From Syria to China, U.S. Leaders Don't Know What America is For

From Syria to China, U.S. Leaders Don't Know What America is For

Every president’s primary imperative is protecting America and its citizens, not humanity, from outside threats.

The American approach following its grand Cold War victory has been just the opposite of Bismarck’s measured approach. It declared itself the “indispensable nation.” It promoted its governmental and societal structures as being most appropriate for peoples of all civilizations and cultures. It upended other governments with abandon, contributing to the killing and uprooting of masses of hapless people that followed the chaos that followed American intrusions. In Europe, it fostered an eastward push that could only generate anxiety in Russia and produce an unnecessary belligerence between the Orthodox and Western civilizations.

And it has left America unnecessarily vulnerable in the face of a possible—one could say probable—confrontation with China in coming years. If ISIS represents the most serious immediate threat to America and the West, China represents the most serious prospective threat. That’s because China very naturally wishes to supplant America as Asia’s most powerful nation, dominating sea lanes and forcing lesser nations to bend to its will. America will have to decide how far it is willing to go to accommodate these Chinese regional ambitions. If it decides to remain unyielding, hostilities will be difficult to avoid.

And then the Russian bear, so menacing in the faulty view of so many American politicians and commentators these days, will loom as the single most important ally America could have. But no such alliance will be likely with a Russian leader who is dismissed by prominent U.S. politicians as a “gangster” and “organized crime figure,” as GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio characterized Russian president Vladimir Putin recently.

U.S. leaders with an instinct for strategic coherence would keep their eyes on real threats and real enemies and not manufacture enemies where they don’t exist or don’t need to exist. They wouldn’t insult foreign leaders unnecessarily because they would know such leaders may have to be brought into a desperate coalition in the future, as Franklin Roosevelt parleyed with Joseph Stalin in the 1940s. They would take into account the legitimate regional interests of other nations as part of a broader concept of maintaining influence through cordial relations wherever possible. They would embrace the concept of balance of power over moral preachments. They would maintain a crisp sense of who their immediate enemies are and also who their prospective adversaries might be—and then move decisively to defeat their immediate enemies and outmaneuver their prospective adversaries. They wouldn’t get hung up on gauzy humanitarian notions when such notions might get in the way of protecting U.S. national interests. They would calculate with care the price of military action in terms of blood, treasure and political capital—and also in terms of prospects for stability or chaos in the wake of such action. Their diplomacy would maximize the full force of U.S. power and maneuverability, but never with swagger.

We haven’t seen many such leaders over the past fifteen years. The result has been strategic confusion in America—and a world that seems to be slipping into ever-greater chaos.        

Robert W. Merry is a contributing editor at The National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.

Image: Flickr/White House