The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power

Pax Americana
New books dissected over email.
May 10 2002 10:48 AM

The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power

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Dear James,

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Rumors of my ignorance are much exaggerated. To clarify and extend my remarks (as the politicians say), it's true that there were very general U.N. resolutions passed regarding terrorism (in 2001) and Bosnia (in 1992). But these were very different from the resolutions that authorized military action in the Korean War and the Gulf War to roll back North Korean and Iraqi aggression. In Bosnia, the international organization that acted against the Serbs was NATO, not the U.N.; in Afghanistan, it was simply the United States and an ad hoc alliance. It's hardly worth parsing these differences because even in the Korean and Gulf Wars U.N. resolutions merely provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for what were in essence American actions, taken in cooperation with a handful of allies.

All of this is taking us rather far afield from the subject matter of my book, which is the forgotten history of America's small wars abroad. I acknowledge that we have to get more international backing for such ventures than we did 100 years ago, but I still maintain that the tactics and techniques employed in such wars long ago are very relevant to today's world, whether the troops in question belong to the United States, its allies, or even the U.N. itself. I just don't have much confidence that a bureaucracy as unwieldy as the U.N.'s could ever run these operations as well as the Americans or Brits do on their own.

I'm glad you raise the larger issue of America's role in the world. I admit it, I'm a hegemonist, imperialist, unipolarist—whatever you want to call it, I think the world will be a better place if dominated by American power. I'm not opposed to channeling that power through international institutions, where warranted, but I'm not sure why you place so much emphasize on the U.N. It's one of the most ineffectual international bodies around. NATO and the WTO are much more important, and in both cases we can do a lot more. In the case of NATO, we need to extend membership to pretty much all the countries of southern and eastern Europe; to say that they're not "ready" is silly. Were Greece or Turkey "ready" in the 1940s? Not by today's criteria; but adding them to NATO helped integrate them into the West. In the case of the WTO, we need to take the lead in free trade. Thus I think Bush's decision to impose steel tariffs is genuinely harmful to America's role in the world, unlike his decision to renounce the flawed ICC and Kyoto treaties. I agree with you that, where possible, America should institutionalize its ideals through international organizations. Trade is one promising area where we can and should do that.

Security concerns are more troublesome, however. There doesn't exist any effective international body capable of enforcing law and order. Perhaps if the U.N. were limited to liberal, democratic nations, it could be such a body; but it isn't. That leaves the United States to play the role of globo-cop, in each case raising a posse of concerned nations to help out. You're troubled by such actions. I'm not. In fact I think the world will be a much better place if we act assertively and extend American dominance far into the future.

You suggest that American hegemony is unsustainable because other nations will gang up on us. I'm still waiting for the EU, China, India, Russia, or Japan to get together in some kind of anti-American alliance. The idea is preposterous because those nations (if I can call the EU that) have far more to fear from each other than from the United States.

American power has never provoked the kind of alliance that came together to stop past hegemonists like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, and it likely never will. There's an obvious reason for this that tends to get overlooked by foreign policy sophisticates—we're good guys, whereas Stalin and Hitler were bad guys. Oh, I know that lots of people from Riyadh to Paris resent American power. But at the end of the day I think most of the world realizes that we're not seeking the kind of empire that Hitler or Stalin wanted—we don't want to enslave other countries and loot their resources. We want to liberate oppressed peoples and extend to them the benefits of liberal institutions. The Europeans may kvetch about those American cowboys, but they too benefit from U.S.-underwritten security—and I think, deep down in their cynical hearts, they realize it. Otherwise they would spend more of their budgets on defense. The EU's refusal to field a serious military force suggests that it doesn't have any intention of challenging American dominance in the short-term.

These are obviously very complicated issues and would need more room for a fuller explication. The bottom line is that I think the world—and the United States—are best served by attempting to extend American dominance as long as possible, to turn the 21st century into another "American century." And part of that means fighting small wars where necessary to expand what Jefferson called the "empire of liberty."

All hail the Pax Americana!

Hegemonically yours,
Max

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