Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Neoconservatives, realists, and unipolarity

An earlier posting mentioned three reasons for the decline of realism as a master foreign policy paradigm; I want to expand on one of them: the reality of unipolarity since 1991. This reality underlies much of our discomfort about America being an "empire." (Actually, it isn't one, but that doesn't get to the core of our discomfort.) This strange situation - one superpower with weak allies and potential enemies that threaten us with, not conquest, but collapse - embodies an apparent paradox: America is relatively strong, but absolutely weak. This condition of unipolarity is at the root of our increasingly haywire foreign policy situation since the Persian Gulf war.

To bring this into focus, consider US military spending and force size after the end of the Cold War. Netting out homeland security, military spending is at its lowest level - relative to national income and the federal budget - since 1940. (It's about 3% of GDP and about one-seventh of the federal budget. Five-sevenths is entitlements; the other one-seventh is everything else. That situation will become even more lopsided in the coming years.) Similarly the relative size of the US military is at its smallest since before Pearl Harbor. Should it be increased? Yes, of course, especially if manpower-intensive interventions remain the norm that they have been since 1991. It's a no-brainer. We had an all-volunteer force twice its current size 20 years ago.

OTOH, US military spending relative to its peers and rivals is far more than the rest of the world put together. Rich countries no longer spend on military force, because they rely on us. Poorer countries, like China, do spend and arm, but have a far less expensive cost structure.

Normally, relative strength is all we'd need consider; military power is counted as force relative to an adversary. But there are no obvious peer-enemies any more. There are instead a lot of potential manpower-intensive situations: stateless terrorists; humanitarian interventions; nation-building; small possible smaller- and poorer-state adversaries (Iran, North Korea). Counting military strength relative to other advanced nation-states no longer makes sense.

Different foreign policy schools have their reactions to unipolarity: is it an incomprehensible accident (realism), an embarrassment (liberal internationlism) - or destiny (neoconservatism)? Without speculating on any "deep meaning" or "goal" to history, unipolarity is not an accident. ("Accident" means "we can't explain it.") Often it seems like an uncomfortable embarrassment, which is what liberals felt in the 1990s - America as "the indispensible nation," as Madeleine Albright put it, but bothered by this nagging feeling that America shouldn't be an "empire". Maybe it's historical destiny, but whatever its ultimate reason, the nature of unipolarity has been misconstrued. It's not due to America being overwhelmingly powerful. The US is a large, wealthy, and powerful country - but it's not omnipotent. Unipolarity is due to all of its natural peers and rivals being so weak. This is what the neocons don't get. The other schools don't get it either, but they don't have as much invested in unipolarity, so it's not as crucial for them.

This misconstrual of unipolarity is an important fallacy in the canon of neoconservative fallacies. Others include: trying to achieve liberal ends by unilateral means; trying to achieve non-military ends by military means; America as the "universal nation"; attempts to rewrite American history and wrongly identify past figures as neocons avant la parole. More about the origins, nature, and fate of neoconservatism anon.

But unipolarity isn't just an intellectual problem. It's a political-military condition that calls for change. The US needs a larger military; it also needs allies that contribute more (and I don't mean just, or even mainly, Europe). Such allies also need to be more involved politically. Only then can we move away from relative strength and absolute weakness.

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