Excerpt: Preventive Engagement

Return to Preventive Engagement.


As the most powerful country in the world, the United States has the greatest capacity to avert the potential unraveling of the liberal international order, and it is without question in its security and economic interests to do so. The United States, moreover, has not only the most to gain by perpetuating the liberal international order but also arguably the most to lose if it mismanages this task. As the principal guarantor of global peace and security, America is—like no other country—at great risk of being drawn into potentially costly military engagements to counter emerging threats to international order. The United States simply cannot afford to underestimate those threats or respond to them in an ad hoc, improvised, or impulsive manner. America’s future as a world power depends on it. In this respect, while the parallels are inexact, Britain’s experience in the twentieth century offers a salutary tale for the United States in the twenty-first.

The conventional wisdom is that Britain’s decline as a world power was largely inevitable once several continental powers began to industrialize and overtake it economically at the end of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Britain’s leaders, having seen the writing on the wall, adroitly managed its subsequent global retrenchment: they wisely acquiesced to U.S. ascendency in the western hemisphere, skillfully suborned American military power to prevail in the two world wars and subsequent Cold War, and successfully divested their colonial possessions in a timely manner that was also in many respects handled more humanely and responsibly than most of their European counterparts.

There is, however, an alternative, more damning explanation of Britain’s retreat from primacy. Although it had indeed been surpassed economically at the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain was still, on the eve of the First World War, the leading global power by virtue of its enormous financial resources, productive capacity, imperial possessions, and naval strength. No one—least of all, its leaders—expected that Britain would decline in the way it did and as rapidly as it did; the sun, after all, was never going to set on the British Empire. Multiple factors played their part, but the exertion of fighting two ruinously costly wars against Germany and trying to maintain Britain’s pretensions to be a major player during much of the Cold War was the most decisive. Rather than having a clear vision for the future and coherent strategy to conserve Britain’s strength in the face of emerging challenges to its global position, its leaders essentially ended up lurching from one crisis to the next for most of the twentieth century, depleting its power in the process. As one historian has concluded, “The record shows that Britain’s decline was far from graceful, much less ‘managed.’ The British were reactive, not far-sighted, and inconsistent rather than careful. Imperial descent, while preordained in certain respects, unfolded in fits and starts over the course of decades. If the British experience does indeed ‘hold some valuable lessons,’ . . . it is as an example of what not to do.”

Although the United States is undoubtedly in a much stronger position today with advantages that Britain either never had or enjoyed only fleetingly, its global responsibilities are at the same time more extensive and critical to world order. The risk of America becoming drawn into costly new military entanglements and other onerous commitments in defense of that order is much greater as a consequence. The inclination of the American public to shoulder these responsibilities is also not limitless. It is not hard to imagine how the United States could grow increasingly disenchanted and disengaged from playing the crucial global role it assumed in the twentieth century, leaving the liberal international order it so assiduously built to an uncertain fate. There is, after all, no obvious emerging great power for America to hand the baton of enlightened global leadership to should it falter as Britain once did.

It falls then to the Trump administration to navigate what is likely to be an extremely challenging and potentially fateful period in the nation’s history. The initial signs, however, have not been encouraging that President Trump understands what is at stake or has a coherent vision for America’s place and role in the world beyond what was proclaimed during the election campaign. Putting “America first” is not in itself objectionable unless it translates into a narrow-minded, self-interested, and short-term approach to U.S. foreign and security policy. This includes, among other things, peremptorily dismissing the value of long-standing military alliances, free trade agreements, and multilateral institutions out of the misguided conviction that the United States has been exploited by its partners or given more than it gets in return for being a member of such arrangements. Likewise, strengthening the U.S. military (as the Trump administration has declared its intention to do) is not in itself wrongheaded, but believing that it will be sufficient to keep the United States secure and—more to the point, here—out of harm’s way so that it can focus on “making America great again” at home is to fundamentally misread the external challenges the nation is now facing and the likely demands that these will place upon it.

In short, the Trump administration must devise a comprehensive long-term strategy that harnesses all elements of U.S. power to preserve the liberal international order in a way that advances its national interests and core values without becoming drawn into costly new military engagements that drain its power and risk compromising its long-term standing in the world. This strategy, furthermore, has to be sustainable and adaptable beyond the Trump administration in much the same way as the policy of containment toward the Soviet Union during the administration of Harry S. Truman set the basic course for U.S. policy during the Cold War.

This book offers just such a strategy. Doubtless, not all will find its argument convincing or its recommendation compelling; that is their prerogative. But if it stimulates debate and, moreover, inspires others to come up with a better and more practical solution to the challenges that the United States will likely face in the years ahead, it will have served a useful purpose. What cannot be condoned, however, is fatalism and passivity. Hoping for the best is neither a policy nor a prudent approach. Likewise, faith in the notion that the United States can weather any adversity, come what may, or that a special providence will always shine beneficently upon it is also not a dependable plan of action. For all its immense strengths and advantages, the United States faces growing risks and narrowing margins for error. In short, it cannot afford to be either naïvely passive or impulsively reactive to emerging international challenges. It needs to think and act ahead in a timely and precautionary manner. In this respect, Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition at the beginning of the twentieth century remains just as relevant in the twenty-first: “In foreign affairs we must make up our minds that, whether we wish it or not, we are a great people and must play a great part in the world. It is not open to us to choose whether we will play that great part or not. We have to play it. All we can decide is whether we shall play it well or ill.”

Courtesy of Columbia University Press, copyright 2018.