Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire

Robert Kagan in The New Republic wrote that Americans may be tired of leading the world, but “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.” He fears that “a breakdown in the world order that America made is occurring,” a period of retrenchment in which America is too reluctant to lead the world, whether in the Middle East, North Africa, or Eastern Europe. “It is not because America’s power is declining—America’s wealth, power, and potential influence remain adequate to meet the present challenges.” The problem, he says, is intellectual, “a question of identity and purpose.”

“American foreign policy may be moving away from the sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world and back toward the defense of narrower, more parochial national interests. This is sometimes called “isolationism,” but that is not the right word. It may be more correctly described as a search for normalcy. At the core of American unease is a desire to shed the unusual burdens of responsibility that previous generations of Americans took on in World War II and throughout the cold war and to return to being a more normal kind of nation, more attuned to its own needs and less to those of the wider world. “

Americans must be led back to their enlightened self-interest to lead the world, Kagan argues, or the international system will change drastically.

For Americans, the choice was never been between isolationism and internationalism. With their acquisitive drive for wealth and happiness, their love of commerce, their economic and (in earlier times) territorial expansiveness, and their universalistic ideology, they never had it in them to wall themselves off from the rest of the world. Tokugawa Japan and Ming China were isolationist. Americans have always been more like republican Rome or ancient Athens, a people and a nation on the move.

Kagan points out that America took on a strong international role in the first two decades of the 20th century. But after World War I, as Americans mourned the deaths of American soldiers and felt disappointed in the Versailles Treaty, they rejected Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations (“actually it had been Teddy Roosevelt’s idea first”) and the whole concept of collective world security, in favor of what Warren Harding called “a return to normalcy” and “America first.” The problems of the world were not America’s problems. War profiteers, greedy bankers and misguided internationalists could not be allowed to lead the nation into another foreign war.

The US, in this prevailing view, had no vital interests in the world’s many crises:

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931; Hitler’s rise to power in 1933; Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935; Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland, and the German and Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War, in 1936; Japan’s invasion of central China in 1937; Hitler’s absorption of Austria, followed by his annexation and eventual conquest of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939

This way of thinking collapsed on Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and America’s entry into World War II. During and after that war, it became quite clear:

Any new order would depend on the United States. It would become the center of a new economic system that would encourage open trade and provide financial assistance and loans to nations struggling to stay afloat. It would take a substantial and active part in the occupation and transformation of the defeated powers, ensuring that some form of democracy took root in place of the dictatorships that had led those nations to war. America would also have to possess preponderant military strength and when necessary deploy sufficient power to preserve stability and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The U.S. would build and preserve this new world order by force and sheer military power if necessary. One million American troops would keep the peace in Europe. The U.S. would establish military bases around the world in “areas well removed from the United States” so that any fighting would take place “nearer the enemy” rather than near American territory. The U.S. would assume responsibility for

preventing a general collapse of global order, which meant supporting an open international economic system, enforcing principles of international behavior, supporting, where possible, democratic governments, encouraging a minimum of respect for human rights, as defined in the U.N. Charter, and generally promoting the kind of world that suited Americans and those who shared their beliefs.

When this awesome responsibility was coupled with containing and defeating communism, the American people mostly bought it for 50 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

the American presence in Europe and East Asia put an end to the cycles of war that had torn both regions since the late nineteenth century. The number of democracies in the world grew dramatically. The international trading system expanded and deepened. Most of the world enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity.

The U.S. helped Europe integrate economically, caused economic miracles in post-war Germany and Japan, and protected South Korea and European countries from communist invasion.

After the Cold War ended, the U.S. expanded free trade, increased its number of allies, and preserved the international economic system. It engaged in seven military interventions, to topple dictators, reverse coups or aggression, restore democracy, or for purely humanitarian reasons, none for vital national security interests:

Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), Iraq again (1998), and Kosovo (1999).

Kagan fears Americans have forgotten or never knew the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s, or of the Cold War, that American disengagement from the world, a sense of futility about improving situations in the world, specifically the Middle East or Eastern Europe, a hunger for a return to “normalcy,” can lead to more danger and more instability in the long run.

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