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The Washington Quarterly 25.2 (2002) 221-232

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Saved from Ourselves?

Michael J. Mazarr

Perhaps the central principle of the philosophy of world politics known as realism--and surely the best known--is the concept of the "balance of power," which is not so much an injunction as the description of an iron law. National powers tend to balance, the theory holds, because individual states seek their own interests. Imperialists are opposed and eventually undermined. The intended victims of hegemons band together in self-defense. Aggressive, intrusive displays of power are ultimately self-limiting and, if they become extreme enough, self-destroying.

Long before the cooperative security movement took root among liberal defense analysts in the 1970s, realists were the first to become obsessed with the security dilemma--the idea that one state's efforts to defend itself could be seen by others as aggressive. Accordingly, classical, balance-of-power realism urges a preoccupation with limits, restraint, and prudence rather than brash displays of force.

When several nations "are obliged to deal with one another, there are only two possible outcomes," Henry Kissinger wrote. "Either one state becomes so strong that it dominates all the others and creates an empire, or no state is ever quite powerful enough to achieve that goal. In the latter case, the pretensions of the most aggressive member of the international community are kept in check by a combination of the others, in other words, by the operation of a balance of power." 1 Even in a globalizing world, this basic principle remains true for Kissinger. Order, he insists, "will have to emerge much as it did in past centuries from a reconciliation and balancing of competing national interests." 2 [End Page 221]

Before September 11, the United States was the world's dominant power and hegemon in need of balancing. Peter Rodman, President George W. Bush's assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and formerly with the Nixon Center, wrote perceptively in 1999, "The extraordinary predominance that America now enjoys is a problem rather than a blessing. Most of the world's other major powers have made it into a central theme of their foreign policy to attempt to build counterweights to American power. This is, in fact, one of the main trends in international politics today." 3

This trend is abundantly evident in the articles in the summer 2001 "Through the Looking Glass" section of The Washington Quarterly. The underlying theme of most of those essays is that U.S. power--at least the pushy, globalizing, post-Cold War version of it--needs rejustification so that it will not become self-defeating. The question now, after September 11, is whether a tragic historical event will inspire the United States to achieve precisely this goal.

U.S. Power under Assault

A reaction to U.S. power was undoubtedly well underway before September 11. From European grumblings over allegedly high-handed U.S. behavior in NATO, to energetic Russian and Chinese statements and efforts to unseat U.S. leadership on key issues, to resentment in the Americas over U.S. demands to "certify" countries as adequate belligerents in the "war" on drugs, much of the world was lining up in opposition to U.S. values and policies in ways not before seen.

Rodman's 1999 monograph Uneasy Giant: The Challenges to American Predominance catalogued this process. He cited the German newsweekly Der Spiegel: "The Americans are acting, in the absence of limits put to them by anybody or anything, as if they own a blank check in their 'McWorld.' ... America is now the Schwarzenegger of international politics: showing off muscles, obtrusive, intimidating." Rodman described French foreign minister Hubert VĂ©drine's depiction of the United States as a "hyperpower." VĂ©drine said that, because "there is no counterweight" to U.S. strength, a "risk of hegemony" existed, requiring France to contribute "to the emergence of several poles in the world capable of being a factor of equilibrium." 4

The same line of thought runs through nearly all the essays in "Through the Looking Glass." Maria Claudia Drummond worries...


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