America Abroad: Leader of the Free World or Imperial Power?

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Should the United States Embrace its Role as a Global Hegemon?

By Charles Kupchan, Abigail R. Hall, and Alexander W. Salter. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.

The United States’ Messianic Calling As The Leader Of The Free World

By Charles Kupchan – Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

The United States remains the leader of the free world. Indeed, with illiberalism on the rise in many quarters of the globe, and the Russian military trying to snuff out Ukraine’s young democracy, the world desperately needs an anchor of republican ideals – a role that only the United States, working alongside like-minded partners, has the power and credentials to fulfill. Today with the United States still beset by polarization, political dysfunction, and illiberal populism, it is not as well set to assume this responsibility as it needs to be. Accordingly, even as Russia invades and seeks to subjugate Ukraine, America’s first order of business is getting its own house in order – which is a necessary condition if it is to provide a steady and effective brand of international leadership over the long haul.

Commitment to Democratic Ways

Since the founding of the republic, Americans have embraced a commitment to share their democratic ways with the rest of the world. As President George Washington put it in his Farewell Address of 1796, the nation’s experiment in liberty, if “made complete by so careful a preservation,” would earn “the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.” The United States has over time succeeded in advancing the cause of democracy, gradually tilting the course of history toward more freedom. It is this messianic calling that inspires the notion of American exceptionalism.

To be sure, American behavior has, at times, departed from the nation’s professed ideals. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the United States built a stable and prosperous republic that spanned North America and came to dominate the Western Hemisphere. But along the way, the nation enslaved Africans, subjugated Native Americans, grabbed a sizable chunk of Mexico, regularly meddled in the Caribbean and Latin America, and effectively colonized a host of overseas territories in the Spanish-American War of 1898. During the twentieth-century struggle against the Soviet Union, the United States frequently engaged in strategic excesses – the overkill nuclear arsenal and the Vietnam War among them – and aligned itself with unsavory regimes. More recently, America’s efforts to bring democracy to the broader Middle East went awry as the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was recently made clear.

Amid these and other stains on its past, the United States has succeeded in making the world more democratic and more decent. The nation’s entry into World War I helped Europeans defend democracy against German militarism. However, America soon pulled back from foreign entanglement and made the mistake of standing by idly as fascism swept Europe and Asia during the 1930s. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended isolationist delusions, clearing the way for the United States to lead the effort to defeat the Axis powers. America went on to construct a liberal post-war order that outperformed and facilitated the downfall of the Soviet bloc, ensuring that democracy and free markets prevailed against autocracy and communism. Following the end of the Cold War, America helped bring peace to the Balkans, facilitated a wave of democratization that extended to most quarters of the globe, and used its leverage to advance human rights, facilitate economic growth in the developing world, and resolve long-standing regional disputes. The U.S.-led order appeared here to stay, with Americans seemingly well on their way to fulfilling their messianic calling.

Global Rise of Illiberalism

But such confidence in the durability of the world made by America and its partners has proved unjustified. Indeed, liberal democracy itself is now under threat even in countries that have long enjoyed it. A recent poll revealed that 64% of Americans believe that U.S. democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” Europe’s political center is for the most part holding, but illiberal populists control the Hungarian and Polish governments and have put down strong roots across the European Union. Democracy is in recession worldwide; Freedom House reports that global liberty has been declining for 15 consecutive years. 

These inauspicious trends are partly the result of the efforts of a rising China and a pugnacious Russia to support an autocratic alternative to the Western model. China’s ascent alone represents a game-changer. China will soon have the world’s largest economy and some two-thirds of the countries in the world already trade more with China than with the United States. For the first time since its emergence as a global power, America will face a full-service peer competitor. Washington and its partners will have their hands full as they seek to check Chinese ambition and manage a world in which the West no longer enjoys the material and ideological dominance that it once did.  Meanwhile, Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine sends a worrying signal about its readiness to use brute force to scuttle democracy and rebuild a coercive sphere of influence in its broader neighborhood.

An Internal Focus

This sobering assessment of the global landscape means that U.S. leadership will be sorely needed in the years ahead to defend democracy, extend prosperity, and advance the cause of peace. The agenda must begin with domestic repair. Strength abroad rests on political and economic strength at home. Accordingly, Washington should urgently tackle the root causes of the nation’s political ills, including economic insecurity and inequality. Investments in domestic infrastructure, technology, education, and healthcare will improve the lives of working Americans and make the U.S. economy more competitive. The country also needs to confront racial injustice and fashion an effective immigration policy to help ensure that racial and ethnic pluralism prevails over nativism. These measures can help rebuild America’s political center, in turn steadying U.S. statecraft by taming the polarization, isolationism, and xenophobia that have pushed U.S. foreign policy off course and tarnished the nation’s image in the world during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Looking beyond the nation’s shores, the United States should choose its fights more carefully. The country has spent much of the past two decades spinning its wheels in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria – quagmires that drained U.S. coffers, took many lives, divided the U.S. electorate, and distracted the United States from its traditional geopolitical focus on great-power competition. It is time to get back to basics and concentrate on preserving stability across Eurasia in the face of mounting threats from China and Russia. As for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden is right not to send combat troops and risk a hot war between NATO and Russia.  But he is on target in imposing severe sanctions against Russia, reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank and pledging to defend “every inch” of alliance territory, and providing arms and other assistance to Ukrainians as they defend themselves. Given Ukraine’s dogged resistance to Russian aggression, widespread international condemnation of the invasion, and mounting opposition to the war among Russians themselves, it is conceivable that Vladimir Putin’s gambit in Ukraine could ultimately prove to be his political undoing.

As it has done amid the crisis over Ukraine, Washington should invest heavily in teamwork with like-minded nations to ensure solidarity in addressing shared threats and confronting illiberal powers. When possible, the United States must also seek to work across ideological dividing lines, not just stand up to autocracies. Managing the global economy and combating nuclear proliferation will require collaboration, not confrontation, with Beijing. In an era when pandemics, global warming, and cyberattacks may pose more acute threats to global stability than missiles and tanks, Washington must also broaden its foreign policy agenda and reallocate resources accordingly.

These are pressing international challenges, but they should not distract the United States from even more urgent domestic challenges. If the United States succeeds in rejuvenating its economy and getting its political lights back on, it has a very good chance of anchoring a world in the midst of profound change. If U.S. democracy stumbles, the cause of liberty will be set back on a global basis, making way for a 21st century that falls prey to growing disorder, mounting geopolitical competition, and a perilous shortfall in the international teamwork needed to tackle global challenges.

Political and economic vigor at home and leadership abroad go hand in hand. Repairing the domestic foundation of American democracy will also shore up the foundation of purposeful U.S. engagement in the world.

The Case Against “Liberal” Empire

By Abigail R. Hall – Associate Professor in Economics at Bellarmine University, and Alexander William Salter – Associate Professor of Economics, Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University

Uncle Sam bestrides the globe and his boot print is enormous. As of summer 2021, the United States maintained at least 750 military bases in at least 80 countries. The Department of Defense may not report all its data, so that number could well be understated. The lack of a physical base does not indicate that the U.S. military is uninvolved in an area, however. Though estimates vary, the Pentagon keeps anywhere between 150,000 and 200,000 troops abroad in more than 150 countries — more than 75 percent of the world’s nations.

The Argument for Liberal Imperialism

Given America’s military presence and its undeniable geopolitical influence, many have called for the U.S. to embrace its position as a global hegemon. Citing purported benefits from enhanced trade to better economic outcomes for U.S. “colonies” to achieving foreign policy objectives, the demands for the U.S. to wield its global dominance are loud. The late economist Deepak Lal is a well-known proponent of this view. He argued that the United States is an empire, even without the formal title. He further argued that imperial powers throughout history provided invaluable services to their own citizens and individuals abroad. He suggested that, if the United States were to truly embrace its position and eschew the bureaucratic constraints of NGOs and other international actors, both the U.S. and other countries could benefit.

Lal is not alone in this line of thinking. Columnist and historian Max Boot has argued that many of the foreign policy difficulties facing the United States are the result of “insufficient American involvement and ambition.” He further contends that many nations “cry out for some sort of enlightened foreign administration” and that U.S.-imposed institutions may be superior to other nations’ home-grown governance. Similarly, historian Niall Ferguson argues that if the U.S. were to embrace its role as an empire, it may provide any number of global public goods. The bottom line is that the world needs more U.S. involvement, not less.

There are three key themes in this argument: (1) the United States ought to embrace its role as an empire, (2) there are clear benefits to building and maintaining an empire from the perspectives of the U.S. and “colonized” countries, (3) the U.S. may use its position to spread liberal-democratic ideals abroad. Institutions like markets, representative voting, and civil liberties could be spread if only the United States would muster the will to export them abroad.

These claims are not new — similar arguments have existed for centuries. The renowned British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill made perhaps the first liberal defense of empire, arguing that the British Empire was a net benefit to society at large and that liberal institutions could, and should, be imposed abroad. But unless you were a lucky mercantile or aristocratic elite, the costs of empire were far larger than the benefits. In addition, Britain witnessed its liberalism at home wane as its empire abroad waxed. Both practically and ideologically, imperialism is a bust. What Mill and his successors fail to understand is that the task of empire is not only doomed to failure but also fundamentally at odds with liberalism.

International liberalism is a wonderful idea. Imposing it at gunpoint isn’t. Only through adopting wholly illiberal means — namely intervention in other nation-states — can the supposed “liberal imperialism” achieve its ends.

Two Major Obstacles Facing Modern Imperial Strategy

For the sake of argument, let’s accept that global hegemony in the service of international liberalism is, in some sense, desirable. That doesn’t mean it’s feasible. The American empire would face two insuperable problems: the incentive problem and the knowledge problem. Each problem alone would dim the prospects for a liberal empire. Together, they ruin any appeal liberal imperialism may have.

The incentive problem is straightforward: The American empire would only create positive outcomes if both civilian and military policymakers faced the right incentives. Good intentions aren’t enough. Those with decision-making authority must have reasons to act as a just, uncorrupt, benevolent hegemon. Unfortunately, the opposite is far more likely. The numerous bureaucracies of the American empire would prioritize expanding their missions and budgets before accomplishing their delegated objectives. Furthermore, as is especially well-known in American politics, sound foreign policy is often dashed on the rocks of domestic political demands. Elected officials want to stay in office, which often conflicts with the long-term political planning necessary for grand strategic goals. Finally, nominally private special interests, such as defense contractors, can and will influence the design of imperial blueprints to their advantage. There’s simply no reason to think the existing policy process will incentivize decision-makers to lift up the world’s benighted.

The knowledge problem is harder to grasp, but possibly more fatal to imperial ambitions. All social processes, from running a small family business to outmaneuvering an enemy army in the field, require good information to work well. Decision-makers who act within these processes need feedback on whether their strategies will help them advance their goals. For the family business, the feedback mechanism is obvious: profit and loss. For a field army, there’s no mechanism so unambiguous as a financial bottom line, so commanders must make do with personnel and material lists, intelligence reports, and communications through the chain of command. A would-be global hegemon has even less information. Whether its task is providing global public goods or making strategic investments in nation-building, decision-makers are essentially flying blind. The social distance between imperial planners and the events they oversee is immense. Abstract statistics, which minimize this distance, feed into highly formalized procedural rules. This is akin to navigating a dark and windy mountain road by reading a map. Not even the most skilled cartographer can capture the details relevant to the driver’s needs. Imperial strategists will soon learn for themselves the stark difference between the map and the territory.

A Foreign Policy Choice with Grave Consequences 

If an empire is infeasible, what’s the alternative? George Washington told us not to “entangle our peace and prosperity” with other nations’ affairs in his Farewell Address. “[T]emporary alliances are appropriate for extraordinary emergencies,” but otherwise, we should content ourselves with the peaceful exchange of goods, services, and ideas. “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.” If Washington was right, then American foreign policy needs to take immediate, serious steps towards a restrained foreign policy — one compatible with a multipolar international order. We aren’t the world’s judge or jury; pretending otherwise is hubris.

If we don’t believe Washington, maybe we’ll listen to John Quincy Adams, who warned of the consequences should America surrender to imperial ambitions: “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Sadly, history has proven Adams correct — but we always have a choice. We don’t need to remain the world’s “dictatress.” Let’s renounce the folly of empire and model liberalism to the world by example.

This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.

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Charles Kupchan
Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Charles Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University in the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government. From 2014 to 2017, Kupchan served as special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) in the Barack Obama administration. He was also Director for European affairs on the NSC during the first Bill Clinton administration. Before joining the Clinton NSC, he worked in the U.S. Department of State on the policy planning staff. Previously, he was an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. His most recent book is “Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World”.

Abigail Hall e1630699671232
Abigail Hall
Associate Professor of Economics, Rubel School of Business, Bellarmine University | Website

Abigail R Hall is an Associate Professor of Economics at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. She is an affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and the Foundation for Economic Education. She is a Senior Fellow at Pegasus Institute and a Research Fellow with the Independent Institute. Hall is the coauthor of Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in The War On Terror and Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of US Militarism, both with Stanford University Press. Her broader research interests include Austrian Economics, Political Economy, and Defense and Peace Economics. Her work includes topics surrounding U.S. national defense and militarism, including, police militarization, domestic extremism, propaganda, technology in warfare, and the impacts of foreign conflict on domestic institutions.

Alexander Salter Headshot e1646138389940
Alexander Salter
Associate Professor of Economics, Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University | Website

Alexander William Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University and the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU's Free Market Institute. He is also a Young Voices Senior Contributor, a Sound Money Project Senior Fellow, and an Associate Editor of the Journal of Private Enterprise. He has published more than 70 academic and 200 popular articles. His first book, Money and the Rule of Law: Generality and Predictability in Monetary Institutions​, published by Cambridge University Press in May 2021, argues why rules are preferable to discretion in monetary policy.

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