The Present Danger

The Present Danger

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

by Author(s): Robert KaganWilliam Kristol

 American leaders in the early to mid-1940s rejected the notion that
the United States could return to being a "normal" power after World
War II. On the contrary, they believed that the "return to normalcy"
that President Harding had endorsed in 1920 was the fatal error that
led to the irresponsible isolationism of the 1930s. Franklin
Roosevelt said in 1941, "We will not accept a world, like the postwar
world of the 1920s, in which the seeds of Hitlerism can again be
planted and allowed to grow." Men like James Forrestal and Dean
Acheson believed that the United States had supplanted Great Britain
as the world's leader and that, as Forrestal put it in 1941, "America
must be the dominant power of the twentieth century."

Henry Luce spoke for most influential Americans inside and outside
the Roosevelt administration when he insisted that it had fallen to
the United States not only to win the war against Germany and Japan,
but to create both "a vital international economy" and "an
international moral order" that would together spread American
political and economic principles--and in the process avoid the
catastrophe of a third world war. Such thinking was reflected in
Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter and, more concretely, in the creation of
the international financial system at Bretton Woods in 1944 and of
the United Nations a year later.

Thus, before Amer-ican leaders came to view the Soviet Union as the
great challenge to American security and American principles, they
had arrived at the conclusion that it would be necessary for the
United States (together, they hoped, with the other great powers) to
deter aggression globally, whoever the aggressor might be. In fact,
during the war years they were at least as worried about the possible
re-emergence of Germany and Japan as about the Soviets. John Lewis
Gaddis has summarized American thinking in the years between 1941 and

"The American President and his key advisers were determined to
secure the United States against whatever dangers might confront it
after victory, but they lacked a clear sense of what those might be
or where they might arise. Their thinking about postwar security was,
as a consequence, more general than specific."

Few influential government officials, moreover, were under the
illusion that "collective security" and the United Nations could be
counted on to keep the peace. In 1945 Harry Truman declared that the
United States had become "one of the most powerful forces for good on
earth", and the task now was to "keep it so" and to "lead the world
to peace and prosperity." The United States had "achieved a world
leadership which does not depend solely upon our military and naval
might", Truman asserted. But it was his intention, despite
demobilization, to ensure that the United States would remain "the
greatest naval power on earth" and would maintain "one of the most
powerful air forces in the world." Americans, Truman declared, would
use "our military strength solely to preserve the peace of the world.
For we now know that this is the only sure way to make our own
freedom secure."

The unwillingness to sustain the level of military spending and
preparedness required to fulfill this expansive vision was a failure
of American foreign policy in the immediate aftermath of the war. It
took the Iron Curtain and the outbreak of war in Korea to fully
awaken Americans to the need for an assertive and forward-leaning
foreign policy. But while the United States promptly rose to meet
those challenges, a certain intellectual clarity was lost in the
transition from the immediate postwar years to the beginning of the
Cold War era. The original postwar goal of promoting and defending a
decent world order became conflated with the goal of meeting the
challenge of Soviet power. The policies that the United States should
have pursued even in the absence of a Soviet challenge--seeking a
stable and prosperous international economic order; playing a large
role in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; upholding rules of
international behavior that benefited Americans; promoting democratic
reform where possible and advancing American principles abroad--all
these became associated with the strategy of containing the Soviet
Union. In fact, America was pursuing two goals at once during the
Cold War: first, the promotion of a world order conducive to American
interests and principles; and second, a defense against the immediate
obstacle to achieving that order. Nevertheless, when the Cold War
ended, many Americans recalled only the latter purpose.

The Shaping Hand

But the collapse of the Soviet empire has not altered the fundamental
purposes of American foreign policy. Just as sensible Americans after
World War II did not imagine that the United States should retreat
from global involvement and await the rise of the next equivalent to
Nazi Germany, so American statesmen today ought to recognize that
their charge is not to await the arrival of the next great threat,
but rather to shape the international environment to prevent such a
threat from arising in the first place. To put it another way: the
overarching goal of American foreign policy--to preserve and extend
an international order that is in accord with both our material
interests and our principles--endures.

Certainly, the dramatic shift in international strategic
circumstances occasioned by the Soviet collapse requires a shift in
the manner in which this goal is pursued. But it is not a shift to
"normalcy." In the post-Cold War era, the maintenance of a decent and
hospitable international order requires continued American leadership
in resisting, and where possible undermining, rising dictators and
hostile ideologies; in supporting American interests and liberal
democratic principles; and in providing assistance to those
struggling against the more extreme manifestations of human evil.
Americans must shape this order, for if we refrain from doing so, we
can be sure that others will shape it in ways that reflect neither
our interests nor our values.

We can hardly expect it to be otherwise. Today's international system
is built not around a balance of power but around American hegemony.
The international financial institutions were fashioned by Americans
and serve American interests. The international security structures
are chiefly a collection of American-led alliances. What Americans
like to call international "norms" are really reflections of American
and West European principles. Since today's relatively benevolent
international circumstances are the product of our hegemonic
influence, any lessening of that influence will allow others to play
a larger part in shaping the world to suit their needs. States such
as China and Russia, if given the chance, would configure the
international system quite differently. Their idea of international
norms, needless to say, would also be quite different. American
hegemony, then, must be actively maintained, just as it was actively

This does not mean that the United States must root out evil wherever
and whenever it rears its head. Nor does it suggest that the United
States must embark on a crusade against every dictatorship. No
doctrine of foreign policy can do away with the need for judgment and
prudence, for weighing competing moral considerations. No foreign
policy doctrine can provide precise and unvarying answers to the
question of where, when and how the United States ought to intervene
abroad. It is a good deal easier to say that the United States must
have criteria for choosing when to intervene than it is to formulate
those criteria. Henry Kissinger writes in Diplomacy that what is most
needed in American foreign policy are "criteria for selectivity." But
he does not venture to suggest exactly what those criteria might be.
If one admits that closely linked matters of prestige, principle and
morality play a role in shaping foreign policy, then rigid criteria
for intervention quickly prove illusory. As Kissinger well knows, the
complicated workings of foreign policy and the exceptional position
of the United States should guard us from believing that the national
interest can be measured in a quasi-scientific fashion, or that areas
of "vital" national interest can be located, and other areas
excluded, by purely geopolitical calculations. Determining what is in
America's national interest is an art, not a science. It requires not
only the measurement of power but also an appreciation of beliefs and
passions, which cannot be quantified. That is why we choose
statesmen, not mathematicians, to conduct foreign policy. That is why
we will occasionally have to intervene abroad even when we cannot
prove that a narrowly construed "vital interest" of the United States
is at stake.

It is worth pointing out, though, that a foreign policy premised on
American hegemony, and on the blending of principle with material
interest, may in fact mean fewer overseas interventions than under
the "vital interest" standard, not more. Had the Bush administration,
for example, realized early on that there was no clear distinction
between American moral concerns in Bosnia and America's national
interest there, the United States might have been able to nip the
Balkan crisis in the bud. With the enormous credibility earned in the
Gulf War, President Bush might have been able to put a stop to
Milosevic's ambitions with a well-timed threat of punishing military
action. But because the Bush team placed Bosnia outside the sphere of
"vital" American interests, the resulting crisis eventually required
the deployment of thousands of troops on the ground.

Essay Types: Essay