and-spoke operation in nineteenth-century Europe.

Western Europe has been linked to the Washington hub since 1945-if also for reasons that have lost some persuasiveness since the end of the Cold War. At least since de Gaulle, France has pursued a halfhearted balancing strategy against the United States, trying to organize a competitive orbit. Nonetheless, the game does not work. Britain, Germany, Italy, even France need the United States as a security lender of last resort-as balancer against a resurgent Russia as well as against each other. It is nice to have an extracontinental player in the game that is bigger than each and all but also more of an elephant than a Tyrannosaurus. Also, Europe is a long way from e pluribus unum and thus not very good at producing public goods like security. After three years of European humiliation at the hands of the Serbs, it was American cruise missiles that sobered up Messrs. Karadzic and Milosevic.

In the meantime, Washington has also managed to recruit Yeltsin’s Russia into its orbit. It was George Bush who eased Moscow’s fall from empire while running interference for Helmut Kohl as he fumbled his way to reunification. It was Bill Clinton who defined the basic terms of Russia’s association with the Western alliance and who manned the gate through which Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary could march into NATO. Just before the Madrid summit, France executed a classic anti-American gambit, trying to mobilize European pressure for the admission of Slovenia and Romania. It did not work because no European nation was really willing to confront the United States. For all of Europe’s widening web of economic and monetary integration, the spokes of grand strategy continue to converge in Washington.

Imperial Soft Power

At the threshold of the 21st century, America is a size XXL Bismarckian empire-the indispensable impresario of all critical endeavors, and not the object of encirclement. But there is more-a new game Bismarck would not have understood that favors the United States as the last remaining superpower.

The classical balance-of-power game will never disappear as long as there are sovereign entities living in a state of nature. But the classical game is receding; Saddam Hussein and Radovan Karadzic no longer define the essence, or the bulk, of world politics. And that has to do with the devaluation of military power and the changing stakes of international relations.

Setting aside war for strategic resources like oil and water in the Middle East, or population wars, as in Africa, what is the point of conquering land and people? Land in the developed world no longer spells riches, but more agricultural surpluses and hence higher support payments. Machiavelli thought it easier to acquire riches with good armies than vice versa, “for gold alone will not produce good soldiers, but good soldiers will always produce gold.” But as Saddam’s soldiers found out in Kuwait City, the money was gone-whisked away at the speed of a modem. Population as such has also been devalued in the post-agrarian, post-infantry age. What counts is highly trained and highly motivated people. But machine guns do not motivate. Worse, knowledge workers are almost as mobile as money. In short, conquest isn’t what it used to be. An important incentive for war and alliances has disappeared.

Let’s make no mistake about it. Hard power-men and missiles, guns and ships-still counts. It is the ultimate, because existential, currency of power. But on the day-to-day level, “soft power,” a term introduced by the scholar Joseph S. Nye, is the more interesting coin. It is less coercive and less tangible. The classic way was to force other nations to do what they did not want to do, ultimately by costly war. Today there is a much bigger payoff in getting others to want what you want, and that has to do with the attraction of one’s ideas, with agenda-setting, with ideology and institutions, and with holding out big prizes for cooperation, such as the vastness and sophistication of one’s market.

Soft power is cultural and economic power, and very different from its military kin. The United States has the most sophisticated, not the largest, military establishment in the world. But it is definitely in a class of its own in the soft-power game. On that table, China, Russia, Japan, and even Western Europe cannot hope to match the pile of chips the United States holds. People are risking death on the high seas to get into the United States, not China. There are not too many who want to go for an M.B.A. at Moscow University, or dress and dance like the Japanese. Sadly, fewer and fewer students want to learn French or German. English, the American-accented version, has become the world’s language.

This type of power-a culture that radiates outward and a market that draws inward-rests on pull, not on push; on acceptance, not on conquest. Worse, this kind of power cannot be aggregated, nor can it be balanced. In this arena, all of them together-Europe, Japan, China, and Russia-cannot gang up on the United States as in an alliance of yesteryear. All their movie studios together could not break the hold of Hollywood. Nor could a consortium of their universities dethrone Harvard et al., which dominate academia while luring the best and the brightest from abroad.

Against cultural power, aggregation does not work. Might it work in the economic sphere? There is always the option of trade blocs-cum-protectionism. But which West European country would want to be in the same market with Russia? The Eu by itself? That would imply forgoing the competitive pressures and the diffusion of technology that global markets provide. Nor would European welfare improve if the United States, the largest import market in the world, were to retaliate against the EU with its own trade walls. This is where the game has changed most profoundly. The old game of nations was zero-sum: my gains are your losses. But in the new game, not only do all win and lose together (that was true in 1914 too, when Britain and Germany fell upon each other even though they were each other’s best customers) but nations worry less about one another’s disproportionate gains from common enterprises because the connection between strategy and economics has loosened.

In theory, the United States should worry greatly about China’s double-digit growth-as did Britain with regard to Germany from the 1890s onward. In the old days, Britain and Napoleon’s France blockaded each other’s trade because the strategic imperative dwarfed the economic one. Today, Europe and America threaten each other with economic warfare when negotiations stall. But threats are where the conflict usually stops because everyone is deadly afraid of destroying the global trading system. America’s rivals would rather deal with the country’s surfeit of soft power by competition, imitation, and industrial espionage (and vice versa) because the costs of employing economic warfare as a handmaiden of strategy are too high.

Neither the American makers nor the American consumers of Nike shoes would happily countenance trade barriers against China because that would drive up costs and drive down real incomes. If the allure of warfare has paled, while welfare shines ever more brightly, then isolation and noncooperation have become long-term loss leaders. This is why the “strategic partnership” forged by Russia and China appears so anachronistic in 1997. What are they going to do about America? Boris Yeltsin will hardly want to shop for know-how and computers in Beijing. And China will not want to risk its most important export market.

Do unto Others…

“Pourvu que ca dure,” “as long as it lasts,” was the prudent counsel of Napoleon’s mother-in-law. America unmatched and unchallenged-why should this history-defying condition endure? Bismarck’s hub-and-spoke operation is hardly a reassuring precedent. He managed to keep Europe’s No. 1 out of encirclement for 20 years, until 1890; then the inexorable slide toward World War I began. Europe’s hegemonists before and after fared far worse than the grand manipulator. Their lot was endless war and, finally, defeat. Might America defy history’s grim verdict in the century to come?

Little in its own history has prepared the United States for this awesome task. The nation was conceived in the revolt against power politics; afterward, a century of safety and continental expansion nicely vindicated Washington’s and Jefferson’s counsel against entanglement. Today there is again a surfeit of security, and postmodern democracy, least of all the American one, does not look kindly on such notions as reasons of state, let alone global responsibility. Contemporary democracy is not just selfish, but self-referential. And primacy does not come cheap, even in an age when No. 1 does not have to fight wars to break up hostile coalitions, as Britain had to do.

So what is in it for the United States as it weighs the burden that comes with the power and the glory? Above all, the fundamentals are as benign as could be. While Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5 surely resent America’s clout, they have also found it useful to have a player like the United States in the game. Europe and Japan regularly suffer from America’s commercial hauteur, but they also know that the United States is the ultimate guarantor of the global free trade system. Britain and France almost came to blows with the United States over “lift and strike” in the Bosnian war, but in 1995 they were only too happy to let American cruise missiles and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke bludgeon the Serbs to the negotiating table. Egyptians, Saudis, and Syrians hardly love the United States, but they too were cooperative when George Bush mobilized an international posse against Saddam Hussein.

When lesser powers cannot deter China in the Taiwan Strait, or persuade North Korea to denuclearize, it is indispensable to have someone with the will and the wherewithal to do what others wish but cannot achieve on their own. In the language of “public goods” theory, there must always be somebody who will recruit individual producers, organize the start-up, and generally assume a disproportionate burden in the enterprise. That is as true in international affairs as it is in grassroots politics.

Charles, Philip, et al. sought to conquer. The United States has built institutions, which is another word for “public goods”-that is the difference. Even a brillant manipulator like Bismarck never thought much beyond Germany; the main purpose of his crafty constructions was not to benefit Europe, but his own country. Nor did he devise systems that would transcend the narrow purposes of an alliance. The genius of American diplomacy in the second half of this century was building institutions that would advance American interests by serving others. Who can count the acronyms made in the U.S.A.-from NATO to GATT, from the OECD to the PFP?

Why pay the bill? By providing security for others, in Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific, the United States has also bought security for itself Stability is its own reward because it prevents worse: arms races, nuclear proliferation, actual conflicts that might draw in bystanders. Enlarging NATO, though costly to the American taxpayer, brings profits to both Poland and the United States because anything that secures the realm of liberal democracy benefits its leading representative. Shoring up the World Trade Organization, even when it pronounces against Washington, is still good for America because, as the world’s largest exporter, it has the greatest interest in free trade. Are the costs of producing “public goods” intolerable? Not if one looks beyond dollars and cents. Conductors turn 8o solo players into a symphony orchestra, brokers represent and adjust the interests of all parties; their labor is the source of their influence. And so a truly great power must do more than merely deny others the reason and opportunity for ganging up. It must also provide essential services. Those who do for others engage in systemic supply-side economics: They create a demand for their services, and that translates into political profits, also known as leadership.

In short, power exacts responsibility, and responsibility requires a vision that transcends niggardly self-interest. The task is Bismarck-plus. As long as the United States continues to provide public goods, envy and resentment will not escalate into the fear and loathing that spawn hostile combinations. “Do good for others in order to do well for yourself,” is the proper maxim for an unchallenged No. 1. Great powers remain great if they promote their own interests by serving those of others.