How to behave as the world's only superpower? That is the question confronting the United States in its unprecedented post-Cold War role. Some say go all out and use American power to the maximum to assure global law and order. Others warn that neither the American public nor the rest of the world will tolerate such ambitions.
The United States has no global rival today, says Thomas Donnelly. Let's keep it that way.
He is speaking for the Project for the New American Century, an organization of journalists and policy makers that aims to promote U.S. global leadership. The threats against the United States are not as great as they were during the Cold War, but there are more of them: "There are a lot of countries out there who are not happy with the current international order, that are anti-democratic and would seek to challenge American leadership in a variety of places," he says. "So there is plenty for us to do. Just because it is not something that threatens to destroy us in an instant does not mean it is not worth our time."
The Project emphasizes the danger of a rising, hegemonic-minded China, and of rogue nations like Iran and Iraq. It says the United States must be prepared to fight large and small wars simultaneously. This requires forward bases in many part of the world: the Balkans, the Middle East, Asia. U.S. troops now stationed in South Korea, say Project members, should remain on the Asian continent even after the two Koreas reunite.
If the United States should go to war with Iraq or North Korea, it should be prepared not only to win but to remove the regimes and provide postwar stability.
It is not enough to rely on a balance of power or on regional powers, says Mr. Donnelly. Where America leads, others will follow. "Our allies are far more willing to participate in various missions around the world with us when they believe that we are strong," he says. "I think the experience of the Balkans, for example, over the past decade bears this out pretty obviously. We just think it is much more likely that things will be conducted successfully when we are in the leadership position."
That is a blueprint for disaster, say critics, who cite the words of the l8th century British statesman Edmund Burke: "I dread our own power and our own ambition. I dread being too much dreaded."
The British empire succeeded and survived as long as it did, say these critics, by exercising restraint and maintaining a balance of power. It tried to keep a hostile coalition from forming against it.
The Project for the New Century would lead to such a coalition, says Richard Kohn, professor of military history at the University of North Carolina. "Such a structure in my judgment could provoke the very opposition and hostility and potential conflicts and wars that we would like to avoid," he says. "The United States can provoke jealously, and it can provoke hostility, and it can be misunderstood and misread. The great danger of that today, it seems to me, is with China and to some extent, Russia."
If the United States regards China as hostile, says Professor Kohn, it may turn out to be. He notes top U.S. officials recently visited Australia, where they called for closer security ties with Australia, Japan and South Korea. That may reassure these friendly nations, says Mr. Kohn, but it may alarm China.
Hence the need for extreme care in acting in the world. "I do not think the United States needs to act as the guarantor of stability everywhere," says Mr. Kohn. "It simply cannot. We do not have the resources, and I do not think the American people really want to play that kind of role everywhere in the world."
The United States has all kinds of ways of exerting its influence, short of military force, says Mr. Kohn. It can have the greatest impact by following its anti-imperial tradition.