It might not have seemed necessary in the 21st century to ask or answer such a ridiculous question. After all, European colonialism, in the last half of the prior century, collapsed politically, morally, and even legally. Its pretensions were thoroughly exposed and totally discredited. As well, the Soviet empire fell apart.
And yet there are those who muster the temerity to insist that – even now – it is the US’ global governing authority that enables the degree of security and prosperity in the world today. Not surprisingly, the proponents of this conception of world order as dependent on US military, economic, diplomatic, and ideological capabilities are themselves American. It is even less surprising that the most articulate celebrants of this new variant of a self-serving and totalising imperial approach to security and prosperity are situated either in US academic institutions or in its principal media outlets.
I consider Michael Mandelbaum to be the most unabashed and articulate advocate of this American “global domination project” that he felicitously calls “the world’s de facto government”. He champions this role for his country in book after book. Recently Mandelbaum has restated his argument in a short essay, “Can America Keep Its Global Role?” that appears in the January 2014 issue of Current History. His thesis is straightforward: “[The US] provides to the whole world, not only its allies, many of the services that governments furnish to the countries they govern.” Or more simply, “…the US stands alone as the world’s de facto government.”
It is crucial to take note of the claim that, unlike past empires and hegemonic states, the US alone has undertaken a systemic or structural role, and is not to be understood as serving only those states that are allied by friendship, values, and binding arrangements. In this respect this novel form of world government, although administered from its statist headquarters in Washington, claims to be meta-political, and should be appreciated by all as promoting the betterment of humanity. It is a cause of some wonderment, then, to account for polling results from around the world that indicate, time and again, that the US is viewed as the most dangerous country from the perspectives of peace and justice. It would seem from the Mandelbaum worldview that “They just don’t know how lucky they are!”
What makes Mandelbaum so cocky about the beneficence of the US’ global role? It is essentially the conviction that it is US military power underwriting the established order that avoids wars and protects countries against aggressive behaviour by states with revisionist foreign policy goals. More concretely, Europe can rest easy because of the US military presence, while Russia as well, can be assured that Germany will not again seek to conquer its territory as it tried to do twice in the last century. Similarly in the East Asian setting, China is deterred from imposing its will regionally to resolve island and territorial disputes, while at the same time being reassured that Japan will not again unleash an attack upon the Chinese mainland.
There is some plausibility to such speculation, but it seems more like the dividend of alliance relationship in a historical setting when recourse to war as a solvent for international conflicts seems more and more dysfunctional. And it doesn’t pretend to work with a rogue ally such as Israel, which seems willing to attack Iran whether or not the White House signals approval.
The complementary claim about providing a template for global economic prosperity is also misleading at best, and likely flawed. The US presides over a neoliberal world order that has achieved economic growth but at the price of persisting mass poverty, gross and widening inequalities, unsustainable consumerism, cyclical instability, and a rate of greenhouse gas emissions that imperils the human future.
Beyond this, the US’ role is praised for using its capabilities “to counteract the most dangerous trend in twenty-first century security affairs: the spread of nuclear weapons to countries and non-state actors that do not have them and would threaten the international order if they did”. What is not mentioned by Mandelbaum, and suggests strongly the absence of anything resembling “world government” is the inability of existing global policy mechanisms, whether under US or other auspices, to solve pressing collective goods problems.
I would mention several: poverty, nuclear weaponry, fair trade, and climate change. Neither imperial guidance nor the actions of state-centric policymaking initiatives have been able to serve the human or global interest. This would demand, at the very least, nuclear disarmament, enforceable restraints on carbon emissions, and the end of agricultural subsidies in North America and Europe.
Myopic vision of the world
Mandelbaum, and similar outlooks that conflate national and global interests, seem blind to the tensions between what is good for the US and its friends and what is good for the world and its peoples. And no more serious blindness, or is it merely acute myopia, exists than does the Mandlebaum contention that the greatest danger from nuclear weapons arises from those political actors that do not possess them rather than from those that have used such weaponry in the past, and continue to deploy nuclear weapons in contexts of strategic concern. One can only wonder about the absence of the word “drone” in Mandelbaum’s account of why the world should be grateful for the way the US globally projects its power!
There are additional difficulties with Mandelbaum’s global vision, including a glaring internal contradiction. He praises the US for exerting a pro-democracy influence throughout the world. While this praise is partially deserved, it, however, fails to note either the inconsistencies in its application or the complete failure to consider the consent of the peoples and other governments in relation to US de facto world government.
I doubt that there would be many supporters of the Mandelbaum prescriptions for governing the world in Moscow and Beijing despite the benefits that are supposedly bestowed upon Russia and China. Somehow, the politics of self-determination and procedural democracy are fine for state/society relations, but when it comes to governing the world democracy, it is quite okay to base the system on global authoritarianism.
In depicting the future, Mandelbaum calls our attention to three scenarios that bear on his thesis. In what he calls “the most favourable of these”, those that have most to gain, namely, Europe and Japan would assist the US, and lighten the burdens of world government. Such a prospect is really thinly disguised alliance-oriented, although in a presumably less conflictual global setting. He does not view this future as the most likely one. The least favourable would be a challenge from China that would induce a return to balance of power world order in which countervailing alliances would produce a security system that resembled international relations during the Cold War.
Mandelbaum, nonetheless, assumes that the Chinese are too wily to opt for such a risky future. What he views, as most likely, is a continuation of the present arrangements without great help from allies or much hindrance from adversaries. The unknown, that he does acknowledge, is whether the American public will continue to finance such a system of world government given its setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as growing domestic pressures to cut public spending and reduce taxes in response to the burdens of a rapidly ageing population.
It is well to appreciate that this new discourse of imperial duty and prerogative is framed as a matter of global scope. This is genuinely new. Yet it is quite old. Throughout the evolution of modernity, the West has always cast itself in the role of being the saviour of the whole of humanity. In the colonial era this gift to humanity was described as the “white man’s burden” or proclaimed to be the “civilising mission” of the West. As those living in the global south are well aware, this lofty language provided the rationale a variety of forms of violent exploitation of the non-West. For Mandelbaum is offering the world a new rationale for Western dominance under the heading of “de facto world government”. It purports to be a service institution for the world. It is nowhere acknowledged that a disproportionate amount of the violence, militarism, and appropriation of resources and wealth emanates from the US.
If persuaded by Mandelbaum’s argument, the peoples of the world and their leaders should be grateful that the US is shouldering the responsibilities of governing the world. I would expect that the more likely emotion of non-American readers is to be dismissive, and to wonder how such arrogance can withstand the facts that this pretence of US guardianship of global interests has so little positive to show for itself in recent decades.
Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.