The China crisis contained at least three important lessons for the United States' role abroad. First, the U.S. may have incipient power unrivaled since the collapse of the Roman empire, but since the Cold War's end its influence in much of the world has been declining. Second, countries far less powerful than the U.S. can gain disproportionate leverage over us by putting at risk something we hold dear—in this case the freedom of 24 servicemen and women. Third, we are now fully into the age of interdependence: Even with a communist China, we are locked in an economic and political embrace so close that neither can harm the other without suffering in return.
If President Bush draws the right conclusions—counter to much of his administration's early rhetoric—the U.S. can begin acting on an even more basic lesson: that the secret to Washington's mastering the post-Cold War world is to find ways of turning U.S. power into lasting influence.
The idea that, after the Soviet Union's demise, a victorious U.S. would bestride the Earth was always based on a false premise: that other nations would naturally follow the leader. Quite the contrary. Superpowers in fact come in pairs. Without the disciplining effect of a very real boogeyman against which U.S. protection is needed, most nations feel free to go their own way.
By the same token, as a society we have decided against paying the price of classic empires: investing U.S. blood and treasure to require other countries to do our bidding. Despite the disappearance of any serious rival, in the last decade the U.S. has not occupied a square mile of foreign lands; we spend less on diplomacy than we did in the relatively simple days of the bipolar world; U.S. foreign aid, once a tool designed in part to try winning "hearts and minds," has almost disappeared; and we fought a war in Kosovo in which we correctly insisted on being joined by the entire NATO alliance and set an overriding goal of minimizing allied combat losses (there were none). This is not the stuff of empire.
It is also not the stuff of isolation, now firmly put behind us because of a combination of globalization and two generations of activity, involvement, responsibility and leadership abroad. From the point of view of others, U.S. economic power is indeed massive, though it is wielded less by Washington than by the private sector. This economic and cultural might breeds emulation by many but resentment by others.
The U.S. also faces fewer direct threats to the homeland than before Pearl Harbor. But those who do not wish us well—or who wish to act against their neighbors without U.S. interference—are learning the tricks of "asymmetrical warfare": the bid to acquire weapons (maybe including nuclear ones) disproportionate to other measures of national power or to engage in some form of terrorism against things American.
This American circumstance, unique in history, impels us to pursue a middle way between empire and isolation, not seeming to some to be overbearing or allowing ourselves to focus more on potential threats than on the opportunities placed before us.
In the 1990s, the U.S. began to deal with the future's demands when it understood the need to stand by traditional allies and partners; when we understood that, in the absence of U.S. leadership, no one else was likely to fill the void; and when we saw the virtue in promoting democracy as a good in its own right, rather than as a partisan instrument of Cold War.
Former President Bush understood the importance for long-term global stability in dealing positively with Russia, rather than gloating over the Soviet Union's defeat. He and President Clinton understood what could be achieved by rebuilding NATO and supporting the European Union as two instruments for fostering a "Europe whole and free." And Clinton carried forward the work of opening up the global trading system and developing some rules for a global economy.
Three themes emerged from these efforts: First, that the U.S. must set an example for global society. "Unilateralism," displayed under Clinton by the Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and under President George W. Bush by rejection of agreed norms to slow global warming, not only fails the test of example—and reliability—and thus sanctions others to breach their own commitments, it also defaults on long-term U.S. self-interest.
Second, the U.S. can turn power into lasting influence only by helping to devise attitudes, practices, processes and institutions—like the new World Trade Organization and the modernized NATO—that will work for us because they also work for others.
And third, shared efforts by the world's developed countries to start dealing with the demands of massive migration, cross-border crime, pandemics, genocide and the special stresses of globalization are vital to the future in which we want to live.
These prescriptions will not suffice for all of the world's conditions of power, poverty, war and peace; far from it. But they are a necessary start. If the Bush administration comes to this broader realization after dealing with China the last two weeks, it can turn a tactical success into long-term strategic benefit.
Robert E. Hunter, a senior advisor at the RAND Corp., was U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on April 13, 2001. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.