Nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, foreign-policy pundits are still struggling to give a name to the post-cold war world. That they have so far failed is just as well. For the problems and challenges the next administration faces may be as different from the last decade’s as the post-cold war world was from the cold war era. That’s bad news for policy-makers in Washington, many of whom have grown accustomed to the easy dominance the United States has enjoyed over the past decade.
Despite a bumbling start, the Clinton Administration has made hegemony look easy. It is remarkable how little the United States has had to sacrifice to support its dominant position in the world. Over the past decade, US foreign assistance, for instance, has fallen to a pitiful 0.1 percent of GDP, the lowest of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even its military spending has declined to a modest 3 percent of GDP, the lowest level in fifty years. Of course, the United States still maintains a vast military capability, but it is increasingly unwilling to risk American lives in its use, as its conduct in the Balkans amply illustrated.
In addition to bearing burdens for world security, dominant great powers generally export capital to the world, investing in the infrastructure and industries of less developed countries. At the height of its power, in 1913, Britain exported capital on a scale equal to 9 percent of its GDP per annum, financing much of the infrastructure of the United States, Canada, Australia and Argentina. By contrast, the United States sucks in capital not just from Europe and Japan but also from capital-poor emerging economies, to the tune of 4 percent of US GDP.
In the 1980s scholars like Yale University historian Paul Kennedy warned of American overstretch–the tendency of US commitments to outstrip the domestic economic base. Today, there is hardly any stretch at all. Indeed, the problem is under-stretch. Washington has continued to proclaim ambitious world-order goals but has rarely offered any resources or effort in support of those goals. Even the Administration’s more important international initiatives–NATO enlargement, NAFTA and world financial liberalization–have been done on the cheap.
In its rhetoric Washington has indeed sounded like a crusading hyperpower, about which the French have warned. In reality it has more often acted like a comfortable status quo power, and it has been out of step with other democracies on most progressive causes, unwilling to sign the treaties to ban landmines and to establish the International Criminal Court, and unable to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change.
What Washington has lacked in commitment and leadership, however, it has often made up for in public relations and spin. Clinton & Co. have proved particularly adept at claiming credit for international developments for which they have had only marginal responsibility and at assigning blame to others when things have gone wrong.