America and the world today: We don’t need to be global parent

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When asked what most affected the outcome of public policy debates, former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan replied “Events, dear boy, events.”

America is now in the process of answering fundamental questions of both domestic and international policy. In each case, events have triggered the discussion and are shaping the answers.

Domestically, the need to repair the damage inflicted by COVID-19, has transformed public opinion on the question of government intervention in the economy. Internationally, the collapse of the Afghan government after the announcement of America’s withdrawal puts the focus on the question of America’s obligation — moral and/or self-interested — to maintain global stability.

I am most interested today in the latter question. It begins with the acknowledgment of an error. In arguing that a distinction must be drawn between those areas where America should accept a special responsibility and the majority of the world where this is not appropriate, I put Korea on the wrong side. Now that the curtain has dropped on Donald Trump’s romance with Kim Jung Un, there must be no doubt about our commitment to defending a flourishing democracy.

But across much of the rest of the globe, we have imposed on ourselves an agenda that promises more than we can accomplish, costs more than we can afford, and makes the boys who painted Tom Sawyer’s fence our role models.

At the end of World War II, America’s military and economic strength was all that stood between much of the world and severe material deprivation, subjugation to Stalinist tyranny, or both.

National security and economic self-interest provided mutually supporting incentives for intervention. A third motive — protection of democratic norms — played an inconsistent part, reinforcing our efforts among the white nations of Europe, but giving way to security concerns elsewhere.

75 years later, there have been profound changes in the balance of forces — with one very important exception: America’s role as, if not the only adult in the room, the one most frequently called upon, especially to do heavy lifting.

This burden until very recently has been both externally imposed and internally accepted.

Globally, the absence of vigorous intervention by the United States in outbreaks of famine, chaos, natural disaster, inter-ethnic violence or cross-borders aggression draws condemnation of America’s “failure to lead” from both media and political leaders. At home, the reluctance of a politician to initiate combat to settle a dispute has been viewed as a disqualification for the presidency.

It was shared ambition, not a strategic consensus, that led every Democratic presidential candidate to vote for the Iraq War.

This point is the strongest example of the impact of Afghanistan.

Coexisting with criticism of the manner of our withdrawal is broad public acceptance of the Trump-Biden joint decision to end military support for the concept of Afghan democracy.

Part two of this transformative effect will happen if, as is likely, adverse consequences from the Taliban accession to power will fall heavily on the Afghan people but not on the U.S. or other stable democracies. It will be confirmation of what we learned in Vietnam — overwhelming might cannot create a coherent society where there is no societal basis for it.

This is not abandonment of our moral responsibility but a recognition of the firm limits on our ability to enforce it.

Many of those who have shaped American foreign policy see this shift in public opinion as cause for dismay, believing that it will lead to unchecked assaults on vital national interests.

If they were correct, we would be facing a choice between the high level of spending on weapons called for by their agenda and adequately funding the need to diminish the dysfunctional inequality that has undermined our democracy. Fortunately, they are mostly wrong.

It has long since ceased to be necessary for America to spend $200 billion per year to defend the richest nations in the world, freeing up their tax revenue to provide vital services to their citizens.

The European NATO countries have more than sufficient resources to fend off any invasion from today’s Russia.

Cooperation with the third largest economy in the world — Japan — should mean that they bear the largest share of their defense, with us in a supplemental role.

Elsewhere, in addition to eschewing fruitless military efforts to assemble cogent states out of social chaos, we should stop acting like school children competing to see who gets the most Valentines.

If nations choose to accept aid from the Chinese, even on unfavorable terms, we should not feel rejected.

If I lived in these places, I would fear the internal consequences. But as an American, I do not believe that we have a national interest in what is often given as the rationale for angst over the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative: the need to ensure that other nations follow our economic and political model rather than adopt Xi Jinping thought. I do not advocate isolation; we should be explicit about our concern for endangered, viable nations — Ukraine, the Baltics, Taiwan, Korea, Israel and the Gulf States. We should seek multinational cooperation in cases of genocide or cross-border aggression. And both humanitarian aid and encouragement of economic development deserve support — but on their own merits, not as laps in a competition with China.

Given our size and strength, we should and will lead in several of these cases. We cannot and should not try to be the dominant force in all.

Barney Frank represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 terms (1981-2013) and was chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011.

Tags Aftermath of the September 11 attacks American leadership Donald Trump global order Great power competition Joe Biden United States presidential doctrines US foreign aid US foreign policy world's policeman

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