• The Role of America in the World: Conceptual Confusions and Unhappy Choices

    by  • October 11, 2013 • Uncategorized • 0 Comments

    Today’s guest post is by Paul Starobin, a longtime journalistic colleague of mine formerly with National Journal. He is the author of the book, After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age, and a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week. He lives with his family in Orleans, Massachusetts. This is based on a talk he gave at the Brewster Men’s club on Cape Cod on October 10.

    Let me start by reading directly from President Obama’s State of the Union speech, Jan. 24, 2012:

    The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe. Our oldest alliances in Europe and Asia are stronger than ever. Our ties to the Americas are deeper. Our iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history. We’ve made it clear that America is a Pacific power, and a new beginning in Burma has lit a new hope. From the coalitions we’ve built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we’ve led against hunger and disease; from the blows we’ve dealt to our enemies; to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back.

    Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. That’s not the message we get from leaders around the world, all of whom are eager to work with us. That’s not how people feel from Tokyo to Berlin; from Cape Town to Rio; where opinions of America are higher than they’ve been in years. Yes, the world is changing; no, we can’t control every event. But America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs – and as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way.

    ARABIAN SEA (Jan 19, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) join for a turnover of responsibility in the Arabian Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Eric S. Powell)

    ARABIAN SEA (Jan 19, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) join for a turnover of responsibility in the Arabian Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Eric S. Powell)

    Now let me give you some headlines that suggest a contrasting picture:

    Oct. 5, dateline Beijing, New York Times. “China Seizes Opening in U.S. Absence.” …Because of the government shutdown in Washington, the President cancelled a long-scheduled trip to Asian countries including Indonesia, “leaving regional allies increasingly doubtful the United States will be a viable counterbalance to a rising China.” Asked one analyst: “How can the United States be a reliable partner when President Obama can’t get his own house in order?”

    Sept. 18. Dateline Brasilia. The Wall Street Journal. “President Dilma Rouseff called off a planned state visit” to Washington D.C. in reaction to allegations that the U.S. government spied electronically on Brazilians, including President Rouseff herself….The allegations have caused an uproar in Brazil….And according to an analyst, “Perhaps Rouseff’s decision is being silently applauded in the world’s capitals.” The White House invitation for a formal state dinner was the only such one that Obama had issued all year.

    Sept. 1, dateline Washington, D.C. Forbes magazine. “Weak on Syria, Weak in the World.” The author, Doug Schoen, a Democratic political consultant, says, “I am sure they are breathing a sigh of relief—if not celebrating—in Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow.” And that’s because of President Obama’s decision to defer a military strike against the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons and instead seek authorization for such a strike from Congress. “The U.S. approach to Syria paints a bleak picture of American power and potency…We are now a nation so far from the one described as indispensable that it is altogether difficult to recognize both our mission and our national ethos.”

    Our mission and our national ethos. That’s what I am going to talk about today with you.

    What is our role in the world? What should be our role in the world? To start with, let’s recognize that there is no one answer to that question. There are multiple answers and moreover, in different times in our history, we have answered that question differently.

    Let’s start at the beginning. George Washington’s Farewell Address, in 1796. “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is…to have with them as little political connection as possible…” And so he warned against, “permanent…antipathies against particular nations AND passionate attachments for others.” Thomas Jefferson, our third president, after John Adams, in his first inaugural address, cautioned against “entangling alliances.” And in 1821, John Quincy Adams, at that time serving as secretary of state for President James Monroe, rejected the idea of “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Instead, America should win favor around the world with the benign “sympathy of our example.”

    So that is one clear idea of America’s role in the world. Show by example, sure, but stick to our own knitting. Don’t get bound up in everyone else’s problems. And we can see threads of that idea, if you will, in much later periods of our history, notably in the 1920s and 1930s, between the First and Second World Wars, when a so-called isolationist mood took root in the country, especially in what is now called ‘flyover country’ between the East and West Coasts. And some might say that today, in the 21st century, after our war in Iraq, and the wind down of our war in Afghanistan, that we are thinking of going back to this principle again, of not wanting to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” I’ll return to this theme later on.

    But that idea, even in the first decades of our country, was in tension with other ideas about America’s role in the world. The Monroe Doctrine, asserted by President James Monroe in 1823, in a message to Congress, said that “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” And what’s more, with regard to those European powers, “we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”

    When a rough neighborhood is hazardous to peace and safety—what does it require? A policeman. Now, back then, there was no real teeth to the Monroe Doctrine—it was more of a declaration of principles rather than an actual assertion of U.S. powers, because at that young time in our history, our military presence, beyond our shores, was no match for the reigning European powers. Nevertheless, the Monroe Doctrine acquired its teeth under the Rough Rider, Theodore Roosevelt at the start of the 20th century. He intervened in the Dominican Republic, for example, to settle a dispute involving German and French debtors in that country, and in so doing, and in explaining why he was not going simply to annex the Dominican Republic, he said “I want to do nothing but what a policeman has to do.”

    This notion had legs. As America, in the 20th century, became the world’s most prosperous country, with deep economic and other ties not only to South America and Europe but also to Asia, the idea of a policeman role took on a global cast. When the U.S., under President ‘Give em’ Hell’ Harry Truman, took action to repel a Communist invasion of Korea, backed by Red China and the Soviet Union, it was as a “police action” under the auspices of the United Nation. The Korean war of course ended in a stalemate, which persists today—but it established a precedent for a U.S. global role with America as the so-called indispensable nation, all that stands between order and chaos in bad neighborhoods all across the world. More recently, we have seen this idea invoked in Libya, where the dictator, no longer with us, Muammar Gaddafi, appeared ready to massacre his own people. And also in Syria, after the dictator there, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons against his own people, according to the best available evidence. And we have seen profound regrets voiced by President Bill Clinton for NOT intervening in the 1990s to stop a bloodletting in Rwanda. He did, however, intervene, as part of a NATO action, in the Balkans to thwart Slobodan Milosevic.

    So those are two sharply contrasting roles for America in the world. First, show by example and stay out of entanglements; and Second, act as a policeman to enforce law and order in the world. But there is also a third role that needs to be brought into this discussion. Being a global cop suggests a certain neutrality—you see bad things happening in the world, you stop them. But what about a more pro-active approach to the world—to try to shape the world more to our liking, in keeping with our core democratic values? This idea, of America as a kind of values crusader, also is a part of our national fabric. It is the most dynamic conception of our national mission and indeed for critics, at home and abroad, amounts to hubris and even a form of imperialism. In the 19th century, the idea of America as “the nation of futurity,” as a novel, revolutionary experiment for the world, as something that perhaps even God ordained as our chosen role for the planet, animated our drive Westward to California and the conquest of territories held by the Mexicans and Native Americans. In the 21st century, a coterie of political figures and activists, sometimes called neo-conservatives, pushed for a strategy of democratization of the Middle East—so that it was not enough to overthrow tyrants, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but to rebuild the country according to a democratic character, such as it never had had.

    With these three roles in mind, let’s return to the world as it exists today. For those who say, ‘Look at America, it is retreating from the world’—the question might be asked, what exactly is the purpose of American engagement? And let’s be more specific. What is the role, in the here and the now, for America in Asia? Should we attempt to check a rising China, eager to build up its own military muscle and well along in its program for a blue-water navy including aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines? For how long do we make it a core priority to protect Japan? How long are we going to stay in Korea?

    The Middle East. We in the end supported the overthrow of our longtime ally Hosni Muburak in Egypt—but when the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood leader was, in turn, overthrown by the Egyptian Army, we said, well, never mind. What happened to our values? And With Egypt back on an autocratic path, and with Syria in a civil war, and with Iraq suffering from sectarian violence, and with tribal rivalries threatening to engulf Libya, and with the Taliban in Afghanistan still in fighting form and patiently waiting for the day that our forces leave the country, and with the Israelis and the Palestinians still at odds over basic issues relating to a peaceful settlement of their differences, what remains of our policy to the region? What is our policy to the region?

    Another way to ask this question is in terms of leadership. After the Second World War, with Europe exhausted and Japan defeated and India only on the verge of achieving its independence from Britain, America was the undisputed leader of the portion of the world that was not in the grip of communism. And the American mission in the world was fairly clear—to thwart communist expansion, namely in Europe and in Asia. That role was thrust upon us, even demanded of us. But the Cold War ended more than twenty years ago, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And since that time, I would submit—and not as a political statement but as an observation, supported by analysis—there has been no clearly articulated goal, or at least no consensus goal, for American leadership, even though we remain both the world’s biggest economy and, by far, the world’s biggest military power.

    What all Americans I think can agree on is that our role in the world should be to help our people stay safe at home. But that consensus is not in itself a policy—it is, rather, a starting point for a debate. What approach to the world will keep us safest? The answer is not obvious. Consider our use of drones to kill combatants associated with al Qaeda, in remote areas of Pakistan and Yemen. Surely we’re safer, it might be thought, when bad guys, active in or in sympathy with a group that already has attacked the American homeland, are taken out. But what happens when we miss and civilians instead are killed? Children, maybe. Or if we mistakenly kill the wrong guy—some guy who is not a terrorist. What does that do to the image of America and is it possible that a backlash will make it all that much easier for groups that wish us harm to recruit new members? According to a 2010 book by Gabriella Blum and Philip B. Heymann, law professors at Harvard: “targeted killings might strengthen the sense of legitimacy of terrorist operations, which are sometimes viewed as the only viable option for the weak to fight against a powerful empire.”

    The same can be said on the ground, special forces operations. America’s special forces are far and away the best in the world. We have the capability to go almost anywhere to hunt down a target, as we proved in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Just recently, we did that operating in Tripoli with the capture of a Libyan citizen suspected of involvement in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. It may sound like a triumph for our security but listen to what a Libyan blogger wrote about the event, on the website of Foreign Policy magazine: “There is a palpable danger that this latest operation will undermine the sovereignty of Libya and an already weak government that is unable to protect itself or its people against possible retaliation by radicals, especially in the country’s East. Many seem to think that U.S. operations on Libyan soil will galvanize support for the extremist groups, radicalizing their sympathizers. The radicalization process could mean that more people will join calls for “jihad” against what they will claim to be a war on Islam led by the U.S. forces and aided by an alleged “infidel puppet government.”

    Consider, too, our global electronic surveillance programs. Yes, Edward Snowden, wherever he now is in Russia, has told us a few things. There’s no question that there are plenty of bad people to spy on—and that our intelligence agencies can use the information that is scooped up by these programs to try to thwart attacks on America. At the same time, if the world sees our surveillance programs as all encompassing, as watching not just bad guys but practically everyone—whether they are on Twitter, Skype, Facebook, g-mail or maybe even Pandora—won’t that make us Big Brother and how does that keep us safe? How unpopular can we afford to be?

    Behind these questions is the larger issue of whether the U.S. best protects its people by acting on its own—unilaterally—in the world. There’s also a quite different path we could take—to act in concert with others. To be, say, not the global cop on the beat, but part of a global police force. Even part of an emerging global government, with its own system of rules and practices covering everything from security to financial regulation. But here, too, there are difficult questions. America is a sovereign nation. How much of our sovereignty, if any, do we want to cede to a global body? Do we want to give other international actors a check on our actions? Will Russia or China—even though both, in fact, are threatened by Islamic radicalism—ever be reliable allies for America?

    Now, I’ve focused a lot in this talk on military engagement. It might be said, well, let’s engage not with bullets and drones and cruise missiles, but with our aid dollars. We’re still the richest country in the world. Much richer than the hot spots, from Pakistan to Libya, nourishing violent radical movements plotting to do us harm. Let’s build schools, hospitals, roads in these countries. Let’s show tangibly how dedicated we are to improving life over there. And we do have big hearts. Americans are huge givers to philanthropies here at home and abroad. Hard-headed skeptics, though, can say we tried that strategy in Afghanistan—after we overthrew the Taliban in 2001. America has poured on the order of $20 billion of civilian aid into Afghanistan over the last decade.  Schools, hospital roads and also irrigation projects and even fix ups of shops and marketplaces. You might think that $20 billion would go a long way in a country of 30 million people with a per capita income on the order of $600 annually. But the Taliban are still there, and independent analysts say the impact of the aid has been weakened by poor planning and corruption—corruption so bad that some of our money has even found its way into the pockets of the Taliban. “There is this assumption that if we spend a lot of money on them, they’ll like us,” says Carol Lancaster, a former deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who is now dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “I’m not sure what you gain by spending a lot of money that doesn’t produce sustainable and beneficial change.” Or to put in another way, if we can’t fix Detroit, how can we fix Afghanistan?

    Some folks in America, despairing of these results, say that the answer is less engagement. We’re a big country, with plentiful resources, and we can rely more on ourselves. Focus on solving our fiscal problems and rebuilding our economy and on reforming our political institutions to keep narrow special interests at bay. Stay out of foreign entanglements, as George Washington once warned. Lead by example.

    It sounds tempting. With the use of new technologies like fracking to tap natural gas resources, America is now the world’s number one producer of oil and gas, ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia. And we have abundant renewable wind and solar resources to harvest. (Look what’s happening out there on Nantucket Sound.) And we have the most technologically dynamic place on earth in our Silicon Valley. Today’s Apples and Googles, companies that are the envy of the world, started from scratch, here in America. And America has 13 million millionaires—13 million!—which makes us number one in the world in that category, ahead of, drumroll, France, with just over 2 million, then Germany, the UK, Italy, Sweden and China. (I would have guessed more for China, with it’s a billion and a quarter people.)

    But even with these superlatives, it may be tough to lead by example. How well are we doing educating our children, compared to the rest of the world? As a parent with a 12 year old in 7th grade and a 10 year old in 4th, that question certainly interests me. The answer is not so well, by any number of measurements. A new study of 22 advanced nations by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, finds that America is well behind especially in math, where only the Italians and the Spaniards performed worse than we did. And math, which of course goes to problem-solving ability, is the single most highly valued aptitude prized in the labor market. Our teenagers math and reading scores have barely budged in tests over the past ten years, about one in five high school students is failing to graduate and college graduation rates are below those of many other countries.

    This is also where the fiscal crisis in Washington hits home. It’s not really possible to be a global showcase for democracy, for showing how to get things done, when our parties are in a game of chicken over whether the government will make good on its debt. Never thought I’d live to see it.

    And is an insular approach really a practical strategy for a country as globally interconnected as America already is? Our biggest companies avidly compete with everyone else’s, for the same global customers. We recently got a rude reminder of the stakes when Japan Airlines, after a half century of buying its long-distance planes only from Boeing in Seattle, across the Pacific, placed a huge new order with Europe’s Airbus. The Boeing relationship had been a close one, nurtured by Japan’s efforts to rebuild after the Second World War, with its preeminent companies licensed to make parts for Boeing. But that ‘America advantage,’ a consequence, in part, of our being the last country standing after the devastation of World War II, is now gone. We struggle for survival in the global economy like everyone else.

    Nor do we necessarily get to choose our fights. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA analyst, recently wrote that “Hard-core holy warriors won’t leave Americans alone because the U.S. has declined to fight. That’s the painful lesson of the 1990s….The U.S. doesn’t get to declare the battle against Islamic radicalism over.”

    My takeaway is not going to be terribly satisfying, I’m afraid. There are no easy answers to the question of what America’s role in the world today should be. I feel like we’re living in The Era of Unhappy Choices. And conceptual or philosophical confusions about what our role should be. I have my own opinions, of course—but I’m not here to use this speech as a platform to deliver them. Feel free to ask me questions afterwards.

    And finally, who gets to decide what the role of America in the world is? I expect most people would say, number one, the President, who is, after all the commander in chief. And number two, Congress, which holds the purse strings over the Pentagon and the State Department and holds, under the Constitution, the power to declare war.

    But in the end, it is “We the People” who get to decide. We elect our President and our Representatives, and when we don’t like how things are going, we can change horses. And we can make our voices known in protest. The protests against the Vietnam War mounted in the 1960s and ‘70s helped to bring that war to an end—and even more that, prompted a fundamental rethinking of America’s role in the world as to our means and ability to accomplish our ends.

    What I do encourage is for everyone here, for everyone in the community, to take the question seriously and to engage in the debate in our midst. I used to live in Washington—which is ground zero for the role-of-America debate. But don’t leave it to the Washington power elite to settle the debate. Every one of you can participate, too. And you should.

    — Paul Starobin


    Patrick Pexton has been a journalist for three decades. He most recently was editor-in-chief of The Frederick News-Post, a daily newspaper and website serving Maryland's largest county by geography. He has served as the ombudsman for The Washington Post, the deputy editor of National Journal, an editor and reporter at the Military Times, and a local reporter in four states.

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