America’s Purpose and Role in a Changed World

It is not a new observation that, just as the twentieth century started late, with the shots in Sarajevo, so did the twenty-first century, with the September 11th attacks. Compared to the conflagration that followed the first event, whose centennial this year is a welcome opportunity for some belated soul-searching, the bloodshed that started with the second event has been limited, but its consequences may have been just as profound. The two American administrations that inherited the post–September 11th world have since struggled, along with the rest of the world, with the consequences. One chose to confront the evil head-on, in order to eradicate its sources and deter its repetition, with mixed results. The other largely opted for seeing and hearing little evil, with results that the jury is still out considering.

Any rational analysis or critique of the foreign policy of the current US administration must thus of necessity start with its predecessor. Crusades, and there is little doubt that this was how President George W. Bush viewed his mission in history, invariably fail, and always for the same reasons. There is no clean way of dealing with evil. The more brutal it is, the more brutal the means that need to be used to vanquish it. Second, people, being people, cannot help but introduce their own motives, interests, and biases into what had originally been a struggle of values and principles, thus undermining their claim to moral high ground. Third, genuine regime change can only come from within. A change engineered or imposed from the outside almost always backfires.

One of the possible reactions to such perceived difficulties in fighting evil and terror is the denial of their existence. If what had been considered as evil is instead seen as an expression of an alternative view of the world, co-equal with ours, or at worst a narrow criminal conspiracy, then much of its threat and the urgency to fight disappears.

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Over the last ten years, Americans have had an opportunity to examine the costs and benefits of the war on terror and the outlay of funds and energy on a global scale, and many have concluded that they are not worth the effort and sacrifices. Battle fatigue has set in and moral doubts obscured the clarity of purpose. It almost feels as if the trajectory of the war on terror followed that of the war on drugs. The doubters are right in that terror, like drugs, cannot be eradicated by military means. But the conclusion that many of them have drawn, namely that the lack of convincing success in fighting terror points to a deeper moral flaw in America’s treatment of the rest of the world, does not necessarily follow. The choice is not simply between imposing American will on the rest of the world, by force if need be, and withdrawing from the world. America’s economic, political, and military strength, still preeminent in a number of areas, provides it with a whole range of options, a number of which may coincide with both American interests and those of the rest of the world.

It is exactly such commonality of interest and the ensuing commonality of action that seems to be lacking as an explicit factor in the design and conduct of the American foreign policy. The attacks of September 11th were clearly aimed not just against two buildings in the commercial and cultural capital of the United States, and at least one other in its political capital, or even against the United States itself, but against a way of life, a culture and a civilization, that together comprise the West. The shock of the onslaught drove the message home with the kind of crystal clarity that is usually in short supply in the deliberations of politicians and diplomats. It only took a day for the NATO alliance to declare, on September 12, 2001: “If it is determined that this attack was directed from abroad against the United States, it shall be regarded as an action covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty,” i.e., as an attack against the West as a whole. Unlike on other occasions in NATO history, this was not a statement requested or solicited by the United States, but a spontaneous expression of solidarity on the part of the allies.

The reaction of the United States was an underwhelming “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Instead of reinforcing the unity of the alliance in the face of an outrageous attack against one of its members, the American reluctance, understandable as it may have been, to wage the war on terror “by committee,” which had been the less than efficient but ultimately effective way to end the war in Yugoslavia and to dislodge Slobodan Milosevic from Kosovo, led to the gradual dissipation of NATO’ s unity, ending in the bitter aftertaste of Iraq.

The trauma of the September 11th atrocity may partly explain the tendency to go it alone, as if the wounded warrior felt the need to counter the blow unassisted in some kind of ritual exorcism. The false certainty provided by the “unipolar moment”—an inherently unstable notion, for it tends to vanish the moment it is formulated and paraded around—may have been another reason.

It is more difficult to understand why the current administration, which identified and criticized this fatal flaw in dealing with the rest of the world, did little to address and correct it. Instead of aiming, rightly, for a NATO-wide concept of missile defense in lieu of the unpopular and divisive Bush administration plan, it came up with the equally unilateral and not visibly more popular Phased Adaptive Approach. Instead of trying to devise a new collective policy of the Atlantic Alliance toward Russia, one that would reflect both the cooperative and competitive aspects of this crucially important relationship, even more so for Europe than the United States, it opted for a “reset” in the hope that the areas of friction and disagreement would go away. Instead they multiplied. As the events in Ukraine unfold in what may yet become the most serious crisis of the post–Cold War era, there is no sign of a unified Western posture suited to its various contingencies.

For some reason, the American foreign policy establishment had chosen to disregard the lessons of the 1980s and 1990s, the period of some of its major achievements. This is especially puzzling given the strong personal links between the foreign policy principals in the years that followed, as the son of a president became commander in chief, and then the wife of a president became secretary of state.


The lessons of the last ten years are quite simple. Even a major superpower has to base its policies on a broader alliance. While this may only marginally contribute to its military strengths, it provides a formidable political and moral base, shielding the leading power from accusations of pursuing its own selfish interests at the expense of everyone else’s. At the same time, it provides a check of sorts on its instinct to use the power at its disposal in an unrestrained way. Given the diverse and complementary historical records of the allies, it also gives it access to a body of knowledge about foreign lands, cultures, and psychologies, something that has not always been its strongest suit.

The pivot to Asia may stem from worthy and timely considerations. The balance of power, economic in particular, is undeniably shifting, and a responsible power must reflect it in its policy. It is, however, worth keeping in mind what fruits the United States can hope to reap from this endeavor and what may remain beyond its reach. While it may find new markets, new clients, new partners and along with them unavoidably encounter new risks and threats, it may find it not all that easy to discover new allies.

Working together with others will be crucial in coping with the new risks and threats on the horizon. The cyber risk has been around for a few years, but so far its impact has been limited. It has apparently been deployed by both state and non-state agents to infiltrate or disrupt communications, and economic, financial, or industrial infrastructure. There is, however, little doubt that a further “weaponization” of cyber tools to attack people and their lives is entirely possible. It is clear that no country can successfully prevent such attacks on its own. Broad international cooperation is needed, but it is only genuinely possible between countries with compatible standards of security, rule of law, and civilian oversight over military and intelligence operations. In the absence of trust based on these principles, the dividing line between cooperation and infiltration becomes blurred and intelligence sharing risky.

Risks of a non-military nature cannot and should not be countered by military means. That does not necessarily mean they are less serious. To preserve an open society living in freedom and security is without question a fundamental national interest of the United States. Nevertheless, a large part of the world does not seem to share the same ideas of openness and would gladly do without some of the liberties enjoyed by citizens of the West. Withdrawing into a Fortress America to safeguard these liberties would by definition deprive the United States of an important dimension of the very openness it aims to protect. Once again, an international alliance of like-minded nations sharing the same values and interests seems to be a necessity.

The big question underneath the uncertainty regarding the current US posture in the world is whether the self-identification of the United States as a part of the West still has some validity. The same consideration naturally holds for the “rest of the West,” and for the concept of the West as such. It cannot be too often repeated that what used to hold the West together was not just a common threat it faced but the views of social, economic, and political organization it shared. In the end, alliances, like states, survive by the ideas they were founded upon.

From the outside observer’s point of view, the purpose of America is neither to go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy” nor to rest content with “her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers.” It is to work with others to provide a model and a source of effective support for places where “the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled” and in doing so to make sure that America’s own standard will continue to fly high.

Michael Zantovsky is the ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Court of St. James’s.

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