America Is Fated to Lead

Culture and geography really do matter. Great statesmen may attempt to rebel against these limits, but their skillful diplomacy constitutes an implicit acceptance that they exist.

January-February 2015

THIS IS the material at hand. Faced with such objective truths, the debate between realists and idealists is at once unnecessarily Manichaean and a mere row over tactics. Realism wasn’t the evil invention of Henry Kissinger, but an American tradition going back to George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and wise men like George F. Kennan and Dean Acheson. Idealism, for its part, is so deeply rooted in the American tradition that Wilsonianism lives on long after the passing of America’s twenty-eighth president, no matter how often it is shown to be flawed. Neither unremitting humanitarianism (because it is unsustainable) nor neoisolationism (because it fails to accept America’s fate as a world leader) can be the basis of any responsible foreign policy.

Here I must bring in my personal hero, a once-celebrated literary figure now forgotten, Bernard DeVoto. An environmentalist and fierce defender of civil liberties, DeVoto spent a lifetime as a continentalist dedicated to one subject: that of the American West, so much so that he never once set foot outside North American soil. Yet this intellectual, who wrote so obsessively and sensuously about the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, the way that Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about the Balkans and Central Europe, and whom you would expect to have been an isolationist in the years prior to World War II, traveled throughout the interior of the United States in 1940, passionately arguing in local community gatherings for America to enter the war against Nazi Germany. DeVoto loved the continent that he called both a republic and an empire. There was just so much going on inside it that the world beyond was never quite real. Thus, he saw the good in Manifest Destiny before generations of academics would see nothing but evil in it. Yet he also understood—perhaps at a more profound level than anyone else, before or since—that the blessings of geographical fate had freighted America with global responsibilities.

Has Obama measured up to these responsibilities? He has backed into a strategy of sorts rather than proactively crafted one. So he is a reluctant strategist at best. Arguably, he has shown some good tactical instincts—stay out of Syria (at least until recently), don’t get involved on the ground in Libya, and don’t get into an air or ground war in a place that matters more to Russia than it does to the United States or even to Western Europe. In all this he might be compared to the president he not so secretly admires, George H. W. Bush. The elder Bush backed into a strategy to end the Cold War after the Cold War had begun to end on its own in Europe. He also showed good tactical instincts in not breaking relations with China after Tiananmen, and in limiting the first Gulf War to the liberation of Kuwait only. But there the similarities end.

The elder Bush had elite New England schools, the Texas oil fields and the naval war in the Pacific as his rite-of-passage points of reference. The elder Bush was no intellectual, but he intuitively grasped what the bookish DeVoto knew by travel, study in the Harvard library and his own Utah upbringing: that America was a continent of such dimensions that to lead was not a choice but a fate. But Obama’s sensibility seems not to be continental. Continentalism, in Kennan’s estimation, is opposed to universalism. But I disagree. I believe without one there is not the other. If you haven’t internalized moments like the California gold rush and westward expansion, you can’t fully grasp why America deserves to lead. Only by conquering the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains first could America defeat Hitler and Tojo second. Whereas the elder Bush made incessant phone calls to many world leaders from the start of his presidency—long before such crises as the collapse of the Soviet empire and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait—Obama waits until he is buried in a crisis, and even then he often delegates such responsibilities. Obama does not relish the projection of American power, without which you cannot challenge fate.

Obama has tried until recently to get America’s allies in different theaters to do the balancing for it. Get Japan to balance against China, get Saudi Arabia and Israel to balance against Iran, and get Germany to balance against Russia. This is laudable. Why not at least try to lessen the imperial burden? The problem has been that a resurgent and nationalistic Japan, which has not fully come to terms with its own World War II–era crimes, frightens others in Asia. Israel’s air force, as good as it is, is a small, tactical air force and not a big, strategic one, and thus of imperfect use against Iran. Saudi Arabia is a benighted despotism more fragile than it looks, increasingly undermined by a weaker and more decentralized monarchy, chaos in neighboring Yemen, and the deterministic forces of a rising population and a diminishing underground water table. Germany is fundamentally compromised by its addiction to Russian energy and its inherent pacifism stemming from the legacy of Nazi crimes. Delegating power to allies thus has limits, and they are severe.

Still, it is true that while Russia is bad and the Islamic State is evil and both are dangerous, the Soviet Union was also quite dangerous and “evil,” in Ronald Reagan’s memorable estimation. And we did not go to war with the Soviet Union, but, rather, patiently contained it for decades, until it collapsed from its own contradictions. Likewise, Russia’s exalted position in world energy markets as well as the size of its population will decline as the years go by, and the Islamic State may be weakened by tribalism and competing groups and caliphates. Containment is, therefore, in both cases a defensible strategy, if not an appealing one. Obama’s deliberative instinct is therefore apt for the circumstances.

Cries of appeasement will continue to be heard, though.