Should America Police the World?
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 13, 2001
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, April 11, 2001
The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.), April 13, 2001
Providence Journal, April 13, 2001
Fresno Bee, April 13, 2001
Corpus Christi Caller/Times, April 13, 2001
Ventura County Star, April 15, 2001
China Daily, April 16, 2001
The standoff with China has been resolved, but it has raised some serious and long-overdue questions about our foreign policy in the post-Cold-War era. This first one is: does the United States really need to police the whole world? Because if we are going to remain committed to this job, we can expect more involvement in incidents of this kind, not to mention wars and other violent conflicts.
Most Americans do not find this role any more appealing than the idea of going around to all the bars in Chicago on a Saturday night and breaking up fights. "We have enough problems here at home," is normally the prevailing sentiment among the citizenry when the question of overseas intervention is raised.
But our foreign policy establishment -- the politicians, think tanks, and many intellectuals and journalists -- remains attached to the idea of America ruling the world.
"The United States is the only power that can handle a showdown in the [Persian] Gulf, mount the kind of force that is needed to protect Saudi Arabia, and deter a crisis in the Taiwan Strait," says President Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice. Do we really want that job?
For half a century, Americans were told that policing the world was a strategic and moral imperative: we were "saving the world from communism," and defending our own national security. On this pretext Washington overthrew democratically elected governments, installed and financed some of the most bloodthirsty regimes in world history, went to war in Vietnam, and even supported genocide -- from Indonesia to Guatemala -- when our leaders found it politically convenient to do so.
Looking at the world in 2001, it's hard to believe that we were really fighting communism all those years. Today China is the only remaining communist country with any power, and it is not only a major (if lopsided) trading partner but also the largest recipient of US foreign investment in the developing world. Ironically, that may be what saves us from a new Cold War with China. There are just too many lucrative business deals that could go sour. China may not be a rich country, but it has one of the world's fastest growing economies and a fifth of the Earth's population.
The Clinton administration worked hard to get China into the World Trade Organization -- it's not quite there yet -- so that US telecommunications, financial services, and other big corporations could break into these potentially huge markets. Manufacturers such as Nike and Timberland are happy with their Chinese production facilities, where workers put in 70-hour weeks for wages of 22 cents an hour, and are not likely to strike or try to form an independent union.
This was the Bush Administration's dilemma: some of their biggest corporate supporters would find it difficult to forgive them if they blew all these prizes over this one incident. On the other hand, there are still influential people who would appreciate a new Cold War, for all the purposes that the old one served. Besides providing an excuse for the crimes of empire, the Cold War was also a rationale for our enormous military expenditures. This was America's unique form of industrial policy, a way to subsidize our leading industries such as aircraft and computers.
A number of political commentators have suggested that Mr. Bush's recent unfriendly gestures toward Russia, North Korea, and China (before the current crisis) might be related to his efforts to fund his own high-tech subsidy: $60 billion dollars for a missile defense system.
But right now -- at least as regards China -- the balance is still in favor of more immediate business interests. Hence the Administration's delivery of a "non-apology apology" to resolve the standoff, despite the embarrassment.
The best way to prevent future incidents would be to stop looking for trouble all over the world. We would never allow a foreign plane with sophisticated surveillance equipment to fly 70 miles from coast of Florida, gathering intelligence on our military. Yet Washington insists that it has the right to make 200 of these kinds of flights each year to spy on China.
You can't have it both ways -- unless you want to claim the status of Emperor, and pay the price to enforce it. We are already paying more than $1000 each year -- for every man, woman, child, and infant -- to the Pentagon, while we forgo urgent needs such as prescription drug coverage for our senior citizens. While the American people bear the costs and risks of maintaining an empire, the benefits do not trickle down. It's time we began to downsize the grand ambitions of our leaders.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the "Experts" Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).