February 13, 2024


America Must Lead

By: Rodney Rios

One admirable goal of American diplomacy has been the consistent desire to create enduring peace, at least among the Great Powers. However, it is a paradox of human affairs that peace is usually only preserved through military strength. Despite how much people might wish it were not so, the United States is the only nation powerful enough to protect the free world and maintain peace. As such, America must remain in the forefront of international politics. Since no other free nation can carry the burden of world leadership, it is a fact that the responsibility for preserving the peace falls on the United States. As President Ronald Reagan noted during the 1980 presidential debates, “We cannot shirk our responsibility as the leader of the Free World because we’re the only one that can do it. And therefore, the burden of maintaining the peace falls on us. And to maintain that peace requires strength. America has never gotten in a war because we were too strong.”

      Walter Russell Mead explained in his book on American foreign policy that after the collapse of the British Empire and the world order it maintained, the United States was forced to decide its role in the world. Either it took up the mantle of leadership in the post-war world from the British, or it abdicated that responsibility and let the world fall under the perverse dominion of Communism. Americans sometimes succumb to a myth of an isolationist past (the truth is more complicated than that, as Russell Mead shows in his book). Still, as Russell Mead wrote, the nation “over its history has consistently summoned the will and the means to compel its enemies to yield to its demands.” This is something that must not be forgotten. American foreign policy has historically been immensely successful, for the most part.

Yet, American leadership has historically been based partly on idealistic aspirations usefully summed up in the Atlantic Charter proclaimed by President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in some of the darkest days of the Second World War. The Charter advocated for a post-war world based on principles of self-determination, disarmament, and global cooperation, representing a commitment to freedom, democracy, and establishing a just international order. The Charter shaped the trajectory of global diplomacy under America’s leadership for generations. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in his history of Diplomacy,

“No other nation has ever rested its claim to international leadership on its altruism. All other nations have sought to be judged by the compatibility of their national interests with those of other societies. Yet, from Woodrow Wilson through George Bush, American presidents have invoked their country’s unselfishness as the crucial attribute of its leadership role.”

There is, of course, a significant part of self-interest in America’s behavior, as is natural. But it is undeniable that America has behaved strangely and inexplicably for those who argue for purely egoistic behavior in foreign affairs. For example, a strong and armed Europe is good for Europe and the United States since it would mean close alliances with overwhelming military power, allowing America and the Free World to deter enemies and share the burden of preserving peace more effectively. As such, America’s national interest would converge with noble ends. In international relations theory jargon, American diplomacy can thus be described as seeking liberal ends through realist means. This is perhaps what the historian Victor Davis Hanson once described as “principled realism.”

To restate, American leadership is sorely needed if peace among the Great Powers is to be maintained. However, sobriety in foreign affairs is in dire need these days. The outstanding strategic question of our times is two-fold, and in its correct response rests the peace of the world and the future of freedom. Do we have the industrial defense capability to support our allies? Should the United States pursue an Asia-first balance of power strategy against China, or would focusing on Europe first be the right way to deter China?

The second question is a topic of great debate on which much depends. This is far too broad a topic to be broached here. Regardless, there is merit in answering the first question, which helps regarding the second. The answer regarding our industrial defense capacity is that we’re not as powerful as we used to be. Due to misguided post-Cold War I policies, American industrial capacity is severely degraded. The United States, as such, needs time to regain its industrial strength, and being first among equals but not an empire, it requires that European and Asian allies recognize the need to maintain their part in security guarantees and spend sufficiently on their defense. This would reduce isolationist political pressure in America and favor maintaining a favorable balance of power while denying Russia’s and China’s hegemony in Europe or Asia.

Ergo, American strategy should seek to adapt the Nixon doctrine to contemporary circumstances. This doctrine consists of, first, the United States honoring all its treaty commitments, second, providing a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of an allied nation or a nation whose survival is considered vital to American security. Third, in cases involving other types of aggression, America would furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with treaty commitments. However, the nation directly threatened must be responsible for providing the manpower for its defense. Lastly, President Reagan’s foreign policy would add to the final point that using force is always a last resort when everything else has failed, and only regarding our national security. This complements the Nixon doctrine’s view of assisting the victims of aggression without direct American involvement.

These issues are vital for our national security and the preservation of peace among the Great Powers. Only with an engaged America can the world avoid catastrophe, and peace can only be preserved through overwhelming military strength. Peace among the Great Powers is not a natural state of affairs; the history of diplomacy before America’s arrival on the world stage shows that. As such, America must never forget that it is far better than any alternative and that her presence in world politics is a virtue. As President Richard Nixon said,

“[America] is a cause bigger than yourself. It is the cause of making this the greatest nation in the world, the leader of the world, because without our leadership, the world will know nothing but war, possibly starvation or worse, in the years ahead. With our leadership it will know peace, it will know plenty. We have been generous, and we will be more generous in the future as we are able to. But most important, we must be strong here, strong in our hearts, strong in our souls, strong in our belief, and strong in our willingness to sacrifice, as you have been willing to sacrifice, in a pecuniary way, to serve in government.”

These days, there are too many voices in American politics that do not believe America is either a good nation or that it can do anything of value on the world stage. They advocate for a slow retreat and abandonment of the world order America built. They are mistaken. Allowing our enemies to achieve hegemonic power over the world would disadvantage us economically, politically, and militarily. We would be poorer and more at risk. It is a grotesquely immature form of politics that calls all those who advocate for an engaged American nationalism, leadership, military preparedness, and preservation of our alliances while assisting other nations to resist aggression “warmongers“.

Once more, it must be restated: the goal of these policies and this belief in military preparedness is peace. As Reagan said in words that apply almost precisely to today, “It is the first task of statecraft to preserve peace so that brave men need not die in battle. But it must not be peace at any price; it must not be a peace of humiliation and gradual surrender.” In other words, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli declared after avoiding war in the Congress of Berlin that it must be “peace with honor.”

In short, these are serious times, and they demand serious leadership and a detailed discussion of diplomacy, national security, and the strategy for keeping America safe. The strategic questions of the time must be dealt with, and they are not being discussed seriously for the most part. Nor does the present administration inspire any confidence since the slow collapse of the world order has dramatically accelerated under the Biden administration, which is just a continuation of President Obama’s failed presidency and foreign policy.

Continuing the administration’s policies and weaknesses would gravely deteriorate America’s security and strategic situation. As would a sustained rise of quasi-isolationists in Congress and the Republican Party (i.e., those that advocate leaving NATO). Nonetheless, things can change significantly in short periods. Hopefully, there will be American statesmen who realize the need for American leadership in the world and communicate it constantly to the American people. If the United States does not lead, our enemies will—a reality that will be to our detriment. In the end, it is as simple a choice as that.