The Present Danger

The Present Danger

Mini Teaser: A policy of boldness, twenty-first century vision.

by Author(s): Robert KaganWilliam Kristol

A little over twenty years ago, a group of concerned Americans formed
the Committee on the Present Danger. The danger they feared, and
sought to rally Americans to confront, was the Soviet Union.

It is easy to forget these days how controversial was the suggestion
in the middle to late 1970s that the Soviet Union was really a
danger, much less one that should be challenged by the United States.
This was hardly the dominant view of the American foreign policy
establishment. Quite the contrary: prevailing wisdom from the Nixon
through the Carter administrations held that the United States should
do its utmost to coexist peaceably with the USSR, and that the
American people in any case were not capable of mounting a serious
challenge to the Soviet system. To engage in an arms race would
either bankrupt the United States or lead to Armageddon. To challenge
communist ideology at its core, to declare it evil and illegitimate,
would be at best quixotic and at worst perilous.

When the members of the Committee on the Present Danger challenged
this comfortable consensus, when they criticized détente and arms
control, and called for a military build-up and a broad ideological
and strategic assault on Soviet communism, their recommendations were
generally dismissed as either naive or reckless. It would take a
revolution in American foreign policy, the fall of the Berlin Wall,
and the disintegration of the Soviet empire to prove just how right
they were.

Does this Cold War tale have any relevance today as Americans grapple
with the uncertainties of the post-Cold War era? The Soviet Union has
long since crumbled. No global strategic challenger has emerged to
take its place, none appears visible on the horizon, and the
international scene at present seems fairly benign to most observers.
Many of our strategists tell us that we will not face another major
threat for twenty years or more, and that we may as a consequence
enjoy a "strategic pause." According to opinion polls, the American
public is today less interested in foreign policy than at any time
since before World War II. Intermittent fears of terrorist attack,
worries about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,
concerns about the possible outbreak of war in the Taiwan Strait or
in the Balkans--all attract attention, but only fleetingly. The
United States, both at the level of elite opinion and popular
sentiment, appears to have become the Alfred E. Newman of
superpowers--its national motto, "What, me worry?"

But there is today a "present danger." It has no name. It is not to
be found in any single strategic adversary. It does not fit neatly
under the heading of "international terrorism" or "rogue states" or
"ethnic hatred." In fact, the ubiquitous post-Cold War
question--where is the threat?--is misconceived. Rather, the present
danger is that the United States, the world's dominant power on whom
the maintenance of international peace and the support of liberal
democratic principles depend, will shrink its responsibilities
and--in a fit of absentmindedness, or parsimony, or
indifference--allow the international order that it created and
sustains to collapse. Our present danger is one of declining
strength, flagging will and confusion about our role in the world. It
is a danger, to be sure, of our own devising. Yet, if neglected, it
is likely to yield very real external dangers, nearly as threatening
in their own way as the Soviet Union was a quarter century ago.

In fact, beneath the surface calm, there has already been an erosion
of the mostly stable, peaceful and democratic international order
that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Americans and their
political leaders have spent the years since 1991 lavishing the gifts
of an illusory "peace dividend" upon themselves, and frittering away
the opportunity to strengthen and extend an international order
uniquely favorable to the United States. The task for America at the
start of the 1990s ought to have been obvious. It was to guard this
extraordinary international system from any threats that might
challenge it. It was to prolong the new period of relative stability
and democratic progress as far into the future as possible. That
meant, above all, preserving and reinforcing America's benevolent
global hegemony, which undergirded what President George Bush rightly
called a "new world order." The goal of American foreign policy
should have been to turn Charles Krauthammer's "unipolar moment" into
a unipolar era.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States has tended toward a course of
gradual moral and strategic disarmament. Challenged by anti-American
dictatorships in Baghdad and Belgrade, the Clinton administration
responded by combining empty threats and indecisive military
operations with diplomatic accommodation. Rather than press for
changes of regime in Pyongyang and Beijing, the White House sought to
purchase better behavior through bribes and "engagement." Rather than
face squarely our world responsibilities, American political leaders
chose drift and evasion.

In the meantime, the United States allowed its military strength to
deteriorate to the point where its ability to defend its interests
and deter future challenges is now in doubt. From 1989 to 1999, the
defense budget and the size of the armed forces were cut by a third;
the share of America's GDP devoted to defense spending was halved,
from nearly 6 to around 3 percent; and the amount of money spent on
weapons procurement and research and development declined by about 50
percent. By the end of the decade, the U.S. military was inadequately
equipped and stretched to the point of exhaustion. And while defense
experts spent the 1990s debating whether it was more important to
maintain current readiness or to sacrifice present capabilities in
order to prepare for future challenges, under the strain of excessive
budget cuts the United States did neither.

Yet ten years from now, and perhaps a good deal sooner, we likely
will be living in a world in which Iraq, Iran, North Korea and China
all possess the ability to strike the United States with nuclear
weapons. Within the next decade we may have to decide whether to
defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. We could face another attempt
by Saddam Hussein to seize Kuwait's oil fields. An authoritarian
regime in Russia could move to reclaim some of what it lost in 1991.
While none of this is to argue that the world must become a vastly
more dangerous place, the point is that the world can grow perilous
with astonishing speed. Should it do so once more, it would be
terrible to have to look back on the current era as a great though
fleeting opportunity that was carelessly wasted. Everything depends
on what we do now.

Cold War Distortions

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the missed opportunities of the 1990s
cannot be made up for merely by tinkering around the edges of
America's current foreign and defense policies. The middle path many
of our political leaders would prefer, with token increases in the
defense budget and a "humble" view of America's role in the world,
will not suffice. What is needed today is not better management of
the status quo, but a fundamental change in the way our leaders and
the public think about America's role in the world.

Serious thinking about that role should begin by recalling those
tenets that guided American policy through the more successful phases
of the Cold War. Many writers treat America's Cold War strategy as an
aberration in the history of American foreign policy. Jeane
Kirkpatrick expressed the common view of both liberal and
conservative foreign policy thinkers when she wrote in these pages
that, while the United States had "performed heroically in a time
when heroism was required", the day had passed when Americans ought
to bear such "unusual burdens." With a return to "normal" times, the
United States could "again become a normal nation." In the absence of
a rival on the scale of the Soviet Union, the United States should
conduct itself like any other great power on the international scene,
looking to secure only its immediate, tangible interests, and
abjuring the broader responsibilities it had once assumed as leader
of the Free World.

What is striking about this point of view is how at odds it is with
the assumptions embraced by the leaders who established the guiding
principles of American foreign policy at the end of World War II. We
often forget that the plans for world order devised by American
policymakers in the early 1940s were not aimed at containing the
Soviet Union, which many of them still viewed as a potential partner.
Rather, those policymakers were looking backward to the circumstances
that had led to the catastrophe of global war. Their purpose was to
construct a more stable international order than the one that had
imploded in 1939: an economic system that furthered the aim of
international stability by promoting growth and free trade; and a
framework for international security that, although it placed some
faith in the ability of the great powers to work together, rested
ultimately on the fact that American power had become the keystone in
the arch of world order.

Essay Types: Essay