Editor’s Introduction

This issue of World Affairs, like US foreign policy itself, stands in the shadow of the Russian bear now squatting ominously in Crimea and looking out hungrily at the rest of Ukraine and, more distantly, at NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and other of its onetime habitats in Moldova and elsewhere in its near abroad.

Vladimir Putin’s cynical and illicit territorial maneuver may illumine the witches’ brew of thwarted ambition, future panic, and ressentiment that characterizes his governance (although Melik Kaylan, in a fascinating piece in this issue, suggests that the Russian strongman and presumed nihilist actually does have an ideology: conservatism, Putin-style). But the most profound questions raised by his blitzkrieg have to do more with the eagle than the bear. Crimea is a shortcut into the question of America’s present detached ambivalence toward the world and its discontents, of its capacity and its right to stand as an obstacle to such stability-threatening adventures. The issue of America’s place in the world has grown increasingly consequential during the past five years, as we digest the implications of indeterminate involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan and the advent of an administration more interested in reconfiguring the country’s domestic identity than in maintaining its influence abroad. Crimea gives this issue critical mass.

Even before Putin bit off his piece of Ukraine, we thought that America’s confusion over whether or not it should continue as the leading figure on the world stage was an important matter. Well before Russia made its move, we asked some keen observers of US foreign policy to give us their thoughts about “America’s Purpose and Role in a Changed World,” as the symposium which is the centerpiece of this issue is titled. Because our request provided a fairly specific intellectual scaffolding for the responses, and itself had some of the features of an editorial statement, it is perhaps worth quoting at some length:

In 2000, ten years after the fall of communism, America reigned confident and supreme. History had “ended.” Soviet totalitarianism was finished along with its effective support of third-world anti-democratic revolutions. . . . As a driving force behind this monumental change, the US was regarded for the most part as the “indispensable” nation whose engagement resulted in the expansion of freedom, the promotion of economic development, and the preservation of international order. . . . A little over a decade later much has changed . . . . While there have been important successes in the larger “war on terror,” the rough draft of the history of the post-9/11 world holds that gains have been disproportionately costly with respect to the benefits accrued. Thus, America’s citizens and leaders, weary of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and perhaps understandably unnerved that neither country has a particularly friendly or stable government in place as America exits, are turning inward to focus, as President Obama urges the public, on pressing needs at home. According to data released by the Pew Research Center’s polling on “America’s Place in the World” last December, “Support for US global engagement, already near a historic low, has fallen further.” The poll found that “the public’s skepticism about US international engagement . . . has increased.” . . . But while Americans have been growing their second thoughts, the international situation has not stood still. New and familiar threats, challenges, and vulnerabilities . . . become more threatening in their complexity and danger.

After asking our contributors to accept as a stipulation that these changes have occurred over the last twelve years or so, we asked them to explain how they saw America’s future purpose in the world and where to set the balance between the idealism and realism whose long dialogue has defined our posture. We also asked what they thought were today’s most significant threats to global security, whether they oblige US engagement, and how American leaders can rally a reluctant citizenry to the cause. The unstated question, of course, was whether the tendencies of the Obama White House, with bipartisan support from Capitol Hill, to downsize the American role and adopt the wholly new position of leading from behind was a choice or an inevitability, and whether it was based on an ideological commitment to resist foreign entanglement or perhaps an effort to restrain the US, given the assumption that history had passed us by and the wise thing is to manage our decline gracefully. Backlit by the sudden burst of introspection that followed Russia’s calculated belligerence in the Crimea—far more intense than that which accompanied the pivot to Asia or the red line in Syria written with disappearing ink—the answers we got make for fascinating reading.

Writing from the left, David Rieff wittily observes, of what he takes to be the central assumption of the symposium, that America is wearied and demoralized by the costs of the war, “I wish this were the case,” and then summons Mark Twain in asserting that “reports of the death of the American Empire are greatly exaggerated.” But if Rieff worries that America is still a puissant and sometimes anti-democratic force in its impact on the global situation, Joshua Muravchik worries that the traditional US role of protector of world stability is being challenged by many factors, chief among them the ever-morphing threat posed by radical Islam, “if it comes to be armed with nuclear weapons, as President Obama seems ready to allow rather than break faith with his ideological conviction that America’s problems are overwhelmingly of its own making.”

In his contribution, Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, notes that American foreign policy has been marked historically by pendular periods of deeply engaged activism counterpointed by equally intense periods of retrenchment. But he speculates on whether, almost six years into the Obama presidency, “the current policy of retrenchment is a standard correction after a period of maximalism, or something else.” That “something else” is also on the mind of former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who considers the question of how we stumbled toward retrenchment as strategy by default and warns that retreat and withdrawal are difficult maneuvers especially if you give signals “to your adversaries (and your friends) that you lack the stomach for the fight.”

In her essay, Georgetown University graduate student Sarah Grebowski, writing about the foreign policy views of today’s generation of young Americans, known as millennials, mirrors the fears of Muravchik and Hayden by suggesting that they, feeling themselves to be citizens of the global community as much as of America itself, “seem more fixed on the limits of American power and disenchanted with ideas of American exceptionalism.” But NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten sees a different pattern when he stirs the tea leaves. It is true, he says, that a recent Pew Research Center poll indicates that support for the US in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan is lower now than in the Bush years. But Gjelten is more intrigued by another survey, this one conducted by the Gallup organization in some one hundred and fifty countries, which indicates that the US is far and away the most favored destination in the world, with one hundred and thirty-eight million people indicating a desire to move here, more than three times the number who would choose the United Kingdom, the second most favored destination.


I haven’t mentioned Michael Zantovsky, Czech ambassador to Great Britain, who contributes an astute piece on, among other things, the self-inflicted wounds of US foreign policy resulting from America’s failure to take into account the ways its interests can be advanced by broad alliances with nations sympathetic to and part of its dilemmas. That’s because we are also featuring a longer piece by Michael on “The Uncertainty of Freedom.” This meditation, adapted from the annual Freedom Lecture he gave at the Woodrow Wilson Center last fall, has all the subtlety and strength of mind one would expect from a longtime friend and comrade of Vaclav Havel. It is particularly appropriate that his essay should appear alongside a symposium about America’s role in the world because until now that role, however much it may have been affected by detours, has always been defined even more so by a revolutionary commitment to freedom that, in a phrase, has been our foreign policy.

This issue also has other pieces that in a less turbulent international moment would be lead stories. Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council documents the staying power of al-Qaeda in the wake of the “Arab Spring,” the departure of the US from Iraq, and the wretched civil war that has made Syria into an abattoir. Readers of Berman’s piece will find it hard to deny the lack of US leadership in this depressing panorama, but they might be surprised and even heartened by the essay by Kenneth Weinstein of the Hudson Institute indicating how France has stepped up as America has stood back, with President François Hollande, building on the robust foreign policy of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, taking bold and effective strides on the world stage, especially in Mali and the Central African Republic.

Two other countries featured in this issue paint a picture of failed global ambition that stands in contrast to the French example. Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby catalog the ongoing problems of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, whose regime, once thought of as an example of Islamic democracy, has become aggressively intolerant of dissent and determined to beat down, at seemingly any cost, the domestic unrest caused by its own corruption. And Juan de Onis, who honed his expertise on South American politics as a correspondent for the New York Times, looks at Brazil, which illustrates Oscar Wilde’s observation that there are two types of tragedy: not getting what you want and getting it. In this case, Brazil has been clamoring for international attention since the turn of the century, but as Juan says, this is a country whose “imagination is always strong on dreams but short on ways and means.” Brazil’s moment in the sun is approaching as it prepares to host the World Cup in June (a warm-up for hosting the Olympics in 2016), but the country is unprepared for these events and ambivalent about staging them, as growing unrest over public services and a dysfunctional political system spell trouble in the Land of Football.

Our cup runneth over in this issue. We hope that you drink deeply and with satisfaction.

— James S. Denton

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