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America and the Paradox of Power

Dominant but vulnerable, the United States confronts terrorism and growing resentment abroad. How should it respond, and what do its actions say about the country? Six scholars weigh in.

Photo: Barbara Ries

COIT “CHIP” BLACKER, deputy director and senior fellow at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies and professor, by courtesy, of political science. During the first Clinton administration, he was special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council.

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Listen to an audio clip of the faculty roundtable.

More than two months have passed since President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq complete, but debate about what the war signals for U.S. foreign policy rages on. American power and influence have never been greater, and even America’s allies voice concern about how the United States will exercise that power. Meanwhile, a national conversation is under way about what U.S. actions abroad say about American culture and principles. After the war in Iraq ended, Stanford brought together six faculty members from various disciplines to talk about the country’s values and its place in the world. This is an edited transcript of that discussion.

Stanford: Anti-Americanism has long been a feature of international relations, but the war in Iraq seems to have hardened resentment against the United States. Are we seeing a fundamental change in how the United States is viewed internationally?

Coit “Chip” Blacker: The short answer is yes. There has been a fundamental change in how the U.S. is viewed, but I wouldn’t date it to anything quite so recent. It’s a process that’s been under way for the last 10 or 12 years. The easiest way to encapsulate it is to say that to the outside world we are capable of anything, both good and bad, and we are responsible for everything, good and bad.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Cold War structure revealed just how much influence and power this country deploys internationally. You like that power if it advantages you, and you don’t like it if it disadvantages you. If I feel disempowered, I’m going to first blame my own leaders; then I’m going to blame the biggest guys on the block because they must be responsible for the state of affairs in which I find myself.

Michael Boskin: The collapse of the Soviet Union also did a lot to change the dynamics in countries that had previously been very close to the United States. For example, it allowed the elite French view of the world to come out from underneath the umbrella of protection the U.S. military provided against the Soviet Union. And the radically reduced probability of mass Russian invasion across the North German plain makes it a lot easier for the Germans to be anti-American. As Chip said, if you weigh the advantages of aligning with the U.S., the cost of not doing so shrank rather dramatically when the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Pamela Karlan: It’s also changed our government’s behavior. Once you get outside Europe, you’re talking about a hearts-and-minds battle. Countries in the Third World don’t have another superpower to go to, and we’re not out there trying to win them over.

Al Camarillo: That’s true. We don’t quite know how to conduct ourselves in an environment in which we’re not competing against some other force. And because of our political culture, we have a tendency to dress up whatever it is we’re doing with references to our values. That’s fine, but there are dangers in that, particularly when we offer up our values as universally applicable to all nations. People [in developing countries] hear that, and it sounds like ideological imperialism.

Blacker: It’s hard for us to develop a language with which to address these issues. During the Cold War, we were competing against this set of ideas, this great ugly thing that was communism. We were pretty comfortable talking about the free world versus communism or totalitarianism, and it resonated with most of the world. It’s quite another thing to keep talking in those terms now when it’s not obvious to whom we are referring.

Camarillo: There’s another factor that I think has to be put into the formula of how the U.S. is viewed: an increased fear of the unpredictability of the United States. We’re seeing a new phase of U.S. foreign policy being instituted. European allies are scratching their heads, thinking, “Which direction will the United States take? Will it follow this unilateral policy in places other than Iraq? Perhaps Syria, perhaps North Korea?” So I think fear of the United States, which has always been there, is more pronounced now without that other force to balance and restrain U.S. power.

Blacker: That’s right. Look at what happened in Afghanistan when we decided it was time to “drain the swamp,” as Condi Rice says. It was over in six weeks. Then people said, “Well, that’s Afghanistan, that’s the Taliban—Iraq is a very different story. It’s going to be a quagmire.” So the Americans go in—boom, it’s over in a month. If you’re on the outside looking at that, you’re thinking, “Wow, these guys are actually as powerful as we feared they might be.”

Stanford: So how does the United States reconcile its security concerns with this international resistance to American power and influence?

David Brady: It seems to me that the United States has a special obligation to say what it is going to do and to work out some form of new international system. The old system no longer works. We are in an era in which the main threat is not from a country; it’s from terrorists who move in and between countries. Some of these countries can be held responsible for the terrorist actions and others cannot because they don’t fully control all their territory. The United States has great economic and military power, yet we’re now in an age when the president could get a phone call at 2 a.m. that says, “Mr. President, a bomb exploded in New York; there are 30,000 dead and many more at risk.” That’s a new world in which it’s very hard to figure out the right thing to do, and the U.N. doesn’t work very well for that. From an American viewpoint, the issue is keeping Americans safe. I have a daughter who lives in New York, and I certainly don’t want [U.N. chief weapons inspector] Hans Blix or [French president] Jacques Chirac to decide how she will be protected.

William “Scotty” McLennan: It’s a new world ideologically, too. We have a whole set of religious ideologies coming to the fore that we don’t know very much about. You only have to go back to the Iranian revolution to see how our lack of understanding can lead to failure. Our CIA supposedly knew virtually everything about Iran. We knew all of the political parties, yet there was no sense of the religious dynamics whatsoever.

Blacker: What’s new, and what we don’t know how to manage, is the ability of non-state actors to inflict potentially catastrophic destruction on the most powerful country the world has seen since the late Roman republic. That’s very different. And that’s what the Bush folks mean when they talk about the unprecedented coming together of radicalism and technology.

Boskin: That also answers Al’s question about the U.S. being unpredictable. Of course we are unpredictable. We’ve had no situations quite like this, and it isn’t perfectly clear what we should do. It depends on the circumstances because one question is, do we actually know how much damage they can do?

Blacker: No.

Boskin: And given that you don’t know for sure, if you’re the president, you have to assume the worst. And that leads to the preemption doctrine.

Karlan: But you also don’t know where the damage is coming from. Even if you could predict what the maximum damage is, you don’t know where and when and who and why.

Blacker: Lord knows, I’m no big fan of this administration’s policies—I’m a Democrat, so there are things they have done I don’t like—but there’s no question that they are dealing with a fundamentally new situation that no other administration has had to deal with.

Boskin: I would agree with everything you said except one thing.

Brady: That he’s a Democrat? [Laughter.]

Boskin: I agree with everything Chip said except his claim that no previous administration had to deal with it. I think if we had had a proper accounting, this [antiterrorism effort] should have been going on earlier. The Clinton administration didn’t pay much attention to this at all. And by not responding more forcefully, it fed into this notion that the U.S. is weak and decaying and won’t respond. The threat was magnified by the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, but we had an earlier bombing at the World Trade Center, we had attacks on our embassies, we had the USS Cole bombing. This has gone on in a lot of places.

Karlan: But most of those were overseas. The U.S. has been involved in wars all over the world for a long period of time, and American soldiers have died in those wars. What was so striking about September 11 for a lot of people was the idea that this could happen here.

Blacker: To them.

Boskin: The Clinton people claim in their defense that they knew about the threat and did what they could. I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong about that, but I just think we shouldn’t leave the comment out there that September 11 was the first time any of these issues came up to an administration.

Blacker: I’ll take the critique if you extend it back through the Bush administration and the Reagan administration. There were a number of incidents across a 20-year period, but you had a public that was unmovable about doing something dramatic to confront it. When I first talked about the political consequences in this country of September 11, some people said to me that if we strike back, we would invite more attacks. I said, first of all, that presupposes that if we don’t strike back, we’re not going to be attacked again. And, second, if the president of the United States does not take decisive military action in response to September 11, he will be impeached and he should be impeached. Things changed. Mike’s right, this stuff has been around for a long time, and lots of Americans died, but I think there was something dramatically transforming in terms of our own political life as a consequence of September 11.

Stanford: As the world’s only superpower, the United States has a disproportionate impact on the peace and prosperity of other countries. How does it balance protecting its own interests with being a good world citizen?

Boskin: One contribution the United States makes that really isn’t appreciated enough is the extent to which U.S. diplomacy and military power provide a stable backdrop to allow economic progress. The Japanese spend 1 percent of gross domestic product on defense. The United States has basically paid their security bill for 50 years so they could concentrate on economic growth. And there are other examples. If we let the terrorism genies proliferate horribly, people won’t travel, countries can’t engage in trade and have to invoke massive defense expenditures, et cetera.

Karlan: I see the question somewhat differently. If our policy is to act unilaterally when our interests are threatened, what are our responses in the places where we don’t really have a dog in the fight? Take Rwanda, where half a million people were killed. It’s hard to say that what happens in Rwanda is going to have immediate consequences for the U.S., so it’s not in our economic self-interest and it’s certainly not in politicians’ self-interests to send a bunch of American troops in there to prevent the killing. So what’s our responsibility in those kinds of situations? If we say, “Well, we don’t care about this terrible ethnic warfare because it isn’t going to produce a terrorist attack on the U.S.,” that puts us in a really difficult position. The more we act unilaterally when we’re sure it’s in our interest, the harder it may be to get action in cases where we think it’s in the world’s interest, or to intervene for humanitarian reasons.

McLennan: And it’s a matter of values. Can we act unilaterally in places where our own interests are involved, and not in others, and be consistent with our own sense of ourselves as a nation? We don’t want to be an imperial nation, but how can we be believable to other countries if we only intervene when it’s in our interest to do so?

Karlan: There may be places, like Rwanda, where we have no economic or military interest, and yet there may still be a very important moral value in our responding.

Boskin: There’s a big difference between sending the 4th Infantry Division in and working hard diplomatically to get some international force to provide assistance. I draw a distinction between that situation and a situation like Iraq, where there is a high likelihood that we could have serious consequences of our own to deal with. And let’s remember that it was international institutions that failed in Rwanda. A half-million people were slaughtered partly because the U.N. turned its back. The U.N. doesn’t exactly cover itself with glory when its Human Rights Commission has Libya as its chair and refuses to sanction the Sudan, which engages in slavery, among other things.

Brady: That’s precisely why we need a new international system [to resolve conflicts]. Unfortunately, what has evolved is that the United States does it or nobody does it. Kosovo is a classic example. The U.N. and the E.U. debate and debate, nothing happens, so the U.S. sends the planes in and bombs. Once the bombs stop and the U.S. military is gone, the Germans and French and some others come in and patrol. Then the Scandinavians send in the Red Cross and the goodies. That is not a sustainable system because, frankly, we can’t afford it. We need a system that fairly apportions the burden.

Stanford: How does the United States promote democracy without exacerbating concerns about American hegemony?

Camarillo: I would argue that a policy of preemption and unilateral intervention is inherently contradictory to the exportation of democracy and the growth of democratic institutions. We can’t implant democratic institutions without a foreign policy that models the principles behind them. Especially in the Arab world where there are such dramatically different cultural, religious and historical traditions.

Boskin: Al, I think you raise a very good point, but I think we have to be open-minded about that. [After World War II], people said that there was no way we could have a democratic Japan given their culture, their religion, their emperor worship, et cetera, and Japan has become a thriving democracy.

Camarillo: But that was one homogeneous nation, not an entire region.

Boskin: Certainly, I agree that Japan is a much more homogeneous nation than Iraq, where there are many different ethnic and religious factions. I’m just saying I think that we shouldn’t automatically presuppose it will not happen.

Blacker: I have no trouble with undertaking preemptive military action in the face of an imminent military threat. I have problems with undertaking military action to remake other countries and societies in our own image. One, because I don’t think it will work. Two, because it reveals a side of any hegemonic culture that is inherently unattractive, that is based on the supposition that the way we lead our lives is how other people want to lead theirs. I would talk about political accountability and [citizen] participation; those are the keys. We need to be prepared to live with a fairly broad set of interpretations around those goals. We can’t use our own measure for success because democracy in the Arab world is not going to look like democracy in the United States.

Boskin: But the alternative to doing something about Saddam Hussein wasn’t a thriving development of Arab society and Muslim culture in Iraq. He was a brutal dictator who was going to continue to threaten his neighbors and repress his people. So there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s an overwhelming case for preemption and unilateralism when multilateral efforts cannot respond rapidly enough and effectively enough. We can argue about where that boundary is. We know we can’t govern Iraq forever, but shouldn’t we try to steer the outcome?

Blacker: That’s why framing is important. That’s why the words that we use are important. I don’t want to set us up to fail by having a bar that’s so high nobody can clear it. So I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, Mike; I just want a quality to the conversation from a leadership cohort in this country that admits that there is a range of outcomes, and that acknowledges that it isn’t a perfect world. We will have succeeded if, over time, more people feel that they hold their leaders accountable, and if more rather than fewer people have a secure hold on their personal and private property—those kinds of things. There’s a way to talk about this so that we don’t expose ourselves to the danger of being failures.

Karlan: That gets back to what Chip said at the very beginning about anti-Americanism and its relationship to the decline of the Soviet Union. We engineered regime changes during the Cold War to keep countries out of the Soviet sphere, and it didn’t matter how they treated their own people. It’s just absolutely critical that whatever regime change we make doesn’t result in leaders who suppress terrorism but brutalize their own people. That will be a failure, and it will breed more anti-American sentiment.

Brady: Isn’t this the biggest chance the Bush administration is taking? I mean, is it really possible to have democracy in Iraq?

Blacker: These guys are risk-takers. I have to say, I’m impressed by the vision.

Brady: It’s just impossible to say what the outcome will be. Ideally, we’d progress to some modest range on the spectrum of mixed capitalism and democracy. If we did that in enough places, it wouldn’t banish all economic problems and it wouldn’t solve all political problems, but I think it would greatly reduce the propensity for cataclysmic outcomes.

Karlan: There’s a real resistance to modernism, and a rise of fundamentalism that will make it difficult to persuade some people that what they want is democracy.

Brady: They’re going to do it on their own terms, and it may take a long time, and it may never happen, but it seems to me that it’s our best hope.

Stanford: If fostering democratic principles is the goal, what’s the message the United States should be sending the rest of the world, and what’s the best way to send it?

Karlan: One way is through higher education. Opening up our education system, especially after World War II, is by far the greatest thing America has ever done. Foreign students who come here see democracy in action, make ties with other people and take those lessons and those connections back to their country. They are probably our best export, and the irony is that foreign students are having a hard time getting into the U.S. now [because of travel restrictions].

Boskin: That’s a great point. I was in Singapore last year and met with the prime minister and the senior minister, and we had a long conversation about the evolution of China as it transitions from this generation of leaders to the next. The next generation, who will be running China in 10 or 15 years, has been educated in the West, including some at Stanford.

Karlan: We have two or three law students a year from China, and their ability to export American notions back there is overwhelming, especially as China moves toward a market economy in which it’s doing a lot of international trade.

Blacker: But bear in mind there is the occasional guy . . .

Karlan: Yeah, there’s the guy who comes here and wants to go to flight school and only learns how to take off.

Blacker: Or comes here and is repelled by what he sees as a totally materialistic, secularized society. But I think you’re absolutely right that education is our best export. It’s profoundly subversive. It’s the most subversive thing we can do.

McLennan: We were talking earlier about anti-Americanism and how upset other countries are about our apparent hegemonic desires. The fact is that people want to come to the United States. The American dream continues to be, in some sense, the hope of humankind. I often struggle to figure out what it is that allows this country, diverse as it is, to hold. Why aren’t we flying apart? I think it’s the American dream. I think we have something about allowing individuals to realize their own potential that goes back to the Declaration of Independence.

Boskin: But you would agree there are large parts of the world that don’t share those values at all. Women have virtually no rights in some Arab countries.

Karlan: It took our country a long time to fully embrace some of those values, and we’re still working on it. Forty years ago, it would not have looked odd to have an all-white officer corps commanding the military. It would not have looked odd to have no women in positions of authority within corporations. But that has changed dramatically, and that’s something to try and export.

Boskin: Does that make us look better or worse in the Middle East?

Karlan: It makes us look worse in the short run, but in the long run, it has got to make us look better.

Blacker: And it’s who we are. It’s not something we’re exporting to make us feel good about ourselves; it’s an essential characteristic of our society. If we have a story to tell, if we have a song to sing, it’s how dramatic change can be when people are self-conscious and self-aware. And when their environment provides stability and assurance about their own futures and the lives of those they care about, people abandon these ridiculous artifices about what makes me better or worse than someone else. I think you’re absolutely right that there’s an important message implicit in that. We are, for all our faults, a multicultural society that works. It’s two steps forward, one step back, but this culture is integrated in a way that goes far beyond almost any other society in the world. I spend a lot of time in a lot of other places, and it has never once occurred to me, “Gee, I think I’d rather be a citizen of fill-in-the-blank”—never once. Because there is this sense that this amazing experiment is unfolding here. Ours is a country with lots of dents, lots of problems, far from perfect, but incredibly vibrant and accepting. And that’s what we can hold out for the rest of the world to see.

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