International Security 28.4 (2004) 197-216
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New Perspectives on American Grand Strategy
A Review Essay
Shortly after the end of the Cold War, a number of leading structural realists such as Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and Christopher Layne predicted that America's "unipolar moment" was likely to be short lived.1 Drawing on traditional balance of power theory, they suggested that America's unparalleled status as the world's only superpower would soon trigger widespread counterbalancing on the part of other major states. The policy implication was that Americans ought to play down their hegemonic pretensions and accommodate the inevitable transition toward a multipolar world order. Not only was a certain degree of strategic disengagement a policy prescription: It was the structural realist prediction for American grand strategy in the post-Cold War era.
One decade later, a multipolar world order has yet to appear. Granted, American foreign policy is widely resented abroad, and other countries are developing [End Page 197] new techniques with which to frustrate American preponderance.2 Yet great power balancing, in the traditional sense, has not occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and neither has the United States disengaged from its forward presence overseas. Instead, American forces are engaged in a remarkably ambitious project of nation building in Iraq, and the George W. Bush administration has openly adopted a national security strategy that centers on the assumption of American primacy.
Clearly, structural realist predictions of American decline or disengagement were premature. But the basic issue of an appropriate grand strategy for the United States remains unsettled. For more than ten years now, America has occupied a unique position in the international system as the world's predominant power. There is simply no precedent in the modern era for the successful exercise of worldwide, comprehensive, hegemonic influence on the part of any single state. Some observers feel that the United States cannot sustain such a role without either provoking great resistance or overextending its own resources.3 Others argue that this is precisely the moment to lock in a stable, liberal international order through the vigorous assertion of American power.4 The question arises as to how the United States can best promote its interests, as well as its values, internationally, without falling into the self-defeating behavior of so many previous would-be hegemons.
A cluster of recent books take up this question, shedding light on three interrelated conceptual issues. First, how can we use international relations theory to explain and predict patterns of adjustment in American grand strategy? Can realist variables such as the international distribution of power account for the basic outlines? Or are variables such as national identity and the density of international institutions actually a crucial influence on U.S. strategic behavior? Second, beyond the current war on terror, what sort of grand strategy would best serve American interests? What strategy would best serve American values? And third, is there something about America's distinctive use of liberal norms and institutions that allows the United States immunity from balance of [End Page 198] power logic? Might the United States, through a liberal internationalist grand strategy, avoid the fate of previous empires? Or is such a strategy an exercise in self-delusion?
In this essay, I compare and contrast a number of recent books on American grand strategy and evaluate their collective contribution to the field. In doing so, I suggest that there has been a...