The great powers of history understood the truth of Virgil’s dictum that “they have power because they seem to have power.” As much as soldiers and weapons, prestige and perception are critical for a great power’s ability to pursue and defend its interests. Both allies and adversaries must show by their behavior that they respect and honor a dominant state, and understand that consequences will follow the failure to do so. And to reinforce the perception of its power, a major power must be willing to take actions that demonstrate that is worthy of this respect. To do otherwise is to create a perception of weakness and to invite encroachments on the state’s security and interests. The decline of great empires like that of Rome or of England is in part a consequence of the loss of this respect on the part of enemies and rivals, and the perception that they were weak rather than strong.
Unfortunately, this is a wisdom that the United States has forgotten, as evidenced by former President Bill Clinton’s recent trip to North Korea to rescue two reporters who had been imprisoned for “illegally” entering North Korean territory. Many will no doubt praise Clinton’s “diplomacy” and hope that it may jump-start the languishing efforts to pry loose North Korea’s nuclear arsenal from Kim Jong-il’s dying grip. In fact, the whole episode is another in a series of humiliations, whether petty or serious, that have damaged America’s prestige and convinced its enemies that for all our power, we are weak and vulnerable.
How else can one understand the sorry spectacle of the one-time leader of the world’s most powerful state flying cap in hand to a dysfunctional country ruled by a psychopathic thug? Does anybody think it shows strength for Clinton to apologize to said thug on behalf of two Americans who had been wrongly arrested and jailed? Doesn’t it rather redound to North Korea’s prestige that it has compelled a representative of American power to solicit a favor, pose for photos, and chit-chat with one of the most brutal dictators of recent history? And who knows what other concessions were promised or implied.
Legitimizing rogue regimes and dictators, and creating the perception of equality by summits, conferences, and photo-ops, does not advance our interests. The symbolic elevation of such regimes necessitates the degradation of the United States, for what we think of as a demonstration of strength––that we can resolve disputes just with talk–– our adversaries see as craven weakness. After all, begging a favor always implies inferiority: as the African proverb has it, “The hand that gives is always above the hand that receives.” We may have infinitely greater power, but if we make it clear that we will not use it, then the perception of our weakness is just as effective in controlling our behavior as are fighter jets and tanks.
Some may argue that our strength lies in our principles such as the rule of law and a preference for reasoned discussion over force. Indeed it does––but only when it is clear that our power lies behind our principles, that we believe in them ardently enough to use force not for territory or wealth, but to strengthen our principles and defend our security when we have determined they have been attacked. But to think that those principles and beliefs can stand on their own without being guaranteed by force is delusional, for the simple reason that most of our adversaries do not believe in the same principles. To our enemies, those principles are not self-evidently the best way to live, and so our adversaries must be compelled to respect these principles with deeds rather than words. The prestige of our principles depends on the prestige of our power.
Liberals, however, have a different view of foreign policy. They think that our adversaries are like us and believe in the same goods, such as the resolution of conflict through reasoned discussion, and so liberals take force off the table. They think that our example alone will be sufficient to convince our enemies to change their behavior. We see this approach in the current administration’s overtures to Iran. More discussion, more diplomacy, more offers of various material boons like increased trade supposedly will convince the mullahs to forgo the enormous boost in power and prestige they will enjoy by possessing nuclear arms.
Yet without the credible threat of force, all this diplomacy does not mean a thing to a regime that has nothing but contempt for us. Why else would they imprison three of our citizens? They know they will pay no price for dishonoring us in that way, that instead we will offer concessions, whether material or symbolic, the end result of which will be to further Iran’s prestige as a regime willing to stand up to the Great Satan and expose once again its weakness and corruption.
This decline in America’s prestige started after the debacle of Vietnam, where a military victory was squandered because of a massive failure of nerve on the part of both Congress and the people. Four years later, Iran confirmed the estimation of our weakness by seizing with impunity our citizens and embassy. In 1983, we failed to punish Iran for its part in helping Hezbollah blow up 241 of our soldiers. Ten years later, we ran from Mogadishu after 18 of our soldiers were killed, putting the QED to our enemies’ perception that we were through as a great power.
In 1996, Osama bin Laden explicitly linked al Qaeda’s bomb attacks on Americans in Saudi Arabia to the loss of prestige that followed these multiple failures to punish our enemies. In this fatwa, bin Laden starts by responding to Secretary of Defense William Perry’s statement after the bombing the lesson is “not to withdraw when attacked by coward terrorists,” which bin Laden correctly scorned as mere bluff:
“Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place on 1983 AD (1403 A.H). You were turned into scattered bits and pieces at that time; 241 mainly marines soldiers [sic] were killed. And where was this courage of yours when two explosions made you to leave Aden [site of the 1992 al Qaeda bombing of a hotel where U.S. servicemen stayed on their way to Somalia] in less than twenty- four hours!
But your most disgraceful case was in Somalia; where- after vigorous propaganda about the power of the USA and its post cold war leadership of the new world order- you moved tens of thousands of international force, including twenty eight thousands American solders into Somalia. However, when tens [sic] of your solders were killed in minor battles and one American Pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you. Clinton appeared in front of the whole world threatening and promising revenge, but these threats were merely a preparation for withdrawal. You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear. It was a pleasure for the "heart" of every Muslim and a remedy to the "chests" of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut , Aden and Mogadishu.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a more telling example of how the damage to prestige invites aggression, how blustering words not backed up by vigorous action creates contempt in our enemies.
And now a new administration promises to repeat the same mistakes: avoiding the hard choices and tragic consequences a great power must accept in order to remain a great power, relying instead on words to pursue aims only deeds can achieve. If this policy persists, the perception of our weakness could very well in the end be more powerful than all our armies and weapons.