The following contribution is from Lawrence J. Haas, author of Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World (April 2016). A former top White House official, he is now a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and a foreign affairs columnist. He writes a regular column for US News & World Report and over the years his op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and scores of other newspapers. He is quoted often in newspapers and magazines, and he appears frequently on TV and radio.
The next President will face a daunting set of foreign policy challenges, from China’s expansion in the Pacific, to Russia’s growing aggressiveness in Ukraine and the Baltics, to a potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East, to the metastasizing of terrorist networks across national borders. But in the end, all of these challenges come down to a basic question: does the United States still want to lead the free world? The answer needs to be yes.
Some seventy years ago, in response to the post-World War II Soviet threat, President Truman and Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg created a revolutionary new US foreign policy through which the country shed its traditional isolationism for good and stepped up on the world stage to create and lead the free world. By spearheading the birth of the United Nations, enunciating the Truman Doctrine to support free peoples who were facing the threat of Communism, enacting the Marshall Plan to rescue Western Europe’s economy, and establishing NATO to defend Western Europe in case the Soviets attacked, the United States created a new global architecture through which to defend its allies, confront its adversaries, and promote freedom.
The architecture of freedom that Truman, who assumed the presidency upon FDR’s death in April of 1945, and Vandenberg, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, created in bipartisan fashion in the late 1940s has served us well ever since. We won the Cold War, avoided World War III, ensured global stability, enabled free and democratic states to grow and prosper, and addressed humanitarian horror in many places. And through it all, we became a beacon of hope for hundreds of millions of people around the world who lived under oppressive governments. We have not been perfect—not by a long shot—but the world is a better place because of our efforts.
But in the midst of a financial crisis and Great Recession, and reflecting his own predisposition, President Obama in early 2009 launched an effort to re-think American’s global role, reduce our footprint around the world, share global burdens not only with our allies but also our adversaries, and focus on “nation building here at home.” Meanwhile, growing isolationist wings within both the Democratic and Republican parties are exerting more influence on the public debate, questioning why we should maintain our traditional global role, especially in the face of long-term budget deficits.
The experience of recent years, however, showcases the downsides of a reduced US global footprint. With the United States stepping back, other powers are stepping forward. Our big-power competitors China and Russia are behaving more aggressively not only in their own regions but beyond, threatening our allies in the Pacific, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. And with the United States signaling that it wants a lesser role in the Middle East, an America-hating Iran is working more boldly to spread its influence across that region, threatening Israel and our traditional Sunni Arab allies. With America doing less to promote freedom, it’s no coincidence that freedom around the world has now declined for ten straight years, according to Freedom House’s latest annual “Freedom in the World” report.
None of this bodes well for the United States in the years to come because we Americans benefit from a freer, more democratic world. For one thing, a freer world will be a more prosperous one, with our businesses able to sell goods overseas through open markets. For another, a more democratic world will be a safer one because, with rare exceptions, democratic nations do not go to war against one another.
The next president needs to reverse course, reassert America’s role on the world stage, proudly promote freedom and democracy, and defend our allies and confront our adversaries without mixing up the two. And that president needs to educate a populace that has grown tired of America’s traditional role and tempted by growing calls to leave the messiness of the world to others. Simply put, if we don’t lead, the world will become a much worse place not just for itself, but for us.