He goes on to write, “Many Americans and their political leaders in both parties, including President Obama, have either forgotten or rejected the assumptions that undergirded American foreign policy for the past seven decades. In particular, American foreign policy may be moving away from the sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world and back toward the defense of narrower, more parochial national interests. This is sometimes called ‘isolationism,’ but that is not the right word. It may be more correctly described as a search for normalcy. At the core of American unease is a desire to shed the unusual burdens of responsibility that previous generations of Americans took on in World War II and throughout the cold war and to return to being a more normal kind of nation, more attuned to its own needs and less to those of the wider world. If this is indeed what a majority of Americans seek today, then the current period of retrenchment will not be a temporary pause before an inevitable return to global activism. It will mark a new phase in the evolution of America’s foreign policy. And because America’s role in shaping the world order has been so unusually powerful and pervasive, it will also begin a new phase in the international system, one that promises not to be marginally different but radically different from what we have known these past 70 years. Unless Americans can be led back to an understanding of their enlightened self-interest, to see again how their fate is entangled with that of the world, then the prospects for a peaceful twenty-first century in which Americans and American principles can thrive will be bleak”.
Kagan goes on to write “For Americans, the choice was never been between isolationism and internationalism. With their acquisitive drive for wealth and happiness, their love of commerce, their economic and (in earlier times) territorial expansiveness, and their universalistic ideology, they never had it in them to wall themselves off from the rest of the world. Tokugawa Japan and Ming China were isolationist. Americans have always been more like republican Rome or ancient Athens, a people and a nation on the move. When, roughly 70 years ago, American foreign policy underwent a revolutionary transformation, it was not a transformation from isolationism to internationalism. What Americans had rejected before World War II was a steady global involvement, with commitments to other nations and responsibilities for the general well-being of the world. That was what the so-called ‘internationalists’ of the time wanted for the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, Henry Stimson, Woodrow Wilson, and many others believed that Americans ought to take on a much bigger role in world affairs, as befitted their growing power. The United States had become ‘more and more the balance of power of the whole globe,’ Roosevelt observed, and it ought to behave accordingly. And indeed, following the Spanish-American War and for the first two decades of the twentieth century, the United States did pursue a wider and deeper global involvement than it had ever done before, culminating in the dispatch of two million troops to France. When World War I ended, Wilson, like Roosevelt before him, ambitiously set out to make the United States a central player in world affairs. Beseeched by all the European powers after the war—for American financing aid to steady their economies and for American security guarantees against each other—Wilson wanted the United States to commit itself to an enduring global role”.
He goes on to make the valid point that “Americans rejected this role. Disillusioned by the compromises and imperfections of the Versailles Treaty, mourning the loss of more than 100,000 dead soldiers, skeptical about American participation in the league, and spurred on by Republicans eager to defeat Wilson and recapture the White House, a majority of Americans came to oppose not only the league but also the internationalists’ broad vision of America’s global role. This was no absentminded lapse back into nonexistent isolationist traditions. It was a deliberate decision to turn away from the increasingly active global involvement of the previous two decades, to adopt a foreign policy of far greater restraint, and above all to avoid future military interventions beyond the Western Hemisphere. Wilson’s Republican successors promised, and the American public welcomed, what Warren Harding called a ‘return to normalcy.’ Normalcy in the 1920s did not mean isolation. Americans continued to trade, to invest, and to travel overseas; their navy was equaled in size only by Britain’s, and had fleets in the Atlantic and the Pacific; and their diplomats pursued treaties to control the arms race and to ‘outlaw’ war. Normalcy simply meant defining America’s national interests the way most other nations defined theirs. It meant defending the homeland, avoiding overseas commitments, preserving the country’s independence and freedom of action, and creating prosperity at home. The problems of Europe and Asia were not America’s problems, and they could be solved, or not solved, without American help. This applied to global economic issues as well. Harding wanted to ‘prosper America first,’ and he did. The 1920s were boom years for the American economy, while Europe’s postwar economies stagnated. To the vast majority of Americans, normalcy seemed a reasonable response to the world of the 1920s, after the enormous exertions of the Wilson years. There were no obvious threats on the horizon. Postwar Weimar Germany was a faltering republic more likely to collapse than to take another stab at continental dominance. Bolshevik Russia was wracked by civil war and economic crisis. Japan, though growing in power and ambition, was a fragile democracy with a seat on the League of Nations permanent council. To most Americans in the 1920s, the greatest risk to America came not from foreign powers but from those misguided “internationalists” and the greedy bankers and war profiteers who would involve the nation in foreign conflicts that were none of America’s business”.
Kagan writes that “normalcy” remained the norm for two decades even has the power of the Royal Navy was collapsing, the Spanish Civil War was being fought and Nazi Germany began to become threatening. He argues that “They were not ignorant of what was going on. Even back then information traveled widely and rapidly, and the newspapers and newsreels were filled with stories about each unfolding crisis. Reports of Mussolini’s dive-bombers dropping their ordnance on spear-carrying Ethiopians; Germany’s aerial bombing of the civilian population of Guernica; Japan’s rampage of rape, pillage, and murder in Nanking—they were horrific and regrettable. But they were not reasons for the United States to get involved. On the contrary, they were reasons for not getting involved”.
Kagan continues, “it was not clear that the United States had vital interests anywhere outside the Western Hemisphere. Even after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and the outbreak of a general European war that followed, respected American strategic thinkers, priding themselves on ‘realistic thinking,’ the ‘banishment of altruism and sentiment’ from their analysis, and ‘single-minded attention to the national interests,’ advised that, with two oceans and a strong navy standing between America and every great power in the world, the United States was invulnerable.A Japanese attack on, say, Hawaii, they ruled out as literally impossible. Republican Senator Robert A. Taft felt confident in saying that no power ‘would be stupid enough’ to attack the United States ‘from across thousands of miles of ocean.’ Nor would the United States suffer appreciably if Nazi Germany did manage to conquer all of Europe, including Great Britain, which by 1940 the realists regarded as a foregone conclusion. Taft saw no reason why the United States could not trade and conduct normal diplomacy with a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany just as it had with Great Britain and France”.
Kagan notes that holders of these views were labled as isolationists but Kagan writes that Morgenthau has argued that they come from the Hamiltonian school of American realism
Dr Kagan goes on to note “The events of 1941 forced a fundamental reassessment not only of America’s global strategy but also of how to define America’s interests. Even as they waged the struggle against Germany and Japan, Roosevelt and his advisers during the war began thinking of how the postwar world ought to be shaped, and they took as their guide what they considered the lessons of the previous two decades. The first had to do with security. The Japanese attack had proved that vast oceans and even a strong navy no longer provided adequate defense against attack. More broadly, there was the realization—or rather the rediscovery—of an old understanding: that the rise of a hostile hegemonic power on the Eurasian landmass could eventually threaten America’s core security interests as well as its economic well-being. As a corollary, there was the ‘lesson of Munich’: would-be aggressors in Eurasia had to be deterred before they became too strong to be stopped short of all-out war. Another lesson was that the United States had an interest in political developments in Eurasia. Walter Lippmann argued that, for Americans to enjoy both ‘physical security’ and the preservation of their ‘free way of life,’ they had to ensure that ‘the other shore of the Atlantic’ remained always in the hands of ‘friendly,’ ‘trustworthy’ democracies”.
Kagan adds later that “Roosevelt supported the United Nations but was not a great believer in collective security. American power, he believed, would be the key. He saw the United Nations much as Wilson had seen the League of Nations, as a vehicle for U.S. global involvement. Indeed, as the historian Robert Dallek has noted, for Roosevelt the United Nations was partly meant to “obscure” the central role American power was to play in the new world order— obscure it, that is, from Americans”.
Kagan goes on to make the point “This new American grand strategy for the postwar world could not have been a more radical departure from “normalcy.” Its goals were not simply defense of the territory, prosperity, and sovereign independence of the American people, but also the promotion of a liberal world order that would defend not only America’s interests but those of many other nations as well. The rise of a Eurasian hegemon would threaten other nations long before it would threaten the United States, for instance, yet Americans now accepted primary responsibility for preventing it. The new strategy was not selfless or altruistic. American officials believed that it was in the best interest of the United States. But neither did it fit the normal definition of the “national interest.” As Dean Acheson explained, Americans had to learn to “operate in a pattern of responsibility which is greater than our own interests.” This was the real revolution in American foreign policy. The new strategy was not directed at any particular nation or any specific threat—at least not at first. The Soviet Union had not yet emerged as the next great challenge to the new global order. During World War II, Roosevelt and most other top officials expected mutual cooperation with the Soviets after the war, and even as late as 1945, Acheson still believed in the possibility of partnership with Moscow”.
Kagan goes on to mention “The new forward-leaning posture became especially pronounced as the postwar era transitioned into the cold war. The Marshall Plan aimed to shore up Western European economies and democracies before they collapsed and succumbed to communism. The Truman Doctrine aimed to bolster Greece and Turkey before they fell to communist subversion. When the communist revolution triumphed in China in 1949, American critics blamed the Truman administration for not doing enough to prevent it—a charge, fair or not, that no one would have thought to make before World War II. The unanticipated North Korean invasion of the South produced panic in Washington and, in the minds of Truman and his advisers, powerfully reinforced the ‘lesson of Munich.’ Henceforth the United States would have to be vigilant and ready to act, with force, anywhere in the world. All of this was precisely what the anti-interventionist critics had warned about in the 1930s. Taft, a thoughtful and intelligent man, had indeed predicted that, once sent off to the war, American forces would never come home again. Victory would prove as much a curse as a blessing”.
Kagan writes that FDR was afraid that the American people would not accept this expanded global role and that in his last State of the Union, Kagan writes, FDR exhorts them to have courage and “fulfill our responsibilities”.
Kagan writes that the consequences of this expansive engagment was “In the half-century following World War II, the United States successfully established, protected, and advanced a liberal world order, carving out a vast ‘free world’ within which an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity could flower in Western Europe, East Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. Although tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union sometimes rose to dangerous levels, the period was characterized above all by peace among the great powers. The United States and the Soviet Union did not come to blows, and just as importantly, the American presence in Europe and East Asia put an end to the cycles of war that had torn both regions since the late nineteenth century. The number of democracies in the world grew dramatically. The international trading system expanded and deepened. Most of the world enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity. There was no shortage of disasters and near-disasters, as well as the two costly wars in Asia—but the strategy was largely successful, so much so that the Soviet empire finally collapsed or voluntarily withdrew, peacefully, under the pressure of the West’s economic and political success, and the liberal order then expanded to include the rest of Europe and most of Asia. All of this was the result of many forces—the political and economic integration of Europe, the success of Japan and Germany, and the rise of other successful Asian economies—but none of it would have been possible without a United States willing and able to play the abnormal and unusual role of preserver and defender of a liberal world order”.
He goes on to argue persusaively that “Just as remarkable was the degree to which the rest of the nations in the liberal world generally accepted and even welcomed America’s overwhelming power. Again, the reason had as much to do with power and geography as with ideological affinity. It was true that for most nations in the world the United States appeared to be a relatively benign hegemon. But the core geopolitical reality was that other nations faced greater and more immediate threats from their neighbors than from the distant Americans. When those neighbors grew menacing, they looked to the United States as a natural partner—comforting for its ability to project power and defend them but comforting also for its distance. The United States thus violated some of the cardinal rules of international relations. For decades, realists had believed that the only peaceful and stable world order was one based on a multipolar balance of power, a “concert” of nations poised in rough equilibrium in a system that all the players regarded as necessary and legitimate—like Europe in the years following the Congress of Vienna. This was the world with which Henry Kissinger felt comfortable and which he constantly predicted, even in the 1960s, was just right around the corner. Unipolarity was supposed to be inherently unstable and short-lived, because other great powers would always band together to balance against a power grown too strong—as had happened in Europe in response to the rise of France and Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries”.
Kagan then argues that when the Cold War was over after the collapse of the Soviet Union people began to think that America could return itself to being a normal country again, looking after its interests and not getting so involved in the affairs of other nations.
Kagan mentions “In September 1990, in an article titled ‘A Normal Country in a Normal Time,’ Jeane Kirkpatrick argued precisely that. With the Soviet Union collapsing, there was no longer a ‘pressing need for heroism and sacrifice.’ The cold war had given foreign policy ‘an unnatural importance’ in American life. The ‘foreign policy elite’ had grown accustomed to thinking of the United States as having ‘expansive, expensive, global purposes’ that ‘transcended … apparent American interests.’ It was time for the United States ‘to focus again on its own national interests,’ by which she meant national interests as ‘conventionally conceived’—’to protect its territory, wealth, and access to necessary goods; to defend its nationals.’ This was the ‘normal condition for nations.’ Kirkpatrick expressed what many felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and not just the followers of Patrick Buchanan, who found much to praise in her essay. Francis Fukuyama also argued that with communism vanquished and democracy triumphant, there were no other great geopolitical or ideological challenges on the horizon”.
He mentions the 1991 Iraq war and notes that it was Saudi Arabia was the chief concern of the Bush administration, “Powell argued, ‘but Saudi Arabia is different.’ Dick Cheney worried that driving Saddam out of Kuwait was going to cost ‘one hell of a lot of money,’ that Americans had a ‘short tolerance for war,’ and that, after all, ‘the oil goes mostly to Japan.’ James Baker took a similar view, as did a majority of Democrats in Congress, as did a majority of Americans. A poll taken in November 1990 showed that 51 percent of Americans were opposed to trying to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait by force and that only 37 percent were in favor of it. Most favored economic sanctions to punish Saddam. Other Bush advisers, however, led by Brent Scowcroft, saw things differently. Saddam’s invasion, they believed, was ‘the first test of the postwar system.’ For half a century the United States had taken the lead role in deterring and punishing would-be aggressors. Although driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait would be ‘costly and risky,’ Scowcroft feared that failure to do so would set ‘a terrible precedent—one that would only accelerate violent centrifugal tendencies—in this emerging ‘post-Cold War’ era.’ Appeasement of aggression in one region would breed aggression elsewhere. To President Bush, it was all reminiscent of the 1930s. Thus did Roosevelt’s original grand strategy—the defense of a liberal world order against collapse, responding not to any single, specific threat but to whatever political, economic, or strategic challenges might arise—seem to reemerge after the long cold war”.
Kagan writes that “In the decade following the fall of the Berlin Wall, moreover, the United States also conducted a number of sizeable military operations—seven to be precise, roughly one every 17 months: in Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), Iraq again (1998), and Kosovo (1999). None were a response to perceived threats to vital national interests. All aimed at defending and extending the liberal world order—by toppling dictators, reversing coups, and attempting to restore democracies in Panama and Haiti; preventing mass killing or starvation in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo; deterring or reversing aggression in the Persian Gulf in 1991; and attempting to prevent the proliferation of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 1998. When Bush sent 30,000 troops to remove the corrupt dictator Manuel Noriega, it was not, as George Will wrote approvingly at the time, in order to pursue national interests ‘narrowly construed,’ but to fulfill ‘the rights and responsibilities that come with the possession of great power.’ When Bush then carried out in Somalia what was arguably the most purely humanitarian, and therefore most purely selfless, intervention in American history, he told the public, ‘I understand that the United States alone cannot right the world’s wrongs.’ But the ‘people of Somalia need … our help’ and ‘some crises in the world cannot be resolved without American involvement.’ The United States, in short, was the ‘indispensable nation,’ as Bill Clinton would proclaim—indispensable, that is, to the preservation of a liberal world order. Such was the thinking behind most of Clinton’s foreign policy initiatives: the enlargement of NATO, which included the extension of unprecedented military guarantees to such nations as Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states; the billions sent to try to save Boris Yeltsin’s faltering democratic experiment in Russia; and the intense focus on containing North Korea, Iraq, and Iran”.
Interestingly Kagan makes the point that “Even the American confrontation with Iraq, beginning in the late 1990s and culminating in the U.S. invasion in 2003, had begun as a world order issue, before it became subsumed by George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror.’ When President Clinton ordered four days of bombing and missile attacks against suspected Iraqi weapons production facilities at the end of 1998, he warned that, if Saddam were not stopped, ‘The community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists. … If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow.’ In the twentieth century, Americans had ‘often made the difference between chaos and community, fear and hope. Now, in the new century, we’ll have a remarkable opportunity to shape a future more peaceful than the past.’ At the end of the day, George W. Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein, whether that decision was wise or foolish, was driven more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest. Of all the American interventions of the post-cold-war era, only the invasion of Afghanistan could be understood as directly related to America’s own national security. The long interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly played a part in undermining American support, not just for wars but for the grand strategy that led to those wars. However, that support had been shaky from the beginning. Polls throughout the 1990s showed Americans wary of overseas interventions, even though the public generally supported their presidents when they used force. Opposition parties generally opposed the interventions undertaken by both Democratic and Republican presidents. Democrats voted against George H. W. Bush’s Persian Gulf war; Republicans opposed the Clinton administration’s interventions in Haiti and the Balkans as superfluous”.
He admits the temptation to, like Atlas, give up holding the world aloft but writes “Can’t U.S. allies carry more of the burden? The question has been asked since the dawn of the cold war, but the answer has always been: probably not. The same factors that have made the United States uniquely capable of supporting a world order—great wealth and power and the relative security afforded by geography—help explain why American allies have always been less capable and less willing. They have lacked the power and the security to see and act beyond their narrow interests. So where they failed before they will fail again. Even twenty-first-century Europeans, for all the wonders of their union, seem incapable of uniting against a predator in their midst, and are willing, as in the past, to have the weak devoured if necessary to save their own (financial) skins. There are moral costs, too. Like most people, Americans generally like to believe that they are behaving justly in the world, that they are on the side of the right. If possible, they like to have legal or institutional sanctions for their action, or at least the general approval of like-minded nations. On the two occasions in the past 100 years when the United States contemplated taking on a central role in global affairs, in 1918 and 1945, American leaders insisted on simultaneously creating world organizations that could, at least in theory, provide this legitimacy for American actions. The problem is, the world lacks any genuine overarching legal or institutional authority, much less a democratic authority, to which all nations subordinate themselves. Questions of right and wrong are settled not according to impartial justice but usually according to the distribution of power in the system. Americans have usually had to use their power to enforce their idea of justice without any assurance beyond their own faith that they are right. This is a heavy moral burden for a democratic people to bear. In their domestic lives, Americans are accustomed to having that burden spread evenly across society”.
He continues making the excellent point “Today more than 50 percent of Americans believe the United States plays “a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago.” One senses that, for many Americans, this decline is not a reason for panic but comes as something of a relief. Less power means fewer responsibilities. A sense of futility, today as much as in the 1920s and 1930s, is both an invitation and a justification for a return to normalcy. The sense of futility has affected policymakers, too. Senior White House officials, especially the younger ones, look at problems like the struggle in Syria and believe that there is little if anything the United States can do. This is the lesson of their generation, the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan: that America has neither the power nor the understanding nor the skill to fix problems in the world. This is also escapism, however, for there is a myth embedded in this plea of futility. It is that wielding power effectively was ever any easier than it is today. With rose-colored glasses we look back at the cold war and imagine that the United States used to get others to do what it wanted, used to know what it was doing, and used to wield such overwhelming power that the world simply bent to its will or succumbed to its charms. But American policy during the cold war, despite its ultimate success, was filled with errors, folly, many near-disasters, and some disasters”.
He goes on to argue that “Periods of peace and prosperity can make people forget what the world “as it is” really looks like, and to conclude that the human race has simply ascended to some higher plateau of being. This was the common view in Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century. At a time when there had not been a war between great powers in 40 years, or a major Europe-wide war in a century, the air was filled with talk of a new millennium in which wars among civilized nations had become impossible. Three-quarters of a century and two world wars and a cold war later, millennial thoughts return. Studies cited by Fareed Zakaria purport to show that some “transformation of international relations” has occurred. “Changes of borders by force” have dropped dramatically “since 1946.” The nations of Western Europe, having been responsible for two new wars a year for 600 years, had not even started one “since 1945.” Steven Pinker observes that the number of deaths from war, ethnic conflict, and military coups has declined—since 1945—and concludes that the human race has become “socialized” to prefer peace and nonviolence. The dates when these changes supposedly began ought to be a tip-off. Is it a coincidence that these happy trends began when the American world order was established after World War II, or that they accelerated in the last two decades of the twentieth century, when America’s only serious competitor collapsed? Imagine strolling through Central Park and, after noting how much safer it had become, deciding that humanity must simply have become less violent—without thinking that perhaps the New York Police Department had something to do with it”.
He goes on, “Nor do they realize, perhaps, how quickly it can all unravel. The international system is an elaborate web of power relationships, in which every nation, from the biggest to the smallest, is constantly feeling for shifts or disturbances. Since 1945, and especially since 1989, the web has been geared to respond primarily to the United States. Allies observe American behavior and calculate America’s reliability. Nations hemmed in or threatened by American power watch for signs of growing or diminishing power and will. When the United States appears to retrench, allies necessarily become anxious, while others look for opportunities. In recent years, the world has picked up unmistakable signals that Americans may no longer want to carry the burden of global responsibility. Others read the polls, read the president’s speeches calling for “nation-building at home,” see the declining defense budgets and defense capabilities, and note the extreme reticence, on the part of both American political parties, about using force. The world judges that, were it not for American war-weariness, the United States probably would by now have used force in Syria—just as it did in Kosovo, in Bosnia, and in Panama. President Obama himself recently acknowledged as much when he said, “It’s not that it’s not worth it. It’s that after a decade of war, you know, the United States has limits.” Such statements set the web vibrating. In East Asia, nations living in close proximity to an increasingly powerful China want to know whether Americans will make a similar kind of calculation when it comes to defending them; in the Middle East, nations worried about Iran wonder if they will be left to confront it alone; in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, American security guarantees are meaningless unless Americans are able and willing to meet them”.
He concludes, “Looking back on the period before World War II, Robert Osgood, the most thoughtful of realist thinkers of the past century, discerned a critical element missing from the strategic analyses of the day. Mere rational calculations of the ‘national interest,’ he argued, proved inadequate. Paradoxically, it was the ‘idealists,’ those who were ‘most sensitive to the Fascist menace to Western culture and civilization,’ who were ‘among the first to understand the necessity of undertaking revolutionary measures to sustain America’s first line of defense in Europe.’ Idealism, he concluded, was ‘an indispensable spur to reason in leading men to perceive and act upon the real imperatives of power politics.’ This was Roosevelt’s message, too, when he asked Americans to defend ‘not their homes alone, but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments, and their very civilization are founded.’ Perhaps Americans can be inspired in this way again, without the threat of a Hitler or an attack on their homeland. But this time they will not have 20 years to decide. The world will change much more quickly than they imagine. And there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters”.