(Prefatory Note: this post consists of a much expanded text of an opinion piece that was published by AJE on January 18, 2014; it seeks to discredit imperial and neoliberal claims that the United States is a benevolent hegemon, providing global public goods to the world as a whole, including supposed geopolitical and ideological rivals)
It might not have seemed necessary in the 21st century to ask or answer such a ridiculous question. After all, in the last half of the prior century European colonialism collapsed politically, morally, and even legally, its pretensions and cruelties thoroughly exposed and totally discredited. As well, the Soviet empire fell apart. And yet there are those who muster the temerity to insist that even now it is only the global governing authority of the United States that underpins the degree of security and prosperity that currently exists in the world. Without such a role played by the United States, this reasoning alleges, there would be widespread chaos, economic stagnancy, and far more frequent international warfare. Not surprisingly, the proponents of this conception of world order as dependent on U.S. military, economic, diplomatic, and ideological capabilities are themselves exclusively American. It is even less surprising that the most articulate celebrants of this new variant of a self-serving imperial approach to global security and prosperity are situated either in mainstream academic institutions or in supposedly liberal media outlets.
I consider Michael Mandelbaum to be the most unabashed and articulate advocate of this American ‘global domination project’ that he felicitously calls ‘the world’s de facto government.’ He champions this role for his country in book after book starting with The Case for Goliath: how America acts as the world’s government in the twenty-first century (2005), followed by Democracy’s Good Name: the rise and risks of the world’s most popular form of government (2007), and then by Frugal Superpower: America’s global leadership in a cash-strapped era (2010). Mandelbaum’s one-eyed approach has been repeatedly endorsed and embraced by the neoliberal media star, Thomas Friedman. They even partnered as guru and pundit to collaborate on a tract (That Used to be Us: how America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back (2012)) arguing ever so coyly that the world is far better off to the extent that others leave their political destiny in the trustworthy hands of White House and Pentagon policy planners. Such an outlook would certainly please the global snoopers in the National Security Agency (NSA). For those with some institutional memory, it adopts the general outlook in the notorious 2002 document of the Bush White House, entitled “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” Actually, the Bush text, while as self-serving as Mandelbaum/Friedman, is less pretentious, appealing to U.S. strategic interests and its tortured construction of China’s self-interest when explaining why it would be best for others to leave global security in American hands while limiting their own international ambitions to trade and development.
Recently Mandelbaum has restated this grandiose argument in a short essay, “Can America Keep Its Global Role?” that appears in the January 2014 issue of Current History. His thesis is straightforward: “[America] provides to the whole world, not only its allies, many of the services that governments furnish to the countries they govern.” Or more simply, “..the United States stands alone as the world’s de facto government.” It is crucial to take note of the claim that unlike past empires and hegemonic states, the United States has undertaken a systemic or structural role, and is not to be understood as serving only those states that are allied by friendship, values, and binding arrangements. In this respect this novel form of world government although administered from its statist headquarters in Washington, is according to its promoters, meta-political, and unselfish. It should be appreciated by all people of good will as contributing to the betterment of humanity. It should be a cause of some embarrassment, then, to explain cross-national polling results that indicate time after time that the United States is viewed by virtually the entire world as the most dangerous country from the perspectives of peace, security, and justice. I suppose the best riposte from the Mandelbaum true believers is that ‘they just don’t know how lucky they are!,” and like those who vote Republican in Kansas, non-Americans are unable to pursue their own interests in a rational manner.
What makes Mandelbaum so cocky about the beneficence of the American global role? It is essentially the traditional realist conviction that it is American military power underwriting the established order that avoids wars and protects countries against aggressive behavior by states with revisionist foreign policy goals and irresponsibly aggressive leaders. More concretely, Europe can rest easy because of the American military presence, while Russia as well can be assured that a resurgent Germany will not again seek to conquer its territory as it tried to do twice in the last century. Similarly in the East Asian setting, China is deterred from imposing its will regionally to resolve island and territorial disputes, while at the same time being itself reassured that Japan will not again unleash an attack upon the Chinese mainland. There is some slight plausibility to such speculations, but it seems more like the supposed dividends of alliance relationships in historical settings when recourse to war as a solvent for international conflicts seems more and more dysfunctional. And it doesn’t pretend to work with a rogue ally such as Israel, which has insisted, for example, on its willingness to attack Iran whether or not the White House signals approval, presumably with the political clout in the U.S. to drag a disbelieving America in its bloody wake.
The complementary claim about providing a template for global economic prosperity is also misleading at best, and likely flawed. The United States presides over a neoliberal world order that has achieved cumulative economic growth but at the cost of persisting mass poverty, gross and widening inequalities, unsustainable consumerism, cyclical instability, and a rate of greenhouse gas emissions that imperils the human future by giving rise to dangerous forms of climate change. The management of the world economy, entrusted to groupings such as the G-20, seems unable to modify these inequities and dangers, and United States influence seems marginal and neither sensible on issues of sustainability or sensitive on questions of fairness and distributive justice.
Beyond this, the American role is praised by Mandelbaum for using its capabilities “to counteract the most dangerous trend in twenty-first century security affairs: the spread of nuclear weapons to countries and non-state actors that do not have them and would threaten the international order if they did.” What is not mentioned by Mandelbaum, and suggests strongly the absence of anything resembling ‘world government’ is the inability of existing global policy mechanisms, whether under U.S. or other auspices, to solve the most urgent collective goods problems. I would mention several: poverty, nuclear weaponry, fair trade, and climate change. Neither imperial guidance nor the actions of state-centric policymaking initiatives have been able to uphold the human or global interest, which would demand at the very least nuclear disarmament, enforceable restraints on carbon emissions, and the end of agricultural subsidies in North America and Europe.
The U.S. Government is not even able to get its own national act together, being constrained by the military-industrial-complex, vested economic interests in the energy field, and paralyzed by powerful lobbies (e.g. AIPAC) that pull many of the strings of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Considering that the United States it itself unable even to align its foreign policy with global equity, peace, and sustainability, how can it possibly pretend to do this for the entire world? Mandelbaum and followers suffer from a geopolitical malady that I would diagnose as ‘normative hubris,’ the false consciousness associated with being a planetary benefactor while in fact being unable even to adopt policies that serve national interests. It should not shock us that humility is the most unappreciated virtue in the imperial mentality.
If we put aside this awkward inability of America to pursue a policy agenda that uphold its own national interests, an inability that Mandelbaum fails to acknowledge, and perhaps does not admit. Mandelbaum, and similar outlooks that conflate national and global interests, seem utterly blind to the tensions between what is good for the United States and its friends and what is good for the world and its peoples. And no more serious blindness, or is it merely acute myopia, exists than does the Mandlebaum contention that the greatest danger from nuclear weapons to the human future arises from those political actors that do not possess these weapons rather than from those that do, have used such weaponry in the past, and continue to deploy nuclear weapons in contexts of strategic concern. To obsess about proliferation risks while ignoring disarmament imperatives is to ensure the enduring illegitimacy of world order, whether or not led by the United States. To live contentedly with a world of nuclear haves and nuclear have not countries couples hierarchy with arrangements that over time embed unacceptable risks of an apocalyptic future.
Aside from the use of the atomic bomb against Japanese cities in 1945, the American-led crusade against proliferation served as the main rationale for aggression against Iraq in 2003 and is the pretext for continuing unlawful threats of a military attack directed at Iran’s nuclear facilities over the course of the last decade. Recall also that some decades ago the United States had few qualms about the nuclear program of the Shah’s Iran, and even fewer, about Israel’s covert acquisition of capabilities and weaponry. Such discriminatory behavior confirms the primacy of America’s identity as an alliance leader, and the weakness of its credibility as a political actor inclined to act altruistically for the benefit of the whole rather than to promote the interests of its part. In discussing global security in the current historical moment, one can only wonder about the absence of the word ‘drone’ in Mandelbaum’s account of why the world should be grateful for the way the United States globally projects its power. A question is posed. Should Mandelbaum to be viewed as naïve or as a dogmatic advocate of empire? In effect, the wardrobe of world government seems to function as a disguise.
Before dismissing Mandelbaum’s conceptions altogether, I would agree that he is convincing when he selects the United States rather than the UN as the political actor with the best global governmental capabilities, credentials, and ambition. The UN lacks the hard power capabilities to implement its decisions unless backed by relevant geopolitical forces; its constitutional makeup is also deferential to the sovereignty of states, and its formal role is to prevent war between states, but not to interfere with war within states. As a result, the UN has been largely a spectator in relation to the broad trends of security, democracy, and development, a handmaiden of the United States in most settings, but hampered in even this questionable undertaking by the veto power exercised by Russia and China in many peace and security situations, and obstructed by the United States whenever the Organization seeks to induce Israel to live up to its international obligations. When the United States and a few allies failed to persuade the Security Council to back its proposed attack on Iraq in 2003, the coalition of the willing went ahead anyway flaunting the authority of the UN and ignoring the constraints of its Charter. As such, it underlined the weakness of the UN to fulfill its constitutional role and the willingness of the United States to behave as an unaccountable superpower whenever so disposed, a perception strengthened after the fact by the disastrous aftermath of the Iraq War during the lengthy occupation and withdrawal phases, and the strife-ridden country that the departing forces have left behind.
There are additional difficulties with Mandelbaum’s global vision, including a glaring internal contradiction. He praises America for exerting a pro-democracy influence throughout the world, which is partially deserved, but fails to note either the inconsistencies in its application or the complete failure to consider the consent of the peoples and other governments in relation to U.S. de facto world government. I doubt that there would be many supporters of the Mandelbaum vision of governing the world in Moscow and Beijing despite the benefits that are supposedly bestowed upon Russia and China. Somehow, the politics of self-determination and procedural democracy are fine for state/society relations, but when it comes to governing the world, democratic values and procedures should be abandoned. It is quite okay to base global government on an authoritarian logic that is not dependent on any kind of procedure of consent or approval, but governs by arbitrary and non-accountable fiat, relying heavily on military clout. The United States makes extensive use of killer drones, and refuses even to take responsibility for ‘accidents’ that end the lives of innocent civilians. This is a metaphoric message as to what kind of world government is being provided by the United States.
In depicting the future Mandelbaum calls our attention to three scenarios that bear on how his thesis will play out. In what he calls “the most favorable of these,” those that have most to gain by receiving free protection, namely, Europe and Japan would assist the United States, and lighten the burdens of world government. Such a prospect is really a thinly disguised alliance-oriented approach, although in a presumably less overtly conflictual global setting. He does not view this pattern as the most likely one. The least favorable scenario would mount a challenge from China that would induce a return to balance of power world order in which countervailing alliances produce a security system that resembled international relations during the Cold War, but it is assumed by Mandelbaum contends that the Chinese are too wily to opt for such a risky future. What Mandelbaum views as the most likely future is a continuation of present arrangements without great help from allies or much hindrance from adversaries. He properly acknowledges as a major unknown whether the American public will continue to finance such a system of world government, given recent setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as growing domestic pressures to cut public spending, reduce taxes in response to the burdens of a rapidly aging population, and the absence of much enthusiasm among the citizenry for devoting resources to internationally idealistic projects.
It is well to appreciate that this new discourse of imperial duty and prerogative is framed as a matter of global scope. This is genuinely new. Yet it is quite old, present throughout the entire course of modernity. The West has always cast itself in the role of being the savior of the whole of humanity even if the actual reach of its influence was not previously capable of embracing the globe. In the colonial era Europeans described their gift to humanity in the language of ‘white man’s burden’ or proclaimed their role to be the ‘civilizing mission’ of the West. As those throughout the global South are well aware, this lofty language provided the cover for a variety of sinister forms of violent exploitation of the non-West. For Mandelbaum the new rationale for Western dominance is ‘de facto world government.’ It purports to be a service institution for the world, yet at no point does Mandelbaum pause to admit that America bears responsibility for a disproportionate amount of the violence, militarism, and appropriation of resources that goes on under its hegemonic aegis.
With a measure of historical perspective, American since its earliest beginnings claimed that its domestic reality and international behavior were superior to what Europe had to offer, with not even a thought as to whether non-Western ideas and actors might have anything to contribute to a more humane world order. In the last century is was Woodrow Wilson, in the aftermath of World War I, who projected an American vision of world order onto the global stage with disastrous results, although it too was motivated by the sense that what America represented, if globalized, would lead to a positive future for everyone. The disasters that befell the world, eventuating in World War II, death camps and atomic bombings, did not pour cold water on America’s global ambitions, giving rise to a more geopolitically humble United Nations that assigned the major tasks of keeping the peace to the leading states and their coalitions. In this respect, Mandelbaum’s preferred world builds on a long tradition of American hubris, which is tragically impervious to the historical record, and thus bound to repeat past mistakes. In the meantime, Michael Mandelbaum and Thomas Friedman will likely be welcomed as honored guests of corporate gatherings and bankers’ retreats,whether at Davos or at the confidential meetings of the Bilderberg Group.