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August 24, 2001

Answering the 'Wolfowitz (Bush) Doctrine' on American Empire


by Jon Basil Utley

As Washington and China face military confrontation, an Australian has warned Americans about how the British Empire lasted so long.

"England," observes Editor Owen Harries in the Spring 2001 National Interest ("Anglosphere Illusion"), "was the only hegemon that did not attract a hostile coalition against itself. It avoided that fate by showing great restraint, prudence and discrimination in the use of its power in the main political arena by generally standing aloof and restricting itself to the role of balancer of last resort. In doing so it was heeding the warning given it by Edmund Burke, just as its era of supremacy was beginning: 'I dread our own power and our own ambition. I dread being too much dreaded.'"

Notes Harries, "I believe the United States is now in dire need of such a warning."

Instead of understanding the limits to its power, however, America is forging a world alliance against itself. Russia is now allying with China and India and Iran against American hegemony. Much, if not most, of the Muslim world fears and hates American policies, if not Americans. Europe is going neutral and America's Asian allies want no part in a conflict between China and America. New embassies are built like Star Wars' fortresses and the US Navy has fearfully cut back shore leave in much of the world. And now a multi-billion dollar missile shield is sought to protect America mainly from all the new enemies it is making for itself.

How did the "world's only super power" become so isolated and fearful?

The "Wolfowitz Doctrine" is named for the No. 2 man at the Defense Department and key Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld confidant, Paul Wolfowitz, former director of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, known for his support of NATO expansion and the attack on Serbia.

As the New York Times explained it, the Wolfowitz Doctrine argues that America's political and military mission should be to "ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge. With its focus on this concept of benevolent domination by one power, the Pentagon document articulates the clearest rejection to date of collective internationalism." Its core thesis, described by Ben Wattenberg in the April 12, Washington Times, is "to guard against the emergence of hostile regional superpowers, for example, Iraq or China. America is No. 1. We stand for something decent and important. That's good for us and good for the world. That's the way we want to keep it."

Even though there is truth to the claim of Americans' fundamental decency, since Athenian times democracies have been woefully unable to run empires. American foreign policy is made by Congress in response to sensationalist TV news and domestic ethnic voting blocks, not with a view to national interests, but rather in response to the short term need for money and votes for the next election. That is the reason many foreigners see American military interventions as inconsistent and hypocritical. Most American don t care about foreign policy. Consequently it is controlled by the few who do care.

Imagine how long the Roman empire would have lasted if there had been a Visigoth or Egyptian lobby pushing its agenda on Roman foreign policy. The Roman Empire resulted in the end of the Roman republic and freedom. The English empire failed when the electoral franchise grew so much that new voters could thwart the elites' rule. Still, many American conservatives who argue that government can't even properly run a nursery have fallen for the concept that it can run the world.

Further confusing American interests, there are also elements in Washington that look at real or imagined threats abroad with great favor. The old military-industrial complex has grown to become the overwhelming military-industrial-congressional establishment. Its power is reflected by the difficulty of closing unnecessary bases and the wasteful weapons purchasing process, as evidenced by ordering weapons before they are fully tested, e.g. the ill-fated Osprey helicopter, manufactured in 42 states and congressional districts.

Yet we imagine wars without casualties, with exciting "bang-bang" for evening TV, and with no hurtful consequences for our interests. Foreigners are not going to oblige us, but more likely will wage wars of terrorism from unknown quarters, possibly even with horrendous biological weapons currently being developed.

Ruling the world is not even a "conservative" position. "It is a policy" writes William Ruger for Reason Magazine ("Foreign Policy Folly,"June 2001), "that will threaten rather than preserve many of America's traditional values, such as individual liberty, small government and anti-militarism. As has been pointed out by a number of historians, war and preparing for war are the soils that nurture the growth of state power, burdensome taxation, conscription, and militarism. If American conservatism should stand for anything, it should be the goal of limited government. Yet the primacist policies offered here guarantee the opposite: a leviathan." The first cost of empire will be the loss of many of our own freedoms. The second will be our prosperity. Empires are expensive.

Many conservatives are showing a passion for confrontation with China. Answering those "crying Wolfowitz," Craig Smith pointed out in the New York Times (May 15), that China and Taiwan are actually thriving together economically -- not the image one gets from those who want confrontation. This anti-China sentiment is comparable to anti-German belligerence in England before World War I, when street demonstrations demanded war. The desire of American hawks to "contain" China resembles England's efforts to prevent Germany from gaining its "place in the sun." England's "Wolfowitz Doctrine" led to the end of the British Empire, even though England "won" the war. Not coincidentally, during the half-century after 1914, most Englishmen lived in poverty.

To preserve our own freedoms and best serve the rest of the world, our foreign policy should be noninterventionist, non-threatening and non-militaristic. With economic strength and a politics of fairness and nonintervention, we can prosper and keep our own freedom. America is simply incapable of any other consistent foreign policy. America should be a beacon, because it can't be a competent policeman.


Jon Basil Utley is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A former correspondent for Knight/Ridder in South America, Mr. Utley has written for the Harvard Business Review about Latin American nationalism and for Insight Magazine, on preparation for terrorist threats.


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  • Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative and Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A former correspondent for Knight Ridder in South America, Utley has written for the Harvard Business Review on foreign nationalism and was for 17 years a commentator on the Voice of America. He is director of Americans Against World Empire.

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