November 23rd, 2007
As the Number One power in the world today, the United States faces pressing global issues, including the insurgency of radical Islam, the future of nuclear weapons, and the need for closer global co-operation. It should look to the history of predecessor Number Ones to find insights and clues which could help it act in the present and prepare for the future by learning from the successes and failures of the past.
Many powerful, well-led states have held the Number One position in earlier times—Rome, Egypt, Persia, China, Britain, France, Germany, Russia—and they have all lost it. The principal factors for their demise were: causing fear among a mass of individually less powerful states; then applying force pre-emptively and over-optimistically; and finally discovering that the cost of achieving victory would be unsustainable.
The United States has not yet lost its position as Number One, but its influence has declined since 2003. The moral standing of the United States has been damaged and President Bush himself is poorly regarded. American proclivities to use force are deprecated. America’s proficiency in counter-insurgency is rated as low, and its capacity to administer an occupied country is seen as weak. In short, America’s halo has slipped. Regaining the respect and esteem that it has lost will not be easy, and, history tells us, when a national leadership is under pressure, judgement is apt to go astray.
The U.S.’s challenge is to learn from its own recent experience and the histories of other leading powers so that it might avoid gradual loss of respect and authority, followed by growing alienation from other states, including its friends. These history lessons include:
• Wars are best launched with the sanction of international authority.
• Wars initiated with the UN’s support need to be conducted successfully.
• Armed forces used for the reconstruction of failed or split states need to be relatively large, multi-national in composition and command, specially trained for this very demanding role, and, once committed, kept on station for many years of service.
America does not have to do it all but it has to lead by persuasion. Other major powers in Europe and Asia have to be convinced that they will be listened to and their contributions welcomed.
We need a new generation of national and international leaders who understand why the policies of the past several years have been so unsuccessful and boldly set out on a new course. These leaders will need sound guidance from the expert communities of academia, the media and government agencies. It will be up to our leaders to open their ears and their minds to some positive new thinking.
Robert J. O’Neill, AO
Chichelle Professor Emeritus of the History of War, All Souls College, Oxford University
Former Chairman of the Council, International Institute for Strategic Studies
Chairman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute
Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy
Member of the Canberra Commission