NUMBER One. World Policeman. Main Honcho. The Global Big Enchilada.
Whatever the name, should the United States aspire to continue in the role? A draft Pentagon paper saying America should strive to maintain world military preeminence has become a hot topic in Washington.
There's a long way between a draft Defense Planning Guidance document and actual procurement and spending priorities that set national policy. Congress is unlikely to vote up or down on US as hegemon anytime soon. But the debate itself is revealing - for what isn't being said, as much as for what is.
On one side, critics who favor further reductions of US forces in Europe are waving the report as evidence that the Pentagon just doesn't understand there's a new world order. On the other, most report defenders aren't mentioning that among the nations which the US might wish to deter from seeking a bigger military role are today's allies, as well as yesterday's adversaries.
"They aren't saying it's Germany and Japan they're worried about," says a Pentagon force analysis consultant. "They aren't saying it isn't, either." Undiplomatic language
At issue is the 46-page Defense Planning Guidance, a classified document which typically lays out in rather undiplomatic language the strategic rationale defense planners should use in drawing up five-year budget plans.
In recent weeks the New York Times and Washington Post have printed excerpts from the document, which has yet to be approved by Defense Secretary Richard Cheney. The disclosure which has raised the most controversy is the proposed central tenet: that the US make sure it is strong enough militarily to deter potential competitors from "even aspiring" to larger regional or global roles.
In addition, the guidance lists potential conflicts the US should be ready for, including defense of Lithuania and Poland from a Russian invasion and defense of South Korea from North Korea. Burden to bear
US officials deny that this guidance would constitute a rejection of internationalism and collective action through the UN. But they have been mildly supportive of its US-as-leader thrust, saying it largely mirrors things Secretary Cheney, among others, has been saying before Congress for weeks.
"I think the United States has a burden to bear ... we must continue to stay engaged," said President Bush on March 11.
Critics have attacked the draft defense guidance as a blueprint for justifying continued large military expenditures, even in the face of the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a working document, its words might have been toned down upon final review by higher authorities. Even so, "I was a little surprised somebody would put this kind of thing down on paper," says John Gaddis, director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University.
Professor Gaddis thinks the US proclaiming its intention to be a hegemon would immediately create a reason for tensions and suspicions to arise in US relations with other states.
The US is the strongest power in the world today, but it was in essence invited to become the western world's hegemon by allies who wanted to counter Soviet expansionism. Inviting oneself to world leadership "is an invitation to trouble," he says.
The movement of the 80,000-ton aircraft carrier USS America into the Persian Gulf late last week, coming as it did on the heels of the leak of the classified defense plans, gave the White House an example of just what burdens it intended to bear. The action made perfectly clear US willingness to exert a leadership role in bringing about compliance with the UN-sponsored Gulf war cease-fire agreements.
Other critics think that even if the US worked to maintain clear military superiority in the world, it wouldn't deter the rise of regional threats. That's because middle-rank nations may not look at the US before building up their militaries, but at their neighbors.
"The Iraqis didn't develop their capabilities to fight us. They developed them to fight the Iranians," says the Pentagon consultant. On the other hand, some analysts fault the surprised reaction to the Pentagon's words. The criticism is partly based on a naive view of the role America plays in the world, they say.
"It's perfectly natural for any great power to wish it could be the only superpower in the international system," says John Mearsheimer, chairman of the University of Chicago political science department. Whether any power can in fact remain strong enough to discourage all rivals is another question, he says. US still has worries
And the fact is that the draft Pentagon plan to accomplish its purpose would have to discourage current friends from rearming, as well as former adversaries. It would entail the US remaining a large enough military presence in Europe and East Asia to reassure Germany and Japan.
One reason the US worries about North Korea's nuclear program, for instance, is that officials feel a North Korean atomic bomb could launch a debate in Japan over whether it should remain reliant on the US for its security.
"It's not as though Japan is bursting at the seams to go nuclear. But a North Korean nuclear program would certainly put them to the test," said Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz at a recent meeting with defense reporters.
With the US presence in Europe dwindling Germany might find itself in the same position, says Mearsheimer.
"I find it hard to imagine that Germany is going to tolerate a situation for long where it has no nuclear weapons and is surrounded by other great powers which do," he says.