America the Isolated?

5 minute read
Fareed Zakaria

Conservatives are–of course–mad at Barack Obama, but they are also outraged at a country that isn’t outraged enough at him. This frustration is now taking over mainstream and intelligent voices within the movement.

Bret Stephens, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, laments that President Obama is not paying a price for a foreign policy that Stephens describes as “isolationist.” The problem, he writes, is that Americans have no sense of history, don’t see the importance of an active American foreign policy and are about to repeat the lessons of the 1930s, when isolationism led to Adolf Hitler and World War II.

Our isolationism will surely come as a surprise to the diplomats, soldiers and intelligence officers working on American foreign policy. Washington spends more on defense than the next 10 great powers put together–and more on intelligence than most nations spend on their militaries. We have tens of thousands of troops stationed at dozens of bases abroad, from Germany to Turkey to Bahrain to Japan to South Korea. We have formal commitments to defend our most important allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

And our vast footprint has been expanded under the Obama Administration. The White House has extended America’s security umbrella to include defending Israel and the moderate Arab states against the threat posed by Iran’s possible development of nuclear weapons. It is enlarging the U.S. military presence in Asia with a new base in Australia to deal with China’s rise. To call this isolationism is to mangle both language and logic.

In fact, President Obama’s worldview is rooted in American exceptionalism. The fundamental pattern of international relations is that as a country becomes powerful and asserts itself, others gang up to bring it down. That’s what happened to the Habsburg Empire, Napoleonic France, Germany and the Soviet Union.

There is one great exception to this rule in modern history: the United States. America has risen to global might, and yet it has not produced the kind of opposition that many would have predicted. In fact, today it is in the astonishing position of being the world’s dominant power while many of the world’s next most powerful nations–Britain, France, Germany, Japan–are all allied with it. This is the exception that needs to be explained.

The reason surely has something to do with the nature of American hegemony. We do not seek colonies or conquest. After World War II, we helped revive and rebuild our enemies and turned them into allies. For all the carping, people around the world do see the U. S. as different from other, older empires.

But it also has something to do with the way that the U.S. has exercised power: reluctantly. Historically, America was not eager to jump into the global arena. It entered World War I at the tail end of the war, late enough to avoid the worst bloodshed but still tipping the balance in favor of Britain and France. It entered World War II only after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It contained Soviet aggression in Europe but was careful not to push too far in other places. And when it did, as in Vietnam, it paid a price.

There is a long and distinguished school of American statesmen–from Dwight Eisenhower to Henry Kissinger to Robert Gates–who believe that America helps enlarge the scope of freedom around the world by staying strong; husbanding its power; creating a stable, liberal order; and encouraging economic and political reform. (The most brilliant academic exponent of this view, Kenneth Waltz, died May 13 at 88.) It is central to this mission that America is disciplined about its military interventions.

Perhaps because the U.S. has had no rival since the end of the Cold War, some seem to believe that any bad thing that happens in the world could be stopped if only the American President would act. Stephens bemoans the fact that Vladimir Putin is putting opponents in prison. What exactly should the U.S. do about this, other than protest, which it has done? President Bush was not able to stop the Iraqi government–while the entire country was under American occupation–from doing the very same thing.

We have just gone through a decade devoted to a very different idea: that American power must be used actively, pre-emptively and in pursuit of expansive goals beyond the narrow national interest. The result was thousands of American soldiers dead, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead and millions ethnically cleansed, $2 trillion spent and the erosion of American influence and goodwill across the globe. Can we get a few years of respite to rebuild our economic, political and moral capital?


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