Agenda for the Nation

Power and Cooperation: An American Foreign Policy for the Age of Global Politics

This book chapter is published in Agenda for the Nation (Brookings 2003)

The age of geopolitics in American foreign policy is over; the age of global politics has begun. Throughout the twentieth century, traditional geopolitics drove U.S. thinking on foreign affairs: American security depended on preventing any one country from achieving dominion over the Eurasian landmass. That objective was achieved with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now the United States finds itself confronting a new international environment, one without a peer competitor but that nonetheless presents serious threats to American security. The terrorists who struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon neither represented a traditional state-based threat nor were tied to a specific geographical location. Nevertheless, nineteen people with just a few hundred thousand dollars succeeded in harming the most powerful nation on earth.

For more than three centuries, the dynamic of world politics was determined by the interplay among states, especially the great powers. Today, world politics is shaped by two unprecedented phenomena that are in some tension with each other. One is the sheer predominance of the United States. Today, as never before, what matters most in international politics is how—and whether—Washington acts on any given issue. The other is globalization, which has unleashed economic, political, and social forces that are beyond the capacity of any one country, including the United States, to control.

American primacy and globalization bring the United States great rewards as well as great dangers. Primacy gives Washington an unsurpassed ability to get its way in international affairs, while globalization enriches the American economy and spreads American values. But America's great power and the penetration of its culture, products, and influence deep into other societies breed intense resentment and grievances. Great power and great wealth do not necessarily produce greater respect or greater security.

American leaders and the American people are now grappling with the double-edged sword that is the age of global politics: how to maximize its rewards while minimizing its dangers. In this debate, there is little disagreement over whether the United States should be engaged in world affairs. Both America's extensive global ties and its vulnerability to outside forces make disengagement and isolationism impossible. Nor is there much disagreement on the purpose of American engagement. America's interests are best served by a continually expanding liberal international order, one in which increasing numbers of people share the benefits of open markets and democratic governments.

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