The Self-Limiting Superpower


If the laws of physics apply to geopolitics, the U.S. empire will continue to march forward until met with an equal but opposite force. The Bush administration sees no such hindrances on the horizon. No matter that the Chinese outnumber us five to one, the European Union's economy nearly rivals ours, Russia still has nukes aplenty, or the "international community" routinely inveighs against our unilateral tendencies. The Chinese are more than a decade away from superpowerdom, the euro is not (yet) the international currency of choice, Russia can barely control domestic affairs much less circumstances beyond its borders, and the "international community," like the Pope, commands no divisions.

This preponderance of U.S. power and its largely unchecked exercise has, not surprisingly, generated a good deal of hostility and a lesser quantity of constructive suggestions. A limitless war on terrorism and the relentless targeting of one region after another for preemptive action make our allies uneasy, particularly when it involves their treasuries and their body bags. The French and Germans are pushing for a more multilateral approach in Iraq. The Russians are urging greater diplomatic adroitness in Iran. The South Koreans are pleading for a non-military solution to the standoff with North Korea.

Some of the recommendations are more far-reaching. Take, for instance, a recent comment by Janusz Onyszkiewicz. This former Polish foreign minister and a long time friend of America called on Washington to become a "self-limiting superpower."

The phrase "self-limiting" has particular resonance for the Poles. During the 1980s, Polish dissidents rallied around the concept of a "self-limiting revolution." The pragmatists in the immensely popular Solidarity trade union chose to avoid making maximal demands that might put the Polish communist government in the awkward position of "inviting" Soviet troops into the country to quell disorder. Although commanding the sympathies of the vast majority of the population -- and thus enjoying preponderant though largely unexercised power -- Solidarity recognized that its actions could have devastating consequences. It decided to pull its political punches and seek revolutionary change through evolutionary means.

Onyszkiewicz and others would no doubt like to see the current team in Washington return to their conservative roots and become reacquainted with the virtues of restraint. The Bush administration will not voluntarily absorb this particular Polish wisdom. The Soviet Union is no longer a threat, and no single country has taken its place. An ethos of restraint runs counter to the habits of empires, which rule by fear and force compared to the "soft power" of mere hegemons. And, perhaps most importantly, the Bush team subscribes to the two doctrines of American exceptionalism. They believe that America is an exception to such historical trends as the overreach and collapse of empires. They also believe that the exceptional American model should be the standard operating system for humanity -- imposed Microsoft-style if necessary.

If there is no significant external check on the imperial ambitions of the United States -- aside from those that arise from the sheer messiness of reality such as the sovereign aspirations of Iraqis or the impossibility of taking out North Korea's dispersed nuclear facilities with "surgical" strikes -- we must look elsewhere for the force that will establish limits. We must turn our gaze inward -- to the American public itself.

It is a bitter irony that the citizens of the most powerful country in the world -- and thus, indirectly, the shapers of U.S. foreign policy -- are notoriously ill-informed about the outside world. We don't speak foreign languages; we restrict our travel abroad to cloistered resorts; we get our information about the world, if at all, from magazines (Time, Newsweek) and evening TV news programs that have gradually cut back on foreign coverage. It is no surprise, then, that seven out of ten American citizens, according to a Washington Post poll, continue to erroneously connect the dots between Saddam and 9/11.

A slim majority of Americans still support the decision to go to war in Iraq. Whether out of ignorance or knowledge, however, Americans do not take a fancy to empire. As such, the limits of American empire will be set not in the sands of Iraq but in the ballot boxes of the American heartland.

According to a Pew Research Center poll from Sept. 23, a majority of Americans opposes the price tag for occupying Iraq (59 percent) and favors a significant role for the U.N. in rebuilding the country (70 percent). In a Pew poll from September 4, three-quarters of Americans believe we live in a more dangerous world two years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- this after billions spent on two wars, a significant increase in military spending overall, and a strong go-it-alone approach. In addition, according to a Newsweek poll from September, 70 percent of Americans believe that the cost of the war in Iraq is hurting the economy -- a linkage that will become all the more salient as the economy once again becomes the electoral issue.

In perhaps the most extensive tracking of American attitudes toward empire, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) discovered in February 2003 that only 12 percent of Americans think that the United States should "continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problem" compared to 76 percent who support working with other countries, a finding that was remarkably consistent over the previous two and a half years of Bush's tenure. In a subsequent April 2003 poll, PIPA found that a strong majority (62 percent) believes that the United States acts as world's policeman more often than it should. These poll results, coming before the costs of the Iraq war hit the headlines, suggest that a reluctance to assume the mantle of empire is not solely a pocketbook issue.

More critically, these polls reveal that the current leadership in Washington has lost sight of what 19th century presidents often described as "the affections of the people." As James Buchanan declared in his last state of the union address in 1860, "The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion.... If it cannot live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish." Our empire similarly rests upon public opinion, and the coercive powers currently deployed to remake the world in our own image can never enjoy the general affections of the American people.

The limits on American power will not be imposed by another imperial power nor will the scales fall from our leaders' eyes. We the people must impose and will impose these limits by ourselves.

That's not just what one Pole suggests. It's what all the polls suggest.

John Feffer is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories, 2003), and the editor of Power Trip: U.S. Unilateralism and Global Strategy after September 11.

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