America’s Purpose and Role in a Changed World

Public opinion reports on Americans’ attitudes toward foreign policy sketch a picture of retrenchment, war-weariness, and skepticism toward global engagement, even as there is also a growing concern that the world is increasingly unstable and dangerous. Nothing about this picture is new or controversial. Some may worry about it more than others, but it is now commonly accepted that the US is downsizing its international role, and that the administration, the Congress, and the general public are more absorbed with domestic concerns than with foreign challenges or threats. 

The fact that the country is turning inward in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s expansive foreign policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is hardly surprising. The main message of Maximalist, Stephen Sestanovich’s new history of American foreign policy since the Truman era, is that the shift from a “maximalist” policy to one of retrenchment and back again is par for the course. Eisenhower followed a policy of “scaling back from overextension” after the Korean War, just as Nixon adopted a “retrenchment strategy that would enable the United States to regain its balance” after Vietnam. Kennedy displayed a “confident readiness to act” and to bear the burdens of leadership after what he called “eight years of drugged and fitful sleep,” just as Reagan “brought a new maximalist edge to the East-West competition” following the malaise of the Carter years.

One important question we face today, however, more than five years into the Obama presidency, is whether the current policy of retrenchment is a standard correction after a period of maximalism, or something else. While Sestanovich is careful and nuanced in his analysis, he notes that for a number of reasons, “the retrenchment [currently] under way in American foreign policy may turn out to be different” from those of the past. He writes, for example, that “the emblematic foreign policy choice” of President Obama’s first term was his imposition of a time limit on the surge in Afghanistan in 2009, a move that “took a consensus in favor of incremental adjustments to America’s global role and pushed it toward a more thorough-going transformation.” A similar message was sent when the president rejected a plan prepared by his top advisers (Hillary Clinton at State, Leon Panetta at Defense, and David Petraeus at the CIA) to aid the Syrian opposition. Concern among friends and allies that the US retrenchment is actually closer to a retreat led to the unusual spectacle at the Munich Security Conference last February of Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel both making, according to a report in the New York Times, “an emotional defense” of the Obama policy “in the face of widespread European and Middle Eastern criticism that the United States was retreating from a leadership role.”

Pressures for a course adjustment are thus already building, a process that could be accelerated by the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. But public attitudes and resource constraints will nonetheless probably prevent any administration from swinging too far in the opposite direction. An expansive maximalist policy would risk making commitments that exceed our power and resources, and in any event it is not what is needed to achieve balance between realism—meaning the defense of our critical national interests—and idealism—meaning the advance of democracy and freedom in the world. What’s needed to achieve such a balance is political will and strategic vision in meeting the three interrelated challenges of supporting freedom, defending the national security, and restoring our nation’s economic health.


The first challenge—reaffirming the historic American commitment to freedom in the world—involves making it clear that we will do whatever we can to support people fighting for fundamental rights, even as we recognize that they must take responsibility for their own success or failure. For many reasons, democracy is seen to be on the defensive today. Authoritarian states are pushing back aggressively against groups working for greater democracy, the turmoil in the Middle East has destroyed the early promise of the Arab Spring, and China’s growing economic and military power has altered the balance of forces in the world at a time when the US and many European countries have entered a period of economic and political malaise.

In fact, though, the prospect for democracy in the world is actually much more promising than it appears, and there are opportunities for progress in the years ahead that could be encouraged by a more forward-leaning policy. Despite the recent problems, for instance, the much-anticipated reversal of the “third wave” of democratic expansion of the 1980s and early 1990s has not occurred. The number of electoral democracies now stands at one hundred and twenty-two countries, just one below the high-water mark of one hundred and twenty-three reached in 2005 and four more than in 2012. It also appears that Tunisia could become the first Arab democracy, a beachhead in the region of the world most resistant to democratic change. In addition, movements for civic renewal have emerged in some of the grimmest political environments—the Russian protests of 2011–12, the Campaign for Another Cuba, the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine, and the New Citizens’ Movement in China. In contrast to the hope for change that these movements embody, the violence and repression used against them expose the insecurity of authoritarian regimes that feel threatened by their own citizens’ demands for an end to corruption and misrule.

The road ahead for such reform movements and civic groups working for democratic change will be long and very difficult, but they are a natural by-product of a world in which people have more access to information and higher aspirations and will not disappear. The challenge for the United States is to help create the conditions that will allow such movements to survive and to grow. Institutions already exist to provide them with material and technical assistance. (The National Endowment for Democracy, which I oversee, is one of them.) What is needed today is for our country’s leaders to make clearer than they have that supporting people fighting for democratic values is not an afterthought but a core element of national policy; and that we will use diplomacy and other instruments of policy—including targeted sanctions such as those contained in the Magnitsky Act—to protect democratic movements and to enlarge whatever space exists for free expression and democratic participation.

As important as it is to support people on the front lines of the struggle for freedom, however, such support will not be meaningful if the United States is perceived as a declining power in retreat from the world. Democracy will not be able to advance in the absence of a stable international order, and such conditions cannot exist if they are not underwritten by American leadership. This does not mean draining our resources by getting bogged down in distant wars. But it does mean backing up our diplomacy with military power and deterrence, in the absence of which we will have little leverage in negotiations with countries that do not share our commitment to peace and the rule of law. Why should they negotiate seriously if they feel they have the option of achieving their objectives by other means, including the use of force?

Committing ourselves to preserving US leadership in the world is, therefore, the second major challenge for US policy. This is not an expression of American arrogance or a reckless form of overreaching. Rather, it is the recognition of a fundamental geopolitical reality. “A world without US primacy,” Samuel Huntington once wrote, “will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs.” President Obama himself acknowledged this point in his speech last September to the UN General Assembly when he called US disengagement a “danger for the world” and “a mistake” since it would create “a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.” The urgent challenge now is for the US to exercise leadership in a convincing manner so that the vacuum is not filled by hostile powers or by chaos and violence.

But continued US primacy is simply not possible unless we address a third critical challenge, which is to bring the spiraling US public debt under control. Over the last decade, the gross federal debt has nearly tripled to more than $17 trillion and now exceeds the total national GDP. While there are many reasons for the continuing surge in public debt, including the 2008 fiscal crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the principal factor has been the growth of entitlement spending, which has gone from less than one-third of the federal budget a half-century ago to more than two-thirds today. In the words of Robert J. Samuelson, “The welfare state is taking over government.” Other priorities are steadily being squeezed, from investment in infrastructure and human capital to international programs and even defense spending, which is expected to shrink by forty percent over the next decade. Richard Haass is thus entirely correct when he writes that “American profligacy at home threatens American power and security.” Unless we can summon the political will and bipartisan consensus to reverse our domestic decline, no amount of strategic vision will enable the United States to exercise the kind of leadership that the world so desperately needs.

The challenge we face today is as great as any in our history. Our national security and the values we cherish, in addition to the future of democracy in the world, rest on our ability to rise to this occasion.

Carl Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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