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On America’s Role in the World

On America's Role in the World

As the United States matures as a global power, how should America assert itself in the world?

The United States is the world’s preeminent superpower and barring some unpredictable catastrophe that fact is not going to change over the short term. For the United States to maintain its leadership role over the long term, however, America’s approach to foreign affairs and international engagement will need to respond both to a changing security landscape and the gradual economic rise of other powers. Just as the United States understood its role in the world differently after the First World War, the Second World War, and following the Cold War, the United States should work to preemptively understand the consequences of the continued Eastward movement of the world economy’s center of gravity and the continually changing nature of asymmetrical security threats. While that guidance might seem so obvious as to be meaningless, the challenge comes in understanding those changes in light of America’s relative decline when compared to more rapidly growing powers. The United States has long been an economic powerhouse, but America’s short history combined with its unparalleled dominance over the global economy following the Second World War has led to distorted expectations for the certainty of outright American hegemony. None of this is to say that the United States is in absolute decline (which is to say that the United States would be getting weaker when compared only against itself) or that America is not capable of sustaining a major international presence long into the future. Instead, it is to suggest that for the United States to maintain its top-tier power and influence over the decades to come it should seek to rebalance its international activities toward more up-stream and cost effective approaches towards global engagement while gradually (yet strategically) trimming the fat off of America’s bloated international military presence. 

Perhaps the first and most obvious consideration is that reducing American military presence does not necessarily mean a policy of isolationism, or even reduced American influence in the short term. After all, if a short term reduction in America’s military spending only served to foster uncertainty or instability that forced the United States to return to, or perhaps even exceed, current military expenses the whole merit of the idea would be wasted. Instead, the United States could look to trim some of its most excessive deployments, curtail the raw production of military goods (which would not necessarily mean dramatic cuts in funding for R&D), and exert a more watchful eye over ongoing military actions to ensure that there is no unwarranted mission slip. 

Perhaps the most obvious, or at least historically peculiar, example of America’s international military presence is the continued stationing of forces through Western Europe. There is little historical precedent for that sort of military basing, even among close allies, and as conditions have shifted from the Cold War era, so too should America’s approach. While the move to withdraw forces from Europe might be seen as a symptom of weakening American commitment to NATO (especially in light of current conditions), there is nothing that would prevent the United States from simultaneously managing its resources more frugally while maintaining an unquestioned commitment to all of NATO’s key provisions. In the same sort of way, other opportunities for rebalancing American deployment could come about on the Korean Peninsula if the idiosyncratic relationship between President Trump and Kim Jong-un continues to gradually ease tension there. It might even prove to be the case that as a consequence of gradually reducing America’s military presence in tense, yet peaceful, regions, those regions might become less tense with time as potential rivals feel more stable in their security environments.

Of course, an undertaking like this would not only require a focused diplomatic effort to effectively communicate, but it would also require a reinvigorated State Department and a strong commitment to effectively use America’s soft power. These would be fundamental elements of any effort to ensure that American power matures gracefully. Unless we are willing to assume that American allies impacted most by the suggested rebalancing would simply ignore their security responsibilities (something that seems unlikely in light of America’s many capable allies and a careful approach to military withdrawal), close diplomatic relationships with our allies would prove both more important and more effective when called upon. American allies might even be more easily persuaded to join the United States when military force is needed if they can feel confident that the American diplomatic service has consistently been involved and that the potential diplomatic options have been exhausted. In modern instances where the United States has worked closely with its allies on military action, most notably the Persian Gulf War, those partnerships frequently proved successful in accomplishing their military objectives while avoiding mission creep. 

Unfortunately, when the United States has not carefully considered diplomatic and intelligence options and has failed to work with international partners, American military action has proven more costly and less effective. There is little doubt that America’s actions in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan have had serious unforeseen consequences that brought about increased regional instability, to say nothing of reduced American influence. While some might suggest that comparing American unilateral action in these wars to America’s multilateral approach in past conflicts like the two World Wars, and even the Persian Gulf War, is disingenuous to the extent that the nature and scope of the threat is so different, it might be worth considering instead what that means for what sorts of ills that America can actually solve internationally. In order for the United States to remain a global superpower and a reliable and effective military partner over the long term, it must avoid the classical historical blunder of over-extension that helped bring about the collapse of empires as ancient as Rome and as modern as the Soviet Union. The United States has been in more than twice as many wars since the end of the Cold War than it had during an equal length of time during the Cold War era. This is a remarkable statistic given that one could easily argue that the threat during the Cold War surpassed the threats that exist today, and Sun Tzu, author of the Art of War, warned us that “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.” This sort of effort would begin with a careful and honest assessment of the costs and benefits of America’s ongoing military action, and would continue into the future by ensuring that decisions to use military force incorporate the American congress and international partners.

It is important to emphasize that the United States could, and absolutely should, maintain the ability to quickly respond to changing security environments and maintain a steady and active presence in all sorts of international affairs. These efforts would include maintaining a forward presence in particularly troubling or symbolically complicated regions of the world. It is also important that the United States remains on the cutting edge of all aspects of military technology, including cyber threats, in order to remain on top of the global pecking order. While, in general, this paper does make the argument that the United States would stand to benefit over the long term from more frugal commitment and use of military force, the end goal of those adjustments would be to maintain American strength, both domestically and abroad, over the long term. Streamlining America’s military presence would simultaneously allow for more full-throated commitment to truly vital interests, and could result in savings that would benefit the strength of America’s economy- which, at the end of the day, is a key factor in ensuring that the United States would be able to organize a sufficient military response to a major threat like war with another global power. Towards this end, the United States should work to adjust its long term strategic approach not only to a post-Cold War world, but to the eventual (potential) ascent of other players on the global stage to peer status. 

A nation whose foreign policy has long been guided by notions of its exceptionality might find its greatest test in its ability to mature gracefully.

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Foreign Policy Association.