LONDON — Americans…Don’t you just love to hate them? They preach to you about the virtues of an open trading system and then they slap a bizarre set of sanctions on trade rivals before the World Trade Organization makes its report. They lecture the world about the virtues of the rule of law and when their air force is responsible for the death of 20 tourists in Italy, U.S. military courts set the culprits free. But as infuriating as such behavior undoubtedly is, the rest of the world has no choice but to get along with the world’s single superpower. The ability to get the United States to behave better in fact is in the hands of America’s most frustrated allies.
The root of the problem with the U.S. is that the world has never seen such a unipolar moment. It is only in the past 150 years that great-power politics have been played out on a global stage. Only in the last 100 years has the status of a great power begun to be seen as requiring some form of global reach. In earlier eras, there were a series of roughly equal powers constantly vying for supremacy and alliance. For a time, a Japan or a Germany might have dominated a region, but not for long and never outside its home base.
During the Cold War, we got down to two powers, and by 1991 there was only one. Thus, for the first time since we have had an important degree of globalization, there is only one global power. You don’t have to be a great theorist or philosopher to see that we are now struggling with a major structural change in global order. But in each major category of power, there are benefits as well as problems in having one dominant power.
In security terms, it sometimes appears as if we have a mad bomber on the loose. When confronted with terrorism against U.S. interests in Africa, the weapon of choice is a cruise missile attack on Afghanistan and Sudan. When Iraq will no longer comply with U.N. resolutions, the answer — you guessed it — is to send in the missiles and planes. What do you do when faced with a recalcitrant Serb leader? Of course, send in the bombers. The resort to high-tech force makes sense for a country that fears casualties, dominates the highest end of weapons technology and yet feels an obligation to maintain international order.
It is easy to make fun of “cowardly” and simple-minded Americans who so naively trust in technology. But allies also know that they have to “shout their objections quietly.” Would Europeans prefer to see Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction and missiles capable of wiping out Rome? Would Asians like to see China seizing the South China Sea and cowing Taiwan? Of course not. Because all other powers are puny and regional, they will naturally lack the ability and the inclination to defend global order. Only a global power will do that. Powers that do not benefit from the status quo, such as China (and perhaps Russia), might welcome a U.S. less committed to global order, but if all other powers are truthful, they will reluctantly accept that it is better to have a sheriff with attitude than no sheriff at all.
In economic terms, as the current WTO dispute over bananas demonstrates, the U.S. seems to have a default mode of “bully.” The dreaded Super-301 trade legislation has been waved at any number of Asian trade partners. Americans correctly castigate Europeans for the absurdities of the Common Agricultural Policy, but as the Australians so trenchantly point out, U.S. farm subsidies are only marginally less odious. The last parts of the previous trade round were only possible because the Japanese and Singaporeans worked with other Asians and the European Union to gang up on the Americans.
But if Europeans and Asians are honest, they will recognize that for all its flaws, the U.S. economy is a more open one. Washington has a right to be nasty with Europeans that have flagrantly violated the spirit, if not the letter, of four WTO rulings on bananas. The U.S. has risen to the challenge of helping East Asians export their way out of trouble, by allowing its trade deficit to more than double to $280 billion. Europeans, to their common disgrace, have continued to run a trade surplus of $100 billion. At least Japan, a country with the deepest recession of any OECD country since the end of the war, has a good excuse for its $100 billion-or-so trade surplus. Europe’s cowardly failure to reform the CAP not only delays membership in the EU for new European democracies, but makes it harder for all emerging-market countries to prosper in the free market. In short, it is the U.S. that has ensured that the meanest dog in the economic crisis has not barked — the one with the name “protectionism” on its collar.
Even in terms of ideological and cultural power, the U.S. leads by default. The French government complains about U.S. cultural dominance, but it fought hard to host Euro-Disney. The rivalry between Shanghai and Hong Kong for a new Asia-Disney borders on the comical. Amid an economic crisis that was supposed to have triggered an Asian backlash against the haughty U.S., there seems to be fierce competition to provide a home for an icon of American capitalism.
Still, despite the undoubted obligation to be grateful for U.S. power, it would clearly be much better if others had some influence over how that power was exercised. Europeans, with their creation of a single currency, have shown they understand that getting one’s own house in order is one way to get the Americans to pay attention. Similarly, only when Japan returns to growth can it be anything more than a supplicant at the top tables. Europeans risk becoming more like Japan if Germany’s failure to engage in structural economic reform retards growth in the euro-zone as a whole.
Standing up to the U.S. and keeping it honestly committed to open multilateralism requires Europeans and Asians to be far more successful at home. Until they spend more on defense and can deploy their own forces beyond their homes, the U.S. will treat them as second-class citizens. Until their economies are as open and successful as the U.S. economy, there will be a natural tendency to dismiss their complaints. And until Europe or Asia reaches out to global culture markets, the Americans, sadly, will have the field of dreams to themselves.
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