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Will the Best of All Possible Worlds Continue?
Sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LHA 7) launch an F-35B Lightning II aircraft from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 262 (Reinforced) in the Philippine Sea, Oct. 13, 2022

Will the Best of All Possible Worlds Continue?

An expansive American role in the world is crucial for global stability. Will the United States sustain such a role?

Michael Mandelbaum

It is a truth seldom acknowledged that the foreign policy of the United States matters more to people who live in other countries than it does to Americans. The reason for this is that many other countries, large and small, depend on the United States for their security; they also confront more immediate threats than does the United States. Thus how, where, and when America deploys and uses its Armed Forces has a greater immediate impact on them than on the United States itself. In addition, American military might undergirds and protects the global economic order, on which others depend more heavily than does the country providing the protection.

Its expansive global presence has caused the United States to be labeled an empire, usually by its critics. It is more accurate, however, to say that America functions as a kind of world government, providing some—but by no means all—of the services to other countries that governments typically supply within sovereign states.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

This arrangement has given rise to two anomalies. First, large, wealthy sovereign states with rich traditions of international political influence and military prowess—Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan foremost among them—have become clients of a country that not all that long ago was far weaker than they and that, being located in North America, is separated from them by thousands of miles. Second, American taxpayers pay for something—defense—that is more valuable to foreigners than it is to them, but to defray the cost of which those foreigners contribute less, both absolutely and on a per capita basis, than the American taxpayer does. In these two ways the American role in the world since 1945 qualifies as one of the oddest developments in the long history of international relations.

It came about because of the juxtaposition of two wars. World War II left the historic great powers either thoroughly defeated or dramatically weakened. The onset of the Cold War soon thereafter created the need for protection against the Soviet Union, and the countries battered by the second great war of the 20th century looked to the United States to provide it. This arrangement would have proven temporary but for two circumstances. The American alliance system kept its non-American members secure at a manageable cost to the United States and at historically low costs to its main beneficiaries—who were, unsurprisingly, happy not to have to drain their own treasuries in order to protect themselves. In addition, unaided self-defense on the part of the others would have required them to have their own nuclear weapons, in order to offset the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union. Britain and France did provide themselves with such weapons, but for a variety of reasons Germany and Japan did not. This perpetuated their military dependence on the nuclear-armed United States and thus made America’s alliances with them a major bulwark against nuclear proliferation.

The end of the Cold War removed the threat in response to which these arrangements had come into being, but the American alliance system persisted, partly out of inertia but also as a hedge against the return of the original threat. In the post-Cold War era that hedge was inexpensive and virtually risk-free, but that is no longer the case. The reason for establishing the alliance system in the first place—serious geopolitical competition—is once again a fact of international life. America’s allies in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East face serious military threats from Russia, China, and Iran respectively. This unwelcome development raises two questions, which are the most important questions for the future of international relations: Should the American global role of providing protection against such threats, in place since World War II,  continue? And, will it continue?

To the first question, Indispensable Nation by Robert J. Lieber, an emeritus professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University and the author of a number of important books on American foreign policy, supplies a cogent, powerful, and persuasive answer in the affirmative. (His American Purpose book talk is here.) In the absence of a global American presence, Russia, China, and Iran would make their home regions less safe, less free, and less prosperous. A preview of what Russian hegemony would mean is available in its assault on Ukraine; a foretaste of Chinese hegemony has come with the repression of Hong Kong; and the consequences of Iranian hegemony are evident in the bankruptcy and political failure of Lebanon. Lieber effectively rebuts the contention that the aggressive policies of these three “disruptors” stem from what the United States is doing in the world and would disappear if America withdrew. They wouldn’t. To the contrary, America’s military power and political commitments protect the other countries of Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East from unhappy, undesirable fates.

Nor, as the author makes clear, is there a viable alternative to the American role. Substituting a united, powerful Europe for the United States, Lieber shows convincingly, may be attractive in theory but has no chance of being realized in practice. To be sure, none of the countries involved in these post-1945 security arrangements is entirely happy with them. Indeed, their two anomalous features generate discontent: Europeans, Asians, and Middle Easterners are not comfortable with their dependence on the reliability and the good judgement of the United States, while Americans are not particularly pleased at protecting other countries that are wealthy enough to protect themselves—and almost never publicly express gratitude to Americans to boot. Yet America and its allies are stuck with each other, unless they are willing to run the risk of creating far worse conditions. Lieber’s analysis points to the conclusion that, in geopolitical terms, even with its many shortcomings, this is the best of all possible worlds.

If the American global role ought to continue—if only for want of something better—that leads to the second question looming over international politics and American foreign policy: Will it do so? The Indispensable Nation considers this second question in depth, furnishing a useful inventory of the domestic forces sustaining, but also the political trends undermining, support for American global leadership in the United States.

There are reasons for skepticism about its durability. The sense of urgent threat that mobilized Americans on behalf of that role at the outset of the Cold War has long since weakened. The discouraging and far from entirely successful 21st century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have limited the national appetite for international engagement. The administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, different though they were in so many ways, each sought to reduce the American presence in one crucial part of the world—the Middle East.

Threats to the American commitment to oppose the three disruptors and maintain its alliance system in good health also stem from the current condition of American domestic politics. The United States will have to spend more on defense to keep pace with its aggressive rivals, especially China. With a large and growing national debt, however, and with insistent demands on the public treasury from other quarters, that will prove difficult. The country’s sharp political polarization works against the conduct of a robust foreign policy, which generally requires a degree of national consensus not presently in evidence. Finally, sustaining the American role as the guarantor of the international order requires a national belief that the United States is a worthy global leader. Both the populist Right and the woke Left propagate images of the country that are inconsistent with such a belief.  A quotation from political scientist Daniel Schwammenthal that serves as an epigraph to one of the book’s chapters makes this point: “A country convinced that it is irredeemably racist can’t lead the world as the ‘indispensable nation.’”

On the other hand, the institutions and the military hardware that underpin the American global role—the treaties of alliance and the soldiers, sailors, and members of the Air Force, and the tanks, planes, and ships—remain intact. In addition, in the United States, as in other countries, elites exercise considerable influence over foreign policy and the American foreign policy elite—the people who pay close attention to and often participate in the country’s policies abroad—although not of one mind on all issues, strongly support a major international role for their country. Lieber cites polls that show the public as a whole to be well disposed to such a role.

Finally, a pattern has recurred in American history in which a dramatic event shows the world to be dangerous, galvanizing the American public to demand a more robust foreign policy to meet that danger. The sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 led, respectively, to the Spanish-American War, overt American participation in World War II, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Russian invasion of Ukraine of February 24th of this year seems to have had a similar, albeit a more modest, effect.

It is not possible to foresee whether the United States will sustain, modify, or abandon the global role on which so much depends. What is certain is that the United States—and ultimately, the American people—will be the deciders, and that the rest of the world will have to live with the consequences.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, which was published in June.