BOOKS: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Benign or Imperial? Reflections on American Hegemony, by Owen Harries
, April 10, 2004
BENIGN OR IMPERIAL? Reflections on American Hegemony
The Boyer Lectures 2003
By Owen Harries
ABC Books, Rec. price: $22.95A seasoned foreign affairs commentator and self-styled realist, Owen Harries has profound misgivings about the inordinate power the United States of America wields in today's world.
Harries' career has included being an academic, a foreign affairs adviser to Malcolm Fraser, Australian Ambassador to UNESCO and editor of the prestigious Washington-based journal, The National Interest.
Today, he is highly critical of much of the thinking of the current Bush Administration which, he argues, is pursuing utopian and often self-defeating goals.
After the demise of the Soviet empire, it was probably inevitable that America, with its vast economic and military power, would emerge as the world's preponderant power.
Throughout the 1990s the US devoted a huge share of its output to defence and intervened militarily around the world on a scale not seen since the Vietnam war - in the Gulf, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Colombia and Kosovo.
As the Clinton Administration's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, once memorably put it, what was the use of having such a powerful military force if one didn't use it?
When America assumed the leadership of the free world after World War II, it was careful not to abuse its great power. Instead of acting unilaterally, it was careful to restrain its power - disguise it, even - by using persuasion and consensus to win the cooperation of other powers. The US worked through a host of institutions for this purpose. NATO - and, perhaps on a good day, the UN - helped keep the peace. The Bretton Woods settlement, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) were meant to create a stable framework for the international economy. The US in that era preferred to share its power with its allies and to be seen only as the first among equals.
Today, the US has to an unprecedented degree abandoned even the appearance of self-restraint. September 11, of course, contributed greatly to its new national assertiveness. But, even in the years immediately prior to that event, according to Harries, the US was increasingy prepared to act unilaterally.
The case for US unilateralism and greater military intervention on a global scale was articulated as far back as 1994 by Robert Kagan in the US's Commentary
Seven years later, Kagan saw September 11 as a vindication of his "conservative internationalist" view that the collapse of the Soviet Union - far from ushering in a more benign international order - had replaced a single large adversary with a multiplicity of smaller but potentially highly dangerous villains.
In his best-selling book Paradise and Power
(2003), Kagan declared that September 11 had enabled America to become "more of itself" and to rediscover its unique historic destiny to keep order in the a world.
Of greater significance though, according to Harries, was President George W. Bush's 31-page statement, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America
, published a year after September 11. In it, Bush spelt out the US's radically new approach to world affairs. First, the US should aim vigorously to promote the causes of "democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world". This "single surviving model of human progress", Bush maintained, was "right and true for every person, in every society".
The US military was to be an indispensable instrument in advancing America's great mission to keep order in an unstable world and would be deployed even more widely than it had been during the Cold War. Moreover, Bush asserted: "We must build and maintain our defenses beyond challenge."
Bush also specifically repudiated the traditional doctrine of military deterrence. He defended pre-emptive, anticipatory action as a fully justifiable means of handling risk-taking rogue states.
The Bush Administration conceived, formulated and announced this doctrine with little if any consultation with other countries, including its allies.
The most striking feature of the Bush Doctrine, according to Harries, was "its breathtaking scope, its huge ambition to do no less than to effect a transformation of the political universe" in its bid to remake the world.
Even before September 11, Harries foresaw this new direction in US foreign policy. In one article, he observed that America with its vast power was concerned even then "to create a world in its own image with institutions and rules determined by Washington".
Harries, however, warns that other countries - even the US's long-standing allies - can scarcely be expected to trust a solitary superpower always to act with virtue and restraint.
He suggests that America, in formulating its foreign policy, would do well to reacquaint itself with the wisdom of its Founding Fathers and the authors of its Constitution. Far from trusting in the benevolence of mankind, they insisted on devising constitutional checks and balances to curb and restrain political power so that no person or institution could become dominant.
Harries, in warning of the risks of unilateralism, does not write from an anti-US perspective. He stresses: "The really interesting and important debate is not between anti-Americans and pro-Americans; it is between two different American traditions concerning how the United States can best promote its values and ideals."
He has little time for the Bush Administration's fond belief that, as human nature and aspirations are essentially the same everywhere, American democratic ideals can readily take root and flourish practically anywhere in the world.
He makes the obvious point that, before a durable democracy can be established, a country must first have a reasonably educated population, a propertied middle-class which will have a vested interest in maintaining a stable political order, and free circulation of information.
He suggests that America, instead of seeking to export its values "to every corner of the world", should pursue more modest and realisable goals.
Harries' advice to Australia is not to "punch above its weight". Our continent, he says, is too vast, and our military outlays too small to enable us to do more than concentrate on our regional security. We should indeed cooperate with the US in its fight against terror, but concentrate our efforts where the danger is most likely to impinge on us - "that is, not in the Middle East but in South-East Asia".
This useful book includes not only Harries' ABC Boyer Lectures, but also three of his articles reproduced from The National Interest.
Altogether, they provide a sober, realistic appraisal of the new international order.