What is our foreign policy? Leadership. That word appears 35 times in President Obama’s latest National Security Strategy.
His predecessors have all wanted the same thing, although most managed to work in a few more synonyms.
At the dawn of the post-Cold War era, officials in the George H.W. Bush administration aspired for the United States to be the sole global power. Now that the nation’s long-time rival had disappeared, the object of U.S. foreign policy, according to an early draft of the Defense Planning Guidance, was to “prevent the re-emergence of a new rival” capable of challenging U.S. power in any vital area, including Western Europe, Asia, or the territory of the former Soviet Union. To accomplish this task, the United States would retain preponderant military power, not merely to deter attacks against the United States, but also to deter “potential competitors” — including long-time U.S. allies such as Germany and Japan — “from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”
Echoing those sentiments a few years later, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan characterized the proper U.S. role in the world as “benevolent global hegemony.” “The aspiration to benevolent hegemony,” they conceded in their famous Foreign Affairs essay from 1996, “might strike some as either hubristic or morally suspect. But a hegemon is nothing more or less than a leader with preponderant influence and authority over all others in its domain.”
Kristol and Kagan claimed, “Most of the world’s major powers welcome U.S. global involvement and prefer America’s benevolent hegemony to the alternatives.” Indeed, they continued, “The principal concern of America’s allies these days is not that it will be too dominant but that it will withdraw.”
“U.S. foreign policy is crippled by a dramatic disconnect between what Americans expects of it and what the nation’s leaders are giving them.”
That latter point has never been tested: U.S. troops have remained in Europe and Asia, and the U.S. military presence expanded in other regions. But whether it is good for others doesn’t necessarily make it good for us. For the most part, American taxpayers, and especially American troops, have borne the burdens of “benevolent hegemony,” while U.S. allies have been content to focus their attention on domestic spending, while their underfunded defenses languish.
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