European Affairs

Uneasy Giant: The Challenges to American Predominance     Print Email

By Peter W. Rodman
Reviewed by Bailey Morris-Eck

Peter Rodman clearly longs for the good old days of Kissingeresque grand strategy, of rooks, pawns and kings on the chessboard of global foreign policy. In his new monograph "Uneasy Giant: The Challenges to American Predominance," he proposes a "new grand strategy" for the world's sole remaining superpower, one based on good old-fashioned self-interest.

What we have today is unique in American history, a unipolar moment in which there are no near challengers to U.S. economic and military predominance. However, so Rodman warns, history has not been kind to dominant powers. Not that he foresees a precipitous fall or sudden shift of power, however, quite the opposite. Like it or not, the United States is bound to remain Number One for many years to come.

However, to prevent itself from becoming an isolated giant, America must face the leadership challenge squarely. If it hopes to avoid the fate of other faded powers, America must make the preservation of its own prominence a central theme of U.S. foreign policy.

This means abandoning an erratic and sometimes arrogant foreign policy that is making more enemies than friends. Until the world evolves into a more balanced and harmonious multipolar system, this is America's rendezvous with destiny, and abdication of responsibility, in Rodman's view, is a far more serious danger than U.S. hegemonism.

Borrowing the work of Josef Joffe, Rodman proposes a new grand strategy, taking his cue from Bismarck's Germany, in which America becomes the hub of the international system with spokes linking it to other world powers. These "entangling alignments" are aimed at maintaining better geopolitical balance.

However, it is hard to believe that Europe and the rest of the world will happily follow a self-styled U.S. strategy based on self-interest and designed to continue its own preeminence. The image of the United States as an overarching puppet master pulling the strings of other players in conformance with its own script will not be reassuring to many Europeans.

Operationally, Rodman believes that it will work because other powers either need or fear the United States. In any case, they often get on better with America than they do with each other. Rodman's proposal is classic balance of power politics, but conducted in a more "inclusive" style with the emphasis on being a good internationalist rather than balancing sides against the former evil empire.

At the moment, however, the United States appears to basking in the glow of its own global "do gooderism," oblivious to the resentments this can cause abroad. This Wilsonian inclination of leading and acting in the name of universal moral principles is a peculiarly American disease, suffered in great measure by the Clinton administration.

Without referring to specific policy goals such as human and labor rights, Rodman asserts that an administration which trumpets its own virtuous intentions comes across as self righteous and domineering to its allies, large and small.

Lest there is any doubt as to where Rodman stands in assessing this administration's impact on U.S. allies, particularly among Europeans, he writes, "Wilsonian presidents drive them crazy - and have done so ever since Woodrow Wilson." A more strategic approach that unabashedly defined U.S. geopolitical interests would be more effective and better understood by all, he believes.

Rodman makes a sound and convincing case that America needs to wake up to the fact that its status as the world's sole superpower is threatening to many nations. As a result, the foreign policy goals of most other major powers today are concentrated on building counterweights to U.S. power and its perceived unilateralist tendencies. Russia and China are talking collaboration and engaging in arms sales with the stated goal, echoed by other nations, of achieving a more multipolar world.

Brazil is spearheading a South American regional power bloc, also with the aim of countering American influence. Developing countries are pushing to elevate the role of the U.N. Security Council as the principle arbiter of international security to restrain the American superpower. The policy meltdown at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization should have been a wake up call that harmony among the world's powers is badly frayed.

The race to counter American dominance has resulted in two strong challengers: One, the European Union, with an $8 trillion economy on a par with the United States, is newly intent on achieving a common foreign and security policy. Europe's reaction to the Kosovo War of 1999 was to accelerate plans for a new all-European defense organization to diminish its dependence on the United States. The other is China, whose sheer size and determination to become a superpower, makes it a formidable player.

Given the current, extraordinary U.S. economic performance, no one really expects either Europe or China to overtake America anytime soon. However, that does not mean that the United States as sole superpower is not vulnerable to asymmetric military challenges (i.e. terrorism, biological warfare), systemic economic weaknesses and political attacks that could undermine its position and leadership. In other words, an already messy post-Cold War world could get even messier.

Operationally, there are also problems. U.S. policy is often characterized by fits and starts for obvious internal reasons: divided government and the will of Congress, weaknesses in the Executive Branch structure, special interests and power politics. Thus, a grand strategy is often difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

And who can assume that America will always get it right? Even Rodman acknowledges that Bismarck, for all of his considerable achievements, created one of the major problems he was struggling to solve. Still, in terms of pointing out some of the real deficiencies in the U.S. approach, Rodman makes an important contribution. And as an introduction to grand scale, superpower politics, this monograph is a very good read.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2000.

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