The Present Danger

The Present Danger

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

by Author(s): Robert KaganWilliam Kristol

All this is to be expected as part of the price for American global pre-eminence. It does not, however, add up to a convincing argument against preserving that pre-eminence. The main issue of contention between the United States and most of those who express opposition to its hegemony is not American "arrogance." It is the inescapable reality of American power in its many forms. Those who suggest that these international resentments could somehow be eliminated by a more restrained American foreign policy are engaging in pleasant delusions. Even a United States that never again intervened in a place like Kosovo or never expressed disapproval of China's human rights practices would still find itself the target of jealousy, resentment and in some cases even fear. A more polite but pre-eminently powerful United States would still stand in the way of Chinese ambitions in East Asia, would still exist as a daily reminder of Russia's vasdy diminished standing in the world, and would still grate on French insecuritie s. Unless the United States were prepared to shed its real power and influence, allowing other nations genuinely to achieve a position of relative parity on the world stage, would-be challengers of the international order--as well as those merely offended by the disparity of power--would still have much to resent.

But neither should Americans fear that any effective grouping of nations is likely to emerge to challenge American power. Much of the current international attack on American "hegemonism" is posturing. Allies such as the French may cavil about American "hyperpower", but they recognize their dependence on the United States as the guarantor of an international order that greatly benefits France. (Indeed, it is precisely this dependence that breeds French resentment.) As for Russia and China, the prospect of effective joint action between those two nations against the United States is slight. Their long history of mutual mistrust is compounded by the fact that they do not share common strategic goals--even with regard to the United States. While Chinese leaders consider the United States an enemy, a democratizing Russia has a more ambivalent view. Post-Soviet Russia seeks inclusion in an American-led West, both for economic and ideological reasons.

As a practical matter, as William Wohlforth has argued, it will be very difficult for other nations to gang up on the United States precisely because it is so powerful. But their unwillingness to do so also has something to do with the fact that the United States does not pursue a narrow, selfish definition of its national interest, but generally finds its interests in a benevolent international order. In other words, it is precisely because the United States infuses its foreign policy with an unusually high degree of morality that other nations find they have less to fear from its otherwise daunting power.

Our Inheritance

AT THE beginning of this century, Theodore Roosevelt worried that Americans had become so "isolated from the struggles of the rest of the world, and so immersed in our material prosperity", that they were becoming "effete." Roosevelt implored Americans to look beyond the immediate needs of their daily lives and embrace as a nation a higher purpose in the world. He aspired to greatness for America, and he believed that a nation could only be great if it accepted its responsibilities to advance civilization and improve the world's condition. "A nation's first duty is within its borders", Roosevelt declared, "but it is not thereby absolved from facing its duties in the world as a whole; and if it refuses to do so, it merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the people that shape the destiny of mankind."

In appealing to Americans to support a robust brand of internationalism, Roosevelt possessed the insight to appeal to their sense of nationalism. It was a nationalism, however, of a uniquely American variety--not an insular, blood-and-soil nationalism, but one that derived its meaning and coherence from being rooted in universal principles, first enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. Roosevelt was no utopian; he had contempt for those who believed the international environment could be so transformed as to rid the world of war, put an end to international conflict, and, indeed, put an end to the nation itself. Roosevelt was an idealist of a different sort. He did not attempt to wish away the realities of power, but insisted that the defenders of civilization must exercise their power against civilization's opponents. "Warlike intervention by the civilized powers", he insisted, "would contribute directly to the peace of the world."

Americans should once again embrace a broad understanding of the "national interest", one in keeping with Roosevelt's vision. In recent years, many American foreign policy thinkers, and some politicians, have come to define the "national interest" as consisting of plots of ground, sea lanes, industrial centers, strategic chokepoints and the like. This was a definition of interests foisted upon our foreign policy establishment by "realists at the turn of the century. It is not a definition that would have been welcomed by previous generations of Americans. If someone had asked Alexander Hamilton what the "national interest was, he would have cited prosperity and security, but he would also have invoked the need to lift his young country into a place of honor among the world's great powers. Past American presidents and statesmen would never have imagined that the national interest, a term that can encompass a people's noblest aspirations, would come to possess a meaning as narrow and limited as many American thinkers give it today.

Honor and greatness used to be understood as worthy goals of American foreign policy. In insisting that the national interest" extended beyond material security and prosperity, and in summoning Americans to seek honor as a nation, Roosevelt echoed the views of the American Founders. And almost fifty years after Roosevelt, Reinhold Niebuhr insisted that America's "sense of responsibility to a world community beyond our own borders is a virtue", and this virtue was in no way diminished by the fact that this sense of responsibility also "derived from the prudent understanding of our own interests." Common wisdom holds that Americans do not care about their nation's role in the world. But it has been a long time since any of their leaders asked them to care, or made an appeal to the elevated patriotism that joins interest and justice, and that has characterized the American republic from its beginning.

The American-led world that emerged after the Cold War is a more just world than any imaginable alternative. A multipolar world, in which power were shared more equally among great powers--including China and Russia--would be far more dangerous, and far less congenial to democracy and to individual liberties. Americans should understand that their support for American pre-eminence is as much a boost for international justice as any people is capable of giving. It is also a boon for American interests, and for what might be called the American spirit. George Kennan wrote more than fifty years ago that the American people should feel a certain gratitude to a Providence, which by providing [them] with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

The "implacable challenge" facing Americans has, of course, changed. Our fundamental responsibilities have not.

Robert Kagan is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

William Kristol is editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard. This article is excerpted from their forthcoming book, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (Encounter Books).

Essay Types: Essay