Today's date:
Winter 2002


Grand Strategy and Global Public Goods

Joe Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is author of The Paradox of American Power (Oxford University Press, 2000) from which this is excerpted.

Cambridge, Mass.-How should Americans set our priorities in a global information age? What grand strategy would allow us to steer between the "imperial overstretch" that would arise out of a role of global policeman while avoiding the mistake of thinking the country can be isolated in this global information age? The place to start is by understanding the relationship of American power to global public goods. On one hand, American power is less effective than it might first appear. We cannot do everything. On the other hand, the United States is likely to remain the most powerful country well into this century, and this gives us an interest in maintaining a degree of international order. More concretely, there is a simple reason why Americans have a national interest beyond our borders. Events out there can hurt us, and we want to influence distant governments and organizations on a variety of issues such as proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, drugs, trade, resources and ecological damage. After the Cold War, we ignored Afghanistan, but we discovered that even a poor, remote country can harbor forces that can harm us.

To a large extent, international order is a public good-something everyone can consume without diminishing its availability to others. A small country can benefit from peace in its region, freedom of seas, suppression of terrorism, open trade, control of infectious diseases or stability in financial markets at the same time that the US does without diminishing the benefits to the US or others. Of course, pure public goods are rare. And sometimes things that look good in our eyes may look bad in the eyes of others. Too narrow an appeal to public goods can become a self-serving ideology for the powerful. But these caveats are a reminder to consult with others, not a reason to discard an important strategic principle that helps us set priorities and reconcile our national interests with a broader global perspective.

If the largest beneficiary of public good (like the US) does not take the lead in providing disproportionate resources toward its provision, the smaller beneficiaries are unlikely to be able to produce it because of the difficulties of organizing collective action when large numbers are involved. While this responsibility of the largest often lets others become "free riders," the alternative is that the collective bus does not move at all. (And our compensation is that the largest tends to have more control of the steering wheel.)

This puts a different twist on former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's frequent phrase that the US is "the indispensable nation." We do not get a free ride. To play a leading role in producing public goods, the US will need to invest in both hard power resources and the soft power resources of setting a good example. The latter will require more self-restraint on the part of Congress as well as putting our own house in order in economics, environment, criminal justice and so forth. The rest of the world likes to see the US lead by example, but when America is seen, as with emission standards, to put narrow domestic interests before global needs, respect can easily turn to disappointment and contempt.

Increasing hard power will require an investment of resources in the nonmilitary aspects of foreign affairs, including better intelligence, that Americans have recently been unwilling to make. While Congress has been willing to spend 16 percent of the national budget on defense, the percentage devoted to international affairs has shrunk from 4 percent in the 1960s to just 1 percent today. Our military strength is important, but it is not sixteen times more important than our diplomacy. Over a thousand people work on the staff of the smallest regional military command headquarters, far more than the total assigned to the Americas at the departments of State, Commerce, Treasury and Agriculture. The military rightly plays a role in our diplomacy, but we are investing in our hard power in overly militarized terms.

As Secretary of State Colin Powell has pleaded to Congress, we need to put more resources into the State Department, including its information services and the Agency for International Development (AID), if we are going to get our messages across. A bipartisan report on the situation of the State Department recently warned that "if the 'downward spiral' is not reversed, the prospect of relying on military force to protect US national interests will increase because Washington will be less capable of avoiding, managing or resolving crises through the use of statecraft." Moreover, the abolition of the US Information Agency (which promoted American government views abroad) as a separate entity and its absorption into the State Department reduced the effectiveness of one of our government's important instruments of soft power. It is difficult to be a superpower on the cheap-through military means alone.

The British Example | In addition to better means, we need a strategy for their use. Our grand strategy must first ensure our survival, but then it must focus on providing global public goods. We gain doubly from such a strategy: from the public goods themselves, and from the way they legitimize our power in the eyes of others. That means we should give top priority to those aspects of the international system that, if not attended to properly, would have profound effects on the basic international order and therefore on the lives of large numbers of Americans as well as others. The US can learn from the lesson of Great Britain in the 19th century, when it was also a preponderant power. Three public goods that Britain attended to were 1) maintaining the balance of power among the major states in Europe, 2) promoting an open international economic system, and 3) maintaining open international commons such as the freedom of the seas and the suppression of piracy.

All three translate relatively well to the current American situation. Maintaining regional balances of power and dampening local incentives to use force to change borders provides a public good for many (but not all) countries. The US helps to "shape the environment" (in the words of the Pentagon's quadrennial defense review) in various regions, and that is why even in normal times we keep roughly 100,000 troops forward-based in Europe, the same number in Asia, and some 20,000 near the Persian Gulf. The American role as a stabilizer and reassurance against aggression by aspiring hegemons in key regions is a blue chip issue. We should not abandon these regions, as some have recently suggested, though our presence in the Gulf could be handled more subtly.

Promoting an open international economic system is good for American economic growth and is good for other countries as well. The openness of global markets is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for alleviating poverty in poor countries even as it benefits the US. In addition, in the long term, economic growth is also more likely to foster stable, democratic middle-class societies in other countries, though the time scale may be quite lengthy. To keep the system open, the US must resist protectionism at home and support international economic institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that provide a framework of rules for the world economy.

The US, like 19th-century Britain, has an interest in keeping international commons, such as oceans, open to all. Here our record is mixed. It is good on traditional freedom of the seas. For example, in 1995, when Chinese claims to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea sparked concern in Southeast Asia, the US avoided the conflicting claims of various states to the islets and rocks, but issued a statement reaffirming that the sea should remain open to all countries. China then agreed to deal with the issue under the Law of the Seas Treaty. Today, however, the international commons include new issues such as global climate change, preservation of endangered species, and the uses of outer space, as well as the virtual commons of cyberspace. But on some issues, such as the global climate, the US has taken less of a lead than is necessary. The establishment of rules that preserve access for all remains as much a public good today as in the 19th century, even though some of the issues are more complex and difficult than freedom of the seas.

These three classic public goods enjoy a reasonable consensus in American public opinion, and some can be provided in part through unilateral actions. But there are also three new dimensions of global public goods in today's world. First, the US should help develop and maintain international regimes of laws and institutions that organize international action in various domains-not just trade and environment, but weapons proliferation, peacekeeping, human rights, terrorism, and other concerns. Terrorism is to the 21st century what piracy was to an earlier era. Some governments gave pirates and privateers safe harbor to earn revenues or to harass their enemies. As Britain became the dominant naval power in the 19th century, it suppressed piracy, and most countries benefited from that situation. Today, some states harbor terrorists in order to attack their enemies or because they are too weak to control powerful groups. If our current campaign against terrorism is seen as unilateral or biased, it is likely to fail, but if we continue to maintain broad coalitions to suppress terrorism, we have a good prospect of success. While our antiterrorism campaign will not be seen as a global public good by the groups that attack us, our objective should be to isolate them and diminish the minority of states that give them harbor.

We should also make international development a higher priority, for it is an important global public good as well. Much of the poor majority of the world is in turmoil, mired in vicious circles of disease, poverty and political instability. Large-scale financial and scientific help from rich countries is important not only for humanitarian reasons but also, as Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued, "because even remote countries become outposts of disorder for the rest of the world." Here our record is less impressive. Our foreign aid has shrunk to 0.1 percent of our GNP, roughly one-third of European levels, and our protectionist trade measures often hurt poor countries most. Foreign assistance is generally unpopular with the American public, in part (as polls show) because they think we spend 15 to 20 times more on it than we do. If our political leaders appealed more directly to our humanitarian instinct as well as our interest in stability, our record might improve. As president Bush said in July 2001, "This is a great moral challenge." To be sure, aid is not sufficient for development, and opening our markets, strengthening accountable institutions and discouraging corruption are even more important. Development will take a long time, and we need to explore better ways to make sure that our help actually reaches the poor, but both prudence and a concern for our soft power suggest that we should make development a higher priority.

As a preponderant power, the US can provide an important public good by acting as a mediator. By using our good offices to mediate conflicts in places such as Northern Ireland, the Middle East or the Aegean Sea, the US can help in shaping international order in ways that are beneficial to us as well as to other nations. It is sometimes tempting to let intractable conflicts fester, and there are some situations where other countries can more effectively play the mediator's role. Even when we do not want to take the lead, our participation can be essential-witness our work with Europe to try to prevent civil war in Macedonia. But often the US is the only country that can bring together mortal enemies as in the Middle East peace process. And when we are successful, we enhance our reputation and increase our power of appeal at the same time that we reduce a source of instability.