The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

2.1 Making America safe from the world; making the world safe for America

So what do the challenges outlined in the previous section tell us about America’s ability to reshape international order, either by altering the balance of coercive power or through pursuing mutual aims with other states? In fact, taken together with a series of longer-run tendencies, these problems help to pose in particularly sharp relief a central dilemma that has faced US strategists since the end of the Second World War – the fact that measures taken to strengthen the international system in America’s interest inevitably strengthen its competitors and weaken its relative power. What do we mean by this?

On the one hand, a steady diffusion of economic power has been both an inevitable outcome of processes of economic development brought about by the expansion of the capitalist world economy, and an explicit guiding ambition of US foreign policy. That is, the United States has consistently sought to promote economic development, including, inevitably, catch-up development by other states, in key parts of the rest of the capitalist world. This was precisely the intent of American efforts to rebuild Western Europe and Japan after the Second World War, for example. On the other hand, the effect of this long-term relative diminishing of US economic leadership means that the United States would, accordingly, be unable to contain or limit a wider diffusion of political power: the promotion of economic development thus created the possibility of political challengers to the USA. As a general, underlying strategic reality, this paradox has prompted two main responses from the USA and a persistent tension within US foreign policy.

One response, clearly, has been strenuous efforts to sustain military pre-eminence over other liberal powers and especially in relation to potential rivals outside the liberal core, as well as to sustain, as far as it could, the vitality of its own economy. Such efforts have been stimulated by the need to make America ‘safe’ from international threats, and to protect the American ‘way of life’ and domestic order from outside. This impulse has underlain isolationist politics in the United States for some time.

However, a different impulse has been to make the world ‘safe’ for an America whose power was sure to diminish, by seeking to transform the international order. This latter response sought to square the circle by ensuring the safety of the USA and its way of life through a project of making the rest of the world more open to American values. On this view – the dominant one in US foreign policy from the Second World War onwards – the USA’s project for international order meant a project of economic expansion, diffusion and catch-up by other countries, and a political project of changing the internal characteristics of other leading states and, as far as possible, ensuring that other states’ engagements with the international economic and political system were broadly liberal. Indeed, it is precisely because relative economic decline has been seen as inevitable, and that dominance will eventually pass, that the imperative to transform the rest of the world in an American direction has been so strong. While Obama’s declaration that ‘we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals’ spoke most obviously to the relationship between civil liberties and security, it can also be read as part of a wider and long-standing view of US strategic interests. For example, President Truman declared that the ‘American system’ could only survive by becoming ‘a world system’ (cited in Fergusson, 2004, p.80); or as James Warburg put it, American citizens ‘are willing to become citizens of the world, but only if this becomes an extension of the United States’ (cited in Prestowitz, 2003, p.117). There has thus been a persistent tension within American foreign policy, as Barry Buzan put it, ‘between proselytising to remake international society in its own image and preserving its own purity against foreign corruption’ (Buzan, 2004, p.157).

This discussion of America’s project for transforming international order raises a number of further general questions that we need to address before analysing the more specific contours of the USA’s contemporary foreign policy. First, the idea of an American project for international order should alert us to the uniqueness of America as a pre-eminent power: it is motivated by a particular understanding of itself and its place in the world. Second, the idea of a power being in the position to transform international order, and transform the political character of other states in that order, draws us into considerations of the ways in which the USA is an imperial power. We therefore now need to unpick both of these, by looking at ‘Americanism’ and ‘empire’ in a little more depth.

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