America Cannot Become a Global Rome
A Note from John Allen Gay, executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society: There’s growing debate in America about the proper scale of our involvement abroad. But here in the Beltway, no matter what the question is, the answer always seems to be that the United States needs to do more: to risk its troops’ lives in more places, to sacrifice more in taxes, debts, and domestic investments to support overseas endeavors, to extend defense guarantees to more countries, and to involve itself more deeply in other countries’ civil wars and internal struggles. Yet “more” hasn’t been working. As a national network of college groups focused on foreign policy, we at the John Quincy Adams Society wanted to challenge our next generation of national security leaders to evaluate a different path. That’s why we partnered with the National Interest to sponsor an essay contest, asking students to answer the following question: “What benefits could a more restrained, careful foreign policy strategy offer to the United States?” We’re pleased to present the best, selected from among dozens of excellent entries.
The essay below, by Andrew Beddow of the University of Michigan, took first prize in the contest.
In an 1815 letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote on Napoleon Bonaparte’s return to power and the consequent revival of major war on the European continent. Jefferson could not rejoice at the development—Bonaparte was “a political engine only and a very wicked one,” aiming at “the establishment . . . of another Roman empire, spreading vassalage and depravity over the face of the globe.” Yet Napoleon had reasserted the sovereignty of the people of France against a coalition of powers led by Britain, “the eternal disturber of the peace of the world.”
Facing an imperfect situation, in which all sides of the ongoing war were themselves inimical to the cause of liberty, Jefferson recommended nonintervention in Europe, wishing “that all nations may recover and retain their independence; that those which are overgrown may not advance beyond safe measures of power, that a salutary balance may be ever maintained among nations.” In other words, Jefferson hoped not for a universal empire under British, French, or American hegemony, mirroring the Roman despotism, but instead a concert of powers, maintaining their respective sovereignties through a delicate balancing act. Jefferson was not blind to the temptations of global power, as he remarked that the day would not be long until the United States “may shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble, but I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”
That day seemingly arrived on December 26, 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the bipolarity that had defined the international order since the end of the Second World War. Without a great power rival, the United States found itself relatively unconstrained, free to pursue its project of spreading American values through international institutions, humanitarian efforts, economic and cultural exchange, and military intervention. History had ended, and American policymakers could dream of the eventual coming of a Kingdom of Ends stretching from Beijing to Boston. Of course, there remained backward nations hiding in the darkness of the past or seduced by the diversion of Marxism-Leninism, but the unfolding contradictions of their own social orders would lead them inexorably toward liberal democracy. These nations voiced their protestations against the march of the American-led order, but they were widely ignored or appeased through assurances the United States did not intend to honor.
In many cases, the United States’ efforts were well-intentioned and even successful, and most people would agree that the world at which the United States aimed then and continues to strive for now (a union of liberal democratic states linked together by integrated economies and tolerant, open cultures) is noble in the abstract. Yet the roughly two-decade period of unchallenged American hegemony begot the delusion that the United States could easily and unilaterally design an international order through political fiat. Equipped with the greatest military, economy, culture, and web of diplomatic ties, the United States could leverage its vast resources to press noncompliant states into submitting, a process of gradual reform that would presumably snowball into a self-sustaining global liberalism. This remains, in essence, the core belief of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives: that the United States can spread liberal values by way of the promotion of liberal institutions (e.g. ‘nation-building’) and the upholding of liberal norms (e.g. punishment of violators of international law).