2003 June 02 Monday
On The Fallacy Of Enormous American Power

Columnist for The New York Times Thomas Friedman repeats a conventional wisdom fallacy.

During the 1990's, America became exponentially more powerful economically, militarily and technologically than any other country in the world, if not in history. Broadly speaking, this was because the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the alternative to free-market capitalism, coincided with the Internet-technology revolution in America. The net effect was that U.S. power, culture and economic ideas about how society should be organized became so dominant (a dominance magnified through globalization) that America began to touch people's lives around the planet "more than their own governments," as a Pakistani diplomat once said to me. Yes, we began to touch people's lives directly or indirectly more than their own governments.

Let us examine why this is a fallacy and then why the fallacy is damaging to American interests in the world.

First of all, US military superiority is not so great that it can intervene anywhere and change any regime at little cost to itself. Recent US interventions exaggerate the ease with which the United States can intervene. Any government of Afghanistan is inherently unstable due to ethnic and tribal divisions. Given the circumstances in Afghanistan it was not hard for a combination of JDAMs and bribery to bring down the Taliban fairly quickly. The United States also faced a weak opponent in Iraq and had many years in which to gradually weaken the Iraqi military. However, while Iraq was easy to invade it is turning out to be more difficult to govern and the US has had to send more troops in to govern it than it took to invade it.

A look at some of the remaining enemies that the United States faces makes it clear that the US has tackled the easiest targets first.

North Korea is a big problem. We do not know where all of North Korea's nuclear facilities are located and so we can not just conduct a surgical air strike to knock them out. Also, for all its supposed enormous power and influence America has been unable to convince China to apply economic sanctions to North Korea. Therefore in order to stop continued North Korean development of nuclear weapons and missiles ground action would be needed to bring down the Pyongyang regime. But South Korea's government is firmly opposed to military action against North Korea. Even if the US could convince the South Koreans to go along with a military strike to overthrow the regime in Pyongyang the US would be faced with the prospect of casualties that would be 2 or 3 orders of magnitude higher than it experienced in Iraq. South Korea would be faced with casualties that would run into the hundreds of thousands or even millions killed. Well, if the United States was as incredibly powerful as so many imagine it to be the US would be able to attack North Korea without South Korean help and to do so in a way that prevented the North Korean regime from killing hundreds of thousands or millions before it was overthrown. In reality America faces tough choices with North Korea that demonstrate the limits of American power.

Iran poses a similar problem for the United States. Iran, with a much larger population and land area, would be more difficult to invade and to occupy than Iraq. The US already has 160,000 troops tied down in Iraq and has only 2 out of 10 US Army divisions uncommitted and available for operations against a regime such as Iran's. The US is not so incredibly powerful that it can easily invade and occupy Iran. Also, the international reaction to such an invasion would be much more unfavorable.

As for Friedman's approval of the contention that America touches the lives of ordinary Pakistanis more than their own government does: how is that? Do we build their roads or show up as police when someone reports a crime? Do US employees show up when someone calls for an ambulance? Of course not. Does the US write the criminal or civil laws of Pakistan or collect taxes there? No again. Most of what happens in Pakistan happens because Pakistanis choose to make it happen. The US was not able to prevent Pakistan from developing nuclear weapons and US policy makers see that an attempt to take away Pakistan's nukes has too much in the way of downsides to make it worthwhile. Is this the sign of an incredibly powerful nation?

Sometimes when people refer to American influence they are referring to the influence of global capitalism. But when Pakistanis (to use Friedman's example) buy Japanese cars or Japanese radios are they being touched by Americans or Japanese? When they trade weapons technology with North Korea are they experiencing the effects of American power? No and No. If they buy fashions are all the fashions American? No, they can get Italian or French fashions as well. America can not control people by producing and selling lots of goods. People can take those goods and use them for their own purposes. They can also choose to buy competing goods from many other countries.

Some argue that US cultural products make the US more powerful and influential. But those cultural products such as movies and music do not translate by themselves into incredible power over the lives of people in other countries. Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il are both enthusiastic fans of Hollywood movies. Yet watching thousands of Hollywood movies has not caused Saddam or Kim to become more compliant to American wishes. The availability of American culture has not made Muslim fundamentalists more tolerant either.

American influence and power does not extend so far as giving America control over whether local officials of other goverments are corrupt. America can not control whether the Pakistani government is cruel or fair to the Pakistani people. America has not been able to prevent Muslim preachers from teaching hatred of non-Muslims in general and of America in particular. The US government has not been able to stop all the aspiring nuclear powers from attempting to develop nuclear weapons. The US government faces real limits every day as it tries to prevent terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

To the extent that American commentators echo back the contention that America is all powerful they feed a paranoia and a feeling of grievance in Muslim countries. This helps the Muslims to focus their anger toward America. If people believe America is so incredibly powerful and more powerful in their own lives than their own governments then the logic becomes inescapable: if they are misgoverned it must be America's fault. Sloppy thinking from the likes of Tom Friedman helps to feed this perception. Yet in reality America's influence over the government of Pakistan or of other governments of Muslim countries is very limited.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 June 02 12:51 AM  Politics Grand Strategy

razib said at June 2, 2003 2:12 AM:

friedman's time has come and gone-he had a brief time in the sun (read: lots of charlie rose appearences) before the second intifada began in mid 2000. after 9-11 he kept peddling prosperity = happy democrats the world over. he is a latter day fukuyama-a bright guy, but doesn't know when to fold when history passes him by.

Bob said at June 2, 2003 9:37 AM:

Heck, American influence does not even extend far enough to keep islamofascist clerics from preaching hatred inside the US or to keep their lackey thugs from silencing critics.

I can understand that freedom loving muslims probably fear for their personal safety when confronted with the more feral and vitriolic members of their congregations. I don't mind their cowardice in failing to personally drive the murderous pigs from their mosques. For their personal safety, I suggest they maintain their anonymity when they report the actions, the intimidations and the hate-filled messages to appropriate law-enforcement agencies. Perhaps, many or even most freedom loving muslims already do this without wide publicity of the fact.

When cowardice becomes treasonous silence, it bothers me. It is the patriotic duty of every American muslim to drive the murderous pigs away from our shores. Treasonous silence will ultimately force a law enforcement response that causes freedom loving muslims to suffer needlessly right alongside the murderous pigs.

Given how few muslims in the US have the moral fibre to speak publicly against the criminal element within their religious institutions, I have little expectation that those who cower silently will have the moral fibre to acknowledge their own responsibility for the consequences of their treason.

Don Marshall said at June 2, 2003 10:06 AM:

If reference to the paragraph which reads in part. ". . .America became exponentially more powerful economically, militarily and technologically than any other country in the world, . . .", may I suggest that you read POWER SHIFT, a 13 year old book written by Alvin Toffler. What you have stated in your opening paragraph it true at this time, but give it a couple of more years.
By-the-way, the sub-title of POWER SHIFT is "Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the edge of the 21st century". You will find Toffler's prediction to be quite accurate - so far.

Randall Parker said at June 2, 2003 1:23 PM:


America is going to become relatively less powerful as China continues to industrialize. They have a much larger population even with a much lower per capita GDP they can bypass us in total GDP. They are already at about 60% of American total GDP.

But power has to be measured by what it can accomplish. Can large standing armies with high tech weaponry prevent someone who possesses a nuclear bomb from smuggling it into the United States? I do not think so. There are major limitations on what American power can accomplish.

Don Marshall said at June 2, 2003 4:41 PM:


It has been my contention for a long time that America MUST be aware of China.I think that in the future China will be a formidable power. As their country become more democratic (and it will) and technologically adept I don't think it impossible for them to surpass America. But, so goes evolution. Look at the greatness Russia and Rome in the "good old days" of Tsars and emperors. Countries come and countries go, but probably not in my lifetime. But 50 or 100 years from now . . . Who knows. I am obliged to live in the present.

Jim Miller said at June 2, 2003 8:37 PM:

Here's one of my own examples, which I used some time ago on my site. If we are so powerful, how come we couldn't get the support of Canada, Mexico, and Turkey in overthrowing Iraq? One can add others. When the government of the Philippines asked us to remove our bases there, what happened? We removed them.

Randall Parker said at June 3, 2003 12:32 PM:

Jim, Exactly right. If we are so powerful then why are there so many things about the way the world is that are not as we wish them to be?

The fallacy of enormous American power is harmful to American interests. It causes us to be blamed for things that are not our fault.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Web parapundit.com
Go Read More Posts On ParaPundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright