The Present Danger

The Present Danger

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

by Author(s): Robert KaganWilliam Kristol

The same could be said of American interventions in Panama and the
Gulf. A passive world-view encouraged American leaders to ignore
troubling developments that eventually metastasized into full-blown
threats to American security. Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein were
given reason to believe that the United States did not consider its
interests threatened by their behavior, only to discover that they
had been misled. In each case, a broader and more forward-leaning
conception of the national interest might have made the later
interventions unnecessary.

The question, then, is not whether the United States should intervene
everywhere or nowhere. The decision Americans need to make is whether
the United States should generally lean forward, as it were, or
whether it should adopt a posture of relative passivity. A strategy
aimed at preserving American hegemony should embrace the former
stance, being more rather than less inclined to weigh in when crises
erupt, and preferably before they erupt. This is the standard of a
global superpower that intends to shape the international environment
to its own advantage. By contrast, the vital interest standard is
that of a "normal" power that awaits a dramatic challenge before it
rouses itself into action.

Arms and Alliances

Is the task of maintaining American primacy and making a consistent
effort to shape the international environment beyond the capacity of
Americans? Not if American leaders have the understanding and the
political will to do what is necessary. Moreover, what is required is
not particularly forbidding. For much of the task ahead consists of
building on already existing strengths.

The United States, for example, already wields the strongest military
force in the world. It has demonstrated its prowess in war on several
occasions since the end of the Cold War--in Panama in 1989, in the
Persian Gulf in 1991, and most recently in the air war over Kosovo.
Those victories owed their success to a force built in the Reagan
years. This is a legacy off which the United States has lived for
over a decade, and it cannot last. Today the United States spends too
little on its military capabilities, both in terms of present
readiness and investing in future weapons technologies. The gap
between America's strategic ends and the means available to
accomplish those ends is growing, a fact that becomes more evident
each time the United States deploys forces abroad.

To repair these deficiencies and to create a force that can shape the
international environment today, tomorrow and twenty years from now
will probably require spending some $60-100 billion per year above
current defense budgets. This price tag may seem daunting, but in
historical terms it will represent only a modest commitment of
America's wealth to defense. And in a time of large budget surpluses,
spending a tiny fraction on defense ought to be politically feasible.
For the United States to have the military capability to shape the
international environment now and for the foreseeable future, it
would be necessary to spend about 3.5 percent of GDP on defense,
still low by the standards of the past fifty years, and far lower
than most great powers have spent on their militaries throughout
history. Is the aim of maintaining American primacy not worth a hike
in defense spending from 3 to 3.5 percent of GDP?

The United States also inherited from the Cold War a legacy of strong
alliances in Europe and Asia, and with Israel in the Middle East.
Those alliances are a bulwark of American power and, more important
still, they constitute the heart of the liberal democratic
civilization that the United States seeks to preserve and extend.
Critics of a strategy of American pre-eminence sometimes claim that
it is a call for unilateralism. It is not. The notion that the United
States could somehow "go it alone" and maintain its pre-eminence
without its allies is strategically misguided. It is also morally
bankrupt. What would "American leadership" mean in the absence of its
democratic allies? What kind of nation would the United States be if
it allowed Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Israel, Poland and other
democratic nations to fend for themselves against the myriad
challenges they will face?

In fact, a strategy aimed at preserving American pre-eminence would
require an even greater U.S. commitment to its allies. The United
States would not be merely an "offshore balancer", a savior of last
resort, as many recommend. It would not be a "reluctant sheriff",
rousing itself to action only when the townsfolk turn to it in
desperation. American pre-eminence cannot be maintained from a
distance, by means of some post-Cold War version of the Nixon
Doctrine, whereby the United States hangs back and keeps its powder
dry. The United States would instead conceive of itself as at once a
European power, an Asian power, a Middle Eastern power and, of
course, a Western Hemispheric power. It would act as if threats to
the interests of our allies constituted threats to us. It would act
as if instability in important regions of the world, and the flouting
of civilized rules of conduct in those regions, were threats that
affected us with almost the same immediacy as if they were occurring
on our doorstep. To act otherwise would make the United States a most
unreliable partner in world affairs, a perception that would erode
both American pre-eminence and the international order. Eventually,
the crises would appear at our doorstep.

This is what it means to be a global superpower with global
responsibilities. The costs of assuming these responsibilities are
more than made up by the benefits to American long-term interests. It
is short-sighted to imagine that a policy of "keeping our powder dry"
is either safer or less expensive than a policy that aims to preclude
and deter the emergence of new threats, that has the United States
arriving quickly at the scene of potential trouble, that addresses
threats to the national interest before they have developed into
full-blown crises. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison expressed a common
view last year when she wrote that, "Superpowers preserve their
superpower status by not engaging in regional conflicts." In fact,
this is precisely the way for a superpower to cease being a

A strong America capable of projecting force quickly and with
devastating effect to important regions of the world would make it
less likely that challengers to regional stability will attempt to
alter the status quo in their favor. It might even deter them from
undertaking expensive efforts to arm themselves for such a challenge.
An America whose willingness to project force is in doubt, on the
other hand, can only encourage such challenges. In Europe, in Asia
and in the Middle East, the message we should be sending to potential
foes is: "Don't even think about it." That kind of deterrence offers
the best recipe for lasting peace, and it is much cheaper than
fighting the wars that would follow should we fail to build such a
deterrent capacity.

This ability to project force overseas, however, will increasingly be
jeopardized over the coming years as smaller powers acquire weapons
of mass destruction and the missiles to launch them at American
forces, at our allies and at the American homeland. The sine qua non
for a strategy of American global pre-eminence, therefore, is a
missile defense system that can protect all three of these. Only a
well-protected America will be capable of deterring--and when
necessary moving against--"rogue" regimes when they rise to challenge
regional stability. Only a United States reasonably well shielded
from the blackmail of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons will
be able to shape the international environment to suit its interests
and its principles.

With the necessary military strength, strong and well-led alliances,
and adequate missile defense, the United States can set about making
trouble for hostile and potentially hostile nations, rather than
waiting for them to make trouble for us. Just as the most successful
strategy in the Cold War combined containment of the Soviet Union
with an effort to undermine the moral legitimacy of the regime in
Moscow, so in the post-Cold War era a principal aim of American
foreign policy should be to bring about a change of regime in hostile
nations--in Baghdad and Belgrade, in Pyongyang and Beijing, and
wherever tyrannical governments acquire the military power to
threaten their neighbors, our allies and the United States itself.

Regime Change

The idea, common to many foreign policy minimalists and
commerce-oriented liberals alike, that the United States can "do
business" with any regime, no matter how odious and hostile to our
basic principles, is both strategically unsound and a historical. The
United States has in the past worked with right-wing dictatorships as
a bulwark against communist aggression or against radical Muslim
fundamentalism. It has at times formed tactical alliances with the
most brutal regimes--with Stalin's Soviet Union against Nazi Germany,
and with Mao's China against the Soviet Union. But these should
properly be viewed as tactical deviations from a broad strategy of
promoting liberal democratic governance throughout the world, the
result of circumstances in which our security was immediately

Essay Types: Essay