February 22, 2010

The Intelligent Use of Power: American Security in the 21st Century

by Hal Gershowitz

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In the mainstream media, political observers, reporters and politicians who write about foreign policy generally analyze specific current events and often neglect to place those events within the long term historical context which preceded them. Henry Kissinger, in his book, “Does America Need A Foreign Policy…Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century,” Simon and Schuster, 2000, warned of the danger of a generation of leaders who will eventually come to power who will have no historical memory of the events with which they must contend. In the vocabulary of the military, this concentrates our minds on short-term tactical thinking rather than long term strategic planning. While a complete historical review of the growth of America as a world power is way beyond the scope of what can be covered in a single essay (even if we were accomplished historians) some discussion of important milestone events of the 20th century would seem to be important as a prelude to setting forth our own thinking on the projection of American power in the years to come.

After America became a nation spanning an entire continent, our economic strength grew geometrically. With vast untapped natural resources and with oceans separating us from Europe and Asia, we could avoid foreign entanglements, particularly in Europe, the home of most of our ancestors and newly minted citizens. However, after the outbreak of World War I and the continuing attacks against our commercial ships, President Wilson, over substantial Congressional opposition consistent with traditional American isolationism, brought America into the war on the side of England, France and the Western allies. This addition of American force turned the tide of war and resulted in an “armistice” — a word that disguised the defeat of Germany and its allies. Wilson also participated in dictating the harsh terms imposed on the defeated nations by the armistice.

The United States thus became a co-architect, together with the other victorious western nations, in shaping post war borders, including: the creation of nation states that previously made up the Ottoman Empire; the enforcement of the Balfour Declaration which recognized the right of Jews to a homeland in a tiny portion of the Middle East; and drawing various European border adjustments which were the consequence of the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. One of Wilson’s most important dreams incorporated in the post war architecture was the establishment of a “League of Nations” which, sadly for him, Congress refused to approve, reflecting a return to our traditional isolationism.

This peace did not hold. Germany resented the conditions imposed on it and the Weimar Republic that replaced the Kaiser collapsed bringing Hitler and his National Socialist movement to power. At the same time, the U.S. and the victorious allies disarmed while Hitler quickly armed Germany to the teeth. War engulfed Europe again in 1939, in what can be considered largely a resumption of the First World War. The American public had no appetite for our involvement in this war, even in the face of President Roosevelt’s understanding that our involvement was a national imperative. However, after a militaristic Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, and Hitler joined in by declaring war on us, Congress declared war against Germany and Japan. The commitment of our huge industrial base and our considerable manpower to an all-out war effort, saved western Europe again. It also provided the Soviet Union with a second front in the west so it could begin the long offensive through Russia and Eastern Europe to roll back the advances Germany had made almost to the gates of the Kremlin. Within three-and-a-half years of America’s entry into the war, Nazi Germany was reduced to ruin and forced to sue for peace.

After the allied victory in Europe in May 1945 and the surrender by Japan in August 1945 (following the dropping of two atomic bombs), the United States emerged as the World’s mightiest nation, a role our nation achieved but never really sought. Stalin’s Soviet Union, however, never released its grip on, and occupation of, Eastern Europe and by 1948 it was aggressively expanding its reach.

Containment of the Soviet Union, essentially a policy outlined by George F. Kennan, became the new approach to the defense of U.S. interests. Kennan argued “Russia’s historic and traditional sense of insecurity together with Communism’s fanatic desire to expand its power had to be stopped through firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” (U.S. Department of State Diplomacy in Action). Thereafter, for more than forty years, our defense policy was seen through this prism. NATO was created to deter Soviet aggression. The Soviets responded with the creation of the Warsaw Pact, an alliance of the eastern European countries they occupied.

Smaller nations played off this superpower conflict and sought favors and protection under the patronage of either side. The Korean War and the Vietnam War were both a consequence of the desire to prevent expansion by Communist states into areas and countries aligned with the West. An unfortunate consequence of the policy of containment was a perceived need by postwar American presidents of both parties and Congress to embrace alliances with dictators and despots whose principal benefit to us was to keep their countries out of the Soviet sphere.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s ending the Cold War, and the eastern European nations overthrew their communist leaders, the World changed profoundly. The U.S. was now the world’s sole superpower, even though Russia maintained outsized influence because of its nuclear arsenal, well beyond what its influence would have been if economic power were the measure of strength.

The new post-Soviet world order spawned a then widely acclaimed book by Francis Fukuyama, entitled “The End of History.” Fukuyama argued that since the 19th century there has been a clear trend toward political democracies and that individual state national sovereignty and traditional power politics will be transcended by a transnational rule of law. He saw the end of superpower conflict as ending hundreds of years of conflict between nations.

What it seems has happened instead, is a return to traditional pre-twentieth century nation state rivalries. From the Balkans, to the newly independent nations that formerly comprised the Soviet Union, to the nations created by the Western powers to replace the caliphate of the Ottoman Empire, to the newly freed post colonial African nations, old rivalries, long subdued, have reemerged with profound consequences to world peace and order. These take the form of border disputes, ethnic tensions and, of course, religious intolerance principally represented by Islamic fundamentalism. However, these tensions, rivalries, skirmishes and wars have raised their ugly head in a world where science and technology has created more lethal weapons and weapons of mass destruction which are no longer under the sole control of traditional or rational nation states. Ironically the end of Soviet-American conflict ushered in a new and more complicated set of flashpoints.

That brings us to the most important question facing our government. What is America’s national strategy for protecting our people and our vital national interests? Sadly, the post World War II consensus between both our political parties that national defense was bipartisan, and that a strong national defense had to be the cornerstone of our foreign policy has disappeared. Many on the political left have embraced what amounts to cultural pacifism as a national policy and there are, no doubt, those on the political right who still harbor a “bomb them back to the stone-age” mentality. Today, policy seems to be greatly influenced by those who argue that the United States since 1945 has become an aggressive, imperialistic and selfish nation and needs to make amends to the rest of the world.

Thus, the central question: What are the vital interests of America that need to be defended and, how do we most effectively project our power to protect them? Are we embarrassed by our power and its post war usage, do we return to pre World War I isolationism, do we cede some of our sovereignty to international bodies and where do we reserve the right unilaterally to take actions on our own in defense of our people, our national interests and our allies?

In his first year in office, President Obama, feeling his way, has vacillated on his approach.  As our first post baby boomer president and as an intellectual who seems most comfortable among academics, he tilted more toward a collaberative approach which seeks, as a precondition to making  foreign policy decisions, even those  involving our national security, the approval of other nations. This approach was made easier for him given public weariness with the war in Iraq, its unpopularity among our traditional European allies and a perception, among many, that the Bush defense team, particularly Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld were arrogant usurpers of power. Thus, the president  saw his first mission as improving America’s  popularity in the world. He embarked on a series of foreign trips apologizing for our past sins and promising both more collaboration with our allies and collective action through world bodies. The President abandoned a previously negotiated missile-defense shield to be based in Eastern Europe in order to placate Russia in exchange for which America has yet received no discernible quid pro quo (although, should Russia join us in imposing sanctions on Iran, that assessment would surely be revised). The new east European NATO members who were victims in the 1930s of the worthless mutual defense promises of England and France could be forgiven if they saw this kowtowing to be a serious equivocation of our commitment to come to their defense when and if needed.

The president, on his first full day in office, committed to close Gitmo (Guantanamo} before his Administration had come up with an alternative plan for holding enemy combatants too dangerous to release. He took steps to treat Islamic terrorists who were acting pursuant  to a Fatwa, or a declaration of war against America, as common criminals, not enemy prisoners of war.   He has treated Israeli leaders as recalcitrant parties to a territorial dispute instead of allies. He sought, and apparently still seeks, “engagement” with Iran, a policy that has not borne fruit, and has been met with scorn by the Iranian government which continues to pursue nuclear warheads. Even the feckless IAEA, when headed by another Nobel Laureate, Mohamed El Baradei, served as a covering shield for the regime. This UN agency has now, however, admitted that the Iranian nuclear pursuit is not intended for peaceful uses.

Being president is, however, a sobering experience and President Obama has acknowledged that his most important responsibility is to keep America safe. He instituted, after a 90-day review of General McChrystal’s recommendations, a surge of forces (albeit with a pre-deployment withdrawal schedule for all our forces) in Afghanistan. He has increased the effective use of drones to eliminate terrorist leaders and, through Vice President Biden, has pronounced our course of action in Iraq as an Obama Administration victory, notwithstanding that it was a policy put in place by the Bush Administration and which he and the Vice President vigorously opposed. But as President Kennedy famously declared, “victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.”

Recently, the president seems to be signaling that the decision of Attorney General Holder to try KSM in a civilian court in Manhattan was a mistake. And he has gotten a sobering wakeup call that Guantanamo cannot  easily be closed given the absence of an alternate site to house dangerous war prisoners, and the seeming refusal, even by members of his own party, to appropriate the funds necessary to close that facility and transfer its detainees to prisons in America.  He seems, at last, to be  advocating a program of tougher sanctions on Iran, and, hopefully, even if they are greatly diluted or rejected entirely by the United Nations as a result of Chinese or Russian vetoes, he will continue the effort alone or with willing allies.

We, frankly, could care less if the president fails to acknowledge the correctness of certain policies of his predecessor, or of his late realization that a war is being conducted against us, or that Iran will not be induced to behave by whispering sweet nothings in Ahmadinejad’s ear, so long as he takes a clear and coherent stance, muscular where necessary, to prevail in this most unusual, non-traditional 21st century war.

With regard to many of the trouble spots in the world, it is clear that America, to borrow a cliché from the 1980s, cannot be the world’s policeman. Nor does every upheaval away from our shores have an effect on our security, or on our economic or trade relations. And even in those matters that rise to that level, we have other tools besides our military force to communicate their importance to us. Collective economic action among willing allies (e.g., sanctions, trade restrictions, etc.) can be quite effective. But the best long-term measure of protection for us is to build our policies around patient support throughout the world for the American values of freedom and democracy. People in other nations seeking to replace aggressive regimes should know that America supports them. People who enjoy basic human rights and the right freely to choose their leaders are far less likely to pose a threat to other nations.

Perhaps too, as we said two weeks ago, the President’s comments about supporting free trade with traditional allies like Korea, Columbia and Panama will move him away from the reflexive protectionist position of his union supporters. It is trade, not protectionism, which will move our economy forward, promote economic growth in other nations, and enhance job creation.

We do not underestimate the weight on the shoulders of our president. It is not an overstatement to say that our very existence depends not just on the strength of our military capability, but first and foremost on the clear understanding that the Commander-in-Chief has the wisdom, coupled with sufficient steel in his spine ,to deploy it and  all other means at his disposal to protect this nation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has been an articulate and reasoned advocate for the intelligent projection of American power, famously asked during her presidential campaign about whether any of her opponents had the experience and the necessary experience and worldview to handle the inevitable 2 AM call to the president. President Obama surely now understands that such a call, if it ever comes, won’t be a call complimenting him on his articulation of a new era of American humility. Rather, the call will be the news of a new challenge, threat or attack either on our homeland or the territory of a vital ally. The best way to make sure he has eight hours of unbroken sleep is  unequivocally to  broadcast that he stands by President Kennedy’s pledge, “that we will bear any burden, pay any price, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to secure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Hopefully, the president understands  that evil exists in this world and that nothing other than confronting this cold hard reality offers any chance of protecting our liberty and our survival as a nation.

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3 responses to “The Intelligent Use of Power: American Security in the 21st Century”

  1. Bill_H says:

    You could do a separate essay on trade, and how it was used as an extension of American foreign policy to keep our allies strong in the face of our cold war enemies. And, how that policy has outlived its usefullness in the face of global competition. And, how the success of unbalanced trade for our “trading partners” has led to the rapid economic decline of this country and the just as rapid rise of China & India. Trade reform is a key component to an American economic revival.

  2. HELENLEWIS says:


    • HelenLewis makes a reasonable point and certainly one well worth contemplating as does Henry Kissinger whom we quoted and Winston Churchill and all manner of public figures, historians and philosophers whom we did not quote. It was, after all, George Santayana who said, “Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.” Woodrow Wilson, who we did briefly discuss in our essay was pretty well educated too, but his naivete informed positions he took along with other leaders of the victorious allies that clearly set the stage for World War Two. While we pointed to areas of concern with respect to the President’s foreign policy initiatives during his first year in office, we also credited him with taking what we feel are encouraging steps in pursuing America’s best interests. But John Kennedy, we feel, had it right. No one should be confused about the length we will go to protect the country, its people or the liberty we hold dear.

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