Bush’s Periclean Strategy

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Mr. Serewicz is the author of the forthcoming book, America at the Brink of Empire: Rusk, Kissinger, And the Vietnam War (Political Traditions in Foreign Policy Series, Louisiana State University Press).

Through the war on terror and the global democratic revolution, Bush has committed America to reform the international system. In this regard, Bush faces a greater dilemma than Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk faced as they attempted to defend a decent world order in South Vietnam. Bush’s war on terrorism has no apparent limit because, one could argue, the fate of the international system is at stake. When South Vietnam was overrun the decent world order did not end, but what is the alternative to Bush’s mission?  Bush’s immoderate foreign policy goals may threaten the moderation at the heart of the America regime.  Is Bush like Pericles in Ancient Athens because he has set America goals that are too great to achieve and too dangerous to let go? 

A short-term equilibrium may be reached where America is free of immediate threats, but it will have to accept a level of external instability. The instability will mean the republic will have to remain on war footing even if it is not at war. Yet, when the republic is on a war footing, the executive centralizes more power. The existence of the Department of Homeland Security exemplifies this trend.  Over time, a long twilight war on terror will corrupt the nation’s republican virtues as the public becomes habituated, out of necessity, to the executive’s increased powers in the external realm. When the external demands reshape the domestic structure, the political logic of the external realm will undermine the fundamental principles of limited government at home. 

Thucydides raised a similar question regarding Athens. He argued that immoderation exhibited externally, in time, infects the domestic realm.  What will change first, the American regime or the international system?  The Machiavellian Moment may arrive when the American regime has to change to achieve the global democratic revolution.1 If this occurs and the republic decays, it will be because other branches of government and, ultimately, the people accede to an empire willingly or through indifference. In either case, the people have a choice. The challenge for the people is to retain their republican virtue against an executive who, because of the necessity created by the external threats, has to disrupt the domestic realm’s balance. When that short-term disruption becomes a long-term change, the people will need to recognize it and respond. Who will decide when the war on terror ends, is it for the executive alone to decide? The public will need to decide the level of uncertainty and instability they are willing to tolerate in the external realm without allowing it to undermine their republican virtue.

When did America stop being a republic and become an empire?

Has the divide between external and domestic realm begun to blur?

First, we need to consider if Bush’s foreign policy has undermined his domestic agenda. Bush has a limited domestic agenda because of Johnson and Reagan. The Great Society social welfare programs require increased funding and Reagan’s tax cuts legacy limit the federal government’s ability to expand. Despite growing opposition to the war in Iraq, Bush’s foreign policy has not curtailed his domestic agenda. At the same time domestic agenda demands, such as recent electoral setbacks and domestic emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina have not constrained his foreign policy. However, Bush has used external demands to justify his use of executive prerogative in the domestic realm.

Second, we need to consider if military force can deliver the political goals in the international system. America’s military preponderance may not be enough to deliver the desired political results.  The domestic consensus may be squeezed between external demands and internal commitments. When the increased military demands of the external realm require domestic spending cuts, it will weaken the domestic consensus.  When domestic emergencies and political commitments arise, they will erode the external consensus.  Without the consensus, military force can only be sustained for a short time.  Finally, we need to consider if success is beyond the American regime. The American regime may have to change to achieve success. Will Americans accept that choice? Can America survive if it fails to change the international system?

America may be able to use its predominant position to shape the international system to its interests. In the short term, America can play the reformer. However, that role requires a freedom of action that demands more resources than a limited government can sustain. America needs to shift from reforming the system to managing it.  Bush’s task is to turn the freedom of action into lasting change.  To manage the system, America needs to embed and export its vision through international organisations such as the United Nations (UN).  However, Bush and his team have seen the UN as part of the problem because it does not live up to its principles.  As Bush seeks to reform the international system, his concept of legitimacy challenges the UN’s status quo because it demands changes in how states behave. Bush recognizes that multilateral organisations are needed to sustain international security. What he has to do is transfer the global democratic revolution to international organisations like the UN. His challenge is to do this without diluting America’s agenda.

The question will be whether Bush’s principle of legitimacy and those of the international system are converging or diverging and for how long.  The long-term question is which will have primacy.  If other states change their behaviour because of the war on terror, then the system and not America will change.  If other states continue to resist the global democratic revolution, America will have to intervene.  How far it intervenes depends on how much it wants to disrupt its domestic structure to achieve the result. The UN may have begun to embrace the global democratic revolution as it now debates national sovereignty and the responsibility to protect.  The international system may be reaching Bush’s conclusions but by a different route. Bush may yet be able to reconcile America to the international system without undermining the republic.

1 J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975)



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