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America in today's world: Terence O'Brien reviews the United States' approach to international affairs at the end of the Bush presidency.


No large nation has provided more stability, prosperity and security to more people than the United States. American society has furnished inspiration to others. American imagination helped in the 20th century to establish the foundations and institutions of a liberal world system.

It is important to preface this contribution in this way, because over the last eight years the George W. Bush presidency has laid bare some perspectives about the nature and exercise of US power in the world that disconcerts American friends and critics alike. To analyse these developments on the eve of change at the White House risks a perverse charge of anti-Americanism. But the question for the rest of the world today, expressed in its most basic form, is whether the Bush tenure and the way it has demonstrated American primacy represents a bump on the highway of enlightened American international behaviour; or whether the Bush presidency represents rather a foretaste of profounder change towards a more self-centred America in the 21st century. Reverberations from the serious credit crisis created by Wall Street speculation and risk taking will also affect US international standing and impact upon economic and other policy in the United States, and indeed beyond. These questions run like a thread through what follows, which is just one New Zealand perspective.

The dimensions of the issue can be easily summarised. A comparatively small but very influential group of policy-makers and academics, baptised as neo-conservatives, succeeded during the Bush presidency in imposing their particular ideas about America's role in the world upon the conduct of US external policy. Their impact was more pronounced in Bush's first term (2000-04) than in the second, when some changes of personnel occurred. But the important office of the Vice-President remained throughout as a significant wellspring for neo-conservative influence.

The neo-conservative statement of belief for America in international affairs is summarised by the leading neo-conservative oracle Professor Robert Kagan (also an adviser to John McCain) as follows: 'Potent moralism and idealism in world affairs, a belief in America's exceptional role as a promoter of the principles of liberty and democracy, a belief in the preservation of American power as a tool for defending and advancing moralistic and idealistic causes, as well as suspicion of international institutions.' (1) Kagan believes that this moralism, idealism, exceptionalism, militarism and global ambition are indeed longstanding inherent features of US foreign policy. The neo-conservative contribution is merely an extension of what has gone before but dressed perhaps in different clothes.


Important difference

In foreign affairs, style of expression can amount, however, to difference of substance. Policy documents of the Bush presidency convey the implications of unrivalled American power in stark neo-conservative language. The 2002 National Security Doctrine, for instance, justifies preventive war--war now to avoid war later--in terms that signify that war is not an action of last resort but one option amongst others available to the US President, who will decide. Wars of choice along with wars of necessity became, therefore, part of the international security lexicon of the United States under neo-conservative influence.

This certainly militarised American conduct of international affairs, creating difficulties for friends, allies and others. The war of choice launched in 2003 against Iraq proved, however, a significant misadventure whose legacy will persist; and ultimate judgment about the war of choice in Afghanistan has yet to be delivered.

The neo-conservative style of international relations produced negative external reaction. The administration's repudiation of diplomacy as weakness, the belittling of the contributions and opinions of allies, the disavowal of international institutions--all served to dissipate rapidly the genuine sympathy for the US generated by the gruesome terrorist attacks of 9/11, the defining shock of the Bush presidency.

Historic force

Under neo-conservative influence terrorism was elevated fearfully into a historic world force involving, it was promised, conflict of infinite duration--a permanent war for peace with the United States in command. The neo-conservatives seized the opportunity in particular to press successfully and deceptively for the attack against Iraq--which had no connection with al-Qaeda. The proclaimed 'global war on terror' now overshadows the actual threats posed by terrorists and enjoys effective immunity from criticism, (2) while analysis and action to address the causes, which are not the same everywhere, take second place to battlefield activity.

How much the war on terror will consume future US administrations will depend upon the consequences of other developments that may as yet be dimly perceived, including repercussions from the 2008 credit crisis. The emergency measures, greater surveillance and intrusion upon personal freedoms, which are part and parcel of the war on terror, are the sort of restrictions that have, however, that peculiar tendency to become permanent fixtures. The United States has made a vast investment in homeland security and in efforts to involve other countries, including New Zealand, to extend the protections beyond the United States itself. But for the majority of other nations, terrorism does not necessarily constitute their number one security preoccupation.


Basic continuity

As noted above, the likes of Professor Kagan believe the roots of neo-conservatism are as a matter of history deeply embedded in US foreign policy. Unilateralism, resistance to multilateral negotiation about arms control, opposition to strengthening the provisions of international justice, and reluctance to join collective efforts to address universal problems like climate change--all were evident in the Clinton presidency, and even before that. Seen from outside, the overall trajectory for recent US foreign policy displays a certain basic continuity. Any change will depend at the bottom line on internal reassessment by Americans themselves of US values, structures and ambitions in international relations. (3) Two dimensions of this might be worth examining briefly, the Middle East and the US sense of its own manifest destiny.

Pacifying the Middle East, from within or from outside, is a task of monumental scope and complexity. For any outsider there is, as we now appreciate, serious risk of collision with the world of Islam that is itself experiencing internal turmoil. Resurgent religion throughout the world, including the United States, now challenges the conduct of international relations in ways that were not imagined in the recent past.

Three elements

The American role in the Middle East is driven by three inter-connected elements--support of Israel, supervision of the region's oil, and preventing domination there by any one regional state. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq is explicable in any one, or all, of these terms. The stand off with Iran is explicable in terms of the third element--preventing the primacy of any regional state in the Middle East. But of the three elements, the US relationship with Israel represents the cornerstone. Because of this a violent storm of controversy inside the United States has greeted attempted reassessment of that relationship by two most respected American international security thinkers. (4)

They suggest that given the perpetual murderous stalemate over Palestine, the nature of the relationship with Israel now constitutes a strategic liability for the United States, which undermines efforts to defeat terrorism, stifles attempts to improve American relations with the Arab and Islamic worlds, and prevents a new US strategic approach to the region. The United States needs, the pundits conclude, to replace its special ties with Israel with a more 'normal' relationship. Neo-conservatives and the influential pro-Israel lobby in the United States have reacted fiercely to all of this. Such opposition will likely defeat fundamental reappraisal by Washington, but some of the sacred text of US foreign policy is being re-examined by serious Americans.

The same effort does not yet extend to the other two elements that underlie US Middle Eastern policy. Official attention is consumed by how to extricate American military from Iraq, and how best to counter seething insurgency and win the day in Afghanistan. What will ultimately constitute a 'win' in Afghanistan is not all that dear. The bigger question of the underlying strategic realities of the two interventions themselves, and whether a heavily armed permanent US forward presence is advisable or sustainable, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, is left aside. As far as supervision of Middle Eastern oil is concerned, the 2003 invasion of Iraq with its grim cost in lives, destruction and social dislocation is hardly defensible as a model for energy security in the 21st century. Energy security does not necessarily require a resident military presence in the Middle East, or at least not one of present size. The alienation generated by foreign military bases in much, although not all, of the Arab world and beyond cannot be permanently ignored, although the Pentagon whose influence on US foreign policy is considerable retains a strong commitment to 'forward defence'. I will return to this below.


Central position

Restoration of Middle Eastern stability must involve Iran, given its central position, it size, potential and history. Iran's nuclear ambitions prompt genuine concern, but Iran also in its turn possesses authentic security concerns (Israel and others with nuclear weapons including the United States in its neighbourhood). (5) Attempts to isolate Iran are counter-productive because the United States needs Teheran's co-operation if it is to prevail in Afghanistan, and if a post-conflict Iraq is to make good. Iranian gestures during Bush's first term (2001 and 2003) to rebuild a relationship were disregarded. The subsequent election of a hardline President in Iran means that any accommodation will require a change of leading actors. Present tension and alienation would deteriorate dramatically were the United States to strike militarily at Iranian nuclear facilities.

Turning to the second major dimension, the longstanding American sense of manifest destiny--the idea that the United States is ordained by Providence to change the world into its own image, even as necessary by direct intervention --now confronts the formidable spirit of Islam. This in itself suggests a moment for serious pause for serious reassessment. The neo-conservative goal under Bush for democratic transformation throughout the Middle East that breaks down into an imposed region-wide secularisation of Middle East politics is a debatable strategy. There is, moreover, another and wider global aspect to this second dimension. The emergence or re-emergence of several larger countries in transition--such as Brazil, India, China, Russia, Nigeria, Mexico--whose history, values and interests differ from those of the United States and indeed from the West is steadily reshaping the world order.

Significant change

America and its sense of manifest destiny are being enveloped here by America's own very accomplishments. For decades the United States urged self-determination, democracy, free markets, new technology and competition upon the developing world. The transformation is now upon us and, ironically, the countries in transition are demonstrating that to be modern in the world today does not necessarily mean to be Western. This is a change of significant proportions, including for New Zealand. For all of these reasons, friends of the United States now urge greater discrimination, prudence and restraint upon Washington to replace the exceptionalism of manifest destiny. (6)

There is a further dimension too. Exceptionalism means the United States itself has also grown disenchanted with its original creation--the United Nations and the multilateral rules-based system. The United States resists application of rules that do not privilege its own interests, as with climate change or in the area of human rights or the strengthening of international justice. Yet realisation has deepened everywhere that the key challenges to global wellbeing in the 21st century--extremism, poverty, proliferation, pandemics, pollution--cannot be resolved by powerful countries acting alone. Collective response that requires the pooling of sovereignty by powerful and non-powerful alike in fashioning or re-fashioning rules and norms for international behaviour is crucial to the common good. It is vital, therefore, that the countries in transition accept they have a crucial stake in a rules-based world order.

Greater influence

This requires that such countries be accorded greater weight and influence in the management and agenda-setting in the institutions responsible for rules-based order like the United Nations, IMF, WTO, and World Bank. Space needs be created for such involvement, and this will mean that those governments from the West that have traditionally monopolised positions of principal influence will have to make the necessary room. It is in New Zealand interests that this happen. It is not to be discounted that the United States could be encouraged to provide a lead, as it reassesses a future where American primacy will not be as authoritative as previously, and where an effective rules-based system will be a key requirement for the United States itself, as adjustment is made to changing realities.

The question whether the international institutions are capable of reform currently preoccupies think tanks and the like within the United States. One school of American thought dismisses prospects for UN remodelling and proposes the creation of a G20--an extension of the existing G8 of leading industrial nations to include countries in transition and create thereby a top table group to supervise the international system. Just how this would relate to existing institutions is not clear. But a G20 would diminish the place of smaller states in the business of rules setting as well as debase the sovereign equality of nations that has been a foundation principle for universal rules-based order up to this point.

Other Americans call for the creation of an Alliance of Democracies as a global organisation. This would, on the face of it, create some real problems of inclusion and exclusion--which democracies are in, which are out? Immature democracies are always prone to reversal--as demonstrated by Fiji. It would be neither practical nor desirable, moreover, that such an alliance be mandated to spread the cause of democracy everywhere. Given that democracies dominate global military spending--NATO member countries account for 70 per cent of the total--such an alliance could readily assume the appearance of a heavily armed crusade to enforce the cause.

Empire question

There is much academic debate now over whether the United States is actually an empire or not. It does not possess a formal empire, although by most measurements it meets the informal definitions for empire. Imperial status depended historically upon superior military organisation, and this the United States possesses in spades. American militarism is a bipartisan project for both Republican and Democrat. (7) In 2007 US military spending is budgeted at US$547 billion--that computes at $1.5 billion per day--which is eight to ten times greater than what China, or Russia, or Japan or other principal powers spend upon defence. This figure does not include the sumptuous costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (8) (which account for a further $200 billion a year). Overall US military spending is now at its highest level in 60 years--since the Second World War. (9) The lethality, precision and technological superiority of US hardware is insuperable.


On top of this, the United States maintains over 700 military bases or facilities abroad in some 40 countries throughout every continent. These vary considerably in size and purpose from small detachments of personnel to a US$4 billion per year base in Japan. American force projection includes twelve aircraft-carrier battle groups each with up to nine squadrons of attack aircraft, thereby extending US maritime reach into every corner of the globe. The US Air Force plans offensive and defensive space-based weapon systems. The United States strives for domination of the full spectrum of the planet--land, air, sea and space--and as US GDP has grown larger, so the percentage devoted to defence (4.1 per cent per annum) has not bankrupted the economy even though in dollar terms the commitment is colossal. The bail out packages intended to mitigate the impact on Wall Street of the 2008 credit crisis must have some bearing on the future of defence spending, but it is too early yet to judge.

Insecurity source

The sheer extent of ever growing American military supremacy becomes in itself a source for a sense of insecurity in the world. For many outsiders the United States has too much power (10)--even for its own good--yet paradoxically, the United States itself professes, too, a continuing sense of insecurity. The disturbing quest by some states to acquire nuclear weapons is driven by concern at US attachment to, and continuous upgrading of, its nuclear deterrent. Suicide terrorism is the ultimate gesture of despair by the weak against the omni-powerful United States. Osama bin Laden justified 9/11 as retaliation for policies of US military incursion in the Gulf region and support for Israel. The full reasons are more complex without doubt, and are connected, too, with internal pressures inside Islam. But the neo-conservarive interpretation that 9/11 was first and foremost a strike at American values is far too simplistic.

The Bush presidency has demonstrated that acceptance within the global community of leadership by powerful nations depends, in this era of values-driven international relations, upon the perceived legitimacy of the actions by the leader. The 2003 attack upon Iraq in the absence of UN Security Council authorisation, and US neglect of the laws of war in relation to torture, rendition and degrading imprisonment, diminished for many the essential legitimacy of American behaviour. There is no question that the United States needs to restore international standing as a consequence and the second Bush term witnessed efforts in that direction--even involving New Zealand and a rare visit by the US Secretary of State.

Leadership costs

The affordability of US military supremacy rests, of course, upon the enduring strength of the US economy. America's relative place in the international economic scheme of things is declining as countries in transition and the successful East Asian region advance. Massive borrowing, rather than taxation, has emerged as the more or less permanent method of financing expenditure under successive administrations over the past 25 years. The United States is now the most heavily indebted nation in history. Levels of saving inside the United States have plummeted. Demographic and other changes in the 21st century are forecast to create massively rising social welfare costs, like Medicare, which alongside higher energy prices will severely impact the US budget. On top of this, lax financial governance has triggered the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis with destructive consequences for credit availability both domestically and beyond. The longer term consequences for American economic and other policy-making are difficult to predict, particularly since the credit crisis hit right at the culmination of a presidential election campaign, which it largely overshadowed.

Even before the financial crisis struck in September 2008, Americans who fully endorse continued US leadership of international affairs without undue restraint questioned whether the magnifying financial demands of social welfare and the costs of global leadership could ultimately be reconciled. They doubted that the US electorate is prepared to forego the former to support the latter. (11) Other serious and respected American commentators identify a different fundamental problem--the dysfunctional nature of American politics, which they depict as a system captured by special interest groups, by money, by sensationalist media, by ideological contest. (12) The system is, as a result, incapable of stimulating genuine problem-solving of the kind critically required as the new millennium opens. In the past America's capacity for adjustment, its ideas, invention and energy have been, of course, a defining feature of its greatness, especially in times of crisis.

Strategic invisibility

Given its absence of critical mass, of strategic raw materials and given its discreet geographical location, New Zealand will always remain strategically invisible to the United States. Consumed by the deep complexities of international leadership and financial crisis, Washington hardly devotes much time or thought to New Zealand. We can have no illusions on that score.

But in the modern globalising world, strategic invisibility can be an asset for a country like New Zealand that possesses an international mentality, a capacity for problem-solving and impartiality, retains a sense of responsibility as a good global citizen and with entrepreneurs who display nimble powers of adaptation. It is impossible to forecast how and to what degree New Zealand will be affected by the fallout from the 2008 US financial crisis, which will reverberate in the global economy for a considerable period. Even if it is strategically invisible, there is an absolute need for New Zealand to establish and sustain the right policy settings. While strategic invisibility actually enhances the scope for independent foreign policy where New Zealand interests dictate it provides no protection from the downside influences of global interdependence.

In its political, economic and trade dealings with the United States, New Zealand will always be the petitioner--that is the reality of New Zealand life experience in international affairs. But this does not mean that New Zealand is a supplicant. We differ from the United States on specific foreign policy issues--and those differences increased with the Bush tenure. But during the neo-conservative ascendancy New Zealand did not, as it might have done, revise the objectives for its US relationship--it maintained the goal of a free trade arrangement and restoration of military co-operation--but it did alter priorities. Failure to make headway with Washington on a free trade agreement (for over two decades) drove New Zealand to seek alternatives, most conspicuously with China and with others in East Asia, as that region's success has begun to reshape the balance of New Zealand interests in the world. Those realities and the different realities of our relationship with United States combined to produce a tectonic change for New Zealand.

Foot inside

New Zealand now has a foot inside the door of evolving East Asian regionalism. No can predict how that will transpire. The United States is not part of the evolving East Asian regional framework, and how it responds, in particular to Chinas re-emergence, will be of central importance. New Zealand obviously would not wish to take sides in any China-US standoff, but our strategic invisibility permits us to do so, if circumstances and national interest demand.

In the military and security domain, New Zealand has stuck with the objective of closer ties with the United States without defining the precise end point for that objective. Prudence is appropriate anyway while wars remain part of US international security policy. We stood aside from the 2003 Iraq invasion. But we have since then aligned ourselves with US post-9/11 military priorities in the world beyond the South Pacific. That alignment will need to be constantly assessed against needs to complement our East Asian foreign policy by practical defence relationships in that region, by our need to sustain and display practical commitment to multilateralism and UN peace support, and because our non-nuclear policy, which disavows nuclear deterrence in a world consumed by the dangers of nuclear weapon proliferation, is staunchly logical and reasonable.

The United States is, in stark contrast, committed as necessary, of course, to first use of nuclear weapons. As a hardy petitioner in international affairs, New Zealand must always take the pains to create and sustain a fitting relationship with the world's major power. We do so from a basis of many shared ideals, values and interests. Relationships are, however, never static because national interests need to be continually re-interpreted and re-calculated as circumstances change, especially in a world of rapid transformation.


(1.) Robert Kagan, 'Neocon Nation: Neo-conservatism, c.1776', World Affairs, Summer 2008.

(2.) Ian Lustick, Trapped in the War on Terror (Philadelphia, 2006), pp.115-25.

(3.) Morris Berman, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (New York, 2006), p.302f.

(4.) John Mearesheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (London, 2008), p.5f.

(5.) Zbigniew Brzezinski, 'Hegemonic Quicksand', The National Interest, Issue 74, Winter 2003.

(6.) Owen Harries, Benign or Imperial? Reflections on American Hegemony (Sydney, 2004), p.131f.

(7.) Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (New York, 2005), p.5f.

(8.) Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War (London, 2008), p.32f.

(9.) Summary, SIPRI Yearbook 2008, p.10.

(10.) Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (London, 2008), p.39.

(11.) Michael Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath (New York, 2005), pp.183-5.

(12.) Zakaria, pp.210-11, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower (New York, 2007), p.194.

What change can we expect from a new US President after eight years of George W. Bush in the White House, and of neo-conservative influence upon the conduct of US foreign policy? Both have left their mark upon America in the world. Neo-conservatives, for their part, claim that their influence represents nothing more than continuity for the United States in international affairs. But the vitality of the US economy, the rise of a new generation of successful countries in transition, notably in Asia, and the downside of US policies in the greater Middle East will surely influence the way ahead.

Terence O'Brien is a senior fellow in the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. This article is the edited text of an address he gave to the University of the Third Age in Christchurch on 8 September 2008.
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Author:O'Brien, Terence
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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