An especially pernicious idea regarding U.S. foreign policy was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s assertion that the United States was the world’s “indispensable nation.” It would have been bad enough if that statement had been a content-less expression of national narcissism. However, that same arrogant assumption has been the guiding principle of Washington’s foreign policy since the end of World War II—and especially since the end of the Cold War. The belief led to strategic overextension, as the United States embraced security obligations, both explicit and implicit, around the world.
Moreover, the problem of America’s strategic overextension is getting worse, not better. During the Cold War, Washington maintained a military presence in Western Europe and East Asia, and pursued a policy of primacy in both regions. U.S. leaders also adopted an activist, although lower-profile, role in the Middle East. And, of course, the United States took repeated steps to prevent attempted Soviet penetration of the Western Hemisphere. There were also some relatively low-key geopolitical ventures in Africa. Nevertheless, there was a sense of limits to dangerous, high-profile missions the United States was willing to undertake.
Both the scope and intensity of Washington’s security obligations and initiatives have expanded markedly since the end of the Cold War. During the first decade of the post–Cold War era, the United States pushed to transform NATO from a defensive alliance confined to Western Europe and North America into a much larger, offensive alliance. Washington lobbied to admit new members from the defunct Soviet satellite empire in Eastern Europe, eventually moving the alliance right up to Russia’s western border. Given that expansion, Washington now has a treaty obligation to defend twenty-seven NATO member countries, most of which have minimal strategic value to America. With U.S. prodding, the alliance embarked on “out-of-area” missions, meddling in two civil wars in the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo) and dispatching troops to Afghanistan.
The United States also greatly expanded its own military presence and security obligations in the Middle East. The U.S.-led Persian Gulf War to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait marked the start of a substantially more activist role. Previously, Washington had maintained a naval presence in Middle East waters, and occasionally conducted short-term interventions—as in Lebanon in 1958 and 1982—but it did not try to micromanage the region’s turbulent affairs on an ongoing basis. That changed after the Gulf War, and escalated further with the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
It now seems as though no region is beyond the scope of Washington’s determination to pursue primacy. The fastest growing military command is AFRICOM, which has responsibility for a rapidly increasing number of security missions in Sub-Saharan Africa. The United States now has at least 6,000 troops in more than a dozen countries on that continent, involved in a variety of operations.
Such a lengthy roster of security commitments costs a great deal of money. President Trump’s proposed military budget for the 2019 fiscal year is a whopping $716 billion. That amount is some four times greater than China’s spending (the country with the second largest outlays) and nearly as much as the next eight countries combined. Even more troublesome, the extent of Washington’s security ventures puts American military personnel—and potentially the American homeland itself—at risk in a bewildering array of situations.
It is imperative to re-think the notion of America as the indispensable nation responsible for resolving security problems in every region of the world. The policy implications of the indispensable notion thesis were bad enough when they were largely confined to Europe and East Asia, and to a more limited extent to the Middle East. A predominant American security role also made some sense in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when the international system was badly disrupted, and the United States was the only power capable of thwarting Soviet expansionist ambitions.
But that world changed a long time ago. Instead of offloading regional security responsibilities onto others—especially the revived, prosperous major powers in Europe and East Asia, along with the new, rising powers in those regions—U.S. policy moved in precisely the opposite direction, undertaking even more obligations. The current arrangement is an absurd caricature of what a normal, healthy international system should look like.
That situation needs to change, and change now. Columnist Pat Buchanan asked a pertinent question in an April 2017 article: “Why is Kim Jong Un our problem?” Indeed, one would think that North Korea’s neighbors—Japan, South Korea, China and Russia—would have primary responsibility for dealing with Pyongyang’s disruptive behavior. Instead, the United States, a nation thousands of miles away, is expected to resolve the North Korea crisis—at growing risk to its own homeland.
A similar situation exists in Europe. If the European nations truly regard Russia as an expansionist threat, they should take the lead in confronting that threat—including by significantly boosting their anemic levels of defense spending. Instead, they continue to free-ride and rely on the United States to protect them, if the security situation worsens. It is well past time that the European powers take responsibility for their continent’s security.
Indeed, those powers should have primary responsibility for developing and implementing policies to address disorders in the Middle East. They are far closer than the United States to that turbulent region, and they are far more impacted by developments there, not the least being the massive flow of Middle East refugees coming into the nations of the European Union.
To make the essential policy changes that reduce America’s security obligations and the growing risks they entail, U.S. leaders and the American people must adopt a more restrained perspective and national self-image. Albright not only asserted that America was the indispensable nation, she intoned: “We stand tall. We see further into the future.” Such an arrogant attitude is national narcissism on steroids. It should be deeply offensive to other proud, capable democratic nations, including such powers as Japan, India, Britain, France and Germany. The physical and geopolitical wreckage wrought by World War II disappeared long ago, and so should the attitude that the United States is the only nation capable of deterring aggression or thwarting the unlimited expansion of tyrannical regimes. We need a new foreign policy attuned to the realities of a multipolar world in the twenty-first century.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than seven hundred articles on international affairs.