Thursday, August 24, 2006

A World Without the United States

Toward the end (p. 195) of The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the Twenty-First Century, Michael Mandelbaum sums up the case for American leadership by imagining its absence:

The abdication by the United States of some or all of the responsibilities for international security that it had come to bear in the first decade of the twenty-first century would deprive the international system of one of its principal safety features, which keeps countries from smashing into each other, as they are historically prone to do. In this sense, a world without America would be the equivalent of a freeway full of cars without brakes. Similarly, should the American government abandon some or all of the ways in which it had, at the dawn of the new century, come to support global economic activity, the world economy would function less effectively and might even suffer a severe and costly breakdown. A world without the United States would in this way resemble a fleet of cars without gasoline.

Their awareness, sometimes dim and almost never explicitly spelled out, of the political, military, and economic dangers that would come with the retreat of American power causes other countries to refrain from combining to try to displace the United States from its place at the center of the international system. Virtually all of them harbor some grievance or other against the twenty-first-century international order, but none would welcome the absence of any order at all, which is what the collapse of American power might well bring. Grudgingly, tacitly, silently, other countries support the American role as the world’s government out of the well-grounded fear that while the conduct of the United States may be clumsy, overbearing, and even occasionally insufferable, the alternative would be even worse, perhaps much worse.

This is clearly a view at odds with the perspective of America's enemies, but there are allies as well who not only disagree but would resent being told what they "grudgingly, tacitly, silently" support. Is Mandelbaum on to something or is the "case for Goliath" a stretch?