To Stop Being an Imperial Power, America’s Leaders Need to Stop Thinking Like One
Just over twenty years ago, Andrew Bacevich wrote an article – “Policing Utopia” – to criticize US foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. His central complaint was that US leaders had committed Americans to maintaining a global system of rules without fully disclosing the military burdens that came along with such a role. The United States, he argued, would become an irredeemable imperial power – one saddled with endless wars along restive frontiers – unless its people woke up to the reality that a peaceful international order could not come from the barrel of a gun.
Writing in the first half of 1999, Bacevich had much to be concerned about. NATO’s bombing campaign in Kosovo was in full swing. The previous year, the Clinton administration had launched airstrikes against suspected terrorists in Sudan and Afghanistan. Before that, the US military had waged major interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia. In Iraq, US forces were entering their ninth year of enforcing no-fly-zones over the north and south of the country.
Taken in isolation, each of these campaigns was a defensible act of foreign policy. Then as now, most Americans were supportive of efforts to quell genocides, disrupt terrorist networks, and separate warring parties.
But to Bacevich, both the frequency and geographic range of America’s military interventions were cause for alarm. He argued that the bar for authorizing the use of force had been lowered to a point where military “solutions” were becoming the norm. The Pentagon had been charged not just with ensuring national security, Bacevich observed, but also enforcing the rules of the international economy and defending the human rights of persecuted minorities the world over.
In short, Bacevich’s insight was that a limitless ambition to shape the behavior of foreign actors must be accompanied by a limitless commitment to punish those who refuse to fall into line. Either Americans would have to reject the universalist aspirations of their leaders or else they would risk becoming inveterate imperialists through the sheer repetition of using military force abroad.
At the time, this basic analysis fell mostly upon deaf ears. After all, this was the heyday of liberal internationalism – an era during which it appeared to many analysts that the United States and its allies were succeeding at replacing international anarchy with global governance. World politics was being tamed. Even if it was true that the liberal order depended upon US hard power, this did nothing to diminish the essential goodness of the project. The whole world was safer and more prosperous as a result of US engagement.
Today, Bacevich is President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft – a new think tank with a mission to convince Americans to take a fresh look at the precepts of realism, retrenchment, and restraint. The prospects for success seem promising. For one thing, domestic conditions are perhaps more auspicious now than they were at the tail end of the Clinton administration, with nearly two decades of grueling warfare in the Middle East having shattered the illusion that military interventions can easily “correct” the behavior of foreign actors.
Even so, Bacevich and his colleagues at the Quincy Institute have their work cut out for them. For while opposition to military interventions might be growing among some segments of the US population, most of America’s leaders still seem wedded to the idea of US global leadership in one form or another.
This is certainly true on the left. From Joe Biden’s pledge to restore “respected leadership on the world stage” to Pete Buttigieg’s emphasis on US credibility and alliance commitments to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s articulations of a progressive foreign policy – leading Democrats uniformly agree that the United States has an obligation to shape the international system in fundamental ways, even if they disagree on exactly what form this should take.
Some so-called “restrainers” had hoped that President Trump might auger a period of retrenchment from the right of American politics. This has not materialized. On the contrary, Trump has boosted US troop numbers in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, as well as launching airstrikes against Syria and Iran. Whenever Trump has announced an intention to withdraw troops from active warzones – in Afghanistan and Syria, for example – he has been opposed by members of his own party.
To be sure, the US political class is divided over what America’s global leadership role should look like. The liberal internationalist consensus is no more. But for the most part, elites disagree over how to discharge a hegemonic world role – not whether to embrace global leadership as an ambition in the first place. Putting forward a vision of how the United States should lead the world is still a prerequisite for achieving high office, even if candidates disagree over whether to prioritize multilateralism or unilateralism, economic statecraft or militarism, and conflict-reduction or confrontation.
The problem with being a world leader, however, is that there needs to be a plan for dealing with those who do not willingly agree to follow. What happens when mass atrocities take place, and economic sanctions do nothing to stop them? Is there a plan for when diplomacy fails to prevent an expansionist power from bullying or conquering its neighbors? And if international stability breaks down to the extent that the US economy begins to hurt as a result, what will be the response of those who profess to renounce overseas interventions?
Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institute is right when he says that, as of now, most Democrats have not been willing to make the hard choices necessary to relieve the United States from having to resort to the use of force in such circumstances. Even the most restraint-minded Democrats entertain grand ambitions for shaping international order that would require the US military to remain the world’s security-provider and norm-enforcer of last resort. At least, they have not adequately explained how others would be encouraged to step into the breach.
Of course, there is a positive case to be made for abdicating global leadership altogether – namely, that retrenchment and restraint will produce a more peaceful world than America’s traditional overseas activism has managed to engineer. From this view, allowing the international system to be shaped by others will not so much expose the United States to new threats as it will pacify those who might otherwise have rankled at US primacy and arrogance. The risk here, though, is that restrainers can sound unpatriotic when they portray US leadership in the world as a primary cause of international instability and national insecurity rather than a force for good. It would be a brave politician indeed who dared make this case to the American people.
Even so, this is exactly the sort of case that restrainers need to make in the present moment: that America’s over-reliance on military statecraft will not be corrected without first tackling the prevalent notion that the United States must be an ambitious shaper of international order. It is not that Americans lack good ideas for how to organize world affairs. It is just that implementing these ideas tends to create a powerful logic for using military force as a vehicle for transformation.
To avoid being an imperial power, Americans need to stop thinking like one. It is not yet clear that the country’s leaders are fully ready to make the change.