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A Superpower, Like It or Not

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All great powers have a deeply ingrained self-perception shaped by historical experience, geography, culture, beliefs, and myths. Many Chinese today yearn to recover the greatness of a time when they ruled unchallenged at the pinnacle of their civilization, before “the century of humiliation.” Russians are nostalgic for Soviet days, when they were the other superpower and ruled from Poland to Vladivostok. Henry Kissinger once observed that Iranian leaders had to choose whether they wanted to be “a nation or a cause,” but great powers and aspiring great powers often see themselves as both. Their self-perception shapes their definition of the national interest, of what constitutes genuine security and the actions and resources necessary to achieve it. Often, it is these self-perceptions that drive nations, empires, and city-states forward. And sometimes to their ruin. Much of the drama of the past century resulted from great powers whose aspirations exceeded their capacity.

Americans have the opposite problem. Their capacity for global power exceeds their perception of their proper place and role in the world. Even as they have met the challenges of Nazism and Japanese imperialism, Soviet communism, and radical Islamist terrorism, they have never regarded this global activism as normal. Even in the era of the Internet, long-range missiles, and an interdependent global economy, many Americans retain the psychology of a people living apart on a vast continent, untouched by the world’s turmoil. Americans have never been isolationists. In times of emergency, they can be persuaded to support extraordinary exertions in far-off places. But they regard these as exceptional responses to exceptional circumstances. They do not see themselves as the primary defender of a certain kind of world order; they have never embraced that “indispensable” role.

As a result, Americans have often played it poorly. Their continental view of the world has produced a century of wild oscillations—indifference followed by panic, mobilization and intervention followed by retreat and retrenchment. That Americans refer to the relatively low-cost military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq as “forever wars” is just the latest example of their intolerance for the messy and unending business of preserving a general peace and acting to forestall threats. In both cases, Americans had one foot out the door the moment they entered, which hampered their ability to gain control of difficult situations.

This on-again, off-again approach has confused and misled allies and adversaries, often to the point of spurring conflicts that could have been avoided by a clear and steady application of American power and influence in the service of a peaceful, stable, and liberal world order. The twentieth century was littered with the carcasses of foreign leaders and governments that misjudged the United States, from Germany (twice) and Japan to the Soviet Union to Serbia to Iraq. If the twenty-first century is not to follow the same pattern—most dangerously, in the competition with China—then Americans will need to stop looking for the exits and accept the role that fate and their own power have thrust upon them. Perhaps after four years of President Donald Trump, Americans are ready for some straight talk.

Americans’ preference for a limited international role is a product of their history and experience and of the myths they tell themselves. Other great powers aspire to recapture past glories. Americans have always yearned to recapture what they imagine as the innocence and limited ambition of their nation’s youth. For the first decades of the new republic’s existence, Americans struggled merely to survive as a weak republic in a world of superpower monarchies. They spent the nineteenth century in selfishness and self-absorption, conquering the continent and struggling over slavery. By the early twentieth century, the United States had become the richest and potentially most powerful country in the world, but one without commitments or responsibilities. It rose under the canopy of a benevolent world order it had no part in upholding. “Safe from attack, safe even from menace,” the British historian James Bryce wrote of the United States in 1888, “she hears from afar the warring cries of European races and faiths, as the gods of Epicurus listened to the murmurs of the unhappy earth spread out beneath their golden dwellings.” For the moment, Bryce wrote, “she sails upon a summer sea.”

But then the world shifted, and Americans suddenly found themselves at the center of it. The old order upheld by the United Kingdom and made possible by a tenuous peace in Europe collapsed with the arrival of new powers. The rise of Germany destroyed the precarious equilibrium in Europe, and the Europeans proved unable to restore it. The concurrent rise of Japan and the United States put an end to more than a century of British naval hegemony. A global geopolitics replaced what had been a European-dominated order, and in this very different configuration of power, the United States was thrust into a new position. Only it could be both a Pacific and an Atlantic power. Only it, with weak neighbors to the north and south and vast oceans to the east and west, could send the bulk of its forces to fight in distant theaters for prolonged periods while its homeland remained unthreatened. Only it could afford to finance not only its own war efforts but also those of its allies, mustering the industrial capacity to produce ships, planes, tanks, and other materiel to arm itself while also serving as the arsenal for everyone else. Only it could do all of this without bankrupting itself but instead growing richer and more dominant with each major war. The United States, the British statesman Arthur Balfour observed, had become the “pivot” on which the rest of the world turned or, in President Theodore Roosevelt’s words, “the balance of power of the whole world.”

The world had never known such a power—there was not the language to describe it or a theory to explain it. It was sui generis. The emergence of this unusual great power led to confusion and misjudgment. Nations that had spent centuries calculating the power relationships in their own regions were slow to appreciate the impact of this distant deus ex machina, which, after long periods of indifference and aloofness, could suddenly swoop in and transform the balance of power. Americans, too, had a hard time adjusting. The wealth and relative invulnerability that made them uniquely capable of fighting major wars and enforcing peace in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East simultaneously also made them question the necessity, desirability, and even morality of doing so. With the United States fundamentally secure and self-sufficient, why did it need to get involved in conflicts thousands of miles from its shores? And what right did it have?

The case for a policy aimed at creating and preserving a liberal world order was first made by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson during World War I. With the United Kingdom and the other European powers no longer able to preserve order, they argued, and as the war demonstrated, it had fallen to the United States to........

© Foreign Affairs

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