June 3, 2002

Absent Dangers:
Forgotten 'threats'

Just before the US presidential election, a much trailed collection of essays on foreign policy, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy, was published in October 2000 – edited by Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol. To save you time (and money) I'll sum this book up in a sentence: American power is unrivalled, except that Bill Clinton has squandered it and trillions are needed to rebuild it; it threatens no-one, yet everyone nasty is allying against it; and, this hegemony is, unlike all previous (and, coincidentally, non-American) ones, virtuous because it's the realisation of universal values, but ... those values must never be realised by universal bodies, rather one particular nation-state must tend to them. That said, you may wish to read Present Danger for yourself since it's the most important book of the year, conceivably of the decade.

Or at least it will be if Dubya retreats from the war circumstance has got him into, and returns to those his yapping Poindexters would have him involved in. For within these covers is a guidebook to Weltmachtpolitik by the keenest advocates of American empire: the 'Vulcans'. This group, related, writing for one another's publications, sitting on each others boards, form the neo-con vanguard for Republican thinking on foreign policy. And their thoughts are quite explicit – America is top nation, should stay top nation, and will do, only if they, rather than the wet Foggy Bottom State Department establishment favoured by Bush père, chart the course. The question to ask of this book is, are the Vulcans in fact the only people who could possibly dissolve American power?

That of course there is a real and present danger to American power is the book's purpose. Yet

it has no name. It is not to be found in any single strategic adversary. It does not fit neatly under [any one] heading ... the ubiquitous post-Cold War question – where is the threat? – is misconceived. Rather, the present danger is that the United States, the world's dominant power on whom the maintenance of international peace and the support of liberal democratic principles depends, will shirk its responsibilities and – in a fit of absentmindedness, or parsimony, or indifference – allow the international order that it created and sustains to collapse.

So we can dispense with high falutin' talk of 'values' and what have you: what is at stake is the system, or to put it another way, American pre-eminence. And it is in this light that specific irritants were viewed by Present Danger, most notably, Iraq, China and Europe. Golly, it all seems so long ago.

Saddam gives us a good flavour of what world governance by Vulcans would mean. Vulcanized history tells us that he should (because he could, easily) have been overthrown in 1991. That he wasn't proves that prevention is better than cure, Iraq now being a colossal problem for 'the West' (a popular synonym for, unilateral pursuit of US interests). Like many of the other dangers in this book, 'Iraq: world threatening nightmare' is a point at best unproven. Indeed, 'Saddam, the ongoing Western success story' seems an easier tale to tell. After all, what is the Western interest in the Middle East? Energy, obviously enough. And how best is that end obtained? why, by maintaining paramountcy over regional clients. States which are notoriously weak, unstable regimes. And how best to herd such sheep? well what could be more convenient than having a (toothless) wolf to hand? Remove Saddam and the Middle East would resemble North America after the French were ejected – the locals might start getting all sorts of silly ideas.

Still, all that amounts to is what Clintonians abused Vulcans for (when neo-cons were abusing that President, rather than this one), namely being a load of 'geo-baloney'. Surely China is a much more open and shut case: a bad thing, made worse by the bungling of the then outgoing administration? Well again, what is China's great crime? The essay on the people's republic is written by Ross Munro, who for the sake of context, we should note is the author of The Coming Conflict with China. That certainly seemed likely if the Vulcans had gotten their way. But, even the inept habit of bombing their embassies, or landing spyplanes on their airbases, hasn't provoked them yet.

China causes Vulcan hysteria because she is held to be a 'rising power', i.e., her great crime is that she might threaten the unimpeded exercise of US primacy. This leads to lunacy such as Munro's fear that, taking advantage of Clinton's lingering presence [in late 2000], Beijing might have been about to invade Taiwan before Dubya arrived on the scene. He's no better on the past either – when the US successfully quietened Chinese rumbling over Taiwan in 1996 by deploying two carrier battle groups, Munro's version of diplomacy is that the White House was at fault for not, in the process, overtly humiliating Beijing. This attitude is madness twice over. First of all, if China attains a certain regional pre-eminence this is neither despicable in and of itself (it is after all what the Vulcans wish to preserve for the US), nor, if attained, fatal to US interests. But far, far more important is the second reason: if the Chinese want to achieve it, America can't stop them. The worst thing about Vulcan strategy over China is not that it would drag the US into a worthless war, but a worthless war that the US would lose. If the Vulcans think that the US could win a land war in east Asia, which is what the goal of denying forever Chinese local hegemony there would entail, then, crikey.

Our Vulcan friends are though aware of this failing in the American people: their current unwillingness to bear the white man's burden. Hence James W Caesar (and not Milner or Curzon or Rhodes or a Lawrence) sums up the imperial mission statement by reminding his fellow countrymen, 'this is what it means to be on top. The challenge we face is to learn how to command, and no challenge is harder for a democratic people'. Which brings us to 'leadership'. This is a very good thing which the US benevolently dishes out to the rest of us (don't even ask if you can decline it, nurse knows best). That American interests, rather than guff about democracy qua democracy, accounts for why America should remain an empire, we have only to look to Vulcan attitudes to other democracies.

Europe, to the Vulcan, needs US leadership, yet, Europeans are 'always happy to see American influence decline'. This isn't true, quite the reverse. I think here Vulcans are projecting onto Europeans what they would feel if they found themselves in similar positions of tutelage. In truth Europeans are junkies for American leadership – the Foreign Office, without a regular fix, goes into a  zombie-like trance, interrupted only by attacks of the shakes, until it scores some more. The US is happy to see this dependency culture continue for the very simple reason that, if a peer-competitor to the US is going to emerge any time soon, it's far more likely in Western Europe, than amongst the assorted loser-states the Vulcans affect to fret about.

Tying everything together (alongside some historically illiterate Jiang-as-the-new-Kaiser weirdness) was the core Vulcan issue, National Missile Defence. NMD, as well as being always profitable to talk about, embodies every Vulcan flaw: it is predicated on the fantasy that the US spends too little on defence; it presumes the enmity of others (whilst thereby contributing to it); and, like so much else advocated in Present Danger, it won't work. The nightmare scenario, as I have said before, is that one day it might (if the US doesn't bankrupt herself in the trying) because that will free America to act towards the nuclear armed, the way she currently acts towards the nuclear free. That opportunity will spell the end of American empire, and whether or not that institution is a good or a bad thing, the people responsible for killing it will be those who love it most, our pointy-eared pals.

Present Dangers was obsessed by a war with Iraq that the people who'll actually have to fight it can't see the point of, the Europeans being feeble minded saps because, er, they wouldn't do what they were told, and a sick, sick urge to talk up a fight with China that even her Communist dictatorship doesn't willingly contemplate. Wrong in just about every regard, the contributors, including Messrs. Perle, Gerecht, Friedberg, Abrams, Wolfowitz, Bill Bennett (I'd sooner ask the cat for his opinion on Bismarck's pensions policy, as Bill Bennett on foreign policy), and as many Kagans as you can shake a stick at, and now they're bringing their vast, predictive and analytical skills to the 'war on terror'. For the moment, America will keep on fighting wars, and winning them, because she keeps picking fights with losers. If these clowns gain the ascendancy they want over the administration, sooner rather than later, America will end up picking a fight with a winner.

Text-only printable version of this article

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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