A curious empire, this: Unwilling though it may be, the U.S. is not just an imperial power but also the de facto government over much of the planet.
And it is unwilling, writes foreign-policy specialist Mandelbaum (American Foreign Policy/Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), so much so that come the looming crisis of “unfunded mandates” and retiring baby boomers, which “will compel either a very steep rise in the taxes younger Americans pay or a sharp reduction in the benefits older Americans receive,” the nation’s first impulse may be toward isolationism. That would be a dangerous move, Mandelbaum argues; we provide governmental services (and a big army’s worth of protection) to the international system and concomitantly engage in unilateral politics “by default as well as by choice,” and in the vacuum that would follow our withdrawal, “the consequences of less governance are not likely to be pleasant.” Running the world without going broke—especially when we’re not seizing resources in the way of most previous empires—is a challenge, but one that we seem to be stuck with. Adds Mandelbaum, a more difficult challenge may be taking the leadership role in what he considers the 21st-century exigency supreme, namely the long-term transition from a global oil economy to something more sustainable—and, he argues, current patterns of U.S. oil consumption constitute a real threat to global security, odd behavior for the global policeman. The challenge becomes especially difficult because Americans dislike paying taxes—and the transition will certainly be costly—and because they “also bridle at accepting limits of almost any kind,” including, it seems, the idea that running the world may be overreaching a tad. Yet, thankfully, by Mandelbaum’s account we’re helped along by the “qualified global consensus” in favor of peace, democracy and free markets, the goods Goliath delivers to its friends.
Provocative and lucid: an owner’s manual for empire builders, complete with warnings of what can go wrong.