May 8, 2014

It is our fight! - America's Role in the World

There is this wonderful scene in the second film of the The Hobbit trilogy where Tauriel, the captain of the Elven guard, confronts Legolas following a running battle with a band of orcs who have been trying to kill the escaping dwarves and their Hobbit-burglar, Mr. Bilbo Baggins. Legolas has taken her to task for disobeying the Elven King's orders to remain within the walls of their fortress even though Tauriel did so to render aid when it was most needed. Tauriel angrily observes, "The King has never let orc filth roam our lands, yet he would let this orc pack cross our borders and kill our prisoners!" "It is not our fight," Legola replies, to which Tauriel passionately responds: "It is our fight! It will not end here. With every victory this evil will grow. If your father has his way we will do nothing! We will hide within our walls, live our lives away from the light, and let darkness descend." Then imploringly she says, "Are we not part of this world? Tell me, Mellon, when did we let evil become stronger than us?"

Last week I had the great privilege of hosting Dr. Robert Kagan who was the kick-off speaker for The Heritage Foundation’s “Protect America Month,” a series of lectures on issues relevant to US security interests and the defense of our country. [His lecture can be seen here.] Dr. Kagan used a brief overview of WWI and its aftermath to provide context for today’s current situation and dangers. He did a remarkable job in describing the perspective of the various European countries and their peoples who were in a position to 'do something' to stop the rise of Nazi Germany but chose not too for sundry reasons, thus setting the stage for the horrors of WWII. He then discussed the various attitudes of both Europeans and Americans today, noting the similarities and differences in context and perspective between then and now. A primary theme of Kagan's was the vast good that has resulted from America's efforts to promote and sustain a world order based on trade, freedom, and liberty since WWII. But this 'common good' and the world order that has been underwritten and guaranteed by the US is now in jeopardy with profound consequences. Why? Kagan explained: prolonged peace and extraordinary prosperity for America (since the mid-1940s) has caused our citizenry to take for granted what was necessary to create such an enjoyable state of affairs in the first place. A chief problem we now have is that most Americans just don’t understand the need to remain engaged in global affairs, especially when it comes to our national defense capabilities and their posture, with the result that the ‘global order’ is fraying. He maintains it is not that Americans are isolationist; they still very much want to trade with the world and enjoy what it has to offer. But Americans are much less willing to remain 'engaged' with the world when it comes to investing the resources necessary to sustain the world order that has benefited our country so richly and for so long.

We are seeing the consequences of this as competing powers move to exert their influence in areas once firmly within America's sphere, powers that are exploiting America's waning presence and willingness to counter their tactics of intimidation and occupation. China is aggressively asserting itself in the Western Pacific. Russia has annexed Crimea, is destabilizing Ukraine, exploiting Europe's dependence on Russian energy, and intimidating a host of states formerly within the old Soviet system. North Korea is increasingly provocative. Iran is making strides toward realizing its nuclear ambitions. Instability plagues an increasing number of countries stretching from Latin America, across Africa, through the Middle East, and into Central Asia. International criminal syndicates undermine the fabric of law and compromise the ability of smaller governments to maintain order, most notably in Latin America and Western Africa. The list continues.

Can the US be everywhere as the 'world's policeman'? Should it be? No...but that misses the point. Like a parent who is present at home, a policeman who is routinely out in the community, the CEO who regularly engages with his workforce, or a commander who makes his presence felt throughout his unit, simply being there and engaged has a way of keeping things in check, of preventing small problems from become large crises, of drawing to us friends and allies and the benefits to extend in terms of trade, influence, and access to resources. Our values are protected and promoted; not those of someone else. Threats to our homeland and interests and to the global good that we benefit from are mitigated. "But," some will say, "why should we carry the burden? These are problems for those other countries. We have our own problems here at home. Let them take care of their issues and we'll take care of ours!" Simply stated, easy to understand, and so attractive to believe. The reality, however, is that no other country has the ability to do what we have done; and to the extent distant regions descend into chaos, we will ultimately feel the effects right here at home.

Sadly, our relative affluence and freedom from overt threats to our way have life have desensitized us to the subtle but very real dangers always present but which have been kept in check while we were strong and engaged. The more we withdraw from the world and the weaker we allow our defenses to become, the greater those dangers will grow as stronger, hungrier, and more confident powers step in to fill the space we create. It needn't be this way but we have to be willing, as a people and as a country, to reawaken to the necessity to shoulder the burden of a great power if we desire to reap the benefit of being a great power.

With this in mind, a friend of mine raised this question: “How would the world be different if the current international system that we established after World War II and which is fully dependent on America’s guarantee/underwriting is allowed to fall apart? Americans need to know how their standard of living would fundamentally change and what that would look like on a day to day basis.”

For all this talk about ‘weariness’ of bearing the cost of being the preeminent world power, we need more talk about the benefits that accrue to America and the losses that would accompany American withdrawal. Is such an argument a “hard sell” in today’s political climate? Sure. But making such an argument is what leadership is all about.

Here are some other items recently in the press that echo similar themes:

The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers, By Walter Russell Mead
     “The second part of Fukuyama’s book has received less attention, perhaps because it is less flattering to the West. As Fukuyama investigated what a post-historical society would look like, he made a disturbing discovery. In a world where the great questions have been solved and geopolitics has been subordinated to economics, humanity will look a lot like the nihilistic “last man” described by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: a narcissistic consumer with no greater aspirations beyond the next trip to the mall.
     “In other words, these people would closely resemble today’s European bureaucrats and Washington lobbyists. They are competent enough at managing their affairs among post-historical people, but understanding the motives and countering the strategies of old-fashioned power politicians is hard for them. Unlike their less productive and less stable rivals, post-historical people are unwilling to make sacrifices, focused on the short term, easily distracted, and lacking in courage.
     “The realities of personal and political life in post-historical societies are very different from those in such countries as China, Iran, and Russia, where the sun of history still shines. It is not just that those different societies bring different personalities and values to the fore; it is also that their institutions work differently and their publics are shaped by different ideas.
     “Societies filled with Nietzsche’s last men (and women) characteristically misunderstand and underestimate their supposedly primitive opponents in supposedly backward societies -- a blind spot that could, at least temporarily, offset their countries’ other advantages. The tide of history may be flowing inexorably in the direction of liberal capitalist democracy, and the sun of history may indeed be sinking behind the hills. But even as the shadows lengthen and the first of the stars appears, such figures as Putin still stride the world stage. They will not go gentle into that good night, and they will rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

What would America fight for?, The Economist
     “Europeans think they can enjoy American security without paying for it. Emerging-world democracies like India and Brazil do even less to buttress the system that they depend on. America is preoccupied with avoiding foreign entanglements. Mr Obama began his presidency with the world wondering how to tame America. Both he and his country need to realise that the question has changed.”

The decline of deterrence, The Economist
     “Some will celebrate the decline of America’s ability to deter. But wherever they live, they may find that whatever replaces the old order is much worse. American power is not half as scary as its absence would be.”

And this item by Eliot Cohen in The American Interest, The Reluctant Strongman, which has a collection of Essays in this month’s edition on America: Self Contained:
     “The Administration has been remarkably reluctant to make the case for American strength, and particularly American military strength. Its actions reflect its silence: The impending defense cuts are premised on the notion that the United States will not, and should not, fight a land war again. The wars it will fight, if any, will be against terrorists; and as it presides over a shrinking Navy, it seems to have a limited conception of what the United States should do in the Pacific.
     “Some of this attitude may reflect a deep doubt about American prudence; some of it a belief, shared by many in the foreign policy elite, that the world is fundamentally a benign place in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Some of it may reflect as well a preoccupation with domestic concerns, and a belief that until some of those are dealt with (health care, yes, but the structural problem of unsustainable entitlements, no) the United States should not engage abroad.
     “But some of it, too, reflects an approach to foreign policy in which one’s first moves are to extend a hand to one’s opponents rather than to one’s friends. Thus the risible Russian reset, and a nuclear arms control treaty as disadvantageous to the United States as it was favorable to Russia (whose tactical nuclear weapons were kept off the table). Thus, too, the repeated outreach to Iran, even when the revolutionary regime was slaughtering unarmed protesters in the streets. Thus the summits with China and the shunning of a sometimes tactless Japanese leadership, without even going to the trouble of acknowledging its entirely understandable anxieties. Enemies first means friends last—which is why countries like Colombia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Poland have found themselves at various points ignored, run roughshod over, or rebuked by this Administration.”


  1. Excellent article. I am constantly wondering as I hear pundits express how "war weary" Americans are.....who are they talking to really? Are we that remote and different from our parents and grandparents. Has our pride in our way of life waned to the point that it is NOT WORTH the effort to defend. I like THE ECONOMIST - American power is not half as scary as its absence would be.

  2. My sword is glowing blue, orcs are in the wire. Great piece, we may want to sit back by retrenchment, but our own interests are at stake in preserving an active and engaged role in the world.
    Anyone who thinks that the future is bright and rosy, or that threats will magically disappear as we retrench, is going to find themselves savagely mistaken in the near future. V/r FGH