Richard Reeves

It's Hard to Tell Where America Ends and the World Begins

NEW YORK -- From the left, the Defense Monitor tells me: "Never in the history of the world has one nation exercised the pre-eminent influence on world affairs which America has wielded in the 20th century, the American Century. ... Could this great power slip away, be thrown away, and the 21st century become the anti-American Century?"

From the right, the CATO Institute tells me: "The end of the Cold War has eliminated any justification for a dominant U.S. military role in East Asia. ... However, Washington intends not only to increase security ties with traditional military partners but also to extend them to previously irrelevant countries such as Laos and Mongolia."

From the center of power, President Clinton, speaking from Kosovo, told me: "If we can do this here ... we can then say to the people of the world, 'Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it is within our power to stop it, we will stop it."

Leaving aside the very real question of what the "this" was in Kosovo, the foreign policy problem of the United States at the end of the 20th century is that we can't figure out where America ends and the world begins. So we are willing and usually able to take on the whole world -- often for no particular reason or for reasons we will figure out and explain later, after the deed is done.

After summer vacation, most everyone comes back to a pile of things to do, pay or read. Doing or paying takes too much energy, so I began by reading the things I had thrown into a basket or stuffed into pockets. More than half of what I sat down with this week had to do with foreign affairs, much of it on Kosovo, the war to begin all wars, and most of that was study of or commentary on a new American arrogance.

The question is whether we control our power or our power controls us -- and takes us to, say, East Timor or Sierra Leone or beyond.

The Defense Monitor's special edition on the 21st century was on top of my pile. The Monitor has been published for 28 years by the Center for Defense Education, a collection of former military men and public officials led by former Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and a retired admiral, Gene LaRocque.

The Monitor begins with a telling point about American power and intent: "We are the only nation in history which has formally divided the globe into military zones and appointed a general or admiral to be commander in chief within each zone." History, they assert, tells us that all empires fall if they are based on military force. The empire's own people eventually refuse to serve and the subjugated eventually rise up -- which of course is how we became the United States of America.

The CATO study on Asian policy, written by Doug Bandow, a former Reagan administration official, is titled "Old Wine in New Bottles" and is a study of the Pentagon's published strategy, which is to win World War II and then the Cold War. Why exactly are there 100,000 American soldiers, sailors and airmen positioned throughout Asia?

Much of the commentary of the summer is, as you would expect, on NATO's scrambled egg strategy in the Balkans: Let's crack everything up and see what happens. Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University points out that the United States is now pledged to recognize both sovereignty and self-determination in all countries -- though they are almost always mutually exclusive.

James Klurfeld, the editor of the editorial page of Newsday, begins by saying: "The United States-led intervention in Kosovo was a blatant violation of international law." Oh, that! In fact, the United States has joined Iraq, Libya and Somalia as countries that operate outside what passes for international law.

Another comment worth reading was a New York Times analysis by Barbara Crosette about the international treaties the United States has refused to sign, beginning with the Nuclear Test Ban, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and an international ban on the use of land mines.

I grew up in Jersey City, N.J., a city best known then for a quote by our mayor, Frank Hague: "The law? I am the law." He was ahead of his time. That is now the working motto of a great deal of U.S. military and foreign policy.

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