posed this question in an article
appearing in the spring 1995
issue of International Security
. Before the rise of the United States of America
as a global power, only two other state
s had achieved its preeminence
without simultaneously reaching hegemony
during the 1700's and Germany
in the late 1800's. Joffe argued that the two models set by Bismarck and Britain could give the US clues on how to manage world affairs in the wake of the Cold War
Britain was, in the words of William Camden, the tongue in the balance of Europe—in the words of Henry VIII, cui adhaero praeest ("prevail will those whom I support"). After Elizabeth I and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Britain sat rather quietly off the coast of Normandy, sweeping into Europe as soon as a new hegemon began to emerge. Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler were among many who were ultimately defeated by the British, either alone or in alliance.
Britain maintained its power during this time largely because of its isolation from the Continent. Most of the state's military power was invested in the Royal Navy, which was all it really needed for self-defense, and which scored the majority of its victories at low costs in comparison to the mighty armies of France or Austria. After intervention, British forces would return home, which kept most other states from developing deep-seated grudges against Britain, and allowed Britain an unparalleled degree of freedom in its diplomatic relations. Most of the time, the British diplomats were playing Continental powers against each other, without actually involving British soldiers at all.
According to Joffe, America's modern naval power is analogous to Britain's nineteenth-century naval power, and America has the added advantage of an unparalleled air force. It also has the same benefit of isolation that Britain had, and can stay out of disputes until they mature into full-blown wars, at which point America can apply forces at its own discretion. On the other hand, without American intervention of some kind, there is no such thing as a balance of power anywhere on Earth today.
Germany under Otto von Bismarck was in a different situation. For one, it was a brand-new country. For another, it shared sizable borders with France, Russia, and Austria, which had, until then, been the most powerful states on the Continent. France, in particular, wanted to see the Germans overrun. Bismarck's solution to keep the peace was to make Germany "the dead weight in the tumbler doll that is Europe"—that is, ensure that the other powers would not coalesce with the French in an anti-German alliance.
To do that, Bismarck constructed the famed Dual Alliance with Austria in 1879, which eventually sucked in Serbia, Rumania, and Italy. Even Russia was in Germany's camp for a time, before the two split over rivalries in the Balkans. This network of alliances and pacts served to keep a multitude of countries from getting involved in any war between the powers: in essence, it tied Europe up, until Britain and America joined France and Russia in tearing the alliances apart in World War I.
The German model may not seem appropriate for the modern American situation, but consider that there are several powers in the world who could initiate an attack on America at any time, from any distance. Today, in many parts of the world (the Middle East and East Asia in particular), most countries have better relations with America than they have with their own neighbors: Egypt and Israel would lash into each other were it not for the fact that they're both friends with Washington, D.C.
America, of course, does not employ one strategy or the other: it tends to use both at the same time, balancing complex networks of international relationships with a butt-kicking point-and-shoot military capability for last-minute crises. The key for America to hold its position at the center of our unimultipolar world, according to Joffe, is moderation: be nice to other countries, and try to keep them from attacking America or each other.