Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America

Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America

Pithy quotes from Joefre’s speech to the Cranegie Institute. He is the editor and publisher of Germany’s most seriously weekly, Die Zeit. He has taught at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, and most recently at Stanford, where he was a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

On the day when U.S. forces marched into Baghdad, back in Tehran—if they were allowed to do so—the champagne corks must have been popping (or the Muslim version, the orange juice corks.) They must have said, “Thank you, Great Satan, for three things:

“One, thank you for taking out our worst enemy to the west, Saddam Hussein, who had inflicted a murderous war on us in 1980, which cost us a million dead. Thank you, Great Satan, for wiping out this guy.”

“Thank you, secondly, Great Satan, for lifting the yoke of Sunni oppression from our Shiite brethren, empowering the Shiite minority. There’s a natural kinship between us and them.”

“And thank you, Allah,” they must have said at this point, “for entangling the United States in the great insurgency war to come, which we can manipulate at will. We can play it like a piano.” Which is exactly what they have been doing.
The consequences are pretty bitter. With U.S. power entangled in Iraq, it has left on a loose rein the one power that really was a threat to the United States. It was Iran that was building nukes. It was Iran that was sponsoring terrorism. It was Iran that had real—and has real—hegemony ambitions in the Middle East.

America builds and makes stuff and ideas and images and icons which seem to be uniquely fitted to the rest of the world. I would speculate that the reason is that America was the first universal nation. Who invented Hollywood? A bunch of Russian Jews such as Gelbfisz, later called Goldwyn, and Warner, and so on.

There is always anti-Americanism. It has to do with America as this engine of modernity that has rolled across the world for the last 250 years. I would think that if U.S. policy behaved in a more humble manner that takes care of others, or at least pretends to take care of others, that takes them seriously, or at least pretends to take them seriously—the Bushies didn’t even pretend to take people seriously, and this in a culture which is a very polite culture. American culture is much more polite than German culture or Scandinavian culture, what have you.

The French conquered Algeria in 1830 with about 30,000 men, and in 1962, they couldn’t hold it with 600,000 men. Somehow, the tradeoffs, the ratios between military power and political effect, have really worsened if you are a Western power. They turn against you. The second-best army [Israel] in the world—maybe even the best, man for man—and they were close-by; they didn’t come from afar—couldn’t do anything to change society in that little patch to the east of them that is four times the size of Dallas airport.

the Americans kicked them out of the Middle East in 1956, in a very brutal manner, under that mild-mannered president called Eisenhower—ever since the Brits decided that a close alliance with the United States serves their interests better than the French, which was the opposite tack, which was to kick America’s shin and to be an economy power that always wants to fly business, but doesn’t have the money to pay for an upgrade.

I said the oldest law of international politics is that unbalanced power shall be balanced. The United States looms pretty large over the rest of the world. But at this point, in terms of raw economic or strategic power, it is uncontested—at this point. The United States spends as much on its defense as the rest of the world combined. But there is also the danger of overstretch. There is also the danger of a dollar that can come tumbling down on the United States and destroy the trade system in the process. There is also the problem of using power in such a way as in Iraq, which, on the one hand, is not legitimate, and on the other hand, doesn’t get what you want to get. That might breed a reaction in this country against the use of power in the future.

But having said that, I think the real question you are asking is, what about the real rising power, China? 1.3 billion people, nuclear weapons, 7 percent growth rates, in a competitive strategic relationship in the Pacific or with Taiwan. I would even go one worse: China is repeating another historical pattern of the 19th century, which you could observe in the case of rising Japan, rising Germany, and rising America. The pattern is an old one. First you get rich, then you become rowdy. The United States suddenly got very rich and suddenly it grabbed Cuba and the Philippines. Remember the Philippines? McKinley said, “For three nights, I sat there and prayed whether we should take our little brown brethren in hand, and then I decide to take them in hand, uplift, and Christianize them,” conveniently forgetting that they had been Christian for 400 years. [Laughter]

The Japanese industrialized and they became imperialists. The Germans started overtaking everybody else in the late 19th century in terms of growth rates, and started building a big navy, started tangling with the Brits, et cetera.

So there is that pattern—rich and rowdy.

The question is, is China going to do the same thing? I don’t see that pattern with the Chinese. They are being very subtle. They don’t want to tangle with number one. They understand American security interests. They play the game very subtly and—knock on wood—almost responsibly. The United States is playing the game much better with the Chinese than it did with the Japanese in the 1930s. It’s cooperating. It is opening its market for the Chinese. The Chinese have a powerful interest in not shutting down that market for the largest export surplus they have.

I guess the point is, nations are not like atoms or molecules. They have memories and they can learn from history.

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