FOLLOWING THE FAVORABLE OUTCOME of events in Iraq, America needs to develop a framework for conducting foreign policy in an increasingly unmanageable world. In no previous historical era has one country held such a preponderance of power. It is a role few Americans generations ago would have ever prophesized or desired. Yet, as Pres. Abraham Lincoln said on the verge of the Civil War, "We cannot escape history."
The America First Movement of the 1939-41 period and the neo-isolationists, such as Pat Buchanan, today would prefer to return to the simpler era of Main Street America. Their nostalgic cry is appealing: Bring the troops home; raise tariffs; restore smokestack America; and turn the problems of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East over to the countries of those regions. The world along with the dreaded terrorists would then leave us alone. The appeal of this argument, while largely dormant today, still slumbers somewhere in the American psyche. Should the aftermath of the war in Iraq go awry, should the U.S. economy continue to flounder, and should we tire of the petulant anti-Americanism among countries whose freedom we secured, the neo-isolationist argument could find a broad audience.
To marshal such a retreat from the world, the U.S. would have to undo more than a half-century of toil that cost billions of dollars and well over a half-million lives. The entire structure of the so-called American Century would have to be dismantled and altered beyond recognition. What would be the fate of the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and bilateral treaties with Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea? What would be the meaning and the legacy of those who died in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Iraq?
America talked itself into a retreat from global responsibility after World War I, hoping that the other Great Powers--Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union--would maintain a balance of power among themselves. Pearl Harbor was a painful wake-up call telling us that such a balance was an illusion. After World War II, the U.S. could not afford such illusions since it was the only nation capable of balancing against the Soviet Union.
With the end of the Cold War, it is a legitimate question to ask, against whom are we balancing? There is no Great Power on the horizon that can match our economic and military power. Great Britain, France, Russia, and Germany are shadows of their former selves. They lack the economic base and the empires they once commanded. France and Germany are war weary or addled by the comforts of the welfare state. A glorified Mafia kleptocracy runs Russia, more interested in stealing from its own people than anything else. The effects of crony capitalism have smothered Japan's economy. Thus, the populations of these former powerful states lack the will to sacrifice for anything beyond their own self-interest. …