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American Primacy Is
Not a Good Thing



LONDON-- How quickly the spotlight has turned from the expansion of NATO to the expansion of the European Union. But this is where it should have been concentrated all along. If the former Warsaw Pact eastern European members want security AND economic well-being this is the place to find it, all in one. President Boris Yeltsin says he sees that too; he wants Russia to win its own place within the European Union.

The debate over NATO expansion has been a dangerous distraction from the main task. At the least a distraction, more likely something worse, a provocation, a running sore, that could in post-Yeltsin Russia lead to a new era of east-west confrontation.

Left to their own devices, the West European leaders would never have thought up the expansion of NATO. It was foisted on them by the hubris of their friend, the American superpower which, in turn, had been lobbied by the east European governments and their diaspora in the States. Pueillanimously, the Europeans have gone along with it. But all that shows is how dependent western Europe is on the U.S. The Europeans still find it easier to take their main political cues from Washington than cede a centralized control of foreign policy to a European directorate, an attitude that won't be changed until a solid core of the European members have established a common currency and bound themselves closer together.

The only hope for remedy in the immediate term lies with the U.S. Senate which has the power to vote down President Bill Clinton's eastward adventure. All the signs are that it is going to be America's first passionate foreign policy debate since the decision to approve doing battle with Saddam Hussein. That passed muster with the Senate by the barest of majorities.

The fundamental question that the Senate has to decide is whether the Clinton policy of "democratic enlargement" be allowed to develop into a Brezhnev Doctrine in reverse: states that are authoritarian may become democratic, but democracies will not be allowed to slip back. And if this policy is now to be secured by a rigorous and expensive military commitment to all of Europe, east as well as west, is the mood of American hubris going to spill over to the rest of the world? Is the U.S. now intent on exploiting its huge advantage as the world's sole superpower to prevent any other country becoming a new rival? Is this to be the age of American primacy?

There are at least four good reasons why it mustn't be. There is no clear need for America to balance some countervailing power. Since the demise of the Soviet Union there is only one candidate for such a role--China. But China can never match America in the military or the economic arena in the forseeable future. China has no ambition to rule the world, only perhaps Taiwan, and that can be handled in a civilized manner as long as Taiwanese politicians don't provoke Beijing by pushing for "independence."

Neither does America have a need to build up its reach to deal with would-be nuclear powers. India and Pakistan have no reason to threaten America. An Indo-Pakistan nuclear war would be a terrible thing but it makes no sense for the U.S. to get in the middle of the quarrel. As for North Korea, Iran and Iraq and other would-be nuclear suspects, a preventive war is simply not an option, given the ability of these countries to disperse and hide away their nuclear installations. A policy of military restraint will not increase the danger of them becoming openly nuclear. Indeed, by pulling back the symbol of provocation it could well diminish it.

A third good reason is because America is not just a military behemoth, it is a cultural and economic one too. It has to decide which of these three exports is crucial to its survival and self-identity. All pose problems of resentment. All the more reason to downsize the one that is counterproductive, so that the other two meet less militant resistance. The "Asian values" debate would probably have less steam in it if America didn't walk so tall on all of these three legs--and that in the long run would be better for the cause of enlarging democracy--the supposed essence of Clinton's foreign policy. The fourth is the simple practical one: primacy in reality is unrealizable. Even if it continues to spend on the military at Cold War rates what can the U.S. achieve? At the height of its power it couldn't defeat North Vietnam and, as Somalia made clear, the American public don't want to see body bags returning from other people's quarrels that don't directly affect America. The intervention in ex-Yugoslavia only remains acceptable as long as the protagonists remain exhausted by war and there are no American casualties. As for Saddam Hussein, no other contemporary figure has made himself such an easy target for the kind of warfare American tanks do best, rolling across an empty desert. America will cause an immense amount of ill will, envy and even create the very enemies it wishes to avoid if it uses its new economic strength and unchallenged military power to attempt to stride the world. The expansion of NATO is a serious enough mistake on its own but there could well be a more catastrophic one in the making.


July 23, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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