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Four Years under the Spell of the Superpower Myth?
Nancy Soderberg at book signing after her presentation. (Photo by Angilee Shah)

Four Years under the Spell of the Superpower Myth?

Nancy Soderberg talks about her new book on unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy under the Bush administration.

Angilee Shah Email AngileeShah

Getting the support of other countries and the United Nations, she said, "is not the nice thing to do -- this is the right thing to do."

Nancy Soderberg, former Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for National Security Affairs and third-ranking official at the National Security Council, discussed her new book The Superpower Myth: The Use and Misuse of American Might at the UCLA School of Law on Tuesday, April 19. Soderberg said that the Bush administration, particularly in its first term, has operated under the myth that the U.S. can conduct its foreign policy and national security programs without international collaboration.

"You have to be able to work with allies and persuade them to follow you," Soderberg said to the audience of about 100 people.

Soderberg's presentation, as she said, was about "what I consider a fundamental truth in politics today -- the U.S. can't go it alone." If the Bush administration were to abandon its unilateral policies in its second term, Soderberg said, many issues would be "ripe for historic progress."

The superpower myth, said Soderberg, is not that the U.S. is a superpower -- "There is no question we are a superpower and will be for the foreseeable future," she said -- but the problem with the policy of the last four years is that "they have confused great power with absolute power."

"You have to use American power more wisely than we have in the last four years," she said, because when the U.S. does so, allies will follow. "This administration has been blinded by the superpower myth."

In the war in Iraq, for example, Soderberg said that U.S. policies "ensure that we are really the only ones there," bearing the brunt of costs and casualties. The U.S., she said, faces mistrust from allies and the Muslim world. Polls say that more than half of Europeans do not believe the U.S. is working in their favor and seven out of eight Muslim countries believe that the U.S. poses a military threat to them. She hopes for a "second-term conversion" in the current administration. Getting the support of other countries and the United Nations, she said, "is not the nice thing to do -- this is the right thing to do."

Soderberg addressed four issues in particular: Arab reform; Arab-Israeli peace; stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction; and economic development of the world's poorest regions.

On Arab reform, Soderberg said it is crucial that the Saudi regime provide a forum for political participation, reform its rhetoric-filled education system and curb hate speech in the media. She said that the U.S. must show that these reforms are "in the interest of Arab countries." With regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Soderberg believes that the U.S. should play the role of the honest broker to facilitate dialogue, a role she said Bush is beginning to adopt.

Soderberg also acknowledged the possibility that the next terrorist attack could include weapons of mass destruction; for this reason, she said it is important to contain North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation.

Soderberg also stressed the need for economic development in the poorest countries of the world. A 2005 UN report, she said, says that donor countries should give 0.7 percent of their gross national product to fight poverty -- the U.S. currently gives 0.15 percent. The effort to eradicate poverty must also be done in cooperation with the rest of the world. "Most of the time," said Soderberg, "the multilateral effort is the stuff you don't even know about." She says clean air, fighting AIDs, and tsunami relief are some examples of the necessity of international cooperation.

Soderberg began her political career when her then-professor Madeleine Albright got her an internship working on Walter Mondale's campaign.

Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation, David Aaron, gave a brief response focusing on the U.S. superpower status. While Soderberg said that the U.S. is likely to remain the most powerful country in the world, Aaron disagreed.

"We are consuming 10 percent more than we are producing," said Aaron. He also said that "massive amounts of wealth are flowing to Asia," pointing to last December's sale of IBM's personal computer division to China's Lenovo Group. He also said that foreign markets are starting to diversify their purchases; oil producers, he said, could possibly begin charging in "a basket of currencies that include the [U.S.] dollar but is not totally dependent on it."

The U.S. war efforts are also indicative of its declining status. "We have been planning for decades to be able to fight two and a half wars -- we can barely fight the one-half war [Iraq]," Aaron said. "The notion that we are somehow going to be a military power that can spread its wings all over the world is really not true."

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