power without wisdom: us foreign policy in an era of liberal fascism

The Australian Financial Review (Review Section), 11 April, 2003


Despite its recent association with the war against Iraq, the United States has been addicted to 'regime change' around the world since the end of the Second World War. From Syria in 1948 to Afghanistan in 2002, the list of countries subject to various forms of intervention by the United States is staggeringly long (Blum 2002).

In the past, Washington's habitual interference in the affairs of other states has rarely been successful (eg Vietnam, Iran, Somalia), and often disastrous for those who felt its full force (eg Indonesia, Angola, Nicaragua).

Although in recent years the pretexts have varied - humanitarian crisis (Serbia, 1999), harbouring terrorists (Afghanistan, 2001), weapons of mass destruction/links to terrorism/humanitarian relief (Iraq, 2003) - the pattern is well established and certain to continue.

However, what is striking about the current period is the rehabilitation of war as an acceptable instrument of state policy. The US "no longer views force as something to be used reluctantly or as a last resort" (Andrew Bacevich), but instead as a strategy to maintain its "full spectrum dominance" - a determination to rule the world by force and crush all challenges to this domination. This policy has an ominous trajectory and an uncertain destination.

Two events have encouraged Washington to favour force as the preferred means of solving its global problems by unilaterally intervening in the internal affairs of other states. The first is the collapse of bipolarity at the end of the Cold War. The second is the terrorist strikes on America in 2001.

The Unipolar Temptation

The most important manifestation of these cleavages is a unipolar international system dominated by the United States - a preponderance that realists warn is traditionally temporary and usually characterised by violence and instability.

At the end of the Cold War, International Relations neo-realist theorists such as Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer argued that in the absence of effective countervailing pressures, the United States is likely to become increasingly unilateral in seeking to secure its foreign policy interests, and in so doing rely on military power to realise its vision of a new world order.

Waltz and Mearsheimer were profoundly disturbed by the collapse of Soviet strategic power in the 1990s. If mutual nuclear deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union accounted for the high level of international stability in the post-war period, the end of bipolarity casts an ominous shadow over the present and future world order. Because there is no obvious replacement for the Soviet Union which can restore the balance of strategic power, the world has entered and uncertain and dangerous phase.

"In a system of balanced states," claims Waltz, the domination by one or some of them has in the past been prevented by the reactions of others acting as a counterweight". For one state to remain predominant is "a position without precedent in modern history." Waltz argues that "in international politics, unbalanced power constitutes a danger even when it is American power that is out of balance. ... both friends and foes will react as countries always have to threatened or real preponderance of one among them: they will work to right the balance. The present condition of international politics is unnatural. Both the predominance of America and, one may hope, the militarisation of international affairs will diminish with time". Unlike liberals, neo-realists remain pessimistic about the prospects for peace in a unipolar world.

Waltz and Mearsheimer stress the importance of strategic capabilities in shaping the contours of international relations. For them, the distribution and character of military power remain the root causes of war and peace. Instead of highlighting the spread of liberal-democracy and a concomitant zone of peace, they regard the rapid demise of bipolarity as the single most dramatic change in contemporary world politics. "The main difference between international politics now and earlier is not found in the increased interdependence of states but in their growing inequality. With the end of bipolarity, the distribution of capabilities among states has become extremely lopsided. Rather than elevating economic forces and depressing political ones, the inequalities of international politics enhance the political role of one country. Politics as usual prevails over economics."

According to Waltz and Mearsheimer, the recurrent features of international relations, most notably the struggle for power and security, will reassert themselves: "in international politics, overwhelming power repels and leads others to try to balance against it." The absence of a countervailing power to the US, however, means there are few clues about how the current period will unfold.

For liberals, the end of Soviet communism in the early 1990s was a cause of celebration because the spread of democratic politics and market capitalism no longer faced any serious rivals or obstacles. Their long held views about the pacifying effects of liberal democracy and free trade - unfashionable for the previous half century - suddenly seemed close to fruition.

However, the collapse of bipolarity at end of the Cold War was viewed by neo-realists as a serious concern, even though it was US power that was out of balance. This more pessimistic group argued that in the absence of effective countervailing pressures, the United States was likely to become increasingly unilateral in seeking to secure its foreign policy interests. It would also rely on its military supremacy to realise its global vision.

The realists seemed vindicated when US Under Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, Elliott Abrams, acknowledged that the US invasion of Panama in December 1989 was the first occasion in which Washington could act in this way without a Soviet counterreaction. The implication was that more interventions would follow.

According to Kenneth Waltz, "a country disposing of greater power than others cannot long be expected to behave with decency and moderation" (Waltz 1991). It becomes greedy, dangerous and threatening, especially to those states which are not reflexively obedient. Regardless of their domestic political complexion, preponderant states tend to lead with their strongest suit - force. This is why they generate such fear and hostility across the international system.

Charles Tilly has made a similarly depressing argument. "The central tragic fact is simple: coercion - works; those who apply substantial force to their fellows get compliance, and from that compliance draw the multiple advantages of money, goods, deference, access to pleasures denied to less powerful people" (Tilly 1990). Defined in narrow terms, 'success' reinforces such behaviour, no matter how resentful rivals, competitors and victims become.

Despite the risks of political isolation, dominant powers will also seek to define their interests as those of 'the international community' rather than the UN, and claim to set the standards others should follow (Johnstone 2002). This may be popular with close allies but it can also be counterproductive. As Hedley Bull warned in the 1980s, "particular states or groups of states that set themselves up as the authoritative judges of the world common good, in disregard of the views of others, are in fact a menace to international order..." (Bull 1984). Inevitably the "menace," which can no longer be trusted to behave with "decency and moderation," is confronted.

Bull and Waltz could have been writing about the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Those institutions of global order and common good such as the United Nations and international norms, were disregarded by Washington once they no longer served its interests by legitimating 'allied' intervention in Iraq. There is no international rule of law for the world's superpower. Why not-so-powerful states such as Australia, which are disproportionately more dependent on the stabilising features of international society than their ally, should emulate such behaviour is not immediately obvious. They have a greater interest in defending the protection normally afforded by national sovereignty and international law.

There is a conjunction between realist warnings about the dangers of unbalanced power in a unipolar age and longer standing Marxist concerns about US foreign policy after the Second World War. Even though realism is an exogenous theory which stresses the conditioning effects of anarchy on state behaviour and Marxism is an endogenous approach which emphasises internal economic drives, they agree about the threat that Washington poses to the world.

For those on the Left who have been critical of Washington's "promiscuous, cynical interventionism" since the 1950s, the danger signs were obvious during the Cold War. According to historian Gabriel Kolko, "after fifty years of intervention in the affairs of dozens of nations on every continent, interventions that varied from training police and armies to supplying them with lethal equipment and advisers to teach them how to use it, after two major wars involving its own manpower for years, America's sustained, intense and costly efforts have only culminated in greater risks to itself." Washington "does not leave stability in the wake of its interventions" (Kolko 2002).

A paradox of the modern era, argues Kolko, is that at a time when the US has never been more militarily powerful and undeterred, it has never felt less secure. "There is more instability and violence in the world than ever," he argues. Far from exploiting its natural advantages, US foreign policy has pursued a "vainglorious but irrational ambition to rule the world." It is a policy which "is neither realistic nor ethical. It is a shambles of confusions and contradictions, pious, superficial morality combined with cynical adventurism, all of which has undermined, not strengthened, the safety of the American people and left the world more dangerous than ever" (Kolko 2002). For Kolko, Washington's greatest mistake has been its recurrent   failure to recognise the limits of its own power. In this respect, the temptations of unipolarity have brought with them new dangers.


It's not political or culturally-motivated violence that was inaugurated on September 11, 2001, as those with an intimate experience of it in Turkey, Palestine, Nicaragua and Columbia, to cite only a sample of targets of Western state terrorism, can attest to. Rather, it was the choice of victims that changed. As two observers noted, "the subjects of the Empire had struck back" (Ali 2002) and "for the first time in modern history, Europe and its offshoots were subjected, on home soil, to the kind of atrocity that they have routinely carried out elsewhere" (Chomsky 2002).

Despite official pronouncements that they had "changed everything," according to both Marxists and realists, 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks in Yemen, Bali and Kenya have had negligible effects on either the structure or the state of international politics. If anything, these events have enhanced an existing trend.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm argues that "the basic element to understanding the present situation is that 9/11 did not threaten the US. It was a terrible human tragedy which humiliated the US, but in no sense was it any weaker after those attacks. Three, four or five attacks will not change the position of the US or its relative power in the world" (Hobsbawm 2002).

This view is identical to Waltz's claim that terrorists do not challenge the continuities of international politics. "Although terrorists can be terribly bothersome," he says, "they hardly pose threats to the fabric of a society or the security of the state. ...Terrorism does not change the first basic fact of international politics - the gross imbalance of world power" in favour of the US. "Instead, the effect of September 11 has been to enhance American power and extend its military presence in the world" (Waltz 2002).

Nevertheless, the 9/11 atrocities have become a further stimulus to US intervention under the guise of fighting unilateral "pre-emptive" wars against rogue states and global terrorism. Iraq has already been attacked and Iran, Syria and North Korea feature on an extensive hitlist. This is despite widespread concerns that these interventions "will only increase the threat of terrorism and the development and use of weapons of mass destruction, for revenge and deterrence" (Chomsky 2003). Kenneth Waltz concurs, arguing that "North Korea, Iraq, Iran and others know that the United States can be held at bay only by deterrence. Weapons of mass destruction are the only means by which they can hope to deter the United States. They cannot hope to do so by relying on conventional weapons" (Waltz 2002).

Neither doctrinal changes such as the shift from deterrence to pre-emption, nor the use of force which privileges a form of technological fetishism, are sensible responses to complex social and political problems which are often the unintended consequences of earlier interventionary episodes (Kolko 2002; Johnson 2002). In the aftermath of 9/11 there was such an allergy to introspection in Washington that few dared acknowledge that its two latest targets - Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein - like so many before them, were once favoured allies and proxies. That the US was the victim of "blowback" could not be conceded without conducting a critical analysis of recent US foreign policy which would ask uncomfortable questions about Washington's alliances with extreme Islamists and secular mass murderers .


For dependent allies such as Australia, a misguided belief that "everything has changed" has led to a steady departure from military self-reliance, geo-political independence and regional engagement. Instead, the closest possible partnership with Washington has been sought in the belief that only trans-Pacific ties can provide a modicum of security in volatile and uncertain times. Largely vicarious in nature, Canberra's policy is now a willing hostage to forces it can neither match nor control.

The war against Iraq, where the most powerful military force in human history assails a largely defenceless enemy, takes US intervention into unchartered territory. Allies and friends have been sacrificed to "coalitions of convenience," NATO was sidestepped because it is too structurally consultative, and the UN's future is threatened because it failed to endorse Washington's imperial ambition.

The policies which incubated Washington's latest enemies remain unexamined, billions of dollars are diverted from the civilian to the military sector, and unconventional and asymmetrical responses by those who consider themselves invaded rather than liberated, may yet be met with even more extreme violence. As an attempt to reduce the West's security fears, the war in Iraq is already a political defeat because it has galvanised fear and hatred throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. It may also prove to be a military failure, even if the present ruling elite is despatched.

This "use of military force to eliminate an imagined or invented threat" (Noam Chomsky) may demonstrate yet again that Washington has a limited understanding of the forces it is unleashing through its interventions. Perhaps this should not be surprising in an era of liberal fascism, a description which no longer seems oxymoronic. As Gabriel Kolko has argued, it would appear that the United States has that most lethal of combinations - "power without wisdom."


Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms (Verso, London 2002).

Andrew J. Bacevich, 'Force Has Emerged As the Preferred Instrument of American Policy', Los Angeles Times , 20 March, 2003.

William Blum, Rogue State (2nd ed Zed Books, London 2002).

Hedley Bull, 1983 Hagey Lectures, University of Waterloo (Ontario 1983).

Noam Chomsky, September 11 (rev ed, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest 2002).

Noam Chomsky, 'The big gun takes a pop-shot at peace', The Sydney Morning Herald , 29 March, 2003.

Interview with Eric Hobsbawm, The Observer (UK), 22 September 2002, see http://www.observer.co.uk/comment/story/0,6903,796531,00.html .

Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2 nd ed, Time Warner, London 2002).

Diana Johnstone, Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto Press, London 2002).

Gabriel Kolko, Another Century of War? (New Press, New York 2002).

Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States (Blackwell, Oxford 1990).

Kenneth Waltz, 'America as a Model for the World?', PS: Political Science and Politics , Vol.24, No.4, 1991.

Kenneth N. Waltz, 'The Continuity of International Politics' in Ken Booth & Tim Dunne (eds), Worlds in Collision (Palgrave, Basingstoke 2002).

K.N. Waltz, 'Globalisation and American Power', The National Interest , Spring 2000, p.6.

K. Waltz, 'America as a Model for the World?', PS: Political Science and Politics , vol.24, no.4, 1991, p.670.

J.L. Mearsheimer, 'Back to the Future': Instability in Europe After the Cold War', International Security , vol.15, no.1. Summer 1990, p.6.

K.N. Waltz, 'Globalisation and American Power', The National Interest , Spring 2000, p.7.

K. Waltz, 'America as a Model for the World?', PS: Political Science and Politics , vol.24, no.4, 1991, p.669.