The Weight of the World

The longest war in American history is over, but the mission is not accomplished. Now more than ever, the world needs our country to lead.


On Dec. 28, 2014, after 13 years of Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States formally withdrew almost all troops from Afghanistan, ostensibly closing the Sept. 11th chapter of American history. At an official ceremony in Kabul, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force marked the end of the combat mission by rolling up the flag of the NATO-led forces. President Obama issued a statement saying, “These past 13 years have tested our nation and our military, but compared to the nearly 180,000 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when I took office, we now have fewer than 15,000 in those countries. Some 90 percent of our troops are home.”

It may have seemed liked an ending to some, a time for the American people to draw a collective breath, but the respite went by in a blink. Since then, the Middle East has grown more volatile by the day and lessons from the war in Afghanistan are elusive to the average American. Today there is no central organizing concept for understanding our country’s role in world affairs like we had during the Cold War and the War on Terror. Without a larger story to explain smaller challenges, each successive crisis feels terrifyingly new, and the world still seems to be spinning out of control.

In a recent Pew Research public opinion survey, 52 percent of Americans—the highest percentage in four decades—said that the United States should “mind its own business internationally” and expressed the belief that our nation plays a less important and less powerful global role than it did a decade ago.

After recent setbacks such as the failures of the Arab Spring, the Islamic State group’s territorial conquests and vicious beheading campaigns, a resurgent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China’s aggression in the western Pacific, it is not surprising that many Americans are weary.

In the aftermath of the Allied victory in World War II, an exhausted and nearly bankrupt Great Britain handed over its mantle of international leadership to the U.S. From this, America took the initiative in creating many political and economic institutions of the modern world, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Along the way, the U.S. helped lead the world toward the dissolution of Soviet Communism, the peaceful end of the Cold War, the unification of Europe, and the expansion of freedom and prosperity in Asia.

After 70 years of carrying the burden of global leadership, could it be time for the U.S. to take a well-deserved break?

As scholars of American history and national security policy, as well as former policymakers with a combined two decades of experience with the National Security Council, State Department, CIA, Congressional staff, and the U.S. Army, we believe that pulling back from international leadership now would be a mistake. The world still needs us.

We both worked at the White House for President George W. Bush on his National Security Council staff. In early 2006, one of us helped produced a rough draft of a blueprint laying out the strategic principles governing American foreign and defense policy, identifying threats and opportunities, and describing how the U.S. would act in the world. Then as now, it was a difficult time in American national security policy. Our European allies were divided, Iraq had degenerated into a civil war, Afghanistan was slipping backward amid a resurgent Taliban, and Iran was making new advances in its nuclear program.

We had written some mealy mouthed language to the effect that the U.S. would assist in global leadership if other countries felt good about going along with us. The president told us to rewrite the sentence simply and clearly: America must lead. Period.

“Sometimes it is lonely being the global leader, especially when everyone is criticizing America,” he observed, “but the alternative of American withdrawal is far worse. Our nation needs to have the resolve to continue leading the world.”

In the 21st century the U.S. faces a range of threats; some from large, powerful, hostile states; and some from small non-state groups. The first category is what we might call the club of nuclear autocracies: dictatorships armed with nuclear weapons that disdain the values of the free world and do their best to frustrate American diplomacy. Today, that club includes Russia, China, North Korea, potentially soon Iran, and maybe even Pakistan if some worrisome trends continue.

The second category is a menagerie of thugs: terrorists, pirates, drug smugglers, arms traffickers, the transnational mafia, human traffickers, war criminals, hackers, and more. Scholars call them armed non-state actors. We use an old term for enemies of civilization: barbarians.

The apparently random chaos of the world can be boiled down to this admittedly oversimplified picture: The U.S. has to deal with nuclear tyrants with one hand while keeping barbarians at bay with the other. These are profoundly different challenges. One involves classic games of great power politics; the other involves a blend of homeland security, law enforcement, surgical strikes, and supporting local partners abroad. Managing both kinds of threats simultaneously is akin to playing football while half your team fences, or playing chess while landscaping your backyard.

In almost every circumstance, all things being equal, the world is better off with American leadership, backed by a strong American military, wise diplomacy, and a bias in favor of liberty. But does our leadership let other countries off the hook?

For the past six years under the Obama administration, American foreign policy has operated under a new assumption: If America pulls back from the world, our allies and partners will step forward to assume the burdens of leadership. At first glance it was a reasonable assumption, much like the process of teaching a child to ride a bike and taking off the training wheels.

In practical terms, this would mean getting our NATO allies to spend more on defense, having our Asian allies do more to protect open seas and territorial boundaries in the Asia Pacific region, and having our Middle East partners take responsibility for protecting stability in their neighborhoods.

In almost every circumstance, the world is better off with American leadership, backed by a strong American military, wise diplomacy, and a bias in favor of liberty.

It sounds appealing, but it hasn’t worked. International politics abhors a vacuum. As America has pulled back, so have our allies, while neighborhood bullies like Russia in Europe, China in Asia, and Iran and the Islamic State in the Middle East have all stepped forward. Meanwhile, our allies have lost confidence in America.

We see the dismal results of this experiment in almost every corner of the map. In the Middle East, the administration’s passivity has left America with its weakest standing since 1979. After the successful elimination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the U.S. began dialing back its counterterrorism efforts. This amounted to spiking the ball on the 10-yard line, while ignoring the growing threat of al-Qaida franchises and the Islamic State. The refusal to support the moderate Syrian rebels in 2011 and 2012 strengthened both the Assad regime and extremists. The failure to conclude a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq and leave behind a residual troop created further opportunity for the Islamic State to step in and seize control of one-third of the country.

The neglect of basic stabilization and reconstruction after the toppling of Qaddafi has turned Libya into a failed state overrun by terrorist groups. And a display of weakness and conciliation to Iran has failed to slow Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, but has succeeded in alienating America from traditional allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan.

In Afghanistan, we are repeating our mistake in Iraq: withdrawing troops too quickly, before Afghan security forces are fully prepared to lead the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. Security in Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to worsen in the next few years, especially since the end of the U.S. military presence in South Asia may also mean the end of our alleged drone program—which successfully contained al-Qaida in its Pakistani hideouts. The end result of the administration’s policy in Afghanistan will be to empower jihadists across the region, risk the destabilization of Pakistan, and leave our emerging allies in Afghanistan and India feeling abandoned by the U.S. to a possible terrorist safe haven in their backyards.

In East Asia, the White House made the mistake of talking a big game but failing to deliver. Loud proclamations of America’s “pivot” to Asia raised expectations throughout the region, especially among our allies, of a renewed American commitment to securing open sea lanes, protecting a stable regional order, encouraging economic dynamism, and deterring Chinese aggression. But the administration subsequently offered very little to back up its words, instead slashing the Pentagon budget by close to $1 trillion over the next decade, letting free-trade initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership languish, and neglecting the region diplomatically. Sensing this vacuum, China has stepped up its efforts to control disputed territories in the East and South China Seas, and act more like a regional bully than a responsible neighbor.

The failure of the “reset” policy with Russia offers one of the most vivid pictures of the costs of American abdication. The original premise was that America, not Russia, had largely caused the friction in the bilateral relationship, and so it was incumbent on the U.S. to defer more to Russian preferences. Yet what the White House intended as an outstretched hand of friendship was seen by Putin as a limp wave of weakness. So American efforts to mollify Russia by curtailing missile-defense collaborations with NATO allies Poland and the Czech Republic, remaining quiet in the face of Putin’s quashing of independent media and political dissidents, and deferring to Russia’s support for Assad in Syria only signaled to Putin that his bad behavior would elicit little response from the U.S. Thereafter, Putin decided to invade Ukraine, and in the process use force to rearrange European borders—something not done in Europe since WWII.

These problems are not exclusively America’s fault. Dictators like Putin, Xi Jinping, and Ayatollah Khameini, and terrorists like Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, bear the moral responsibility for their misdeeds. But American weakness and passivity can create the conditions in which bad actors thrive.

Nor are we saying that in all of these cases the U.S. should have used force. Far from it. The vast majority of them did not call for a military solution. Most of these are instead failures of diplomacy, communication, economic policy, and—above all—leadership. Part of being a leader is articulating a vision of world order and America’s role in it.

We need to return to our prior strategic assumption: When America steps up to the plate, others will follow. The best way to get our allies and partners to do more for international security is for the U.S. to devote time, resources, and influence to being a responsible superpower.

In the 1990s European leaders dithered while the Balkans descended into genocidal wars, and it was only when the Clinton administration put America in the lead that European nations joined the coalition and got involved. When we make a strong diplomatic initiative in a troubled region, our allies will have the confidence to support our efforts with their own commitments. When we make a meaningful push for a new regional free-trade initiative and take on our own domestic special interests, our allies will have the courage to do the same.

The arguments against a strong American global role are well-worn. Critics say democracy is hard and messy and seems to sink its deepest roots only in the West. The Iraq War hovers behind these critiques like an ever-present poltergeist doomed to haunt the halls of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Critics also frequently invoke the war in Iraq as a trump card against American global leadership. Iraq was a mess, but that does not justify using it to somehow refute every effort at American leadership. The lessons of Iraq are that the United States needs to invest in better management, oversight, and coordination of its foreign policy apparatus; that we should be more cautious before undertaking hugely ambitious endeavors abroad; and that we should prepare for worst-case scenarios more thoroughly.

But it is precisely when the United States stops leading altogether and retreats from the world that the world gets worse. We withdrew from Iraq clumsily in 2011, and the Islamic State filled the power vacuum. At every practical opportunity, the U.S. should nudge the world toward freedom. It is surprising that this statement is at all controversial. For critics, the promotion of democracy smacks of hopeless utopianism, if not cultural imperialism.


But it takes a dash of amnesia to let recent history tarnish the idea of democracy. In fact, there are few principles of foreign policy more consistent than America’s support for self-government and civil liberties around the world. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, American statesmen were looking forward to the spread of democracy because they believed that a free world would be a safer and more prosperous world.

In the same speech calling for American entry into World War I in which Woodrow Wilson famously said, “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he also observed that “a steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.” Franklin Roosevelt, in his “Four Freedoms” speech in 1941, declared American support for the freedoms of speech and worship “everywhere in the world.”

In 1947 Harry Truman announced the Truman Doctrine: that the U.S. would defend any democracy in the world under threat of external attack or internal subversion. It was a cornerstone of U.S. Cold War strategy. President Kennedy reinforced our support for democracy through his Alliance for Progress in Latin America. Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Declaration in 1975 with the Soviet Union and most European nations, which called on all states to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.” In one of the most famous speeches of his presidency before the British Parliament in 1982, Ronald Reagan established the National Endowment for Democracy to “foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”

The Clinton Administration declared the “enlargement of democracy” to be a core strategic priority. George W. Bush had history on his side, then, when he famously said in his second inaugural address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Despite the controversy that attended Bush’s foreign policy initiatives, this was squarely within the bipartisan mainstream of U.S. foreign policy traditions. Even Obama has argued that fostering democracy is good for American security. He spoke in his Cairo speech in June 2009 of his commitment “to governments that reflect the will of the people.” Obama specified that more democracy would lead to peace: “Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful, and secure.”

There is good reason to retain democracy promotion as a central part of U.S. foreign policy. The spread of liberty alters the balance of power in our favor: It creates natural allies or partners and expands a zone of enduring peace. In our effort to balance against the nuclear autocracies, the spread of democracy throughout the world is one of our most effective longterm tools for tilting the playing field of history. Today, a partnership with India—a democratic great power that shares our concerns over China’s rise and jihadist militants—could be a game-changing relationship that sets the course of the 21st century. Cultivating that relationship should be a top priority for U.S. policymakers for the next 50 years.

The spread of democracy is also an important part of the fight against barbarism because free nations better protect and respect human dignity. This is tricky: Too often the U.S. has tried to build democratic states before building functioning states. The first weapon in the fight against barbarism is order, not freedom, which is why we must sustain a high tempo of military and law enforcement operations against the terrorists and their enablers.

But to build order without freedom is merely to replace chaos with tyranny and perpetuate a cycle of anarchic revolt and repressive crackdown. Democracy breaks the cycle and replaces both anarchy and tyranny with ordered liberty. Stable democracies trade together, and they are centers of innovation. They do not support terrorism, they don’t have famines, and they do not export refugees.

International leadership isn’t nearly as costly as abdicating leadership, but of course, it must be paid for. Virtually every defense leader, including the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agree that the budget cuts under the Congressional budget sequestration are bad for the American military. The way the cuts were mandated—affecting every program and budget category equally—was strategically unsound. Last October former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called sequestration “the most illustrative and appalling example of Congress’ abdication of responsibility,” and said: “If there is a more stupid way to cut the federal budget, I am unable to imagine it.”

Now that the military is being tasked with even more missions, it is an odd time to be cutting at all. Even if the administration and Congress restored some lost funding to the Department of Defense, that would still leave our civilian agencies such as the State Department and USAID untouched and under-resourced. Those agencies have been critically underfunded for decades, long before sequestration, and their weakness contributed to America’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the U.S. wants to be credible as a leader of the free, stable, democratic world, we must invest in the full spectrum of tools needed to do so.

Leading the free world, balancing against nuclear autocracies, fighting barbarians, and championing democracy all at once is an immense undertaking, and cannot be done without the world’s finest military, intelligence, development programs, and diplomatic corps. But there is no doubt that American leadership was essential for creating and maintaining world order in the 20th century—and that it can be in the 21st.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Credits: © Ben Birchall; Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Above, from top: Jan. 28, 2015, Wing Commander Matt Radnall, Officer Commanding 7 Force Protection Wing, prepares to board the last Chinook helicopter to leave Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan; President Obama and Vice President  Biden meet with members of the National Security Council in the Situation Room of the White House on Sept. 10, 2014.

William Inboden and Paul D. Miller are the executive director and associate director of UT’s Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft.


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