Standing Athwart History

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Fareed Zakaria certainly touched a nerve over at Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog with this assertion:

The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own—Russian demands are by definition unacceptable. The only way to deal with countries is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it's imperial policy. And it isn't likely to work in today's world.

Peter Feaver responds here. Christain Brose argues:

The real sticking point is how a Syria or a Russia defines some of its "interests." Damascus's desire to dominate Lebanon is not an interest. Nor is Russia's attempt to create a sphere of influence in its old imperial stomping grounds and prevent sovereign nations from making free choices about their own foreign policies. Such "interests" should be, in Zakaria's words, "by definition unacceptable."

I think this only serves to confirm Zakaria's point. According to Brose, the U.S. is the arbiter of which interests are legitimate, and which are not. And the standard is not exactly uniform. The Russians can't exercise a "veto" over nations directly on their border, but when the U.S. decides it wants to travel halfway around the world and depose Saddam Hussein on the grounds that he's an intolerable threat to our interests, that's acceptable. The Russians can't have a sphere of influence immediately adjacent their national border, but the U.S. can claim the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the Western Hemisphere as arenas of its primacy and veto the foreign policy decisions of governments therein. The Russians can't corner the Central Asian energy market through cozy relationships with dictators and related thugs, but the U.S.-Saudi alliance is another matter - one born of a mutual and abiding respect for pluralism and human rights. Or something.

Zakaria is making the fairly obvious observation that global hegemony has had a toxic effect on how the U.S. defines her interests. We have conflated the maintenance of our global power with the protection of the American way of life. That connection clearly held during the Cold War, when the U.S. faced a global adversary. But it's anachronistic today and, indeed, dangerous. No great power lasts forever. It is folly to think that we have unlocked the secret to perpetual dominance.

Standing athwart history and yelling stop may be a reasonable strategy on issues of domestic culture, but it's dangerous in foreign policy. Raging against the inevitable is a strategy that will ensure America's relative decline over the next several decades is unnecessarily disruptive, costly, and perhaps even bloody. Zakaria is right to warn against it.

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