American Power in the World

by Lee H. Hamilton

May 08, 2003

The U.S. occupies a position that is unprecedented in the history of international relations. The essential truth of today’s world is that the U.S. has the power to achieve its aims in a way that other nations do not.

Americans must ask themselves what they want to do with this power. How will the U.S. protect itself? How will we protect our friends and allies? What is the future of international cooperation, security, and economic globalization? How does the U.S. want to be perceived in the world, and how will that perception help or hinder our ability to get things done?

In answering these questions, Americans will determine more than the outcome of the war on terror; Americans will determine what kind of country – and world – they want their children to inhabit.

American Power

First a few words about American power.

American preeminence is pronounced in nearly every facet of power – military, economic, technological, cultural and moral. But power is distributed differently on different issues, and this effects how we act in the world.

1. Military: American military preeminence is unquestioned and growing.

It is the strongest military force the world has ever known.

The U.S. defense budget is more than the next 15 nations spend combined. U.S. weapons technologies have opened up a yawning gap between the American armed forces and other countries – precision guided missiles, supercarrier groups, overwhelming airpower, tremendous firepower, unmanned aircraft, military space dominance, and advanced satellite systems all allow enormous flexibility and awesome capability in military planning.

We are projecting this power abroad as never before. We have military personnel in about 140 nations. The massive intervention in Iraq, basing in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and joint operations in countries like Colombia and the Philippines are just a part of our aggressive military posture in the wake of 9/11.

Militarily, the world is in a true unipolar moment – there is no challenger to U.S. preeminence, and it is the stated policy of the Bush administration to keep things that way.

2. Economy: The U.S. is the world’s preeminent economic power.

The American economy is as large as the next three – Japan, Germany and Britain – combined. With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for 43% of the world’s production, 40% of its technological production, and 50% of the world’s research and development. We also speak with the loudest voice in international monetary institutions like the WTO and IMF.

But American economic dominance is not as pronounced as our military dominance. For instance, the European Union has nearly the same output as the U.S., and – unlike on security and foreign policy issues – the E.U. generally speaks with one voice on economic affairs.

But even in the multipolar world of global economics, it is still the American economy that is at the forefront of the world economy.

3. Cultural: American power includes the exportation of American culture.

People from all over the world come to American schools and universities. Increased media and technology have spread American popular culture and the English language around the world – teenagers now listen to American pop music in Iran, go to American movies in China, drink Coca-Cola in Indonesia, and study the English language in Egypt.

4. Soft Power: American power includes “soft power”.

Likewise, our soft power – our capacity to get others to want what we want, without coercing them, because they admire our achievements and want to emulate us – is unparalleled.

This is the power of example and of persuasion.

People admire American prosperity, freedom and technology. We have ascended to our position of preeminence in part because nations do trust us to work for the values of democracy, the rule of law, market-economics, and human rights.

These values are the moral cornerstones of American power; and they are widely admired and sought after, even by people who disagree with American policies.

5. Necessity of American Leadership: America must lead.

So, in today’s world, the U.S. is simply too big and too important to sit on the sidelines. It must lead. It really cannot do otherwise. If the U.S. does not step forward, nothing happens.

There is consensus in this nation that the U.S. should use its power vigorously to reshape the world.

Paradox of Power: But there is a paradox to American power. The U.S. towers above the world as never before, but Americans themselves have never been more vulnerable.

Militarily it is a unipolar world of U.S. hegemony; economically it is a multipolar world with U.S. leadership; but on many transnational issues – such as international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the migration of people, epidemic disease, drugs, and environmental degradation – we live in a world only a step or two short of chaos.

How do we address these threats to our security and way of life? How do we use our power in pursuit of a world that is not threatened by violence and chaos?

The U.S. as a benign power

So the question becomes – how can the U.S. lead effectively to meet these challenges?

1. Benign Power: The short answer is that we must be, and must be seen as, a benign power.

But that is not so easy in a dangerous world.

Surely we are right to be concerned about new threats. International terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of dangerous dictators present severe challenges to our national security. Our catastrophic nightmare is a terrorist attack on the U.S. or our allies with a nuclear weapon.

Surely we must reserve the right to act in defense of our own interests and security, and we must reserve the right to act alone, if need be. And certainly, the primary responsibility of our leaders is to the American people and the American Constitution – not to international institutions.

But we must speak and act as a benign power, forging a consensus approach towards a world of peace, growth and freedom – a world that is difficult to achieve. To win the war on terror and to maintain our international leadership, American power must be accompanied by American generosity and American partnership.

Just as we hope that other countries are sensitive to the challenges for us raised by our unique status, so must we strive to assure that our policy is informed by a deeper appreciation of how others perceive it.

We often show the strength of America; we do not always show the goodness of America. We often carry the big stick; we do not always speak softly.

The challenge for us is to persuade other countries to see that they and their people will gain from working with the United States. Our power may bring fear and respect, but unless used with great skill, it will not bring admiration and affection, and it will not by itself build the world we want to live in.

Our challenge is to let people know that we are a great nation because we try to bring about the full flowering of individuals, enabling them to become the best that they can become.

2. Military Intervention: When we talk of the U.S. being a benign power, we must not renounce military force.

We strive to be a benign power, but, on occasion, we must be a tough power. We must be willing to intervene militarily when faced with dangerous threats.

A benign American foreign policy does not mean America eschews the use of military power.

In my lifetime, almost 400,000 Americans have been killed in wars. I have participated in many of the discussions that led to some of these deaths, and no matter how justified I thought these wars to be, it is no small burden to put American lives at risk. No one can accuse us of an aversion to the employment of power.

And in many cases, we have seen that power work for others as well as our own national security – whether it was the protection of Europe in the Cold War, or the site of girls returning to school in Afghanistan.

The use of force is sometimes a better option than diplomacy in dealing with tyrants like Hitler or Milosevic. But the use of military power should give us pause. It is, as Woodrow Wilson said, a fearful thing to lead this country to war. We must be extremely careful in discussing and applying a doctrine of preemptive or preventive war against threats that are not clearly imminent.

We will not – and should not – wait until it is too late to defend ourselves. For this reason, the preemptive tool has always been – and should remain – an element in America’s security strategy – no American president would refuse to act in the face of an imminent attack on the U.S. or its interests.

A healthy respect for American military power can also be a deterrent to rogue states that develop weapons of mass destruction and threaten U.S. interests.

But military intervention is only one tool among many, and it is a tool that should be used sparingly. We should not overestimate what military power can achieve.

War evokes suffering and passions and unintended consequences; we should always be sensitive to the need for legal and political justification for our actions, should pay some heed to world opinion, and should exhaustively explore non-military solutions before resorting to force.

In the words of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we should not run around the world looking for arguments. Nor should we ignore allies, disillusion friends, or think only of ourselves.

When we do act, we must be sure to leave better nations and lives behind. If we want our interests to thrive abroad, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, we must have the political will to stay the course and pay the costs.

3. Cooperation: We must pursue non-military steps against terrorism and dangerous threats with the same vigor that we wage war.

Our military power is awesome and necessary, but it is not sufficient to make the world a safer place. Our diplomatic and political skills must match our military power.

Our leadership must include partnership and cooperation. We are stronger, and our problems are smaller, when we act in unison with allies.

What does that mean? It means we continue joint law-enforcement operations with other countries that are rooting out the al Qaeda network. Already, key arrests have been made in countries as diverse as Germany, Pakistan and Indonesia.

It means we work with the more than eighty countries around the globe that have an al Qaeda presence within their borders. Only by working with them, and often sharing intelligence with them, can we prevent future terrorist attacks – both on our shores and beyond them.

It means we work with other nations to cut off terrorist financing. Al Qaeda's financial network is far-flung, complex, and diversified. We must team with foreign governments, charities and banks to put more transparency in financial transactions, and to cut off the resources that enable terrorist activity.

It means our diplomats work with their foreign counterparts to establish an international environment hostile to terrorism. We must achieve a consensus that rejects the killing of innocent civilians as an acceptable political activity, and isolates terrorism as an illegitimate and illegal exercise.

And it means we provide aid and training to countries that are prepared to cut down on terrorism within their borders. Our expertise, our resources, and our technological capabilities will help countries crack down on indigenous terrorism.

Military operations should not be the primary piece of our anti-terrorism campaign. Bombs and guns alone will not destroy international terrorism – they may even fuel it.

Military primacy must be buttressed by a multilateral diplomacy. So we must lead diplomatic, legal and economic coalitions. We must strive to take our dominance and use it – not to dominate or decree – but to forge the international cooperation that is essential for international security.

We must define our interests in a way that other nations accept and embrace. By doing so, we will extend our power and sustain our influence. To act solely in our self-interest is to act against our self-interest.

Our past has much to teach us. We lead best when we lead by consensus. Working with the broad support of allies and building international institutions, we have achieved many goals. In the last sixty years we took the lead in creating:

-- NATO, to face down and defeat the threat of the Soviet Union;

-- the United Nations, to provide an international forum for dialogue, cooperation, and international law to deal with the myriad of global problems;

-- and multilateral monetary institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and WTO to spread trade, markets, development and financial stability across the globe.

American power works most effectively when it is joined with broad international support. Our overwhelming success – indeed our genius – whether in World War II, the Cold War, or the initial stage of the war on terror, has been in building coalitions and alliances in support of clear and common goals.

After World War II, we chose not to build an empire, but a world of alliances, institutions and diplomacy. These efforts certainly served our interests. But it was an enlightened, even magnanimous, self-interest that took into account the interests of others. Because of this, America was perceived not only as a generous and benign power, but a power to be followed and not feared.

Of course, cooperation, or a multilateral approach, is not an end in itself. We should demand that international institutions live up to their responsibilities, improve their efficiency, and meet the new challenges of the twenty-first century. We do not want to participate in multilateral agreements that threaten our interests.

But neither do we do not want to live in a world without international laws and norms – a world where we stand alone to combat threat after threat, tyrant after tyrant.

Acting with the broadest international support simplifies things for us. It grants legitimacy, erodes opposition, and lowers the price tag. When we act alone, the burdens, risks and costs that we bear are far greater.

Style is important in international relations – indeed, style is often substance in diplomacy. So we must take care to listen to the concerns of our friends and allies; we must take pains to explain our policies, while offering alternatives to the policies we reject.

Success in the war on terror and the new world coming depends upon political skills and influence as much as it does on military might. We are going to need help to build a more peaceful and democratic world.

4. Non-Proliferation regimes: The U.S. must provide leadership to counter the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

The urgent need is for us to develop a comprehensive approach to halting the spread of WMD. Military pre-emption may sometimes be justified, but it should not be the primary tool of non-proliferation.

Military force alone cannot stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. Strong international non-proliferation regimes – both legal and moral – are necessary.

Other tools include security assurances, economic initiatives, early warning systems, verification and enforcement mechanisms, export controls, inspections, and efforts to prevent dangerous materials in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere from falling into the wrong hands.

Cooperative programs to help Russia dismantle nuclear weapons and nuclear production sites should be expanded; weapons grade materials secured, and alternative employment offered to unemployed scientists who might otherwise sell their skills to the highest bidder.

Deficiencies in arms agreements do not require the abandonment of global regimes; on the contrary, we must now lead in forging stronger non-proliferation regimes, developing new technologies and procedures for enforcing arms-control initiatives, and working with others to secure and dismantle the world’s most dangerous weapons.

5. Conflict resolution: We must lead energetic efforts to resolve the world’s most troubling and intractable conflicts.

We should be at the forefront of the pursuit of peace in:

-- The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which destabilizes the Middle East, threatens the security of Israel, and feeds Islamic resentment of the west.

-- The dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, which threatens the world with the awful prospect of nuclear war in South Asia.

-- and the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, where there is the prospect of a nuclear arms race, a destabilized region, and a source for terrorists and rogue regimes looking to purchase weapons technology.

An international, American-led effort to address these seething conflicts, to try to get people to stop killing one another and threatening each other with terrible weapons, could contribute to global stability and the security of billions of people, while enhancing the perception of American power.

Our attitude must be that peace is possible if we engage, work with international partners, and resolve to invest political will towards finding a solution.

6. Economic integration and development: We must lead for economic development around the world.

Economic integration:

-- aids the American economy, providing new opportunities for investment and growth;

-- helps the developing world, by opening vast markets to their goods;

-- tightens the bonds among countries, by establishing links of commerce;

-- spreads our values, by introducing freedom of opportunity to nations who have known only closed, controlled, and repressed economies.

-- and unleashes the potential of whole populations. Indeed, there is little that could do more to combat the root causes of terrorism than providing the millions of the young and unemployed people in the Middle East with jobs and opportunity.

To lead in the process of global economic integration, the U.S. must not over-subsidize its farmers, workers and plants; we must open up our markets to goods from developing countries, push hard for new trade agreements, invest abroad, and strive to make American capitalism a model that the world can trust and look up to.

It is often said that democracies don’t go to war with each other; it is also true that countries with shared economic interests are less likely to go to war with each other.

We should also increase our foreign aid and work to reduce poverty and the gross inequities around the world.

As a nation that reflects the generosity and humaneness of the American people, we should be at the forefront of building markets, feeding the poor, treating the sick, educating the children, and welcoming foreign students and scholars to our shores.

Through bilateral initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Accounts, and multilateral initiatives like the global effort to combat disease, we can invigorate our commitment to developing countries, and show all the world what kind of people we really are.

Aid, given under appropriate circumstances, can improve relations, build the civil society and infrastructure of nations, and combat troublesome transnational problems like HIV/AIDS, hunger and the migration of peoples.

By insisting that recipients of aid meet certain standards of accountability and provide incentives for nations to reform, we can improve governance abroad.

There are, of course, limits to what we can do with aid. No matter how well intentioned or generous we are, we cannot take Haiti and make it into Sweden. But we can hold out the promise of opportunity, and work with recipient countries that are willing and able to make the reforms necessary to improve the lives of their people.

7. American Values: In all we do, we must reflect our fundamental values.

We are, and should be, the champions of freedom, democracy, free-enterprise, human rights and the rule of law. Being true to these values takes great skill, blending idealism and realism. But our foreign policy has always enjoyed its greatest success when our idealism and our realism come together. Idealism – as well as self-interest – is a necessary ingredient of the American national interest.

Other nations and people trust us to work on behalf of our values. This trust is our most important asset; in order to achieve our goals, we must be worthy of that trust.

Despite its imperfections, our country is a force for democracy and progress. At the end of the day, our foreign policy must look beyond the threats and dangers, the disagreement and discord, and speak and act for those goals that represent the finest qualities of the American people.

Conclusion: The challenges and opportunities that are in front of us are staggering and exciting. Indeed, we are faced with trials everywhere we turn.

We live in a world, much of it of our own making – the product of our ideas, our power, and – most of all – our optimistic and benign vision of a better life for all people. We must find a way to use our vast power to face down our challenges and move toward a better world.

American power, if used with discretion, can be good for Americans – and good for the world.

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