America’s Self-Defeating Hegemony

When I wrote about the “end of history” almost twenty years ago, one thing that I did not anticipate was the degree to which American behavior and misjudgments would make anti-Americanism one of the chief fault-lines of global politics. And yet, particularly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that is precisely what has happened, owing to four key mistakes made by the Bush administration.

First, the doctrine of “preemption,” which was devised in response to the 2001 attacks, was inappropriately broadened to include Iraq and other so-called “rogue states” that threatened to develop weapons of mass destruction. To be sure, preemption is fully justified vis-à-vis stateless terrorists wielding such weapons. But it cannot be the core of a general non-proliferation policy, whereby the United States intervenes militarily everywhere to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.

The cost of executing such a policy simply would be too high (several hundred billion dollars and tens of thousands of casualties in Iraq and still counting). This is why the Bush administration has shied away from military confrontations with North Korea and Iran, despite its veneration of Israel’s air strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, which set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program by several years. After all, the very success of that attack meant that such limited intervention could never be repeated, because would-be proliferators learned to bury, hide, or duplicate their nascent weapons programs.

The second important miscalculation concerned the likely global reaction to America’s exercise of its hegemonic power. Many people within the Bush administration believed that even without approval by the UN Security Council or NATO, American power would be legitimized by its successful use. This had been the pattern for many US initiatives during the Cold War, and in the Balkans during the 1990’s; back then, it was known as “leadership” rather than “unilateralism.”