American Primacy at Bay

The United States of America, accounting for a twentieth of the world’s population, generates a third of its gross domestic product, and owns about half of its financial wealth. Militarily, it has no equal. Culturally, it is the world’s leading film and television exporter, and its colleges and universities attract the most foreign students each year. But, as noted by Harvard’s Joseph Nye in his new book, The Paradox of American Power, “the largest power since Rome cannot achieve its objectives unilaterally in a global information age.”

A year ago, terrorists attacked symbols of American primacy in broad daylight on American soil, causing massive loss of human life and property. Their barbaric acts were condemned throughout the world, and garnered empathy for America’s plight. In many ways, they helped soften the image of a superpower that was perceived by many as being arrogant, unilateralist and self-centered.

A year later much of the goodwill generated by the attacks appears to have dissipated. According to Sebastian Rotella of the Los Angeles Times, the accumulation of this goodwill may have been “a mere pause in a steady rise of disillusionment with the world’s only remaining superpower. With a few important exceptions, foreign leaders and voters say the US may have missed a historic opportunity to forge a broad international coalition and revamp its increasingly negative image.”

Why did this happen? Initially, the war in Afghanistan appeared to be a spectacular success. Precision weapons and new tactics resulted in the removal of the tyrannical Taliban regime from power in record time, and in the apparent destruction of the al-Qaida. In a few months, it became evident that most of the senior leaders of al-Qaida were still at large, as was Mullah Omar. Then came a report from Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire that documented the number of Afghan civilian casualties during the first three months of the war at 3,767, exceeding the number killed on 9-11.

In the past several months, the US campaign in Afghanistan has begun to look like a failure. General Musharraf, perhaps the strongest ally of the US in the region, has openly voiced his concerns about the manner in which the US is prosecuting the war. Hamid Karzai’s authority is increasingly under attack, and it seems to not extend beyond the boundaries of Kabul. Without his American bodyguards, he would be a dead man.

Others have begun to question the moral premises of fighting such a war. Appearing on Fox TV, the editor of a major British magazine noted recently that the IRA’s terrorist activities had resulted in more than 4,000 deaths over the past several decades. He said there was ample evidence that much of the financing for the IRA’s terror campaign had come from areas in New England, and asked rhetorically whether the UK would be justified in sending in the Royal Air Force to bomb Boston.

The US has lost further goodwill by adopting an increasingly strident tone on seeking “regime change” in Iraq. Writing in the Independent, London Mayor Ken Livingstone has observed that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East “is breathtaking in its hypocrisy” and is totally counterproductive. He notes that the much awaited peace dividend since the Cold War has been lost as the world’s only superpower has made its overriding objective the creation of a global system in which its will goes unchallenged. According to him, this is the only reason that the US is pushing ahead with Missile Defense.

Frustration has turned out to disillusionment as the world has seen the US abandoning one global institution after another. A key example is the decision by the Bush administration to “unsign” the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. This has drawn much criticism even within the US. For example, Congressman Joseph Crowley and 44 of his congressional colleagues wrote to President Bush asking him to reverse his decision.

Another prominent US decision that drew international disapproval was the rejection of the protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention. This protocol was designed to fill a major gap in international arms control and security arrangements, and had the support of every US ally and all of Europe, Latin America, Japan and many other countries. US officials said they treaty would have put US bio-defense and business interests at risk, but the chief US negotiator was not able to come up with a valid example of treaty provisions that would have endangered the US.

Earlier, the Bush administration had rejected the Kyoto Protocol. What was worse than the rejections was the reasoning behind them. Washington argued that the Kyoto Protocol was “fatally flawed,” because it would have been expensive to implement and did not apply to developing nations. The protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention would not catch all cheaters, and the International Criminal Court might be used to harass US citizens.

To make matters worse, US trade policy has become increasingly protectionist. The US decision in March to impose tariffs of up to 30% on imported steel has led to a barrage of complaints to the World Trade Organization. Two months later, President Bush signed into law a bill awarding US farmers up to $180 billion in subsidies over the next decade. The European Union has warned of retaliation, and the subsidies have been criticized by Australia and Canada. A WTO arbitration panel has suggested that $4 billion of trade sanctions should be imposed on the US.

There is increasing apprehension over America’s insistence that all nations play by US rules. The backlash against US unilateralism has begun. In May 2001, the US was voted off the UN Human Rights Commission, a body that it helped found. The US lost its bid for a third term on the International Narcotics Control Board. In the same month, a top-level delegation from the European Union had to step in for the absent US in negotiations with North Korea.

Washington, with a proud tradition of democracy, has long advocated that all states with a “command and control” type of government make a transition to democracy. If a majority of a state’s citizens can be empowered to determine its policies, it follows that a majority of the world’s states should be empowered to determine global policies since all human beings are created equal.

If Iraq is in violation of UN resolutions, and poses a threat to regional and international security, then it is the UN that should authorize an attack on Iraq. The US needs to persuade a majority of the world’s countries to go along with its decision. That is the only way for it to sustain its primacy.

Ahmad Faruqui, an economist, is a fellow with the American Institute of International Studies and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan. He can be reached at