|Man Without Qualities|
Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Bill Clinton argues: "We need to be creating a world that we would like to live in when we're not the biggest power on the block."
Like many things that Mr. Clinton says, that all sounds reasonable ... for a moment or two. Like all those State of the Union speeches he gave. The ones that seemed to vanish like a summer dream minutes after he stopped speaking. Yes, yes. Planning for the future. Planning for contingencies.
There's at least one big problem with Mr. Clinton's approach: It's probably practically impossible. Or, more specifically, creating a world that we would like to live in when we're not the biggest power on the block almost certainly means creating a world in which we're not the biggest power on the block.
Whatever world we create must be created in the understanding that the United States is now the "biggest power on the block" - both economically and militarily. The recent fracas in the United Nations demonstrates the obvious: A set of international rules and organizations which assumes that the United States is not a double superpower requiring special consideration would be absurd and would also be unacceptable to both the United States and the rest of the world. But there is no way to construct such a set of international rules and organizations which now accommodates the fact that the United States is the only double superpower but automatically and reasonably shifts into some new mode when the United States ceased to be the only double superpower.
What would the trigger for the shift of mode be? For example, would the new rules come into play when China's gross domestic product exceeds that of the United States? But there are so many Chinese people. Doesn't that mean there should be some accommodation for per capita GDP? But even high GDP and per capita GDP don't mean a country has become the "biggest power on the block" in the sense Mr. Clinton apparently means this term. Consider Japan, for example - which clearly has international influence way short of its economic size. Does that mean the trigger should be activated at least when China's gross domestic product and Chinese military expenditures both exceed that of the United States? But what if China is still not a democracy at that point? Why would the world want to give special status to a country run by just a handful of undemocratic people? Can one imagine without lapsing into a cold sweat a world in which an engorged China, for example, held the international power and influence that the United States holds now?
When the United Nations was formed, the GDP of the United States was a much larger percentage of the aggregate global gross domestic product than it is now, and United Nations dues were set accordingly. But consider how difficult it has been to revise those United Nations dues obligations. Conversely, consider how difficult it has been for the United Nations to accommodate the growth of Japan and India - which preposterously don't even have permanent votes on the Security Council. But these accomodations are trivial and few compared to the vast set of accomodations that would have to be activated throughout the world if the United States ceased to be the biggest power on the block. And how about this: Can one imagine the Europeans easily - and without serious determination on the part of the United States - agreeing to a revised United Nations structure that frankly addresses the fact that they have allowed their militaries to become a bad joke? They may be myopic, but they're not that stupid.
Or consider many actual arrangements made by Mr. Clinton while he was in office that he probably thought helped create a world that we would like to live in when we're not the biggest power on the block: the Kyoto Accord, the International Criminal Court, the biological weapons treaty, the now-terminated missile testing ban, and many others. Outside of the area of traditional international trade (such as NAFTA and the WTO), these arrangements would in each case have placed special burdens (and, in the case of the missile testing ban, did place such a burden) on the United States for the benefit of other participants. That is: such arrangements would have moved the United States closer to being something other than the biggest power on the block. That's why the current administration rightly rejected many of them.
Doesn't just posing the questions which need to be answered if Mr. Clinton's approach is taken seriously just expose his whole project for the ridiculous exercise in futility it is? Isn't he just ventilating yet another idea more at home in one of the all-night bull sessions in which he is most comfortable?
Perhaps. But I think it is more likely that Mr. Clinton is fully aware that the only way to create a world that we think (or at least Mr. Clinton and his buddies think) we would like to live in when we're not the biggest power on the block is to create a world in which we we're actually not the biggest power on the block. That may be to Mr. Clinton's liking and that of his European and liberal Democratic friends, but for this country and the world at large it would be a disaster.
The events of September 11 are just a hint of the shape of things to come if Mr. Clinton obtains his vision.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has good related thoughts (subscription required for this editorial).
MORE: Andrew Sullivan has lots of good thoughts on this topic, and apparently so does Andrew's source, Bob Kagan.
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