Commentary Magazine

America to the Rescue

It has become fashionable once again to proclaim America’s decline. Books herald a “post-American world” and the “end of the American era.” The question is no longer whether America is Rome but how best to manage our inevitable fall. Few of the international-relations pundits who prophesy the decline of America and the concomitant advancement of China, India, Russia, and regional bodies like the European Union appear worried about the prospect. Indeed, many seem downright pleased by “the rise of the rest.”

Recent events in the Central American nation of Honduras, however, put a dent in the grand theory of American decline.

The ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, which occurred after his brazen gambit to subvert the Honduran constitution by holding an illegal referendum in an attempt to end presidential term limits, has created one of the most nail-biting political crises in recent Latin American history. Whatever the circumstances of Zelaya’s expulsion (claims that what transpired in Honduras constituted a “coup” are weakened by the validation bestowed on the military’s actions by the Supreme Court and attorney general as well as the consideration that the country is currently run by a civilian government), the situation remains tense. It reached its most dramatic point when, a little over a week after his ouster, Zelaya attempted to land a plane in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, only to be prevented from doing so by a military blockade of the runway. Most nations have recalled their ambassadors and cut off much-needed aid.

With Zelaya rallying unanimous support in the halls of the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), and the interim government holding equally firm in the face of such widespread opposition, some outside actor was required to mediate. So the two camps eventually did what most leaders in their position would inevitably do: they turned to the United States for help.

Two weeks ago, Honduras’s interim President Roberto Micheletti sent a delegation to Washington seeking American assistance in reaching a compromise. The Obama administration, no doubt in an attempt to abjure the “bluster” and “belligerence” of the one that preceded it, had tried to remain out of the crisis. At first, it delivered mixed signals, with the president following the likes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers in demanding Zelaya’s immediate reinstatement, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton more wisely called for “a return of democratic, constitutional order that is agreed to by all concerned.”

All along, the administration deferred to the OAS, which is dominated by Chavez and his allies. Yet less than two weeks after Zelaya was forced out of office, it is now the United States that is leading the way out of the morass, organizing a meeting between the two sides and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

That Zelaya and his domestic opponents would turn to America indicates the inexorable nature of our global hegemony. American liberals may be obsessed with apologizing for our past sins, especially in Latin America, and argue that our support for a coup in Chile in 1973 disqualifies us from doing anything proactive about Honduras in 2009. Actual Latin Americans, however, appear to disagree.

What’s clear is that without the United States serving as a benevolent regional hegemon, Honduras would be in a far worse place than the fraught standoff that characterizes the situation today. Whatever America’s history in the region, we have a far better chance of resolving the crisis than do any of the other nations vying for the role of referee. Honduras’s interim government rightly feels bullied by a bloc of left-wing Latin American populists, namely Chavez, who has threatened to invade Honduras if the interim government does not reinstate his ally. Micheletti accused neighboring Nicarauga (led by the former Sandinista rebel Daniel Ortega) of amassing troops on the border. For all we know, a small-scale war could have erupted without American intervention.

As for the regional organization that prophets of American decline would point to as the natural and rightful arbitrator, the OAS has largely discredited itself over the past few years by becoming the plaything of left-wing populists like Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Ostensibly meant to promote democracy and good governance, it has recently made way for the readmission of Cuba, which it banned nearly five decades ago after Fidel Castro turned the country into a communist dictatorship.

From the Taiwan Strait to the Persian Gulf to Eastern Europe, the projection of American power keeps the world safe, allows for free commercial exchange, and protects global liberty. Even stable democracies welcome the presence of American troops to check the ambitions of bad actors. For decades, the United States has stationed tens of thousands of soldiers in Germany, where they are more easily deployable to hot spots around the world and serve as a counter to a revanchist Russia. While Barack Obama has promised to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, America will maintain a large military force there for years, and probably decades, to come, projecting power in a region where rogue states and terrorists rule the roost. While America’s role in the current Honduran crisis is on its face a demonstration of our “soft” power, we would not be in a position to play such a constructive role were it not for our “hard” power, that is, our military and economic might.

Predicting American decline is as old as our republic itself. Even after losing to us in the Revolutionary War, Great Britain never thought the United States would stay afloat as an independent nation, never mind surpass it as a world power. In the 1980’s, the notion that Japan would bury our economy was de rigueur. If the United States cannot avoid taking a leadership position in helping a small and embattled Central American democracy find its way out of an internal political dispute, then the forecast for American global hegemony is far sunnier than what the chroniclers of our decline portend.

About the Author

James Kirchick, based in Berlin, is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to the New Republic.

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