The Coming Elections and the Future of American Global Power

We are now experiencing fundamental changes in the international system whose implications and consequences may ultimately be as far-reaching as the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.

The United States’ strength, to a crucial extent, has rested on its ability to convince other nations that it is to their vital interests to see America prevail in its global role. But the scope and ultimate consequences of its world mission, including its extraordinarily vague doctrine of “preemptive wars,” is today far more dangerous and open-ended than when Communism existed. Enemies have disappeared and new ones–many once former allies and even congenial friends–have taken their places. The United States, to a degree to which it is itself uncertain, needs alliances, but these allies will be bound into uncritical “coalitions of the willing.”

So long as the future is to a large degree–to paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld–“unknowable,” it is not to the national interest of its traditional allies to perpetuate the relationships created from 1945 to 1990. The Bush Administration, through ineptness and a vague ideology of American power that acknowledges no limits on its global ambitions, and a preference for unilateralist initiatives which discounts consultations with its friends much less the United Nations, has seriously eroded the alliance system upon which U. S. foreign policy from 1947 onwards was based. With the proliferation of all sorts of destructive weaponry, the world will become increasingly dangerous.

If Bush is reelected then the international order may be very different in 2008 than it is today, much less in 1999, but there is no reason to believe that objective assessments of the costs and consequences of its actions will significantly alter his foreign policy priorities over the next four years.

If the Democrats win they will attempt in the name of internationalism to reconstruct the alliance system as it existed before the Yugoslav war of 1999, when even the Clinton Administration turned against the veto powers built into the NATO system. America’s power to act on the world scene would therefore be greater. John Kerry’s foreign policy adviser, Rand Beers, worked for Bush’s National Security Council until a year ago. More important, Kerry himself voted for many of Bush’s key foreign and domestic measures and he is, at best, an indifferent candidate. His statements and interviews over the past weeks dealing with foreign affairs have been both vague and incoherent. Kerry is neither articulate nor impressive as a candidate or as someone who is likely to formulate an alternative to Bush’s foreign and defense policies, which have much more in common with Clinton’s than they have differences. To be critical of Bush is scarcely justification for wishful thinking about Kerry. Since 1947, the foreign policies of the Democrats and Republicans have been essentially consensual on crucial issues–“bipartisan” as both parties phrase it–but they often utilize quite different rhetoric.

Critics of the existing foreign or domestic order will not take over Washington this November. As dangerous as it is, Bush’s reelection may be a lesser evil because he is much more likely to continue the destruction of the alliance system that is so crucial to American power. One does not have to believe that the worse the better but we have to consider candidly the foreign policy consequences of a renewal of Bush’s mandate.

Bush’s policies have managed to alienate, in varying degrees, innumerable nations, and even its firmest allies–such as Britain, Australia, and Canada–are being compelled to ask if giving Washington a blank check is to their national interest or if it undermines the tenure of parties in power. The way the war in Iraq was justified compelled France and Germany to become far more independent, much earlier, than they had intended, and NATO’s future role is now questioned in a way that was inconceivable two years ago. Europe’s future defense arrangements are today an open question but there will be some sort of European military force independent of NATO and American control. Germany, with French support, strongly opposes the Bush doctrine of preemption. Tony Blair, however much he intends acting as a proxy for the U.S. on military questions, must return Britain to the European project, and his willingness since late 2003 to emphasize his nation’s role in Europe reflects political necessities. To do otherwise is to alienate his increasingly powerful neighbors and risk losing elections. His domestic credibility is already at its nadir due to his slavish support for the war in Iraq.

In a word, politicians who place America’s imperious demands over national interest have less future than those who are responsive to domestic opinion and needs.

This process of alienating traditional close friends is best seen in Australia, but in different ways and for quite distinctive reasons it is also true elsewhere–especially Canada and Mexico, the U.S.’ two neighbors. In the case of Australia, Washington is willing to allow it to do the onerous chores of policing the vast South Pacific and even take greater initiatives, at least to a point, on Indonesia. But the Bush Administration passed along to it false intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, which many of Australia’s own experts disputed, and Bush even telephoned Prime Minister John Howard to convince him to support America’s efforts in innumerable ways. As Alexander Downer, the foreign minister, admitted earlier this month, “it wasn’t a time in our history to have a great and historic breach with the United States,” and the desire to preserve the alliance became paramount. (1) But true alliances are based on consultation and an element of reciprocity is possible, and the Bush Administration prefers “coalitions of the willing” that raise no substantive questions about American actions–in effect, a blank check. Giving it produced strong criticism of the Howard government’s reliance on Washington’s false information on WMD and it has been compelled to endorse a joint parliamentary committee to investigate the intelligence system–sure to play into opposition hands this election year.

Even more dangerous, the Bush Administration has managed to turn what was in the mid-1990s a budding cordial friendship with the former Soviet Union into an increasingly tense relationship. Despite a 1997 non-binding American pledge not to station substantial numbers of combat troops in the territories of new members, Washington plans to extend NATO to Russia’s very borders–Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania especially concern Moscow–and it is in the process of establishing a vague number of bases in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia has stated that the U.S. encircling it warrants its retaining and modernizing its nuclear arsenal–to remain a military superpower–that will be more than a match for the increasingly expensive and ambitious missile defense system the Pentagon is now building. It has over 4,600 strategic nuclear warheads and over 1,000 ballistic missiles to deliver them. Last month Russia threatened to pull out of the crucial Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which has yet to enter into force, because it regards America’s ambitions in the former Soviet bloc as provocation. “I would like to remind the representatives of [NATO],” Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told a security conference in Munich last February, “that with its expansion they are beginning to operate in the zone of vitally important interests of our country.” (2) The question Washington’s allies will ask themselves is whether their traditional alliances have far more risks than benefits–and if they are necessary.

In the case of China, Bush’s key advisers were publicly committed to constraining its burgeoning military and geopolitical power the moment they took office. But China’s military budget is growing rapidly–12 percent this coming year–and the European Union wants to lift its 15-year old arms embargo and get a share of the enticingly large market. The Bush Administration, of course, is strongly resisting any relaxation of the export ban. Establishing bases on China’s western borders is the logic of its ambitions.

The United States is not so much engaged in “power projection” against an amorphously defined terrorism by installing bases in small or weak Eastern European and Central Asian nations as again confronting Russia and China in an open-ended context which may have profound and protracted consequences neither America’s allies nor its own people have any interest or inclination to support. Even some Pentagon analysts have warned against this strategy because any American attempt to save failed states in the Caucasus or Central Asia, implicit in its new obligations, will risk exhausting what are ultimately its finite military resources. (3)

There is no way to predict what emergencies will arise or what these commitments entail, either for the U. S. or its allies, not the least because–as Iraq proved last year and Vietnam long before it–its intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of possible enemies against which it is ready to preempt is so completely faulty. Without accurate information a nation can believe and do anything, and this is the predicament the Bush Administration’s allies are in. It is simply not to their national interest to pursue foreign policies based on a blind, uncritical faith in fictions or flamboyant adventurism premised on false premises and information. It is far too open-ended both in terms of time and costs. If Bush is reelected, America’s allies and friends will have to confront such stark choices, a painful process that will redefine and perhaps shatter existing alliances.

But America will be more prudent and the world will be far safer only if the Bush Administration is constrained by a lack of allies and isolated.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He can be reached at:



1. Australian Broadcasting Company Online interview with Downer, March 2, 2004.

2. Wade Boese, “Russia, NATO at Loggerheads Over Military Bases,” Arms Control Today, March 2004.

3. Dr. Stephen J. Blank, “Toward a New U.S. Strategy in Asia,” U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute, February 24, 2004.


GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience