The Limits to American Ambition

Hampton directed my attention to these two Francis Fukuyama pieces, one in the WaPo, the other in the FT. I agree with Fukuyama’s two main points from the WaPo, namely that efforts to generalize some sort of autocratic era are pointless, and that the varied autocratic states that do exist are in many ways bound by the globalized system in ways that the ideological autocracies of the 20th century weren’t. They can only go so far, as the headline puts it, although Fukuyama offers the caveat of resource scarcity as a potential driver of conflict.

I wonder, though, if his optimism isn’t undercut by the argument he makes in the FT piece, namely that the Russian invasion of Georgia, in the context of America’s recent posture towards Russia, demonstrates that America must learn to limit its global ambitions:

The past two US administrations could assume American hegemony in both economics and security. The next administration cannot, and a critical task will be for it to better balance what we want with what we can realistically achieve.

I don’t think the threat is necessarily a Russian resurgence so much as a gathering recognition, in the aftermath of the Georgian invasion, that the emperor has no clothes: in the absence of U.S. power serving as guarantor for the multilateral system, military force, if used in a limited way for limited goals, can be successfully applied. Of course, not every country enjoys the kind of immunity (a UN veto and energy revenues to render sanctions meaningless, and a nuclear deterrent to render military reprisal unlikely) that Russia does. But if countering American and/or EU ambitions becomes a widespread priority, the global governance system can be pretty easily frustrated.

On a side note, Fukuyama mentions the Polish-based missile defense system in his FT piece, which gives me an excuse to mention a thought that’s occurred to me a few times recently. The American response to Russia’s concerns was in part that the system, which consists of only ten missiles, could be easily overwhelmed by a massive Russian launch. But the logical flaw of that argument is that it removes any sort of graduated deterrence from a Russian strategic calculation. There’s a difference between launching one, three or five ICBM’s and launching a couple hundred, and as horrific as the thought is, that doesn’t keep military strategists from considering it. Whatever role Kosovo and the ABM system actually played in Russia’s return to bellicosity, they strike me as a very shortsighted bargains.

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