After World War II, skepticism about the extent of the communist threat led to a sharp reduction in military spending and a willingness to ignore ominous developments along the Pacific Rim and in Eastern Europe. But when communist aggression reached a boiling point on the Korean Peninsula, moral duty and national interests again compelled the United States to lead. The cost of the war that followed certainly exceeded that of effective deterrence and of steadily maintaining U.S. armed forces.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, some argued that the United States had fulfilled its obligation to lead the world and had defeated all plausible opponents; defense funding was slashed. Ten years later, the attacks of Sept. 11 reminded us of the risks of assuming that peace will always prevail.
Today, we are in danger of again repeating this cycle. Progress in the fight against al-Qaeda and the perceived costs of global leadership have led some to question whether the United States should retain — or is even capable of retaining — a robust international economic and political presence. Yet missing from the debate are analyses of both the benefits of this role, rather than just the costs, and whether the strategic ends to which the country aspires have somehow changed.
History has shown that, once the United States chooses to lead, we and the world benefit. After World War II, U.S. aid helped rebuild shattered European and Asian economies. Those nations are now not simply at peace — they are among our most important trading partners. The U.S. naval presence on the high seas has guaranteed the free flow of goods. Without it, increased piracy, lower trade flows and higher prices would result — not just for our country but for the world. The hundreds of millions who rose out of poverty in the latter half of the 20th century are markets for U.S. goods and forces for stability that might never have existed without the global compact secured by U.S. leadership.
Rather than cutting first and then asking how we can manage with what’s left, we must define our priorities and interests — and only then determine how to allocate resources. If the United States is still committed to fostering a freer and more democratic world, supporting free trade, maintaining international stability and meeting threats abroad, then there must be a reasoned discussion of the ways in which diplomatic retrenchment and military budget cuts may limit our capacity to achieve those critical national goals.
Just as the benefits of U.S. global leadership are often ignored, so, too, are the costs of retrenchment. Proposed cuts in aid and military strength, especially when implemented under strategic guidance that calls for a “small footprint” in the world, will affect our ability to deter the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, a more assertive China, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and individuals. U.S. disengagement will also foster the emergence of military, diplomatic or economic forces that will fill the vacuum created by our absence. We cannot predict how much it might ultimately cost to counter those forces but, again, experience dictates that the price will be high.
Time and again when we have sought to predict the nature, timing and location of the next crisis, we have been wrong. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur H. Vandenberg — an erstwhile isolationist — came to a consensus that would shape our foreign policy for decades; it took the Korean War for this country to fully accept both the burdens and the benefits of a robust internationalism.
We must not wait for another catastrophe to persuade us of the continuing importance of American internationalism. Regardless of party or ideology, our leaders must forge a new consensus about the U.S. role in the world. That will require engaging with those who disagree to rebuild and reaffirm a bipartisan foreign policy consensus based on the lessons of history. Our country and our world are more secure, free and prosperous when America is prepared to lead. History may repeat itself but only if we allow it.