Commentary Magazine


The Case for Global Activism

Future historians will record—perhaps in astonishment—that the demise of the Soviet Union ushered in an era of American worldwide engagement and armed intervention unprecedented in scope and frequency. Despite a widespread conviction that, in a post-cold-war world, the American role would diminish, in a brief four years the United States has: launched a massive counteroffensive against the world’s fourth largest army in the Middle East; invaded, occupied, and supervised elections in a Latin American country; intervened with force to provide food to starving peoples in Africa; and conducted punitive bombing raids in the Balkans.

Nor is this all. The United States has sent troops on another humanitarian mission in Africa, and volunteered troops to serve as peacekeeping forces in the Middle East and in the former Yugoslavia. It has worked in the UN Security Council to enact punitive sanctions against at least a half-dozen international scofflaws. It has seriously considered extending military protection to several important nations of Eastern Europe that have never before been part of an alliance with the United States. And it has interceded in disputes among the former republics of the Soviet Union.

How is this increased activity to be explained? The answer is rather easily found in the new relations of power in the post-cold-war world. The fall of the Soviet Union removed restraints on foreign leaders unhappy with the order imposed by the cold war and unleashed new struggles for power in areas hitherto under the former superpower’s thumb. Some would-be challengers of the old order were encouraged by the belief that the United States would not step in. The United States, however, itself freed from the restraints of the cold war, began to fill the gap left by the absence of Soviet global power and continued a historical tradition of using its influence to promote a world order consistent with its material needs and philosophical predilections.

But if the course America has followed has been natural enough, to many American strategists, policy-makers, and politicians it seems also to have been unexpected—and unwelcome. Today, a scant two years after the intervention in Somalia, three years after the Gulf war, and four years since the invasion of Panama, foreign-policy theorists continue to write of the need for a “global retrenchment” of American power. Before and after each venture abroad, they have argued that such high levels of American engagement cannot be sustained, politically or economically, and that a failure to be more selective in the application of American power will either bankrupt the country or drive the American public further toward the isolationism into which, they warn, it is already beginning to slip.

This political judgment has found intellectual buttressing in the so-called “realist” approach to foreign policy, which asserts that the United States should limit itself to defending its “core” national interests and abandon costly and unpopular efforts to solve the many problems on the “periphery.”1 During the cold war, realists fought against efforts by Presidents from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan to equate American interests with the advancement of a democratic world order. In the post-cold-war era, they have gained new prominence by again recommending a retreat from such ambitions and the definition of a far more limited set of foreign-policy goals.

Yet the realist view remains inadequate, both as a description, precisely, of reality—of the way the world really works—and as a recommendation for defending America’s interests, either on the “periphery” or at the “core.” When Americans have exercised their power in pursuit of a broad definition of interests—in pursuit, that is, of a more decent world order—they have succeeded in defending their “vital” interests as well. When they have sought to evade the dangers of global involvement, they have found themselves unexpectedly in a fight for national survival.

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Throughout this century, the United States has faced the problem of its expanding power—and has responded with ambivalence. Americans are perhaps more suspicious of power than most people on earth, but just like others they have nonetheless sought it, guarded it, and enjoyed its benefits. As products of a modern, nonmartial republic, Americans have always tended to cherish the lives of their young more than the glories to be won on the battlefield; yet they have sacrificed their young for the sake of honor, interest, and principle as frequently as any nation in the world over the past 200 years. Again, as the products of a revolution against an imperial master, Americans have always abhorred imperialism; yet where their power was preponderant, they have assumed hegemony and have been unwilling to relinquish it.

The common view of American foreign policy as endlessly vacillating between isolationism and interventionism is wrong: Americans in this century have never ceased expanding their sphere of interests across the globe, but they have tried to evade the responsibility of defending those interests, until they had no choice but to fight a war for which they were unprepared. The American conception of interest, moreover, has always gone beyond narrow security concerns to include the promotion of a world order consistent with American economic, political, and ideological aspirations.

It was Theodore Roosevelt, paradoxically a President admired by realists for his shrewd understanding of power politics, who first grafted principled ends to the exercise of power. Roosevelt insisted that it was America’s duty to “assume an attitude of protection and regulation in regard to all these little states” in the Western hemisphere, to help them acquire the “capacity for self-government,” to assist their progress “up out of the discord and turmoil of continual revolution into a general public sense of justice and determination to maintain order.”

For Roosevelt, American stewardship in the Western hemisphere was more than a defensive response to European meddling there; it was proof that the United States had arrived as a world power, with responsibilities to shape a decent order in its own region. When Woodrow Wilson, the quintessential “utopian” President, took office later, his policies in the hemisphere were little more than a variation on Roosevelt’s theme.

The same mix of motives followed the United States as it reached out into the wider world, especially Europe and Asia. Growing power expanded American interests, but also expanded the risks of protecting them against the ambitions of others. After the 1880′s, America’s navy grew from a size comparable to Chile’s to become one of the three great navies of the world. That increase in power alone made America a potential arbiter of overseas conflicts in a way it had never been in the 18th and 19th centuries. Greater power meant that if a general European war broke out, the United States would no longer have to sit back and accept dictation of its trade routes. It also meant, however, that the United States could not sit back without accepting a diminished role in world affairs.

Nor could Americans escape choosing sides. Although German- and Irish-Americans disagreed, most Americans in the 1910′s preferred the British-run world order with which they were familiar to a prospective German one. Wilson’s pro-British neutrality made conflict with Germany almost inevitable, and America’s new great-power status made it equally inevitable that when the German challenge came, the United States would not back down.

It was the growth of American power, not Wilsonian idealism and not national interest narrowly conceived, that led the United States into its first European war. A weak 19th-century America could not have conceived of intervening in Europe; a strong 20th-century America, because it could intervene, found that it had an interest in doing so.

After World War I, Americans recoiled from the new responsibilities and dangers which their power had brought. But they did not really abandon their new, broader conception of the national interest. Throughout the “isolationist” years, the United States still sought, however halfheartedly and ineffectually, to preserve its expanded influence and the world order it had fought for.

Although they refused to assume military obligations, Presidents from Harding to Franklin Roosevelt tried to maintain balance and order in Europe and in Asia through economic and political agreements. In Central America and the Caribbean, the Republican Presidents found themselves endlessly intervening, occupying, and supervising elections only so that they might eventually withdraw. (Only FDR decided that the best way to be a “good neighbor” in the hemisphere was to allow dictatorship to flourish.)

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Americans, then, did not shun international involvement in the interwar years. Rather, they tried to enjoy the benefits of such involvement while hoping to avoid its inevitable costs. They resisted Japanese attempts to swallow China, but they did not believe the national interest required them to fight in Asia. They were unwilling to see France and England defeated by an increasingly dangerous Germany, but they did not see an interest in risking American lives in Europe. Through arms control and the theoretical banning of war, the United States sought ever more utopian mechanisms for pursuing its interests without risk. In the end, of course, this refusal to acknowledge the need to defend its expanded interests helped make war inevitable. Americans allowed the world order to collapse only to realize that this was a result they could not afford.

But if World War II marked the destruction of the old world order, it also extended the reach of American power beyond Theodore Roosevelt’s capacity to imagine. And it offered American leaders another chance to confront the new responsibilities which the expansion of power had created.

We often forget that the plan for world order devised by American leaders in the last years of the war was not intended to contain the Soviet Union. Their purpose was to build a more stable international system than that which had exploded in 1939. They hoped that the new system, embodied in the United Nations, would eventually become a self-regulating mechanism, protecting American interests without requiring the constant exercise of American power. But they also understood that American power had become the keystone in the arch of any world order.

The threat to the new system which soon emerged in the form of the Soviet Union quickly changed Americans’ sense of what the U.S. was trying to accomplish. The original goal of promoting and defending a decent world order became conflated with the goal of meeting the challenge of Soviet power—and in the minds of many people it remains so to this day.

Thus, all the policies that the United States would have continued to pursue without the existence of a Soviet Union—seeking a stable international economic system, exercising dominant influence in the Western hemisphere, insisting on an ever-increasing role in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, demanding adherence to international agreements, preferring dictatorship to disorder but also preferring democracy to dictatorship—became associated with the strategy of containment. This had the effect, unfortunate in retrospect, of obscuring the essential continuities in American foreign policy since the beginning of the century.

The fact is that America was simultaneously pursuing two goals during the cold war—promotion of a world order and defense against the biggest threat to it. Characteristically, each of them was beset by ambivalence. There is a common presumption today that the choices of that era were somehow easier, that there was a broad consensus about at least a few basic certainties. Nostalgia for these alleged “certainties” obscures from memory the long, bitter debates over the proper definition of American interests during the cold war. But it is worth remembering that even the now-hallowed doctrine of containment was denounced as dangerous and impossibly ambitious by clear-headed “realists” of the time. (Walter Lippmann, for example, called containment a “strategic monstrosity” because it seemed to require an American response to every conceivable Soviet thrust anywhere in the world.)

There were, as it happens, few certainties in the cold war. The gray areas in which the hardest decisions had to be made were much like the gray areas of today. The two major American wars of that era were fought in regions and involved conflicts—Korea and Vietnam—where the direct interests of the United States were at least debatable. Throughout the cold war, indeed, fighting took place almost entirely on the “periphery,” and was often conducted in the name of universal ideals that transcended the strategic importance of the plot of ground being contested.

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The end of the cold war has required the United States once again to face the old dilemmas. As in the aftermath of World War II, the areas of the world where America exerts influence have expanded, not contracted. So, too, have the burdens of promoting and sustaining a world order that serves American material and spiritual needs.

The demise of the Soviet Union has not eliminated the threat to that order; it has only changed its form. Instead of arising from a single, large adversary, the threat has devolved into a large number of smaller but collectively serious challenges. As in the past, many experts have come forward to argue that resources are lacking for a globally active policy designed to meet those challenges, that the American public would be unwilling to support it, and even that American power is declining.

The evidence does not support these claims.

The percentage of the American economy devoted to military spending has dropped to the small digits. This is too low to allow the United States to carry out the many new tasks it will face in the post-cold-war era, but the increases that will be necessary will hardly bankrupt the country.

Nor is the assumption warranted that the American public does not support the overseas commitments and interventions undertaken in these past four years, or opposes further commitments today. Americans have rarely been enthusiastic about extensive overseas involvements, but the public has clearly been more willing to support them in the 1990′s than it was in the 70′s and 80′s, as is demonstrated by the popularity of successful actions in such places as the Persian Gulf and Panama. Even in Bosnia and Somalia, ordinary Americans have complained not about action, but about confused and half-hearted policies and weak and incompetent execution.

We have also learned that the use of force need not be tied to unmistakable and narrowly defined security interests in order to win public support. A Latin American dictator cancels elections and helps Colombian drug dealers sell cocaine; a Middle Eastern despot invades a tiny neighboring country in order to control its oil wells; an African country dissolves into civil war and chaos, and famine threatens millions with starvation; one ethnic group tries to drive another ethnic group off its land and commits atrocities; an unfriendly Asian power develops nuclear weapons in violation of international agreements. Among these various events, only the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait qualified as a direct threat to American economic interests. In general, the issues that have invited an American response—aggression, political illegitimacy, genocide, mass starvation, nuclear proliferation, violations of international agreements—are all matters that fall under the general heading of threats to the kind of world order Americans value.

Can we sustain a policy of active response? Henry Kissinger has recently argued that, contrary to appearances, American power is actually in decline relative to other nations. While he admits that it “will remain unrivaled for the foreseeable future,” nevertheless, because all power in the world has become more “diffuse,” America’s ability “to shape the rest of the world has actually decreased.”

But surely the same level of American power applied to a world where opposing power is more diffuse should be more, not less, effective. America’s problem today is not that its power is in relative decline but, on the contrary, that the places where it can exert potentially decisive influence have increased in number, and so have the choices we must confront.

Do “losses” on the periphery matter? Indeed, can there even be American “losses” on the periphery if America does not choose to become involved? Should America resist all those who oppose its view of world order? Or should the United States keep its powder dry for the really serious threats to its existence—the dominance of Europe or Asia, for instance, by a single power? Such is the nature of the questions Americans have faced throughout this century, and have answered in two different and historically instructive ways.

It would seem to make sense to heed the realists’ assertion that a nation may become distracted, or exhaust itself by lesser endeavors, and thus fail to guard that which is most important. But this in fact is the path the United States followed in the 1930′s, and lived to regret. First it failed to respond to the peripheral Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the peripheral Spanish Civil War, and the peripheral Japanese conquest of Manchuria, and then it failed to respond as well when the big threat to “core” interests did finally emerge in the figure of Hitler’s Germany. The big threats and vital interests, as it turned out, were no less debatable than the small threats and lesser interests.

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American policy during the cold war provides an interesting contrast. Despite a terrible debacle on the periphery, the United States did not lose sight of the core. On the contrary, concern about the core and concern about the periphery seem to have been mutually reinforcing. The “lesson of Munich,” which dominated cold-war thinking until its temporary replacement by the “lesson of Vietnam,” taught that a failure of will on small matters eventually led to a failure of will on more vital matters as well. This proved to be a sound strategy for defending American interests, both large and small, and it was this strategy that made possible a peaceful victory in the cold war.

There is no certainty that we can correctly distinguish between high-stakes issues and small-stakes issues in time to sound the alarm. In the past we did not know for sure whether an invasion of Ethiopia was merely the whim of an Italian despot in an irrelevant part of Africa or the harbinger of fascist aggression in Europe, whether a North Vietnamese victory was a signal of national reunification or the prelude to a hostile takeover of Southeast Asia. So today we do not know whether Serbian aggression is “ethnic turmoil” or the first step in the breakdown of European order.

But the way one handles the small threats is likely to determine the way one handles the larger threats. It does not take much imagination to envision what those larger threats may be: the rise of militant anti-American Muslim fundamentalism in North Africa and the Middle East, a rearmed Germany in a chaotic Europe, a revitalized Russia, a rearmed Japan in a scramble for power with China in a volatile East Asia. If the goal is a United States capable of meeting these more serious threats when they do arise, then the best policy is one that seeks involvement rather than shuns it. Once appeasing adversaries and wishing away problems becomes a habit, it becomes a hard habit to break.

While America’s realists claim to await confrontation with the next Nazi Germany or Soviet empire, the tests of American strength, character, and endurance, essential to the preservation of a more stable world order, will continue to come in such unlikely places as Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Korea. If we cannot plug every breach in the world order, we also cannot allow potential challengers of that order to act in the confidence that the United States will stand aside.

The post-cold-war era is a time of readjustment. Relationships of power change constantly, but how Americans respond to crises, even small ones, in this time of transition will affect the nature of the changes yet to come. Only if it is ready to engage its power when and as needed can the United States hope to shape the character and direction of the forces of change rather than be overwhelmed by them.

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Finally, a political question that needs to be asked: who among us, Democrat or Republican, is prepared to rise to the challenge and follow the demanding (if in the long run safer) course of global activism?

On the Democratic side, even those Clinton-administration officials who appear willing to assert American leadership find it hard to overcome the instinctive aversion to the use of power which still burdens them twenty years after Vietnam. They seek the fruits of American intervention, yet seem incapable of doing what is necessary to secure them. Democrats today are paying the price for their years of opposition to Republican assertions of American strength abroad.

Since the Vietnam war, indeed, only the Republican party has had the understanding and the confidence to use American power in defense of the nation’s interests. Yet the Republican party itself is now teetering on the edge of a historic transformation. Increasing numbers of Republican politicians, policy-makers, and intellectuals agree with Minority Whip Newt Gingrich’s judgment that the United States is now “overextended around the world.” There are fewer Republican calls for increases in the defense budget, and more Republican calls for decreases in overseas commitments. The Republican party is less and less recognizable as the party of Ronald Reagan or the George Bush who sent troops to Panama and the Persian Gulf.

In the same way, 75 years ago the Republicans transformed themselves from the party of the internationalist Theodore Roosevelt into the party of the isolationist Senator William Borah. In defeating Woodrow Wilson’s brand of utopian internationalism, Republicans also killed the more practical internationalism of men like Henry Cabot Lodge, who believed American power had a critical role to play in preventing another war in Europe. When that disaster finally loomed, it was not Lodge but Borah who spoke for the party.

Victory in the cold war came when Republicans vehemently rejected the idea that the United States had to accept a diminished capacity to shape the world and adjust to the increasing power of its strategic and ideological adversaries. Such a prescription is as disastrous today as it was then, and shows the same lack of faith in the American people and their acceptance of responsibility. It took confidence and determination to take the United States safely through the end of the cold war. It will take no less confidence and determination to move America through this next, dangerous phase of history.


Footnotes

1 See, for example, “The Core vs. the Periphery,” by Fareed Zakaria, in the December 1993 COMMENTARY.

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