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Of Leadership And Burdens

September 13, 2019
5 min read
Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events

Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events of that year, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

In evaluating history, T. S. Eliot reminded us that human beings often “had the experience but missed the meaning.” In efforts to make sense of our past, we look for patterns to wrap around the path of experiences. Yet we – both individuals and states – find ourselves continually confronted by new experiences that challenge our assumptions and require us to reassess the meanings we have settled on. During the last three decades, debates over the narrative and rationale of U.S. global leadership has illustrated this struggle. And given where we stand 30 years after we thought we had ended history, one must ask what meanings did we miss in our experiences?

In many ways, this U.S. vision echoed the post-1949 view of a world, in which the rebuilding of security and prosperity was dependent on the leadership of the United States. Because that strategy had worked reasonably well for those under the U.S. umbrella during the previous four decades, it would certainly work again. But there was a crucial difference in the two periods. Those who crafted the strategies in the late forties were burdened by the specter of catastrophe, and driven to prevent another. The post-Cold War environment, however, was accompanied by a greater hubris. This time it was believed that the world could really be made safe for democracy.

This was the meaning we drew from 1989, but almost immediately new events collided with the story. In the wake of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the return of war to the European continent in the Balkans was one of many red flags pointing at the fact that the melting of Cold War ice sheets could uncovered the fires of nationalist entities. The brutal suppression of human rights demonstrations in the streets of Beijing in the Spring of 1989 should have also reminded us that a convergence of values among nations was not self-evident. The turmoil in Afghanistan did not subside after Soviet troops left, but continued to simmer until it boiled over a decade later in the attacks of Al-Quaeda in Africa – and then on 9/11. Regional conflicts continued, financial insecurities erupted, inequalities deepened and the bonds of alliances were strained over the Iraq war.

What Price Can We Pay Today?

The post-1989 framework with which we approached the dramatic changes unfolding drew on some of the lessons of the Second World War, that of an expansive global presence to help secure peace and anchor democracy. It was a vision of U.S. leadership, as captured in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

The U.S. consensus around that mission had been largely supported by the strategic community, the experts and scholars who advised them, and the public at large. Fear of nuclear war and communist threats further strengthened resolve. And it all fit into the larger selfperception of the United States as the source and guardian of global peace and prosperity.

Of course, the peace guardian made many mistakes along the way. The war in Vietnam, a failed military intervention in Cuba, the support of dictators in South America and in the Middle East. And then came the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, which has become the longest war in U.S. history.

Americans increasingly came to question whether they should, and whether they could, bear these burdens, as the hubris of the first post- Cold War decade began to fade. Building schools in Kabul seemed less urgent than repairing bridges at home.

Thus the United States today is struggling with another iteration of a long-standing debate over how it should exert global leadership, project its power, and exercise its responsibilities at home and abroad.

On one side of that debate are those who wish to limit capabilities and put “America first.” The election of Donald Trump was evidence that a large number of Americans have ambivalent feelings about the global role of the United States and international entanglements. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated in Brussels “Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well.”

The other vision holds that the United States is and should remain the leading force for global stability and security while working with the multinational framework of cooperation and consensus within its partners. This system, and U.S. leadership within it, is still the best chance to prevent the breakdowns of the global system which roiled the first half of the twentieth century.

Yet arguing simply over how much or how little we need to do is missing the meaning of the moment we face today. The United States is confronted with an environment unlike that of seventy years ago or thirty years ago. It is not the sole globally dominant economy, nor uncontested on the world stage, nor is it capable of achieving a globalized liberal order. Moreover political polarization at home is undermining its capacity to develop a consensus for new strategies to confront these challenges.

Americans need to decide how, when, and where they can respond at home and within their alliances. The answers may be uncomfortable, unsettling, or even uncertain; they certainly will not be easy. In 1947 George Kennan described this challenge with these words: “The bitter truth in this world is that you cannot even do good today unless you are prepared to exert your share of power, to take your share responsibility, to make your share of mistakes and to assume your share of risks.”

Seven decades later, that is a still much needed message. While the questions we confront today may appear similar to those of yesterday, the answers will be shaped by the new moments and meanings we recognize today and tomorrow, perhaps with a greater portion of humility than hubris.

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