REVIEW: Article

American Power in a Challenging World

Americans are hopeful people. We prefer looking forward to looking back. But as we move into the third year of the war on terror, we face a myriad of international challenges that give us cause to take stock. What are the gravest challenges in the current international environment? What can we do to meet these challenges and make the United States (US)—and the world—more secure? How should we wield American power in this moment of unprecedented American preeminence? 

Important progress has been made against terrorism since 9/11. The Taliban has been removed from power and a new government established in Afghanistan. About two thirds of al-Qaeda’s leadership has been captured or killed. Terrorist safe-havens and training camps have been destroyed, some $200 million in terrorist financing has been seized, and global action has made the world less hospitable to terrorist activity. Separately, the removal of Saddam Hussein holds open the promise that Iraq, and the Middle East, could have a new birth of stability and increased liberty.

But much is troubling. Osama bin Laden is still at large and his militant ideology is spreading. Al-Qaeda has proven to be a potent decentralized force, and terrorists have struck in places as diverse as Jakarta, Casablanca, Bali, Moscow, Riyadh, Mombassa, and—increasingly—Baghdad. Iraq is mired in daily violence, the Israelis and Palestinians are entrenched in hostilities, North Korea has likely acquired a nuclear weapons capability and Iran may follow suit. Troubling divisions have arisen between the US and our traditional allies over these and other issues, and anti-Americanism is on the rise around the world. At home, many Americans are fearful and uncertain about terrorism and the international environment.

This is the paradox of American power: the US towers above the world as never before, but Americans have never been more vulnerable. We have unquestioned global military dominance and enjoy clear economic leadership; but on many transnational issues—notably international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—we live in a world only a step or two short of chaos. How do we use our power to remedy this paradox, and achieve a world that is not threatened by violence and turmoil?

The short answer is that we must be, and must be seen as, a benign power. That is not so easy in a dangerous world. We are right to be concerned about new threats, and we must be willing to act in defense of our own interests and security. But to win the war on terrorism, stem weapons proliferation, and maintain international leadership, American power must be accompanied by American partnership.

If we are to be followed and not simply feared, we must forge a consensus approach towards a world of peace, growth and freedom. This means combating more than threats to our security; it means combating the roots of insecurity around the world—poverty, mistrust, extremism, repression and chaos. Our challenge is to let the people of the world know that we act on behalf of values that bring about the full flowering of individuals, and the full potential of whole populations. Other countries should see that they and their people gain from working with the United States.

A benign American foreign policy does not mean the US eschews the use of force. We must on occasion be a tough power, and Americans have always been prepared to intervene militarily when faced with certain dangerous threats—a tyrant like Milosevic or a sponsor of terror like the Taliban. But to succeed against terrorism, we must understand the limits of military power.

We cannot defeat terror by occupying an enemy’s capital. Terrorists are widely disbursed and rely on networks that are far more informal than traditional armies. They feed on insecurity and instability, and wars evoke suffering and passions and unintended consequences that add to the list of terrorist grievances. That is why when we do act we must be sure to leave better nations and lives behind. If we want our interests to thrive—in Afghanistan or Iraq—we must have the political will to stay the course and pay the costs.

To succeed in our global campaign against terror, we must pursue non-military steps with the same vigor that we wage war. We need a comprehensive strategy that balances diplomacy, intelligence, law-enforcement, and financial measures with our military and covert actions. Americans should not bear these burdens alone. Terrorism is a global problem and al-Qaeda is in more than eighty countries. We should reach out for support and cooperation from around the world.

What does that mean? It means joint law-enforcement operations to root out al- Qaeda; sharing intelligence to prevent attacks on our own shores and beyond; working with foreign governments, charities and banks to cut off resources that enable terrorist activity; providing aid and training to countries cracking down on terrorism within their borders; and aggressive diplomacy that establishes an international environment that rejects any form of terrorism as acceptable political activity. Terrorism must be seen as an illegitimate and illegal exercise. To achieve this, we must lead diplomatic, legal, intelligence and financial coalitions—military operations alone will not do.

We should lead a global effort to counter the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Strong international nonproliferation regimes—both legal and moral—are necessary. Military preemption may sometimes be justified, but it should not be the primary tool of nonproliferation. Other tools include security assurances; economic initiatives; early warning systems; verification and enforcement mechanisms; export controls; and inspections. We should also expand cooperative programs to help Russia dismantle nuclear weapons and nuclear production sites. Deficiencies in arms agreements do not require their abandonment. On the contrary, we must now forge stronger nonproliferation regimes.

We should be at the forefront of the pursuit of peace in the world’s most intractable conflicts: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and the crisis on the Korean peninsula. An energetic, international, American-led effort to address these seething conflicts could contribute to global stability and the security of billions of people, while enhancing the world’s perception of American power. Our attitude should be that peace is possible if we engage, work with international partners, and invest political will in finding solutions.

We should lead the process of economic development in the world. Economic integration grows our own economy while helping the developing world, tightening the bond among countries and spreading American values through the marketplace. To lead in this process, we must open our own markets to goods from developing countries, push for new trade agreements; invest abroad and make American capitalism a model that the world can look up to.

We should also increase foreign aid to reduce poverty and gross inequities around the world. Americans should be at the forefront of building markets, feeding the poor, fighting disease, and educating foreign students. Aid, given under appropriate circumstances, can improve relations, build the civil society and infrastructure of nations, and combat transnational problems like HIV/AIDS and the migration of peoples. By insisting that recipients of aid meet certain standards of accountability in governance and market reform, we can provide powerful incentives for nations to reform and improve the lives of their people.

Finally, Americans must address the widening rift between the US and the world’s Muslims. Many Americans are frustrated with continued violence in the Islamic world; many Muslims feel that they are being targeted by American power. But a clash of civilizations is in nobody’s interest. The violence in Iraq and Afghanistan only heightens the urgency to roll back mistrust and bitterness. Aggressive efforts are needed to explain America’s values and best intentions, while dissuading misperceptions and fear.

Islam is not a monolith. There is a war of ideologies within the Islamic world. We should stand with and strengthen those who speak for moderation, tolerance and democracy, while discrediting radicals who preach hate and rigid fundamentalism. We are not getting this right. We should put more emphasis on promoting economic liberalization and education; invest more in public diplomacy to explain our values; sustain our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq; and pursue the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. America’s message to the Islamic world should be clear: we stand against extremism and terror, and we stand with the forces for democracy, human rights and opportunity.

This is an ambitious agenda for American power. Unprecedented challenges abound, but opportunities for a world integrating in peace and prosperity are abundant. This would not be a task for Americans alone—we are stronger, and our problems are smaller, when we act with allies. Our own past teaches us this. It was our ingenuity in helping to create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United Nations and international monetary institutions that enabled us to overcome the Cold War and reach our position of preeminence. The 21st century demands a similar approach—we are going to need help to build a more peaceful and democratic world.

In all we do, we must reflect our fundamental values. We are, and should be, the champions of freedom, democracy, free enterprise, human rights and the rule of law. We live in a world that is largely of our own making—the product of our ideas, our power, and, most of all, our optimistic and benign vision of a better life for all people. We should approach the world with this sense of optimism, and put forth a vision of American power that is good for Americans and the world.

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President, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars;
Vice Chairman, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks;
Member, United States House of Representatives, 1965-1999