U.S. foreign policy today is failing every test by which a great power’s foreign policy can be judged. America is not feared by her enemies, nor trusted by her friends. Neither the American people nor the world-at-large understand any more the purposes of American power, or, even worse, the principles that shape them. Indeed, after a decade and a half of conflict in the Middle East and South Asia, some Americans have concluded that the best thing to do is to pull back from the world and its troubles. Some argue that America’s role as guarantor of global order is no longer necessary, history having “ended” with the Cold War; others think that “nation-building at home” is some kind of alternative to engagement abroad.
But through all this white noise of confusion and dismay, one thing stands out as clearly as it has since the end of World War II: a strong United States is still essential to the maintenance of the open global order under which this country and the rest of the world have prospered since 1945; that the alternative to America’s “indispensability” is not a harmonious, self-regulating balance of independent states but an international landscape marked by eruptions of chaos and destruction. Clearly, and understandably, past policies have had their successes and failures because to lead is to choose, and to choose in the world as it is, is inevitably to sometimes err. Indeed, U.S. leaders need to recognize and learn from policies that have succeeded over the past seven decades and those that have failed, but they must not lose sight of the fact that on the whole, America has served the world far better when confidently asserting power and influence than when retreating into impotence and self-doubt.
This is not to say that America should steer its course without taking into account the constant change in the international system. The world today is more complex and more volatile, if not always more dangerous, than that of the twentieth century.
In Asia, we must confront a rising China whose growing economy may eventually equal or even surpass ours, but whose governmental system still rests on the foundation laid by one of the great totalitarian monsters of the past century, and whose aspirations run counter to our interests. Beijing may be subtle in its rhetoric, but it is brutally frank in its aims: to dominate East Asia, to assert unacceptable claims to international waters and create “facts on the ground” on islands whose sovereignty is in doubt, and to replace the American-shaped order that ironically enabled China’s “peaceful rise.”
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