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Phonies & Freeloaders

The American Empire will end with a whine, not with a bang.

By 2.5.06

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The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the Twenty-First Century
by Michael Mandelbaum
(Public Affairs, 283 pages, $26)

One of the more valuable lessons history teaches is that the world -- and not just individual nations -- requires a strong leader. Traditionally that's been the role of empire. The Romans were there to relieve the Ancient Greeks, and as the sun went down on Britannia the Americans -- to exhaust the sports metaphor--stepped up to the plate. Nature, the saying goes, abhors a vacuum and the void left by the fall of 5th century Rome resulted in a thousand years of darkness and chaos.

Never has the role of world leader been more vital than in this transformational period of porous borders, nuclear proliferation and globalization, suggests Michael Mandelbaum in his new book The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the Twenty-First Century.

Mandelbaum, professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, argues that the U.S. has become by default the world's government, and a good deal of that government's responsibility is to maintain order, provide security, dispense aid, and offer humanitarian relief, both financially and militarily. The American people, however, wear the cap of world leader uneasily. Largely because it is not a role that America auditioned for, but one destiny thrust upon it. There has always been a segment of its population -- isolationists, libertarians, liberals -- that has resisted this role. And because America is a humanitarian, and not a traditional controlling, looting empire, it is particularly susceptible to the gibes and criticisms of its allies. Americans, says Mandelbaum, are always mindful of the world's "conviction that the United States misuses its enormous power in ways that threaten the stability of the international system." Some Americans would no doubt agree.

Unlike the modus operandi of traditional imperial powers, the U.S. tends to intervene in countries (most recently Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan) that possess no strategic or economic value. (The exception being Iraq.) And the intervention is almost always for humanitarian reasons and often to assist Muslim peoples.

The gist of Mandelbaum -- if I read him correctly -- is that our allies are a bunch of phonies and freeloaders, who delight in criticizing the U.S., yet have no interest in counterbalancing American power. Of course they don't, since the EU, China, and Russia understand that the U.S. is not wielding its power in ways that threaten anyone but the bad guys. "Widespread complaints about the United States' international role are met with an absence of concrete, effective measures to challenge, change, or restrict it," the author notes.

Nor can Mandelbaum avoid the inevitable, enigmatic question: "Why do they hate us?" Some hate America because it is a convenient scapegoat for their inept and thieving governing. Some blame the U.S. for the changing global economy and its resultant dislocations. While others -- were they to acknowledge America's global role and everything they benefit from it -- fear they will be seen as the deadbeats they are and might be asked to fit some of the bill.

The world may resent Goliath, Mandelbaum argues, but it has no desire to bring him down, for "[t]he consequences of less [U.S.] governance are not likely to be pleasant." Besides, without the U.S. who will keep world order? Who will provide security and economic stability? Who will supply aid to feed starving Zimbabweans and keep Haiti afloat? Who will check the proliferation of nuclear weapons? The UN Security Counsel with its members' conflicting interests? (Recall how Russian intransigence helped its allies the Bosnian Serbs continue their acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing.) Imagine the shock to world money markets if tomorrow there were no U.S. dollar. Or the trauma to oil markets if the U.S. Navy stopped policing Atlantic and Pacific shipping routes. Without the American consumer the economies of Japan, China, South Korea would tank instantly. International loans, and loan forgiveness? Forgetaboutit!

OCCASIONALLY MANDELBAUM makes the U.S. sound like the kid who threatens to take his ball and go home if the rest of the world keeps making fun of it:

"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."

Due to the troubles in Iraq (or the media's portrayal of them anyway) and recent Palestinian elections, democracy-promotion has become less and less popular with Americans. Nor has the U.S. had a great record at nation-building or humanitarian intervention (think Somalia, Haiti). As a result more and more Americans are growing weary of playing global governor and being mocked and despised for their pains. Ultimately the American masses will be the arbiter of the United States' foreign policy, and with the looming retirement crisis Mandelbaum predicts the public will demand its money remain at home. "Social Security and Medicare, not the rise of China, pose the greatest threat to America's role as the world's government." It is this attitude, not some barbarian invasion or interior decadence, that will cause America to withdraw from the world stage. And once that happens America's foreign critics will long for the good old days of the "American Empire."

Mandelbaum sums up the prospect of a reduced international presence succinctly: "They will not pay for it; they will continue to criticize it; and they will miss it when it is gone." On the other hand, a few terrorist attacks could find the American people restructuring their priorities yet again.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.