The Globalization of Politics: American Foreign Policy for a New Century

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

January 1, 2003

September 11 signaled the end of the age of geopolitics and the advent of a new age—the era of global politics. The challenge U.S. policymakers face today is to recognize that fundamental change in world politics and to use America’s unrivaled military, economic, and political power to fashion an international environment conducive to its interests and values.

For much of the 20th century, geopolitics drove American foreign policy. Successive presidents sought to prevent any single country from dominating the centers of strategic power in Europe and Asia. To that end the United States fought two world wars and carried on its four-decade-long Cold War with the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet empire ended the last serious challenge for territorial dominion over Eurasia. The primary goal of American foreign policy was achieved.

During the 1990s, American foreign policy focused on consolidating its success. Together with its European allies, the United States set out to create, for the first time in history, a peaceful, undivided, and democratic Europe. That effort is now all but complete. The European Union—which will encompass most of Europe with the expected accession of 10 new members in 2004—has become the focal point for European policy on a wide range of issues. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has evolved from a collective defense alliance into Europe’s main security institution. A new relationship with Russia is being forged.

Progress has been slower, though still significant, in Asia. U.S. relations with its two key regional partners, Japan and South Korea, remain the foundation of regional stability. Democracy is taking root in South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Taiwan. U.S. engagement with China is slowly tying an economically surging Beijing into the global economy.

The success of American policy over the past decade means that no power—not Russia, not Germany, not a united Europe, and not China or Japan—today poses a hegemonic threat to Eurasia. In this new era, American foreign policy will no longer pivot on geography. Instead, it will be defined by the combination of America’s unrivaled power in world affairs and the extensive and growing globalization of world politics.

The Sole Global Power

The United States is today the only truly global power. Its military reach—whether on land, at sea, or in the air—extends to every point on the globe. Its economic prowess fuels world trade and industry. Its political and cultural appeal—what Joseph Nye has called soft power—is so extensive that most international institutions reflect American interests. America’s position in the world is unique—no other country in history has ever come close.

But is America’s exalted position sustainable? Militarily, the vast gap between the United States and everyone else is growing. Whereas defense spending in most other countries is falling, U.S. defense spending is rising rapidly. This year’s requested increase in defense spending is greater than the entire Chinese defense budget. Most remarkably, America can afford to spend more. Defense spending takes a smaller share of the U.S. gross domestic product than it did a decade ago—and even the Bush administration’s projected increases will produce an overall budget equal to only about 3.5 percent of GDP, about half of Cold War highs. There is little prospect of any country or group of countries devoting the resources necessary to begin competing with the United States militarily, let alone surpassing it.

Economically, the United States may not widen its edge over its competitors, but neither is it likely to fall behind. The U.S. economy has proven itself at least as adept as its major competitors in realizing the productivity gains made possible by information technology. Europe and Japan face severe demographic challenges as their populations rapidly age, creating likely labor shortages and severe budgetary pressures. China is modernizing rapidly, and Russia may have turned the corner, but their economies today are comparable in output to those of Italy and Belgium—and they have yet to develop a political infrastructure that can support sustained economic growth.

Which brings us to the issue of how to transform this unquestioned power into influence. Unless employed deftly, America’s military and economic superiority can breed resentment, even among its friends. A growing perception that Washington cares only about its own interests and is willing to use its muscle to get its way has fueled a worrisome gap between U.S. and European attitudes. European elites increasingly criticize the United States as being morally, socially, and culturally retrograde—especially in its perceived embrace of the death penalty, predatory capitalism, and fast food and mass entertainment. Europe has also begun to exercise diplomatic muscle in international institutions and other arenas, seeking to create new international regimes designed to limit America’s recourse to its hard power.

The sustainability of American power ultimately depends on the extent to which others believe it is employed not just in U.S. interests but in their interests as well. Following its victory in World War II, the United States led the effort to create not only new security institutions, such as the United Nations and NATO, but also new regimes to promote economic recovery, development, and prosperity, such as the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods monetary system, and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs to promote free trade. These institutions and agreements preserved and extended American power—but in a way that benefited all who participated. The challenge for the United States is to do the same today.


Globalization is not just an economic phenomenon, but a political, cultural, military, and environmental one as well. Nor is globalization new; networks of interdependence spanning continents were increasing rapidly in the decades before the First World War as the steam engine and the telegraph reduced the cost of transportation and information. What distinguishes globalization today is the speed and volume of cross-border contacts.

The prophets of globalization have trumpeted its benefits, particularly how the increased flow of goods, services, and capital across borders can boost economic activity and enhance prosperity. During the 1990s the more globalized economies grew an average of 5 percent a year, while the less globalized economies contracted by an average of 1 percent a year. The spread of ideas and information across the Internet and other global media has broadened cultural horizons and empowered people around the world to challenge autocratic rulers and advance the cause of human rights and democracy. Globalization can even lessen the chance of war. Fearing that war with Pakistan would disrupt their ties to U.S.-based multinationals, India’s powerful electronic sector successfully pressed New Delhi in mid-2002 to deescalate its conflict with Pakistan.

But globalization also brings terrible new perils. A handful of men from halfway across the globe can hijack four commercial airliners and slam them into key symbols of American power, killing thousands. A computer hacker in the Philippines can shut down the Internet and disrupt e-commerce thousands of miles away. Speculators can produce a run on the Thai currency, plunging Russia and Brazil into recession, robbing American exporters of markets, and costing American jobs. Greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere in newly booming economies can raise global temperatures, possibly flooding coastal plains and turning mountain meadows into deserts.

Worse, for the United States, is that its power makes it a magnet for terrorism. As Richard Betts has argued, America’s power “animates both the terrorists’ purposes and their choice of tactics…. Political and cultural power makes the United States a target for those who blame it for their problems. At the same time, American economic and military power prevents them from resisting or retaliating against the United States on its own terms. To smite the only superpower requires unconventional modes of force and tactics [which] offer hope to the weak that they can work their will despite their overall deficit in power.” Worse still, other weak countries might decide to buy their security by turning a blind eye to terrorist activities on their soil, thereby increasing the risk to the United States.

Americanists vs. Globalists: The Utility of Power

Much of the foreign policy debate in the United States today revolves around assessments of the fundamental importance of American primacy and globalization. Americanists, so called because they emphasize American primacy, see a world in which the United States can use its predominant power to get its way, regardless of what others want. They believe the United States must summon the will to go it alone if necessary. Globalists emphasize globalization. They see a world that defies unilateral U.S. solutions and instead requires international cooperation. They warn against thinking that America can go it alone.

Americanists see two great virtues in America’s primacy. First, it enables the United States to set its own foreign policy objectives and to achieve them without relying on others. The result is a preference for unilateral action, unbound by international agreements or institutions that would otherwise constrain America’s ability to act. As Charles Krauthammer puts it, “An unprecedentedly dominant United States…is in the unique position of being able to fashion its own foreign policy. After a decade of Prometheus playing pygmy, the first task of the new [Bush] administration is precisely to reassert American freedom of action.” The views, preferences, and interests of allies, friends, or anyone else should therefore have no influence on American action.

Second, because American power enables the United States to pursue its interests as it pleases, American foreign policy should seek to maintain, extend, and strengthen that relative position of power. As President Bush told graduating West Point cadets last June, “America has, and intends to keep, military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” In other words, the United States can achieve its policy objectives best if it can prevent others from acquiring the power necessary to oppose it effectively when interests clash. It is as good a definition of what would constitute an American empire as one can get.

In contrast, Globalists stress how globalization both limits and transforms America’s capacity to use its power to influence events overseas. At bottom, the challenges and opportunities created by the forces of globalization are not susceptible to America acting on its own. Combating the spread of infectious diseases, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, defeating terrorism, securing access to open markets, protecting human rights, promoting democracy, and preserving the environment all require the cooperation of other countries. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it succinctly following the September 11 attacks, “we are all internationalists now.”

But, Globalists argue, it is not simply that the nature of the issues arising from globalization limits the reach of American power and compels international cooperation. Globalization transforms the nature of power itself. No one has grappled with this problem more thoughtfully than Joseph Nye in his latest book, The Paradox of American Power. As Nye explains, “power today is distributed among countries in a pattern that resembles a complex three-dimensional chess game.” One dimension is military power, where the United States enjoys an unrivaled advantage, and the power distribution is therefore unipolar. The second dimension is economic, where power among the United States, Europe, and Japan is distributed more equally. The third dimension is transnational relations, where power is widely dispersed and essentially beyond government control. This is the realm of nonstate actors—from multinational companies and money managers to terrorist organizations and crime syndicates to nongovernmental organizations and the international media. “Those who recommend a hegemonic [or power-based] American foreign policy,” Nye concludes, “are relying on woefully inadequate analysis. When you are in a three-dimensional game, you will lose if you focus on the interstate military board and fail to notice the other boards and the vertical connections among them.”

Who Is Right?

Both Americanists and Globalists are right in important ways. Take the Americanists first. Despite globalization, power remains the coin of the realm in international politics. Five decades of concerted U.S. and allied efforts may have transformed Europe into a Kantian zone of perpetual peace where the rule of law has triumphed, but in much of the rest of the world military might continues to hold sway. True, no country, not even China, poses the geostrategic threat to the United States that first Germany and then the Soviet Union did in the previous century. Still, lesser- order threats abound, from Pyongyang to Teheran to Baghdad, and U.S. military and economic power will be needed to contain, if not extinguish, them. More broadly, the rule of law demands more than simply codifying rules of behavior. It also requires the willingness and ability to enforce them. But that requirement, as Mancur Olson demonstrated years ago, runs into a fundamental collective-action problem—if the potential costs of action are great and the benefits widely shared, few will be willing to incur the costs. That is where overwhelming power, and the concomitant willingness and ability to provide for global public goods, makes a crucial difference. So, without American primacy—or something like it—it is doubtful that the rule of law can be sustained.

The wise application of American primacy can further U.S. values and interests. The use (or threat) of American military might evicted Iraqi troops from Kuwait, convinced Haiti’s military junta to relinquish power, ended Serbian atrocities in Kosovo, and broke al- Qaida’s hold over Afghanistan. Nor does American primacy advance only U.S. interests and values. As the one country willing and able to break deadlocks and stalemates preventing progress on issues from promoting peace in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East to preserving financial stability around the world, the United States frequently advances the interests of most other democratic states as well. Often, the United States is exactly what Madeleine Albright said it was—the indispensable nation that makes it possible to mobilize the world into effective action.

And the United States does differ from other countries. Unique among past hegemons in not seeking to expand its power through territorial gains, it is also unique among its contemporaries. Its primacy and global interests prompt others both to seek its assistance in addressing their problems and to resent it for meddling in their affairs. The ambivalence the world feels about American engagement—as well as the unique nature of that engagement—makes it imperative that the United States not mistake the conduct of foreign policy for a popularity contest. Doing the right thing may not always be popular—but it is vitally important nevertheless.

But Globalists are right that while America is powerful, it is not omnipotent. Far more able than most countries to protect itself against the pernicious consequences of globalization, it is by no means invulnerable. Some crucial problems do defy unilateral solutions. Global warming is perhaps the most obvious case, but others include stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction and fighting global terrorism. In other cases, such as protecting the American homeland from terrorist attack, unilateral action can reduce but not eliminate risks.

Similarly, unilateral American power may not be enough to sustain the benefits of globalization. Globalization is not irreversible. World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Great Depression combined to strangle the economic and social interactions that emerged early in the 20th century. Economic globalization today rests on an intricate web of international trade and financial institutions. Extending, developing, and improving these institutions requires the cooperation of others. Without it, the benefits of globalization, which help to underwrite American power, could erode.

Globalization has greatly broadened America’s foreign policy agenda. Infectious diseases, poverty, and poor governance not only offend our moral sensibilities but also represent potential new security threats. Failed and failing states endanger not just their own citizens but Americans as well. If the United States cannot find ways to encourage prosperity and good governance, it runs the risk of seeing threats to its security multiply. It could eventually find itself harmed not by bears in the woods but by swarms of tiny pests.

Finally, cooperation can extend the life of American primacy. Working with others can spread the costs of action over a wider array of actors, enabling the United States to do more with less. By creating international regimes and organizations Washington can imbed its interests and values in institutions that will shape and constrain countries for decades, regardless of the vicissitudes of American power. And cooperation can build bonds with other countries, lessening the chances of cultural and political tactics that can over the years sap U.S. power.

Implications for American Foreign Policy

Both Americanists and Globalists understand essential truths about the world today. Power continues to matter, but power alone will often not be enough to achieve our goals. A pragmatic American internationalism would recognize that we do not need to pick between these two truths. Both should guide American foreign policy.

But what should America seek to accomplish abroad? The indisputable first objective must be to safeguard and enhance our liberty, security, and prosperity. The question is how. In the new age of global politics, the best way to accomplish these goals is to promote an international order based on democracy, human rights, and free enterprise—to extend the zone of peace and prosperity that the United States helped establish in Europe to every other region of the world. Put differently, the United States needs to integrate the world’s have-nots into the globalized West. Pursuing that goal is not charity. Creating an international order in which more people are free and prosperous is profoundly in America’s self-interest. In a world of market democracies, America and Americans are likely to be both more prosperous and more secure. In such a world we are most likely to realize the promise of globalization while minimizing its dangers.

Ensuring that a commitment to democracy and open markets triumphs on a global scale entails four broad strategies. First, it is necessary to sustain and strengthen the bases of American power. This, most of all, requires ensuring that the fundamentals of the nation’s economy remain sound. It is important not to spend today what the country may need tomorrow. It also requires maintaining America’s military edge, both technologically and in terms of the overall capacity to bring force to bear at a time and place of America’s own choosing. And it requires persistent diplomatic engagement on Washington’s part to demonstrate awareness that what happens abroad and matters to others can also have a profound impact on security and prosperity at home.

Second, U.S. policy should seek to extend and adapt proven international institutions and arrangements. NATO’s recent transformation is a prime example. During the 1990s, the collective defense organization that had safeguarded the territorial integrity of its members against the Soviet Union for four decades gradually took on a new role: providing security for every state and its citizens in an ever enlarging north Atlantic area. By taking the lead in stabilizing conflict-ridden regions like the Balkans, as well as by opening its doors to new members, NATO began to do for Europe’s east what it had done for Europe’s west. The world trading system is also ripe for change. Barriers to the free flow of goods, capital, and services have steadily fallen over the years, and more and more countries have joined the free trading regime. Now it is time to lower the most pernicious barriers, especially those for agricultural goods, and bring poor countries into the global economic system.

Third, U.S. policy should enforce compliance with existing international agreements and strengthen the ability of institutions to monitor and compel compliance. Too many favor the negotiation of new sets of rules or new institutions for their own sake, and too few pay attention to making sure new rules are upheld and new institutions function effectively. Iraq is a case in point. Even if one believes that Iraq can be contained and deterred and that therefore forcible regime change is neither necessary nor advisable, Baghdad’s refusal to comply with UN Security Council resolutions (including the critical terms of the Gulf War cease-fire resolution) means that the threat and possible use of force must be in play. A willingness to use force is no doubt necessary (though by no means sufficient) to persuade Saddam Hussein to allow UN inspectors to reenter Iraq and permit them to carry out the mandate of the international community. If he refuses, the United States must be prepared to use force, preferably with others but alone if necessary, to compel compliance. Bad behavior that produces no consequences gets emulated.

Finally, U.S. policy must take the lead in creating effective international institutions and arrangements to handle new challenges, especially those arising from the downside of globalization. The United States must lead not only because it alone can help the international community overcome its collective-action problems, but because it is most likely to be hurt by inaction. Just as one example, an international system for reporting and monitoring research in dangerous pathogens could provide early warning if biotechnologists create such pathogens either deliberately or inadvertently.

As these strategies make clear, promoting an international order based on market democracies will require the United States to lead as well as listen, to give as well as take. Arguing that American foreign policy should be either unilateral or multilateral is to posit a false choice as well as to confuse means with ends. Unilateralism can be put to good or bad uses. The flaw in the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Kyoto Treaty was not so much that Washington went its own way—though the peremptory manner of the withdrawal maximized bad feelings—but that it has failed to propose a better strategy for dealing with a rise in global temperatures that its own EPA scientists acknowledge. In this case, what is needed is not more multilateralism, but more unilateral action on the part of the United States to curtail its greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, multilateralism can produce a modern day Kellogg-Briand Treaty just as easily as it produces a Gulf War coalition or a World Trade Organization.

Can U.S. foreign policy promote a liberal world order in the new age of global politics? In many ways it has no other choice. The pernicious effects of globalization, which empower tiny groups of people to inflict grievous harm, make it essential to create a world community that shares American values. But there is also good reason to believe that the United States can succeed in integrating the rest of the world into the western world order. Immediately after World War II, the United States forged a series of bold political, economic, and military arrangements that made allies of former enemies and set the stage for victory in the age of geopolitics. U.S. policymakers at the time took a broad view of American interests and understood that their efforts would be for naught if America’s partners did not see them as being in the interest of all. U.S. policymakers in the age of global politics must do likewise.