Haiti and the Constraints of American Hegemony

There’s been a lot of speculation about the mid- to long-term impact on U.S. foreign policy of the Haiti earthquake and America’s response to it. I was surprised to see how quickly the assumptions turned sour. Already last Friday, I participated in a France 24 program in which one analyst had already identified Haiti as a long-term — and major — problem for President Barack Obama, along the lines of waging the Afghanistan war and winding down the Iraq war.

My sense is that this is a bit overblown. The unfolding operation in Haiti is a stability operation, not a counterinsurgency. It will certainly be undermined by pockets of local lawlessness, but it will not come under fire by a resistance movement organized around ethnic, national or ideological lines. Unlike either Iraq or Afghanistan, Haiti has a lengthy recent history of American and multinational troop presence. The Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeeping force is likely to be ramped up with an EU contingent, meaning that in the mid-term future, the operation’s U.S. “face” will be able to take a lower profile. The U.S. will also be able to be ramp down its presence more quickly, due to the fact that Haiti’s proximity makes it possible to redeploy tactically, as opposed to strategically.

So, yes, efforts to stabilize and reconstruct the country will be a mid- to long-term challenge, probably along the lines of what Kevin Drum suggested, but not necessarily a domestic political problem, nor a foreign policy albatross.

What I find more revealing about the Haiti response is the degree to which U.S. policymakers felt they had no choice in the matter. For any number of reasons, they were right — certainly with regards to the humanitarian intervention, and most likely with regards to the subsequent reconstruction efforts. That reflects, in part, the responsibilities inherent in the role of global hegemon, and it underscores a paradox we’d do well to consider. Iraq and Afghanistan have already demonstrated the limits of military force, in particular, and American power more generally. And Haiti itself is a testament to the limits of nation-building. And yet, despite the near-certainty that results will be disappointing, we have no choice but to act.

To paraphrase Madeleine Albright, What good is global hegemony if we have no choice but to use it?

That underscores what is perhaps the most significant long-term strategic objective of the Obama administration’s foreign policy shift — namely, the need to redistribute global responsibilities in order to lighten the burden borne by U.S. power. There’s still a lot to be accomplished in terms of buy-in, both domestically, in terms of those who continue to advocate for American primacy, and abroad, among “freeloaders,” happy to enjoy the benefits of global stability but reluctant to share the costs.

But as Haiti also illustrates, “the Rising Rest” — and in particular Brazil and China — now find themselves bound by the same constraints, albeit on a lesser scale. Due to global expectations, failure to act, for both, would cost more in terms of soft power than actual failure.

The comparison remains a limited one, because neither Brazil nor China will “own” the Haitian reconstruction effort to the same degree that the U.S. will (and currently does in any number of hot spots around the world). But the precedent is significant. The fact that Brazil is already on the ground in its peacekeeping role makes sending more troops that much more likely. And just five years after the Indonesian tsunami, China’s ability and willingness to respond to a humanitarian disaster halfway around the world will only increase expectations for participation in subsequent reconstruction efforts and future stability operations.

Obama’s response to the Haiti relief efforts has been compared through the domestic political lens to President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. I think the more instructive comparison, though, is the one between the coalitions of the willing — broadly defined — that each man sought to enlist, and their purposes.