America’s idealism benefits the world

The US is very powerful, writes Des Moore, but it’s better with
its power than a lot of other contenders.

Australian Financial Review, 20 March 2003

France and Germany aspire to form a Vichy Europe (appeasing dictators and terrorists) in opposition to the USA. That, not a genuine interest in preserving peace, explains their perverse position over Iraq.

They fear that, unless brought down, the USA in its panoply of power will rampage over the rest of the world, wreaking its unilateral way at will. But this fear is wholly misplaced in origin, and malign in consequence.

Misplaced, because the USA is not and cannot be the world hegemon, is not all-powerful, cannot do whatever it wants, and above all cannot go it alone. This for three main reasons.

Geographical. To be truly the world hegemon, a country has to be simultaneously Eurasia’s predominant land power and the world’s greatest maritime/air power. America can be – is – the second, but can never be the first.

So it cannot usually act forcibly without others. Even its taking on puny Iraq is possible only because of the ready willingness of many neighbouring Arab and Muslim states to allow their territories to be used for the US military build-up and operational conduct of war. And not only neighbouring states: others much further afield could halt the US by denying it military overflight rights, or port entry, or logistic assistance, or exit rights for US forces stationed on their territory.

Consequences for others. The USA must consider the effect of its actions on others, and desist if the damage would be too great. For example, the US could easily take out North Korea’s nuclear facilities. But that won’t happen, because it would put Seoul, within easy range of Kim’s 11,000 artillery pieces, at risk of obliteration, and Japan at risk from Kim’s missiles.

Reality. The USA cannot get around the fact that it produces only 20 per cent of the world’s GDP - a lot, but not sufficient for it to act everywhere alone.

Another reality is that some desirable objectives, such as spreading democracy and rescuing failed states, are hugely difficult by their very nature. Democracy cannot be imposed and requires for its success much more, and much rarer preconditions, than regular elections. Likewise, failed states will not be rescued lastingly by outside help, but only by self-help, mainly in the form of sensible but difficult public policies, domestic and foreign.

Even though these three reasons - geography, consequences for others, and reality - impose large limitations on USA actions, it is still the pre-eminent and indispensable power, not only because it has an effective veto (not just in the UN Security Council) but also because without its participation, or at least tolerance, nothing large would be accomplished in the world.

That is an unmixed blessing. Somebody must be the most powerful, the leader. How fortunate for the rest of us that it is the USA – a true democracy, a decent country, a liberal polity with the right values and views, outward-looking and open to the world, and not a country seeking direct rule over a burgeoning empire. How much more preferable than Vichy Europe (and France and Germany have already tried, of course) or even China (which one day will try). Any of those states could dominate the world because their size and position make that possible.

Of course, we should not automatically support everything the US does. But when it is acting, as it is over Iraq, not only in its own interest but virtually everyone else’s too – including the Iraqi people – our imperative, as our government has discerned, is not to try like Vichy Europe to bring down the US, or to make our decision dependent on the whim of others such as Angola, Cameroon and Guinea.

One day the world will be full of democracies. But the world itself will never be a democracy, with every state equal under universal law. Instead, the world will continue a jungle; and there the other beasts can only thank their lucky stars that the lead beast is not an empire builder.