America Can't Keep Playing Lone Ranger

By Stan Crock


Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone

By Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Oxford University -- 222pp -- $26

Zacarias Moussaoui is the flight-school student who supposedly wasn't interested in learning to take off or land an airplane. Such details would be irrelevant, authorities allege, only if a student were planning to hijack a plane in midair and crash it into a building. Moussaoui's prosecution is at the heart of the Bush Administration's anti-terrorism campaign. Nevertheless, when the feds asked France for help in getting information on Moussaoui, a French citizen, the gendarmes balked. Paris, of course, supports punishment for those responsible for September 11, but it opposes the death penalty--which Moussaoui could get if convicted. Thus, foreign disagreement with U.S. ethical judgments could undermine the law-enforcement aspect of the war on terrorism.

The U.S.-French conflict highlights the tension between America's "hard power" and "soft power." This pits its military and economic clout against the cultural influences, values, and institutions that make others want to side with America (or reject us). In his thoughtful new book, The Paradox of American Power, Joseph S. Nye Jr. argues that unless Washington pays more attention to soft power, its hard power will erode. In particular, he contends that an arrogant, unilateralist approach employing the military and economics won't work. Instead, the U.S. must show more sensitivity and try to fashion goals that are consistent with the interests of others. On more and more issues, from financial flows and drug trafficking to climate change and infectious diseases, the Lone Ranger line of attack simply will not work.

Nye has an impressive track record. Currently the dean at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, he was, during the Clinton Administration, chairman of the National Intelligence Council and an Assistant Defense Secretary. He also has a reputation as a prognosticator. In 1989, he wrote a contrarian but prescient book called Bound to Lead, which explained why the then-ailing U.S. would ultimately succeed against Japan, which looked like an invincible industrial giant. This time, though, Nye's crystal ball portends ill for the U.S.

The Paradox of American Power is in some ways a blueprint for the next Democratic Presidential candidate. A Democratic contender could pick up Nye's gripe that the Bush Administration is too unilateralist, as it rejects one international treaty after another, withdraws from the bilateral 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and forges ahead with controversial plans to oust Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. Yet the Administration also assembled a broad coalition for the war on terror, consulted with European allies on missile defense, and discussed Iraq with Arab nations. Richard N. Haass, the director of the State Dept.'s policy-planning shop, calls the Administration's approach "à la carte multilateralism."

What Nye argues for might be called à la carte unilateralism. When national survival is at stake--as it was, for example, in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis--there may be no other alternative than to go it alone, and boldly. And Nye agrees with the Bush Administration that the U.S. should not join the global land-mine ban because such weapons deter North Korea from invading South Korea. (The Clinton Administration refused to sign the pact, also.) Nor should the U.S. agree to water down its regulation of financial markets, rules that have raised global standards. "The key is whether the unilateral action was designed to promote a global public good," Nye says.

Nye takes issue with the Bush team in two ways. First, he thinks a multilateralist approach is a positive one, rather than a necessary concession to such realities as transnational terrorism and international crime syndicates. He also differs over how to handle unilateral moves. Like the Bush Administration, Nye has reservations about the Kyoto global-warming treaty. Bush dismissed it early in his term, saying it would hurt the U.S. economy. Nye thinks that developed nations cannot meet the treaty's emissions limits without ruining their economies and that developing countries should be required to meet those restrictions, too. Some environmentalists privately agree that the accord will never be enforced. What would Nye have done? Say that the U.S. will work on a plan to cut emissions and vow to negotiate a better treaty. Such "unilateralism arguably would have advanced multilateral interests," he says.

Today, Nye says, power is like a three-dimensional chess game. At the first level, the U.S. military is without peer. But in other arenas, the U.S. may not get its way so easily. The second level--economics--is multipolar, with Europe, Japan, and eventually China creating other power centers. At the third level--transnational relations that are beyond government control--actors from terrorists to bankers to hackers make sure that power is widely dispersed. While Nye doesn't believe that the U.S. will rot from within, as the Roman Empire did, he fears these outside forces are a potential threat to America's global hegemony if Uncle Sam missteps. That's why Nye concludes that, even if the U.S. remains dominant in the military sphere, "in this global information age, No. 1 ain't gonna be what it used to be." It is an observation that both Democrats and Republicans would do well to heed.

Crock covers national security from Washington.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.