Is the United States the “imperialist hegemonic” power that its critics claim or a giant version of the white knight defending global law and order? The answer provided by Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of international relations and a self-styled ” liberal”, in this engaging book falls somewhere between the two.
Mandelbaum starts by showing that no world order could remain intact for long without some mechanism for its enforcement. Throughout history such mechanisms have been provided by one or two major powers capable of acting effectively beyond their own frontiers.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union some 15 years ago, the United States has emerged as the sole power capable of providing what Mandelbaum regards as a service.
The US dollar continues to be used as the world’s reserved currency, a position that has not been substantially threatened by the emergence of the euro, the single currency of 15 of the European Union states. The US also helps bail out troubled national economies out of bankruptcy as it did in the case of both Mexico and Argentina, and, through its dominant position in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is intimately involved in economic policy-making in more than 100 countries across the globe.
It is also US military power that ensures the free flow of oil from just two dozen exporting countries to more than 180 importing ones. By opening its market and sustaining huge trade deficits, the US is also acting as the engine of economic growth for many countries, notably China and India. Without the US consumer being prepared to devour products from across the globe many countries, including some of the well-established industrial powers, might well find themselves in trouble.
And that is not all.
The US is presented as the brain of the global economy. It spends more on research and development than all the other major industrial powers put together. Most of the patents registered each year are in the US or involve a degree of American participation.
Nevertheless, it is the military aspect of US power that is constantly under the limelight.
During the past five years the US has used that power to topple two regimes , in Afghanistan and Iraq, and impose a change of course in the lives of more than 50 million Muslims thousands of miles from its shores. No one knows how the Afghan and Iraqi experiences might end up in, say, 10 years from now. But Mandelbaum shows that the US will not be able to abandon the projects it has launched without ensuring their success. Thus the assumption in some Middle Eastern capitals that President George W Bush is an aberration and that his successor, whether Republican and Democrat, will organise an American retreat may well be wishful thinking on the part of those who feel threatened by regime change.
While American military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has received much attention, little notice is taken of the fact that the US military are also present in 64 other countries in all continents. In some cases these forces are already engaged alongside local forces in a low intensity war against terrorists and insurgents of all descriptions.
More importantly, perhaps, the US is the guarantor of fragile ceasefires and peace deals in many parts of the world, from the obscure conflict in Nagorno-Karabagh to the nuclear face-off between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
Mandelbaum claims that the United States provides a set of badly needed “public goods” — security, economic stability, the rule of law — to the world in much the same way a government provides these services to its citizens. He then argues that that U.S. power is so important to the world that the international order would collapse without it.
All this might well sound very persuasive, especially to those familiar with history which is a narrative of big and strong powers overwhelming their smaller and weaker neighbours.
But to describe the US as a sort of “world government” may well be a bit far-fetched.
To start with any government, even a despotic one, cannot function without some legislative power. And this is precisely what the US, as “world government”, lacks. Whatever international legislation there is passes through the various United Nations’ agencies where the US often finds itself in a minority. Even countries that benefit from American protection often vote against the US, if only to maintain a measure of self-esteem.
A normal government also has the power to tax its subjects, which the US, as “world government”, does not. The cost of what Mandelbaum describes as “global policing”, is almost entirely borne by the US taxpayer.
There is an even bigger problem with Mandelbaum’s thesis. No government can function efficiently without some measure of cooperation by its citizens. In the case of the US as “world government”, however, such cooperation is often lacking. Even nations that, directly or indirectly, stand to benefit from US intervention often try to hamper American action, prompted by the ambient anti-American ideology.
It is not at all certain that the US involvement in so many issues and so many situations across the globe is the result of a deliberate national strategy and prompted by altruistic considerations. In some cases the US has become involved in a major way in relatively minor conflicts largely because of domestic political pressures. In other cases, US involvement may have the consent of a country’s government but not that of its people. For example, polls show that the overwhelming majority of Europeans do not want American troops and bases in the continent while their governments regard such a presence as an essential part of their national defence doctrines.
Finally, it is not at all certain that the idea of acting as “world government” is popular with the American people the way it was with the ancient Romans and, more recently, the British in the heyday of their empire. For example, we don’t know how many Americans would really want to bear the cost, in both blood and treasure, of enabling Afghanistan and Iraq to build a better system of government for their people.
The US is designed as a republic rather than an empire- hence the sporadic nature of its intervention in global affairs. At the end of the First World War in 1918 the US appeared as the architect of an entirely new global order based on President Woodrow Wilson’s idea of spreading democracy and the right of national self-determination. A few months later, Wilson was in retirement and the US had almost disappeared from the international scene. The argument, of course, is that the 9/11 attacks have changed the American popular psyche. May be, they have. It is too early to tell.
Mandelbaum’s choice of Goliath as the term for the US is unfortunate. In the biblical story Goliath was the big bad guy, ultimately brought down by David, the little good guy. Throughout his book, however, Mandelbaum presents the US as the big, powerful champion of the good against a myriad of little bad guys.