- The Imprimis: American Unilateralism by Charles Krauthammer
I do not agree with the author’s perspective on war or the benefits of unilateral action but I do agree with the historical assessment found in blurb…
- American unilateralism has to do with the motives and the methods of American behavior in the world, but any discussion of it has to begin with a discussion of the structure of the international system. The reason that we talk about unilateralism today is that we live in a totally new world. We live in a unipolar world of a sort that has not existed in at least 1500 years.
At the end of the Cold War, the conventional wisdom was that with the demise of the Soviet Empire, the bipolarity of the second half of the 20th century would yield to a multi-polar world. You might recall the school of thought led by historian Paul Kennedy, who said that America was already in decline, suffering from imperial overstretch. There was also the Asian enthusiasm, popularized by James Fallows and others, whose thinking was best captured by the late-1980s witticism: “The United States and Russia decided to hold a Cold War. Who won? Japan.”
Well, they were wrong, and ironically no one has put it better than Paul Kennedy himself, in a classic recantation emphasizing America’s power: “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power, nothing. Charlemagne’s empire was merely Western European in its reach. The Roman Empire stretched farther afield, but there was another great empire in Persia and a larger one in China. There is, therefore, no comparison.”
We tend not to see or understand the historical uniqueness of this situation. Even at its height, Britain could always be seriously challenged by the next greatest powers. It had a smaller army than the land powers of Europe, and its navy was equaled by the next two navies combined. Today, the American military exceeds in spending the next twenty countries combined. Its Navy, Air Force and space power are unrivaled. Its dominance extends as well to every other aspect of international life – not only military, but economic, technological, diplomatic, cultural, even linguistic, with a myriad of countries trying to fend off the inexorable march of MTV English.
But that said, I think empires are an evil phenomenon as a general rule, and our Constitution was not written for an empire but rather a free nation. It’s high time we trash the unilateral attitude of “whatever makes us the most money” and instead start working multilaterally for the values of democracy, liberty, and social equality.