The World Needs a Powerful America—the Tragic Alternative Is Xinjiang
To suggest that the world no longer requires a powerful United States is to accept a world where the “expansive, crypto-totalitarian force” of Xi’s China or the kleptocratic despotism of Putin’s Russia hold sway.
Tragedy occurs when an unfortunate event, made certain by flaws over which there is no control, befalls a heroic figure. It suggests an inevitability and a fatalism that applied in real life is both desperate and craven. The U.S. decision to pursue global supremacy following the Second World War, and the subsequent era of worldwide economic growth and unprecedented peace, was neither certain nor unfortunate. While some experts have asserted the contrary, it was many things, but tragic is not one of them. Rather, it was a bold and necessary response made in the face of a tremendous challenge. As we emerge from a contentious election the decision that U.S. leadership faces today is similarly momentous, and one upon which the fates of many hang. The purpose of U.S. preeminence was and is to ensure the survival of basic values: liberty, justice, and the rule of law. These principles provide for the freedom and prosperity of Americans and, when upheld, the nations of the world.
When the United States accepted the mantle of world leadership, it did so as a first step in establishing a system deliberately designed to prevent the kind of real tragedy of world conflagration that was the Second World War. What makes the ensuing eighty years truly remarkable is the wild success of that system.
It resulted in decades of unmatched human flourishing. Worldwide living standards nearly tripled, extreme poverty was cut by 85 percent and 400 million human beings ascended to the middle class. Freedom flourished, seventeen democratic nations in 1945 expanded to more than ninety today. Domestically, Americans benefited from security arrangements that protected the U.S. homeland, prevented nuclear war, provided geopolitical stability, and fostered economic prosperity.
Order is a fragile thing, and whether in the county or across the continent, its maintenance requires some form of monopoly on violence, a structure that allows for the answering of grievances in a fair and predictable manner, a set of rules that establish the parameters to balance interests in tension and constrain the whims of man in competition. The alternative is power, unleashed, raw and unaccountable except where confronted by equally unbound force. The beauty and elegance of the postwar system was that it recognized this and accounted for it.
The architects of that order intended to keep aggression in check and to privilege the values broadly acknowledged by Western democracies as just and righteous. Thus, they crafted a forum for the nations of the world to resolve their differences akin to a courtroom rather than the battlefield. Chartering institutions such as the United Nations, the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, this structure was erected on a foundation of trust in the rule of law and confidence in American military strength as the guarantor of stability and security. Just as peace officers underpin justice, America might have underwritten the prosperity of the world.
The Cold War was an outgrowth of the incompatibility of Marxist-Leninist ideology with the very Western ideals that are central to that construct. Where communism arose unconfronted or victorious in its struggle, tyranny, oppression, and poverty thrived. The failure of the Western world to eliminate that despotism outright is less an indictment of the system than a recognition of its limits. The success of the postwar international order in containing that conflict is a testament to understanding the value of great power and the cost of choosing whether to use it.
Yet, the durability of the rules-based order is in question. Taxed by its flaws; the inclusion of the world community’s illiberal members on equal footing to others induces frustration and the sclerosis of adjusting to a rapidly changing world is evident. The system does not yet acknowledge the shift of power from Europe to Asia. The sense that Africa is ignored, must be addressed. Still, there is no serious alternative and the threat today, while different, is just as grave as in 1945. In a world that is governed by the use of force, the current system remains the best option. The rise of China, not as a fair participant in the international system, but as a schoolyard bully, stealing lunch money across the South and East China Seas, exposes the shortfalls in diplomatic and economic efforts that arc from Nixon’s administration to Obama’s; but it reinforces the need for a robust U.S. defense sector and U.S. leadership in the international community paired with its commensurate power.
To suggest that the world no longer requires a powerful United States is to accept a world where the “expansive, crypto-totalitarian force” of Xi’s China or the kleptocratic despotism of Putin’s Russia hold sway. Where the designers of the ethnic genocide of Xinjiang and the seizure of Crimea are free to do as they desire. These dual challenges demand our continued commitment to, modernizing our armed forces for great power competition, enabling NATO for the same, and increasing interoperability with allies across the Indo-Pacific.
History teaches that it is not the trends that matter, so much as the decisions made. The endurance of the American Republic, and its place in maintaining stability and freedom across the globe, are not fated; they require the courage to lead. The People’s Republic of China is joined today in revisionist policies by a Russian Federation that is belligerent in its decline. Both are openly expansionist and exercise influence over their neighbors without consideration for fairness, justice, or freedom. Together, they present dilemmas from which the world cannot withdraw. If the United States elects not to live up to its own ideals, declines to lead and abandons allies and others to this contest without our great power, that would be a tragedy.
Lieutenant Colonel Matthew R. Crouch, United States Marine Corps is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he holds master’s degrees in Political Science and International Business Administration and is an Olmsted Scholar.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government or other organization.