President Donald Trump’s reversal of his own decision to authorize punitive military strikes against Iran in response to the shootdown of a U.S. drone operating in international airspace and the mine attack against a Japanese oil tanker sailing in international waters is the most recent and most dramatic evidence of his deep reluctance to play what the Center for America’s Purpose calls the “system administrator” role. As we have seen in the past decade, the international system America built after World War II doesn’t work without America ensuring that it works.
To maintain some semblance of order, the world relies on great powers like the United States to do the dirty work others cannot do, to serve as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense, and to punish outlaw regimes such as Iran when they get too far out of line.
This system administrator role sometimes resembles how a policeman responds to criminal activity (e.g., America’s response to the communist invasion of South Korea during the Truman administration, to Khrushchev in the Caribbean and Qaddafi in the Gulf of Sidra, to Iranian attacks on international shipping during the Reagan administration, to Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing during the Clinton administration). At other times, it resembles how a fire department responds to tragedy (e.g., America’s response to the famine in Somalia during the Bush 41 administration, to the Indian Ocean tsunami during the Bush 43 administration, to the Ebola outbreak during the Obama administration). And sometimes it demands a lot more than simply stopping criminal activity or triaging the victims of tragedy. Sometimes the system administrator is called upon to tackle intractable problems that cannot be fixed with missiles, speeches or tweets—problems that demand open-ended, long-term commitment (e.g., remaking Japan, Germany, South Korea and Western Europe; containing and deterring the Soviet Empire; rolling back jihadism and clearing its spawning grounds).
The reason the American people have taken on such burdens is not out of a sense altruism or philanthropy—though they have certainly made selfless sacrifices at times—but more so because they believed or were persuaded to believe it was in their interests to do so. Yet as evidenced by the elections of 2008, 2012 and 2016—and by the words and actions of the men they have chosen to serve as president the past 10 years—the American people are no longer convinced that the system administrator role is worth their time, blood and treasure.
The political right increasingly seems to think America is too good for the world, the political left that America can do no good in the world. Interestingly, these disparate worldviews lead to the same destination: disengagement and isolation. To be sure, the style, word choice and decibel level are different—Trump employs shoot-from-the-hip brinkmanship, bombast and bluster before backing down, President Barack Obama employed well-crafted speeches, professorial arguments and an army of strawmen before backing down—but both men have pulled America away from the role it played between 1945 and 2009.
Before scoffing at this, consider the record.
As AP reported in 2007, “Presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.” Obama’s defense of this position sounded jarringly similar to that of isolationists, who always justify non-intervention somewhere by pointing out that America has not intervened everywhere: “If that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces,” he explained, referring to genocide, “then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now—where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife.” He continued, “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven't done.”
Once in office, Obama emphasized he “was elected to end wars, not to start them,” reassured the American people that it was “time to focus on nation-building here at home,” withdrew U.S. stabilization forces from Iraq over the objections of his military commanders, tried to “lead from behind” in Libya, drew and then erased his own “red line” in Syria and then engaged in a prime-time debate with himself over that decision, and allowed sequestration to shrink the reach, role and resources of the U.S. military.
The consequences were predictable: the rise of ISIS; the near-collapse of Iraq and a mini-genocide of Iraq’s Yazidis and Christians (catastrophes forestalled largely by the intervention of Gen. Martin Dempsey); the expansion of Iran’s malign influence across the Middle East; the return of Russia to a region from which it had been exiled since the end of the Cold War; the decline of U.S. credibility in the eyes of the Saudis, Israelis, French and other allies.
To his credit, Trump ended sequestration’s maiming of the military. But many of his other policies have accelerated the disengagement that began under his predecessor. In a surprising echo of Candidate Obama’s reaction to questions about humanitarian intervention, Candidate Trump was unfeeling about the humanitarian disaster in Syria, coldly asking, “Why do we care?” And in words uncannily similar to his predecessor’s, Candidate Trump said, “We have to build our own nation.”
Once in office, Trump declared that “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” withdrew U.S. forces from Syria over the objections of his military commanders, issued warnings to Iran and then failed to follow through on his warnings and then exposed his indecision to the world, and announced that “the United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.”
Both men have engaged in sophistry.
Contrary to Obama, just because America can’t intervene every place doesn’t mean America shouldn’t intervene in some places. Since the late 19th century, presidents have used military force to address affronts to human rights: Spain turned Cuba into a concentration camp, and McKinley launched America’s first humanitarian war; Stalin tried to starve Berlin into submission, and Truman launched Operation Vittles; Vietnamese babies were abandoned, and Ford launched Operation Babylift; Saddam Hussein tried to strangle the friendless Kurds, and Bush 41 dispatched U.S. troops to protect them; Slobodan Milosevic tried to “cleanse” the Balkans, and Clinton used a NATO air armada to stop him.
Moreover, while presidents should never go looking for a fight, they actually are not elected to “end wars,” regardless of how Obama understood his mandate. In fact, presidents are elected, according to the Constitution, to serve as “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states.”
Contrary to Trump, great nations actually do fight long, open-ended wars. In fact, this seems to be one of the defining characteristics of great powers throughout history—from Rome to Britain to America. Recall that the U.S. waged war on piracy for much of the 19th century. For more than half of the 19th century, the U.S. waged war to defend and expand its frontiers. For half the 20th century, the U.S. waged the Cold War against the Soviet Empire. And for nearly all of the 21st century, the U.S. has waged a Global War on Terror against jihadist groups and their patron states—a struggle that appears far from over.
We can lament the fact that America engaged in some or all of these conflicts, or that the world draws America into such open-ended engagements, or that the world often forces America to take military action in defense of its interests and values, or that man is bent toward conflict and brokenness. But no one can seriously claim that great nations don’t wage lengthy wars, or that a president’s job is to end wars.
This tendency for great powers to be engaged in the world and the world’s problems isn’t always a function of an imperial impulse or a desire for martial glory. Oftentimes it’s a function of very real dangers threatening the great power or the international system or both—since it's always in the interest of the great power at any given time to maintain and extend the system it dominates.
Today, for example, open seas and open skies enable the movement of goods, people and resources, all of which fuel America’s economy.
By defending norms of behavior and international borders, the U.S. prevents the world from sliding into chaos and maintains some semblance of order, which is an essential prerequisite for trade and commerce.
Stable governments generally serve as an antidote to a host of pathologies that have a way of harming Americans—terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking, illegal mass-migration.
Dependable and strong allies serve as an outer ring of security for the U.S. and contribute to international stability.
Promoting democratic government helps prevent conflict, because democratic states seldom go to war with one another.
However, the seas and skies will not remain open, international borders will not be respected, those pathologies will not be kept at bay, alliances will not be maintained, and free government will not survive or grow without the backing of American might. Put another way: In the years between Pearl Harbor and 2009, the United States conducted a forward-leaning foreign policy not to go looking for problems, but rather to address problems before they exploded.
The 44th and 45th presidents don’t agree with this premise, and it seems they are in step with the American people. Fifty-seven percent of Americans “want the U.S. to deal with its own problems, while letting other countries get along as best they can”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964.
The defense that Trump and Obama are merely reflecting the world-weariness of an inward-looking electorate may be accurate, but that doesn’t make it right. Leadership—especially on matters of national security—is often about convincing the American people to follow a path they would rather not take. Think about Jefferson abandoning a policy of appeasement and instead waging war on piracy half-a-world away; Lincoln transforming the Civil War from a struggle merely to preserve the Union into a struggle to abolish slavery; FDR dragging America back onto the world stage; Truman arguing for open-ended engagement and global containment of Moscow; Reagan reviving the nation’s flagging commitment to what Truman began; Bush 41 building support for the defense of Saudi Arabia and liberation of Kuwait; Clinton wading into the Balkans; Bush 43 defending the surge.
Yes, there’s something to be said for husbanding our finite resources. But the spending records of Obama and Trump put the lie to any claim they have to fiscal responsibility. Moreover, it is not America’s defense commitments that are draining the treasury and overextending us, but rather domestic spending.
In a broader sense, it’s dispiriting to watch America retreat, reverse and retrench. Great nations do not turn inward, issue empty threats, lead from behind, take vacations or hide behind walls. Instead, as TR observed, they “rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.”
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose.