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« The 'end times' are never-ending nowadays | Main | What America should have learned from Balkan wars »
Sunday
Jul302006

Resetting the rule set on this Long War

Between the United Nations, G-8, Congress and the Supreme Court, it seems like everybody nowadays is working to rein in the Bush administration's conduct in this Long War. All these attempts at producing counterbalances - both legal and diplomatic - should be welcomed by the American people.

Why?

First off, legal and diplomatic reactions sure as heck beat military responses. Ever since the Cold War's end, so-called realists have predicted the world cannot long endure a sole military superpower. In other eras, such domination spawned arms races, hence the balance of power.

Well, America has projected military power around the planet with high frequency since 1990, and yet no great powers have sought to challenge our Leviathan. We outspend the world on defense, with our closest competitor, China, racking up approximately one-tenth - $70 billion - of what the Pentagon spent at home and abroad last year.

So America still has the biggest gun in the world, and no one's trying to take it away from us.

On the contrary, other great powers routinely facilitate our massive defense spending by buying our sovereign debt in what amounts to an implied transaction: They outsource global security to the United States, concentrating more on economic development.

In short, America plays the role of globalization's bodyguard, while other states focus more on foreign aid and direct investment to facilitate its spread.

Since America enjoys a consistently vibrant and innovative economy, our defense spending as a percent of national gross domestic product is not high by historical standards. But future interventions abroad better look more like the Balkans under Clinton than Iraq under Bush.

Too much bloodshed and too little traction will push both allies and the American people to renege on this deal. When that happens, no one will be minding the global security store, something the world hasn't witnessed since the chaotic 1930s.

The second reason Americans should welcome this asymmetrical balancing effort is that it's only natural that the world seeks to recapture some sense of rule-set equilibrium after these past tumultuous five years. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but humanity successfully deals with them by creating rules that protect the weak while constraining the powerful.

The 1990s were a glorious decade of great technological creativity and enormous wealth creation, as globalization's spread lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. But the decade was also disorienting, in effect pushing our major rule sets out of whack.

As I describe the 1990s, politics couldn't keep up with economics, and security fell way behind technology. Countries became far more connected and interdependent than we realized, leaving us collectively in serious deficit on certain rules.

But then two system perturbations came along in 2001 that revealed how mismatched our rule sets were: the corporate scandals - WorldCom, Enron, Arthur Andersen - that accompanied the market crash and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

At that point, new rules flooded the world in a panicky attempt to cover these suddenly revealed gaps.

Americans got both the Patriot Act and Sarbannes-Oxley, two congressional acts that foisted a ton of new regulations upon our business sector. As Steve DeAngelis, CEO of Enterra Solutions, likes to put it, these laws set a "new minimum standard for being a public corporation in the 21st century." And, if your company cannot achieve this new standard, you've got four choices: Go private, go bankrupt, go off-shore or get bought.

Abroad, President Bush's concept of pre-emptive war, the so-called Bush Doctrine, similarly proposed a new minimum standard for being a nation-state in the era of globalization. In effect, the Bush administration says, "Meet these new standards - no terror, no weapons of mass destruction - or your rogue regime faces these choices: Go away, get sanctioned, get isolated or get invaded."

Is the world full of targets for U.S. invasion?

Hardly.

And that's where our allies' balancing efforts make sense. The Bush Doctrine needs to be calibrated, clarified and embedded within some larger global rule set on rehabilitating politically bankrupt states.

In its first term, the Bush administration played catch-up with globalization. That rule-set reset was much needed.

Now the world is playing catch-up with the Bush administration. That rule-set recalibration is likewise necessary and good.

My advice?

Nobody in this struggle is inherently good or evil, so lay off the name-calling and conspiracy theories.

Equilibrium is both the goal and the watchword.

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