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The Risks of Unilateralism

by Paul Janson on Mar 12, 2002

When a nation — the United States — begins to regard itself as "the sole superpower," capable of acting "with or without allies," it places itself at risk of being isolated on the world stage. The most likely result of unilateralist action is to invite lesser powers to combine to neutralize it.
Therefore, the United States should consider the fate of the last world superpower: Britain. In the 19th century, Britain believed itself to be and acted as if it were the world's single great power and showed little regard for world opinion.  President Bush's unwillingness to work within today's globalized economic and political structures may doom the United States to the fate of the British Empire. The beginning of the decline of American world dominance may already be upon us.
Following its triumph in the Napoleonic Wars early in the 19th century, Britain was the dominant force in the world. So vast was its reach that, proverbially and literally, the sun never set on the British Empire. The British exerted their control over the colonial empire with unchallengeable military might. In a series of colonial wars, technologically and organizationally advanced British forces vanquished all who opposed them. Opposition to the British army by indigent forces was fruitless at best and suicidal at worst.
U.S. military forces find themselves in a similar situation today. The nation's "smart" armaments are capable of reducing any nation against which they are directed to ruins. Like our own today, the rationale for Britain's colonial aggression was belief in an obligation to extend British civilization to a heathen world — the obligation that the poet Rudyard Kipling called "The White Man's Burden." This policy left no room for native cultures, which were regarded as inferior.
As the British did in the time of their empire, today the United States regards itself as fighting for "freedom" against "evil." The United States does not see the culture of Afghanistan or any other nation as having anything to offer Americans, who believe their supremacy to be cultural as well as military.
The United States now risks finding itself in Britain's old shoes, with colonial conflicts repeating themselves again and again. The British fought twice in Afghanistan — in 1837 and again between 1878 and 1880. They also fought to protect their opium trade in China in 1839-1842 and 1856-1860. A pattern emerged. At first the British would be surprised and unprepared for others' attacks on them; then would come a call for reinforcements. Customarily victory would follow, usually with minimal British casualties.
A similar pattern can be seen in U.S. actions in recent years. Neither the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 nor the recent terrorist attacks in the United States were anticipated; both were followed by an enormous military response.
The British did not suffer reverses until the Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1902 when the descendants of Dutch settlers, the Afrikaners, fought a bloody guerrilla war with modern weapons and neutralized British technical and organizational advantages. As a result, Britain began to question the cost of world dominance. Gradually the empire became too much of a burden. The end of the British Empire can be said to have begun with the Boer War.
Much as the British did long ago, many in the United States are beginning to raise questions about the value of the War on Terrorism and American global economic dominance. The cost of being a superpower is already being felt domestically with deficit spending and threats to such social programs as Social Security and Medicare.
The United States now appears to be preparing to act in Iraq, Iran and the Philippines. The United States will need to enlist surrogate forces, as it now has Afghans fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida. That may be increasingly difficult as American goals and surrogates' goals diverge — much as the British found when they used native troops to police their colonial empire. The British also found that maintaining an adequate occupation force throughout its empire was too expensive, both politically and economically.
Similarly, the United States will find the extended commitments of its War on Terrorism expensive in both money and lives. Questions are just beginning to be voiced, mostly from outside the United States right now but soon they will be raised at home. The United States may be heading toward the fate of  earlier empires that found supporting the homeland and suppressing foreign lands too great a burden.

Paul Janson is a physician in Lawrence, Mass., with an interest in British history. He is a writer for the History News Service.