The Lone Superpower

July 1, 1992

The leak of a secret Pentagon working paper to the New York Times in March set off an uproar about the role of the United States as the world’s only remaining superpower. Another leak, to the Washington Post of a much-modified revision in May, eased the turmoil but left some provocative questions hanging.

Both documents were draft versions of the Defense Policy Guidance for 1994-99 and outlined the perceived future for which the armed forces should prepare. With the Soviet Union defunct, the March paper said, “our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a new rival” posing a similar military threat. The US must provide leadership to convince “potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests.”

The critics had a field day. Among the more vocal was Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.), who said a “Pax Americana” with the US as “globocop” was “a direct slap at two of our closest allies–Germany and Japan.” Instead, he urged, we should “breathe life into the UN charter,” which “envisages a permanent commitment of forces for use by the Security Council.” He quoted the Secretary-General of the United Nations as saying the Pentagon paper approach would mean “the end of the UN.”

Columnist Charles Krauthammer thought the Pentagon paper was just fine. “If America’s allies believe they can rely on American power, they will have no reason to turn themselves into military superpowers,” he said. “If, on the other hand, the United States gives up its worldwide predominance, Germany and Japan, military midgets today, will quite reasonably seek to ensure their own security by turning themselves into military giants.” Trusting our security to the UN, “which requires us to get the approval of all kinds of despots in countries that do not share our interests, let alone our values is not Utopian,” he said. “It is merely stupid.”

The Defense Department characterized the paper as a “low-level draft” and repeated its commitment to collective security, but otherwise said little until May 22, when Secretary Dick Cheney acknowledged “reverberation around the world among our allies.” Mr. Cheney disavowed go-it-alone strategy but said collective security “does not happen automatically.” Someone must lead. “If the US doesn’t provide that overall umbrella of security, with the network of alliances backed up by significant military forces, who will do it?” he asked.

Two days later, the Washington Post was in print with the second leak “a near final draft” with the offending language removed. The critics celebrated victory, but the net effect may have been to drive the issue underground.

The first Pentagon paper understandably struck nerves in international pride, but it also reflected certain realities. If the United States retreats from leadership, the power vacuum will not long remain unfilled. Does anyone seriously believe the world would be better off with the dominance of power and influence in some other hands? Or that the emergence of two or three new military superpowers is desirable in any case

Sensitivities aside, indignation centered on two points: that the US does not owe it to the world to shoulder this burden and, conversely, that American leadership might be in some way malevolent.

Other nations benefit from US strength, but that does not make it an act of charity. It happens to be the best way to ensure our own security and prosperity–and at less cost and risk than confronting military challenges that we might unwittingly encourage by taking a weak position.

In the 1980s, with Soviet military power increasing relentlessly and with invasion forces camped in Afghanistan, it was popular for some fuddleheads in the West to depict the US and the USSR as “morally equivalent.” Today, most people agree it was fortunate that the United States was around, not only to keep the repressive Soviet regime at bay until it collapsed but also to provide an example and inspiration for the geopolitical revolution that followed.

It was clear from the March leak that the idea was to block the rise of hostile powers and to reassure allies, not intimidate them. US foreign policy is not perfect, but the record stands far above that of former great powers in their heyday or of other nations that contended for power in this century. The United States has never had much taste for empire, and its influence tends to be stabilizing rather than destabilizing.

If there is an alternative to US leadership that offers more promise of global peace, it has not turned up in the agitation over the Pentagon papers.