An excerpt from the conclusion of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, forthcoming by Peter Beinart, about learning from American history that America can live safely and profitably in the world without dominating it.
What America needs today is a jubilant undertaker, someone—like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—who can bury the hubris of the past while convincing Americans that we are witnessing a wedding, not a funeral. The hubris of dominance, like the hubris of reason and the hubris of toughness before it, has crashed against reality’s shoals. Woodrow Wilson could not make politics between nations resemble politics between Americans. Lyndon Johnson could not halt every communist advance. And we cannot make ourselves master of every important region on earth. We have learned that there are prices we cannot pay and burdens we cannot bear, and our adversaries have learned it too. We must ruthlessly accommodate ourselves to a world that has shown, once again, that it is not putty in our hands.
Franklin Roosevelt did not wage World War II so America could be the world’s sole superpower, or even Europe’s.
For starters, that means remembering that we did not always believe we needed to dominate the world in order to live safely and profitably in it. In the decade and a half after the Soviet empire fell, dominance came so easily that we began to see it as the normal order of things. We expanded NATO into East Germany, then into Eastern Europe, then onto former Soviet soil, while at the same time encircling Russia with military bases in a host of Central Asian countries that once flew the Hammer and Sickle. We established a virtual Monroe Doctrine in the Middle East, shutting out all outside military powers, and the Bush administration set about enforcing a Roosevelt Corollary too, granting itself the right to take down unfriendly local regimes. In East Asia, we waited expectantly for China to democratize or implode, and thus follow Russia down the path to ideological and strategic submission. And we stopped thinking about Latin America much at all since we took it as a virtual fact of nature that no foreign power would ever again interfere in our backyard.
We were like the warrior guarding his village who suddenly finds that the enemy has abandoned the battlefield, leaving vast tracts of territory undefended, and so takes them for his own, since the acquisition apparently involves little risk and cost. And once those lands have been incorporated, he sees that even more is available: The inhabitants offer little resistance, and even appear pleased to join the realm. And as his domain extends further outward, the warrior begins to see its new size less as a choice than a necessity: the bare minimum necessary to keep his family safe. The old borders, which he once deemed sufficient, now strike him as frighteningly exposed. In fact, he comes to suspect that even his current territory is inadequate; he has grown so used to expansion that mere stasis strikes him as a form of retreat. And meanwhile, the lands just beyond his domain are no longer so welcoming or unguarded, and mutinies have broken out in some of his recent acquisitions. Fulfilling his obligations is no longer so effortless and the resources at his disposal are no longer so plentiful. His challenge is to step back from the border skirmishes that now occupy his time and try to remember which lands he considered necessary for his security and prosperity in those more sober days before the recent windfall, because the days of windfall are now clearly gone.
If the men and women who shape American foreign policy conduct this intellectual audit they will discover a sharp discontinuity between some of today’s widely held assumptions and the assumptions of successful American policymakers in eras past. After 9/11, in the name of fighting terror, the Bush administration declared war or cold war on Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Taliban, Hezbollah and Hamas, virtually every significant regime and militia in the greater Middle East that did not kiss our ring. And in its pursuit of regional dominance, it claimed that it was merely doing what past generations had done in Europe and Asia. But that’s not right. Franklin Roosevelt did not wage World War II so America could be the world’s sole superpower, or even Europe’s. He wanted Four Policemen; unipolarity was Hitler’s goal. And FDR did not wage war against all the enemies of freedom: He allied with Stalin to defeat Hitler and Tojo. During the cold war, America did not take on the entire communist world, except for a period of hubristic intoxication that began with McCarthyism and culminated in Vietnam. In the late 1940s we made common cause with the communists in Belgrade, and in the 1970s and 1980s we made common cause with the communists in Beijing, all to contain the communists we feared most, who resided in Moscow. George Kennan saw the purpose of containment as ensuring that no single power controlled the world’s centers of economic and military might, not insuring that that single power was the United States.
How could our forefathers have been so cowardly and immoral? Stalin was a monster; so was Mao, and they both had nuclear weapons aimed at us. Why did we live with that sword of Damocles? Why did we accept their dominion over billions of souls? Once upon a time, the answer was obvious: Because we lacked the power not to. Franklin Roosevelt knew the American people would not sacrifice their sons by the thousands to keep Eastern Europe from Soviet hands. During Korea, Harry Truman blundered into war with Beijing, and realized that in Asia too, the price of denying America’s communist foes a sphere of influence was appallingly high. Even Ronald Reagan proved so reluctant to challenge Soviet control over Poland in the early eighties that conservative commentators accused him of betrayal. In different ways, all these presidents understood that in foreign policy, as in life, there are things you may fervently desire but cannot afford. And in foreign policy, the recognition that resources are limited, and precious, is even more important since you are not merely spending other people’s money; you are spilling other people’s blood.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.