The Necessity of American Global Leadership
We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with […]
We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.—Ronald Reagan1
Should America abandon its global leadership role? Critics of America’s foreign policy are increasingly advocating retrenchment, concerned by the state of America’s domestic economy and culture and driven by perceived intervention failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. By avoiding confrontations with powers such as China, Iran, and Russia, they argue we can spend less on defense and, in turn, give more attention and resources to matters at home.
But withdrawing from the world would be a major strategic mistake: It is in America’s interest—and consistent with the founders’ expectation of America’s future role in the world—to work with its allies to establish stability in strategically important regions around the globe. American leadership is essential to peace and prosperity at home and abroad.
How We Got Here
This argument’s essential elements are not new. In the 1920s and 1930s, restraint was the dominant view of America’s elites, foreign policy specialists, political figures, and commentators on public affairs. Even after Czechoslovakia, Poland, and then France had fallen to Nazi aggression, and even after Japan had taken Manchuria from China, the America First Committee was still arguing that the United States should mind its own business. It argued that American security rested on being distant from the fray, with two oceans to protect the nation from attack, and that it was worth conceding Germany and Japan their respective hegemonies as long as America could get on with its core business of being “in business.”
Rather than rely on the Pacific and Atlantic to insulate America, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech shortly after the fall of France, drew a picture of the United States becoming a “lone island,” surrounded by dictatorships whose statecraft was grounded in a “philosophy of force.”2 And more to the point, neither Nazi Germany nor imperial Japan were “satisfied” powers; both believed that, at some point, conflict was virtually certain with the United States.
As a liberal democracy and the world’s leading economic power, the United States was bound to butt heads with the Axis powers, whose ambitions were dominion in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. If nothing else, the mere existence of a pluralist, multiethnic, multiracial democratic America powerfully challenged the legitimacy of their own claims to rule at home and over other peoples. Restraint on America’s end could not—and did not—head off conflict.
After the war’s conclusion, its lessons drove the United States to adopt a forward-leaning grand strategy against the Soviet Union, precisely to avoid the immense financial and human costs of another great-power conflict. The strategy’s core goal was to prevent any hostile country from gaining hegemony over any of the three key regions of the globe: Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Preventing such dominance through deterrence seemed far less risky than reacting after an ambitious power had already unsettled a region. Key elements of the strategy included the promotion of a more liberalized system of international trade, creation of a network of alliances and partner states in the key regions, a forward-deployed military with second-to-none capabilities, and, when the opportunity presented itself, encouragement of transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule.
Operating in tandem, these elements would increase economic prosperity, reduce tensions resulting from trade disputes, virtually eliminate traditional and destabilizing rivalries among allied states, and generate stability with a security umbrella backed by US guarantees. And with stability, peoples, governments, and businesses could more confidently plan and invest in the future.
Together, despite the great tensions of the Cold War and the costly failures (e.g., Vietnam during 1965–73) and complicated successes (e.g., Afghanistan during 1979–89) of various proxy wars, these elements headed off the devastating great-power conflict of the previous decades, allowing unprecedented growth. Victory in the Cold War was the strategy’s historic accomplishment.
The Post–Cold War Debate
With that victory in hand, American strategists, opinion writers, and policymakers began to debate whether it was time to step back from the role of global leader, put down the burdens associated with that strategy, and become a “normal country.” Indeed, it became something of a cottage industry among international relations specialists to devise plans for a substantially more modest US approach toward the world.
The obvious premise for a change in America’s strategic course was that the geopolitical environment had fundamentally transformed. The Soviet Union was no more, China was struggling to modernize, countries like North Korea and Iran were irksome but not real threats, and terrorism was largely something that happened abroad, not on the streets of the United States. Drawing down American forces in Europe and Asia would, it was argued, save massive amounts of money in housing and basing costs.
For a country worried about the federal debt, it made sense to bring forces home. Moreover, our key allies in Europe and Asia were themselves prosperous and could afford to take care of their own security. Advocates of pulling back pointed to two key benefits: (1) The US would not be needlessly annoying potential great powers (i.e., Russia and China) with nearby deployments, and (2) Washington would be less tempted to use force altogether with a smaller, domestically based military.
The more sensible proponents of this revised strategic vision were not simply isolationists. They argued that economic engagement would temper, perhaps even change, the more problematic regimes, but they nonetheless recognized that the US still had a crucial interest in preventing authoritarian domination of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Our own prosperity and safety were still tied to stability and peace in those regions. The key difference was that the US would initially rely on local states to fend off the hegemonic aspirations of a China, Russia, or Iran and intervene only when necessary. Altogether, proponents suggested that approach would leave us in a better geopolitical situation at a much cheaper price.
But would it? Moving troops, planes, and ships back to the United States is not cheap. For one thing, basing and housing facilities in the United States would need to be significantly expanded to host the thousands of additional military personnel and families returning from abroad. Plus, America’s allies provide billions in direct and indirect support to the US as part of basing agreements. At a minimum, it’s a wash whether moving troops home results in any real cost savings.
In addition, while the total force might be smaller, the US military would still require capacity to intervene abroad decisively should the need arise. In some respects, such interventions are more difficult, not less, when compared to the cost of keeping substantial forces trained and forward deployed. Facing a militarily significant adversary after a crisis or conflict has begun requires having on hand massive mobility capabilities to get to the fight and a high-end conventional force that can both fight through existing defenses and effectively turn the tide quickly to avoid a bloody and even more costly longer-term conflict.
Moreover, retrenchment inevitably erodes our ability to work with partner and allied states on such fundamental matters as interoperability, logistics, and training—making interventions even more difficult. Finally, retrenchment would still require having a demonstrably capable nuclear deterrent to ensure the US can parry a threat from an adversary to use nuclear weapons to forestall an American intervention.
As for the lower end of the conflict spectrum—countering terrorism—it’s certainly true that jihadists see American forces in Middle East lands as an abomination. Yet jihadists see the West and Israel as enemies regardless. What we gain by not being in the region is less than what, at first, one might hope. And pullback loses the tactical and intelligence edge for keeping on top of the terrorist threat that “over the horizon” capabilities cannot provide. As the US learned in the 1990s and on 9/11, giving space and time for terrorists to train and plan is a dangerous risk to take.
Furthermore, the current burden of a globally deployed, preeminent force as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) is relatively small. Today, the defense budget sits at three pennies on the national dollar, and, even when the US was fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense budget amounted to less than 5 percent of the US GDP.3
Popular opinion still speaks of the US military-industrial complex, an interlocking system of institutions and individuals then-President Dwight Eisenhower warned of as he was leaving office in 1961. But in reality, America’s two largest defense companies, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies, rank no more than 55th and 58th among American corporations in the Fortune 500—far below Amazon, Apple, Walmart, and even companies such as Disney, Pepsi, and State Farm.4
The fact is it’s the explosive rise in entitlement spending and interest on the debt, not the defense budget, that threatens the nation’s fiscal health. Even if defense spending were to increase to 4 percent of the GDP, it would not affect the nation’s fiscal outlook. In short, as a material matter, even a sensible retrenchment strategy would buy the country little or no savings.
Advocates of retrenchment also complain about our allies—a central element of America’s global grand strategy. Critics suggest that these relationships are parasitic; allies are able to free ride off our security guarantees, as America bears an unfair share of the burden. As for the criticism that allies spend too little on defense, it’s true—although the trend lines have been more positive in recent years.
But US retrenchment would leave America’s allies with two paths to resolve the resulting security problem they would face against powers such as China and Russia: appeasement or an arms race that would likely spiral into nuclear weapons programs to offset the conventional military disparities between middling powers and great powers. A world with proliferating weapons of mass destruction and increased risks of nuclear conflict is a scenario the US should avoid at all costs.
While underspending by allies is real, their aggregate military and economic capabilities give the United States far greater sway on the world stage than it would otherwise have. Although the United States’ economic and military power—its cumulative hard power—are not as dominant globally as they were in the aftermaths of World War II and the Cold War, the US still accounts for roughly a quarter of the world economy, and its per capita income far outstrips that of the next largest economy, China. And when one marshals the economies of the United States and its allies and security partners, the scale of the dominance remains substantial: The United States and allies generate over half the world’s total GDP.
This combined power allows US policy to punch above its actual weight. And it’s not just potential power; America’s allies have contributed forces to every major US conflict since World War II. We can’t expect that kind of cooperation simply to continue if we pull the plug on our defense guarantees and lose the decades of experience and institutional habits of working together as allies.
Often taken for granted, America’s alliance structure provides all kinds of forums through which the US can pursue diplomatic, intelligence, trade, crime, proliferation, and other policies internationally. Indeed, it is remarkable how stable the United States’ working relationships with allies and partners have been, despite those countries’ independence and the regular turnover of government heads.
America’s record of success in most matters of importance should not be taken for granted. The stability and trust of these relationships have created a sustained level of peace by deterring great-power enemies, allowing a vast expansion of wealth, prosperity, and unprecedented levels of democratic governance—to the benefit of America and its allies. This record of success is an edifice resting on American global leadership whose problems and frustrations are often reported on and debated but whose greater, longer-lasting benefits typically go unacknowledged precisely because we have become accustomed to their existence.
Restraint and Ambition
If the last point is generally true, it’s also the case that, in recent years, we have seen how the results of a policy of restraint and disengagement look in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
There are fair-minded and serious critiques of America’s actions in Iraq. But understanding the whole picture is important. Whatever one thinks about the prudence of removing Saddam Hussein from power, after “the surge,” American and Iraqi forces had reduced violence to a bare minimum and opened space for a cross-sectarian governing coalition. Nevertheless, the Obama administration signaled with a troop withdrawal and diplomacy that America’s strategic investment in Iraq was over.
The resulting power vacuum catalyzed the birth and rapid expansion of ISIS, whose target was not only Iraq but the West as well. The point here is not that the decision to leave Iraq was right or wrong but, rather, that the American presence did not cause the eruption of violence and instability there, as many restrainers argued. In fact, it did just the opposite.
Similarly, the Obama administration’s decision to lift sanctions on Iran to slow its acquisition of nuclear weapons did not make the regime any less confrontational toward the US. On the contrary, Iran used the influx of new resources to support a wide range of proxy conflicts across the Levant and Arabian Peninsula. Restraint in any given situation might seem the most prudent thing to do. However, it doesn’t intrinsically forestall greater strategic instability if adversaries have their own ambitions toward a region’s shape.
There has been a similar dynamic with Russia. Both the Obama and Trump administrations’ words (e.g., NATO was obsolete, Europe was no longer an arena of great-power competition, and Ukraine’s desire to join NATO wasn’t in the cards) and actions (e.g., cutting American forces in Western Europe substantially) undoubtedly gave Vladimir Putin the sense there was an opening to pursue his stated desire to overturn Europe’s post–Cold War security structure. In 2014, he started by attempting to overturn the Ukrainian election, followed by an invasion and the annexation of Crimea. That Russia paid little for its aggression then encouraged Putin to be even more ambitious—invading Ukraine a second time with the goal of annexing all of it into the Russian orbit.
Putin’s claim to be responding to NATO encroachment is dubious as a matter of history. When NATO expanded in the 1990s and early 2000s, other than the Baltic states—states the US never recognized as part of the USSR—it did not move into the post-Soviet space. Moreover, until the 2014 invasion, NATO did not deploy nonnational allied ground forces or air wings in the new member states.
Combined with cuts in defense spending across the alliance, Russia faced no repercussions from NATO. Yet attempts to reset relations with the Kremlin did not lower tensions. Indeed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was instigated by the Ukrainians’ desire to align with the European Union—hardly a concrete threat to Russia unless, as a model, it would be a standing challenge to Putin’s kleptocratic rule and a roadblock to his revanchist ambition to restore the Russian Empire.
Even more than Russia, China demonstrates the failure of restraint against ambitious great powers. For nearly three decades, the United States and its allies encouraged the People’s Republic of China to become a responsible stakeholder in the very system that allowed it to transform from a technologically backward and impoverished country into the world’s second largest economy. Despite facing no serious threat from any of its democratic neighbors—Japan was spending less than 1 percent of its GDP on its military while Taiwan was cutting its defense budget and was incapable of mounting any notable operation against the mainland—Beijing nevertheless has for a quarter of a century increased military spending year after year.
Famously, China’s initial strategy was to “observe calmly; secure [its] position; cope with affairs calmly; hide [its] capacities and bide [its] time.”5 But with the rise of its economic and military power and the perceived decline of the US after the Great Recession of 2008–09, Beijing has thrown off its moderate cloak and made clear that the “China Dream” is to recapture the country’s one-time imperial centrality in Asia and beyond.
That ambition has led it to militarize the South China Sea, regularly threaten democratic Taiwan, and attempt to leverage its economic might to control the behavior of neighboring states and states as far away as Africa, Europe, and Latin America. Given the economic and military sway China now wields, it is only the US in the lead with its democratic allies that can forestall Beijing’s multifaceted effort to make the world safe for its authoritarian behavior at home and abroad to the detriment of the liberal West’s interests and principles.
A devastatingly costly world war was the result of not deterring two revisionist and authoritarian regimes when it was still possible to do so. At bottom, US global leadership and the strategy animating it reflect the hard lesson learned—a lesson just as important today as ever.
American global leadership is often falsely equated with a “crusader nation” mission to transform the world in its image and under its dictate. America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq to remove dangerous regimes from power, not to establish Jeffersonian democracies. But once the leadership in those countries had been defeated, Washington, with its allies, believed it was our obligation and in our long-term interest to cultivate a decent democratic order.
Policymakers and politicians understood that this would not happen overnight. Strategic patience would be required, as it had with other states that transitioned from authoritarianism to self-rule. Even so, until the US pulled out of Afghanistan, its people were exercising an unprecedented level of political and civil rights. And Iraq, for all its flaws, is self-governing and, unlike under Saddam’s rule, is no threat to its neighbors.
Nor has America’s strategic vision precluded working with nondemocratic states when necessary to fend off more dangerous threats to its allies or itself. Doing so is a judgment call about what is truly necessary versus what is temporarily expedient—a call that sometimes the US has gotten right and other times has not. And while ties with unsavory regimes are, when compared with the number of democratic allies the US has, exceptions and not the norm, the very existence of these ties belies the idea that the US imposes its ideology regardless of realities.
Indeed, that America’s closest allies are all liberal democracies, with sovereign wills of their own, means US “imperialism” is anything but. At the end of the day, the US can lead but rarely dictate.
But weren’t America’s Founding Fathers leery of any American global leadership? Famously, George Washington in his Farewell Address argued against “entangling alliances,” and John Quincy Adams, perhaps the most educated of secretaries of state and presidents, warned that “Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of democracy.”6
However, Washington went on to say that while alliances should be avoided while the United States remained weak, once it realized its potential, no other power would “lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Prudence counseled caution until America rose to the great-power status that virtually all the leading lights of the founding era believed was its destiny.
Similarly, Adams’s often-quoted advice needs context as well. The line is taken from a July 4 address before the House of Representatives and was directed at calls for the US to immediately recognize the new Latin American republics. Amid negotiating an agreement with Spain over Florida, Adams did not want the issue of recognition to upend the more immediate need to conclude a treaty with Madrid. Even so, Adams’s speech was filled with anti-monarchical themes and went so far as to call on the peoples of Europe to follow the American example with revolution.
Unsurprisingly, once Adams concluded negotiations, he quickly recognized the new republics and informed the newly minted US ambassadors to those countries that with “the emancipation of the South American continent” from monarchical rule, the United States “will be called . . . to take a conspicuous and leading part” in supporting republican principles against any residual “hankering after monarchy.”7
As Adams’s speech and instructions made clear, there was no equating the American regime’s legitimacy with that of the nondemocratic regimes that dominated the rest of the world. There would be no, as recently suggested by some restrainers, “mutual respect for a civilizational equal,”8 such as today’s authoritarian China. America’s earliest generations understood that the United States’ founding was unique.
Here, for the first time in history, the government’s legitimacy explicitly rested on the claims of human nature and not on common blood, soil, language, religion, or ancient tradition. The rights spelled out in the Declaration of Independence were universal—or, as Adams said, “co-extensive with the surface of the globe”9—and were understood by both Americans and the world’s monarchs and despots as a direct challenge to the latter two’s legitimacy. Conversely, the founding generation understood that a world with like-minded republics would be a safer place for America—hence Adams’s instructions to his ambassadors and Americans’ initially high hopes for the French Revolution.
It would take a century and a half, however, before America was powerful enough to assume a global leadership founded on those principles. And while the United States is not as dominant a power as it once was, it still is the world’s preeminent power, with ties to most of the world’s other leading powers. Hence, America is still capable of exercising its role as global leader.
Prudence of course dictates that the US exercise that power sensibly and apply those principles with an eye to the particular circumstances of time and place. But prudence also dictates that, whatever America’s difficulties at home and occasional false steps abroad, to abandon its role as global leader is to invite the slow but inevitable decay of a world order that the American people have gained so much from over the past seven decades.
- Ronald Reagan, “On the 40th Anniversary of D-Day” (speech, US Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc, France, June 6, 1984), https://www.historyplace.com/speeches/reagan-d-day.htm.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Address Delivered by President Roosevelt at Charlottesville, Virginia, June 10, 1940” (speech, Charlottesville, VA, June 10, 1940), https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/WorldWar2/fdr19.htm.
- US Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2022, August 2021, 265–66, Table 7-7, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/FY2022/FY22_Green_Book.pdf.
- Fortune, Fortune 500, 2022, https://fortune.com/fortune500/2022/search.
- Allen S. Whiting, “Chinese Nationalism and Foreign Policy After Deng,” China Quarterly, no. 142 (1995): 301, http://www.jstor.org/stable/655418.
- John Quincy Adams, “July 4, 1821: Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on Foreign Policy,” University of Virginia, Miller Center, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/july-4-1821-speech-us-house-representatives-foreign-policy.
- John Quincy Adams, Message from the President of the United States Transmitting the Information Required by a Resolution of the House of Representatives, of 5th ult. in Relation to the Proposed Congress to Be Held at Panama, &c. &c. (Washington, DC: Gales & Seaton, 1826), 38, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/SERIALSET-00138_00_00-008-0129-0000/pdf/SERIALSET-00138_00_00-008-0129-0000.pdf.
- Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Gladden Pappin, “Hawks Are Standing in the Way of a New Republican Party,” New York Times, February 5, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/05/opinion/republicans-national-conservatives-hawks.html.
- Quoted in J. Fred Rippy, Rivalry of the United States and Great Britain over Latin America, 1808–1830 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1929), 120–21.