How America picks its battles

Britain strode out in its quest for empire. Colonialism, it told itself, carried its superior system of government to remote corners of the world and bestowed power and riches along the way. The US was a reluctant entrant to the club of great powers. Its economy surpassed that of Britain during the 1870s, but it wasn’t until 1945 that it fully took its place at the centre of world affairs.

America’s journey from Thomas Jefferson’s aversion to foreign entanglements to its post-1945 restructuring of the international order was stuttering and painful. The forces that pulled it by turns towards isolationism and interventionism still live on — witness President George W Bush’s military misadventures in the Middle East and Donald Trump’s America First unilateralism. Those on both sides of the argument have generally paid scant attention to consequences elsewhere.

For Europeans, if there is something worse than an over-mighty superpower it is an absent America content to leave the rest of the world to settle its own scores. Even now, as Joe Biden’s administration leads the west’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Europeans fret that Trump might yet find a way back to the White House in 2024.

Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, is an unabashed apostle for the utility of US power in upholding international order. He was prominent among the cheerleaders for GW Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a critic of Barack Obama’s efforts to draw a tighter line around Washington’s responsibilities. Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus, he observed, when allies protested at the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

So in charting America’s hesitant path during the four decades of the 20th century before its hand was forced by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Kagan has an agenda: the collapse of world order during that period was in no small part due to America’s refusal to pick up the baton from the British empire.

Today’s isolationists, Kagan believes, should take note. The world, though, has changed. A century on, the US remains the world’s pre-eminent power but its dominion is contested, not least by China’s rise and by Russia’s revanchism. And it confronts enemies within. As Richard Haass, a former US diplomat, explains, if America wants to hold its own in a world that could sleepwalk again into great power conflict, it needs to fix its democracy. Trump’s attempted coup in January 2021 spoke to deep-seated cracks in the foundations of the republic.

The Ghost at the Feast, the second in Kagan’s planned trilogy charting America’s foreign policy, sets the competing impulses in domestic politics — the instinct to stand back versus shining-city-on-the-hill internationalism — against the breakdown of the balance of power arrangements that had kept the global peace since the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15. The story is fluently told, if somewhat overburdened by footnotes.

At the opening of the 20th century, America had already established itself as the preponderant global economic power. Geology gave it an abundance of the energy and mineral resources that powered industrialisation. Geography — the natural defences provided by two oceans — provided a unique degree of security. Americans saw no reason to engage in the great-power rivalry that would lead Europe into two world wars. Pacifying Cuba and seizing the Philippines from Spain to protect the Atlantic and Pacific approaches was as far as its foreign adventurism went. As Kagan says: “Whatever being a ‘world power’ meant, most Americans were not interested.”

When the world went to war in 1914, the US was determinedly neutral. East Coast sympathies for Britain were tempered by the countervailing loyalties of German and Irish Americans. “We definitely have to be neutral,” Woodrow Wilson warned in September 1914, “since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other.” It was not until 1917, when the Kaiser’s U-boat fleet resumed indiscriminate attacks on Atlantic shipping, that Wilson reframed the war as a struggle between democracy and tyranny and dispatched American troops to Europe.

The change of heart did not survive the peace. Congress disowned Wilson’s grand plan for a rules-based international system by refusing to sign up to the League of Nations. Successive Republican presidents were more interested in securing the repayment of American war loans than the chaos of Weimar Germany.

For Kagan, Europe’s descent into fascism owed more to this US refusal to serve as the guardian of international order than to the burdens placed on Germany by the Versailles treaty. On the other side of the world, Washington was equally resolute in its inaction when imperial Japan invaded Manchuria as a prelude to the occupation of China.

Franklin D Roosevelt, president from 1933, spoke out occasionally against Hitler’s Nazis and Japanese militarism, warning in 1937 that the “contagion” of war could threaten the US. But his political energies were directed towards securing recovery from depression. “I hate war,” he declared during his 1936 re-election campaign. “You will get nothing out of the Americans but words,” was the caustic judgment of Britain’s interwar prime minister Stanley Baldwin. Britain had to wait until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the US before American troops again crossed the Atlantic.

Kagan overstates his case. His analysis of the competing impulses in American politics is stronger than that of the nationalist dynamics of interwar Europe. It’s not self-evident that a more active US would have saved the continent from itself or China from Japanese aggression.

Book cover of ‘The Bill of Obligations’

For all that, the underlying argument — that America’s studied absence sent a powerful signal to Mussolini, Hitler and Franco in Europe and to the militarists in Tokyo — is well made. It also encouraged appeasement. However much it might like to retreat from the world, the US cannot avoid the fact of its power. Even today, as China challenges US primacy, the war in Ukraine is a reminder that the advanced democracies still take their cue from Washington.

Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written extensively about America’s role as an organising power. Eschewing the unilateral interventionism of neoconservatives, he is cheerleader for American alliance-building. In this latest short book, The Bill of Obligations, however, he admits a deeper concern than threats from China, Russia or North Korea and Iran. Foreign policy begins at home, and “The most urgent and significant threat to American security and stability stems not from abroad but from within.”

At risk, in Haass’s mind, is the very fabric of American democracy. The Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6 2021 failed in their attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The message they carried is chilling nonetheless. A sizeable segment of the US electorate still rejects the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency — and do so with encouragement from prominent figures in the Republican party. When the outcome of a free and fair election is rejected by “tens of millions” of Americans, democracy is in serious trouble.

Behind this, Haass argues, lies the fading of the shared belief that citizens remain part of a single community. Stagnating middle-class incomes and the closure of traditional industries in the face of technological advance have created an era of economic insecurity. Upward mobility, once at the very heart of the American dream, “has become more dream than reality”. The global financial crash drained public confidence in the government’s capacity and willingness to respond to the concerns of voters. Electoral gerrymandering has shrunk the space for bipartisan collaboration. The fragmented world of digital media has empowered populists by creating echo chambers calculated to amplify the anger and fears of the excluded.

Underneath this, Haass says, lies a dangerous erosion of the nation’s political culture. American democracy, long a beacon for nations escaping tyranny, has been drained of civility, respect for truth and facts, appreciation of values and norms and willingness to compromise. The rights of citizens are guaranteed by the constitution and enforced by the law, but a healthy democracy also depends on broad acceptance of an ecosystem of obligations. Without mutual respect for civic values, rights become a source of conflict.

Haass’s answer is “nothing less than ‘A Bill of Obligations’” to sit alongside the Bill of Rights embedded in the constitution. Some will ask whether that is a practical proposition, but it is hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed in former president Jimmy Carter’s inaugural address: “Our nation can be strong abroad only if it is strong at home. And we know that the best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation.” A thought, perhaps, for neoconservatives.

Kagan’s case for muscular American interventionism sits uneasily alongside the power shifts of the present century. Biden’s recasting of the US role as that of the west’s convening power fits more comfortably with the geopolitical realities of the 2020s. For its part, Haass’s analysis of the threats within feels overly pessimistic. What’s true is that, as during the first decades of the 20th century, the rest of the world will not escape the consequences of America’s choices.

The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941 by Robert Kagan, Knopf £28.23, 688 pages

The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens by Richard Haass, Penguin Press $28, 240 pages

Philip Stephens is an FT contributing editor

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