February 6, 2006


David’s Friend Goliath: The rest of the world complains that American hegemony is reckless, arrogant, and insensitive. Just don’t expect them to do anything about it. The world’s guilty secret is that it enjoys the security and stability the United States provides. The world won’t admit it, but they will miss the American empire when it’s gone. (Michael Mandelbaum, January/February 2006, Foreign Policy)

The United States makes other positive contributions, albeit often unseen and even unknown, to the well-being of people around the world. In fact, America performs for the community of sovereign states many, though not all, of the tasks that national governments carry out within them.

For instance, U.S. military power helps to keep order in the world. The American military presence in Europe and East Asia, which now includes approximately 185,000 personnel, reassures the governments of these regions that their neighbors cannot threaten them, helping to allay suspicions, forestall arms races, and make the chances of armed conflict remote. U.S. forces in Europe, for instance, reassure Western Europeans that they do not have to increase their own troop strength to protect themselves against the possibility of a resurgent Russia, while at the same time reassuring Russia that its great adversary of the last century, Germany, will not adopt aggressive policies. Similarly, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which protects Japan, simultaneously reassures Japan’s neighbors that it will remain peaceful. This reassurance is vital yet invisible, and it is all but taken for granted.

The United States has also assumed responsibility for coping with the foremost threat to contemporary international security, the spread of nuclear weapons to “rogue” states and terrorist organizations. The U.S.-sponsored Cooperative Threat Reduction program is designed to secure nuclear materials and weapons in the former Soviet Union. A significant part of the technical and human assets of the American intelligence community is devoted to the surveillance of nuclear weapons-related activities around the world. Although other countries may not always agree with how the United States seeks to prevent proliferation, they all endorse the goal, and none of them makes as significant a contribution to achieving that goal as does the United States.

America’s services to the world also extend to economic matters and international trade. In the international economy, much of the confidence needed to proceed with transactions, and the protection that engenders this confidence, comes from the policies of the United States. For example, the U.S. Navy patrols shipping lanes in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, assuring the safe passage of commerce along the world’s great trade routes. The United States also supplies the world’s most frequently used currency, the U.S. dollar. Though the euro might one day supplant the dollar as the world’s most popular reserve currency, that day, if it ever comes, lies far in the future.

Furthermore, working through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United States also helps to carry out some of the duties that central banks perform within countries, including serving as a “lender of last resort.” The driving force behind IMF bailouts of failing economies in Latin America and Asia in the last decade was the United States, which holds the largest share of votes within the IMF. And Americans’ large appetite for consumer products partly reproduces on a global scale the service that the economist John Maynard Keynes assigned to national governments during times of economic slowdown: The United States is the world’s “consumer of last resort.” Americans purchase Japanese cars, Chinese-made clothing, and South Korean electronics and appliances in greater volume than any other people.

Just as national governments have the responsibility for delivering water and electricity within their jurisdictions, so the United States, through its military deployments and diplomacy, assures an adequate supply of the oil that allows industrial economies to run. It has established friendly political relations, and sometimes close military associations, with governments in most of the major oil-producing countries and has extended military protection to the largest of them, Saudi Arabia. Despite deep social, cultural, and political differences between the two countries, the United States and Saudi Arabia managed in the 20th century to establish a partnership that controlled the global market for this indispensable commodity. The economic well-being even of countries hostile to American foreign policy depends on the American role in assuring the free flow of oil throughout the world.

To be sure, the United States did not deliberately set out to become the world’s government. The services it provides originated during the Cold War as part of its struggle with the Soviet Union, and America has continued, adapted, and in some cases expanded them in the post-Cold War era. Nor do Americans think of their country as the world’s government. Rather, it conducts, in their view, a series of policies designed to further American interests. In this respect they are correct, but these policies serve the interests of others as well. The alternative to the role the United States plays in the world is not better global governance, but less of it—and that would make the world a far more dangerous and less prosperous place. Never in human history has one country done so much for so many others, and received so little appreciation for its efforts.

So those who dreamed of World Government got one--if not the one they wanted--and those who insist on American sovereignty kept it--even if we use it in the world more than they'd like. His metaphor still stinks though.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 6, 2006 6:28 AM
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