Progressives who preach declinism and restraint have forgotten that we still face dangerous enemies. A response to Anatol Lieven.
Anatol Lieven’s review of Charles Kupchan’s How Enemies Become Friends [“Strength Through Restraint,” Issue #20] makes the case that the United States should turn away from illusions of global hegemony, recognize that the balance of power in the world has changed, and thus adopt a more modest stance in world affairs. Certainly he and Kupchan are both right to draw implications from the fact that other countries have become wealthier and more powerful in recent decades. Yet Lieven’s comments reflect a reluctance to examine threats confronting the United States in recent years, as well as a certain lack of interest in how “enemies became friends” during the last decades of the Cold War that ended in Western victory, the collapse of communism, and a real peace in Europe.
Lieven argues that the United States is incapable of doing much with its power. The Bush Administration hoped to establish “unilateral global domination backed by military power and ‘democratic’ ideology,” but only saw those hopes “collapse in ruins.” The Obama Administration has “proved incapable of resolving critical international challenges, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dispute between India and Pakistan, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, China continues to grow stronger.” In Lieven’s view, a “central question for the future of the United States and humanity is whether, and how, the United States can accommodate rising new powers without conflict and, if possible, cooperate with them to resolve regional and local problems.”
Lieven argues that the sources of America’s foreign policy blunders are neoconservatism, the Republican Party, the religious right, and some equally misguided “liberal hawks” who are “neoconservatives in sheep’s clothing.” For him, the Bush years were a time of “national hysteria” and “aggression in international affairs.” However, there is hope: “The United States has throughout its history repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to recover from episodes both of national hysteria and of economic crisis—as indeed the election of the Obama Administration and its very real achievements remind us.” And he finds Kupchan’s new book most welcome because it “provides the historical and theoretical underpinning for ideas of strategic accommodation: the need for America to take large-scale and visible steps to acknowledge the power and the interests of other states, and, when necessary, to scale back its own regional ambitions and roles.”
In the world according to Lieven then, the task for future American policy is managing decline. But the first point to be made about the prophecies of decline is that they identify one of the greatest successes of American leadership as a sign of decline. To be sure, the relative size of the United States in the global economy has become smaller over the past half-century. But this is actually a result of the predominance of American power in the world since 1945. One of the primary purposes of American power after World War II was to make it possible for Europe and Asia to rebuild market economies and stable democracies. These policies were a stunning success. Moreover, this success would not have been possible had the United States not contained and eventually defeated communism in the Cold War. Both the defense of a liberal international economic order and the defeat of communism were preconditions for millions of people rising out of poverty in China—which has abandoned communist economic policies—as well as India, Brazil, and many other formerly destitute nations in the last half century. Obviously, the growth of these economies reduces the relative size of the American economy in the world. Far from being a symptom of decline, the growth of other market economies and the middle classes they produce augurs well for economic growth within and outside the United States.
Second, Lieven suggests that the war in Iraq has been a failure and that the war in Afghanistan is a repeat of the war in Vietnam. There is considerable evidence that the reverse is true. In any case, it is far too soon to reach these verdicts. In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies are only several years into an intensified American commitment of troops. A messy democracy in Iraq still contends with terrorist attacks and sectarian violence, but it is far preferable to the Baathist dictatorship of the past. Neither situation provides evidence that Bush Administration policies were failures.
But Lieven goes further, suggesting that it was “national hysteria” or visions of “unipolar dominance” that led the Bush Administration to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. His implication is that there were no good arguments to be made on behalf of the Iraq War. In fact there were a number of powerful arguments that remain valid, even in the face of the difficulties of the war itself. They had nothing to do with hysteria or aggression. Those of us who supported the war in Iraq did not do so in order to establish a Pax Americana but to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein before he acquired nuclear weapons. Like any war of pre-emption, it was and will always be controversial because it rested on assumptions (about Saddam’s nuclear ambitions) that could not be proven. Moreover, when the United States and its allies wage a war against the terrorism of Islamist radicals, it is not doing so in order to dominate the globe unilaterally, as Lieven contends. On the contrary, counterterrorism efforts rest on intensive cooperation among allies. As was the case in the Cold War, only the United States has the will and the capabilities to lead the effort against terrorism.
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