Delusions of Indispensability

March 1, 2013 Topic: Grand StrategyGreat PowersSecurity Regions: United States

Delusions of Indispensability

Mini Teaser: The notion that America is the world's "indispensable nation" is hardly questioned, even as it fosters strategic overreach.

by Author(s): Ted Galen Carpenter

ANOTHER PROMINENT feature of the indispensable-nation thesis is that its adherents adopt the “light-switch model” of U.S. engagement. In that version, there are only two positions: on and off. Many, seemingly most, proponents of U.S. preeminence do not recognize the existence of options between the current policy of promiscuous global interventionism and “isolationism.” Following President Obama’s second inaugural address, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens was most unhappy with the sections on foreign policy. The title of his column, “Obama’s You’re-On-Your-Own World,” conveyed his thesis in a stark manner. Obama’s worldview, Stephens asserted, constituted a species of isolationism. Such an indictment of Barack Obama—the leader who escalated the war in Afghanistan, involved the United States in the Libyan civil war, led the charge for harsher sanctions against Iran, Syria and North Korea, and is pursuing a strategic pivot toward East Asia in large part to contain China’s power—would seem to strain credulity. But for the more zealous proponents of U.S. dominance such as Stephens, even rhetorical hints of modest retrenchment in portions of the world are reasons for alarm.

Adherence to the light-switch model reflects either intellectual rigidity or an effort to stifle discussion about a range of alternatives to the status quo. Even in the security realm there are numerous options between the United States as the global policeman—or what it has become over the past two decades, the global armed social worker—and refusing to take any action unless U.S. territory is under direct military assault. It is extraordinarily simplistic to imply that if Washington does not involve itself in civil wars in the Balkans, Central Asia or North Africa, that it would therefore automatically be unwilling or unable to respond to aggressive actions in arenas that are more important strategically and economically to genuine American interests. Indifference about what faction becomes dominant in Bosnia or Mali does not automatically signify indifference if China attempted to coerce Japan.

Selectivity is not merely an option when it comes to embarking on military interventions. It is imperative for a major power that wishes to preserve its strategic solvency. Otherwise, overextension and national exhaustion become increasing dangers. Over the past two decades, the United States has not suffered from a tendency to intervene in too few cases. Quite the contrary, it has shown a tendency to intervene in far too many conflicts. But many of the opinion leaders who stress the need for constant U.S. global leadership advocate even more frequent and far-ranging U.S. actions. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen takes President Obama to task for not being more proactive against the Syrian government. Cohen argues further that a “furious sense of moral indignation” must return to U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, it should be “the centerpiece” of that policy.

His comments illustrate a worrisome absence of selectivity regarding military interventions among members of the indispensable-nation faction. There is always an abundance of brutal crackdowns, bloody insurrections and nasty civil wars around the world. If a sense of moral indignation, instead of a calculating assessment of the national interest, governs U.S. foreign policy, the United States will become involved in even more murky conflicts in which few if any tangible American interests are at stake. That is a blueprint for endless entanglements, a needless expenditure of national blood and treasure, and bitter, debilitating divisions among the American people. A country that has already sacrificed roughly 6,500 American lives and nearly $1.5 trillion in just the past decade pursuing nation-building chimeras in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be looking to launch similar crusades elsewhere.

Not only do disciples of the indispensable-nation doctrine seem to regard engagement as a binary light switch, they fail to distinguish between its various manifestations. The thesis that engagement can take different forms (diplomatic, military, economic and cultural) and that U.S. involvement in each form does not have to be at the same level of intensity is apparently a revolutionary notion bordering on apostasy. To those disciples, the security aspect dominates everything else. Mitt Romney warned that America must lead the world or the world will become a more dangerous place, “and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.” Among the dangers Kagan projects is “an unraveling of the international economic order,” because, among other reasons, “trade routes and waterways ceased to be as secure, because the U.S. Navy was no longer able to defend them.”

Proponents of an expansive U.S. posture repeatedly assert that a peaceful international system, which is the also the foundation of global prosperity, requires a hegemon. They most frequently cite Britain in the nineteenth century and the United States from the end of World War II to the present, although some even point to the Roman Empire as evidence for their thesis. In his book The Case for Goliath, Johns Hopkins University’s Michael Mandelbaum even asserts that the United States performs many of the benevolent stabilizing functions that a world government would perform. That, in his view, has been enormously beneficial both for the United States and for the world.

Leaving aside the ultimate fate of the Roman Empire, or even the milder but still painful decline of Britain—which were in part consequences of the economic and security burdens those powers bore—the hegemonic model is hardly the only possible framework for a relatively stable and peaceful international system.

There are constructive alternatives to the stifling orthodoxy of the United States as the indispensable nation. That is especially true in the twenty-first century. Not only are there multiple major powers, but a majority of those powers share the democratic-capitalist values of the United States and are capable of defending and promoting those values. Moreover, even those great powers that represent a more authoritarian capitalist model, such as Russia and China, benefit heavily from the current system characterized by open trade and an absence of armed conflict among major powers. They are not likely to become aggressively revisionist states seeking to overturn the international order, nor are they likely to stand by idly while lesser powers in their respective regions create dangerous disruptions.

THE MOST practical and appealing model is a consortium of powerful regional actors, with the United States serving as a first among equals. The opportunity for Washington to off-load some of its security responsibilities is most evident in Europe. Making the change to a more detached security strategy there would offer important benefits to the United States at a low level of risk. It made a reasonable amount of sense for Washington to assume primary responsibility for the security of democratic Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Western Europe was the most important strategic and economic prize of that era, and a powerful, expansionist Soviet Union eyed that prize. The Western European powers, traumatized and exhausted by World War II, were not in a good position to resist Moscow’s power and blandishments. U.S. leadership was nearly inescapable, and it was warranted to protect and promote important American interests.

But even during the final decades of the Cold War, the U.S. security blanket unfortunately caused an excessive and unhealthy dependence on the part of democratic Europe. And with the demise of the Soviet Union, a policy based on U.S. dominance now reeks of obsolescence. Despite its recent financial struggles, the European Union collectively has both a population and an economy larger than those of the United States. And Russia, if it poses a threat at all, is a far less serious menace than was the Soviet Union. Yet U.S. leaders act as though the EU nations are inherently incapable of managing Europe’s security affairs. And for their part, the European allies are content to continue free riding on Washington’s exertions, keeping their defense budgets at minimal levels and letting the United States take primary responsibility for security issues that affect Europe far more than America.

Even a modest increase in defense spending by the principal European powers would enable the EU to handle any security problems that are likely to arise in the region. In that sense, Washington’s dominant role in dealing with the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s was not evidence of the continuing need for U.S. leadership, but rather underscored the negative consequences of having encouraged Europe’s security dependence on the United States for so many decades. The reality is that the threat environment in Europe is quite benign. There are few plausible security threats, and the ones that might arise are on the scale of the Balkan spats—problems that the European powers should be able to handle without undue exertion. Washington can safely off-load responsibility for European security and stability to the countries directly involved. The United States is most certainly not indispensable to the Continent’s security any longer.

Prospects in other regions are less definite, but there are still opportunities for Washington to reduce its military exposure and risks. The most important region to the United States, East Asia, presents a less encouraging picture than does Europe for off-loading security obligations, since there is no cohesive, multilateral organization comparable to the EU to undertake those responsibilities. Yet even in East Asia there are alternatives to U.S. hegemony, which has been in place since 1945.

Image: Pullquote: A prominent feature of the indispensable-nation thesis is that its adherents adopt the “light-switch model” of U.S. engagement. In that version, there are only two positions: on and off. Essay Types: Essay