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A Superpower, Like It or Not: Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role

Author: Robert Kagan

Affiliation: Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: March/April 2021/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 4833


Keywords: Superpower, Liberal World Order, Continentalism, US Foreign Policy Schools, and American Global Role 


In this article, Kagan advocates for the US to have a larger global role that reflects its real and huge capabilities, rather than surrendering to the innocent and ideal self-perceptions of continentalism that dominates the general psychology of Americans and confines the national interest within its borders. In the age of the Internet, intercontinental missiles, and the interconnected global economy, Americans are closing up on themselves despite the country’s extraordinary capabilities. Americans feel that they are a unique people living in a vast continent immune from global turmoil, while other great powers yearn to restore their historical glories and play a more influential global role. The author sees continentalism as an evasion of responsibility. In the long run, it will cause a shabby world of chaos, a vacuum of power, and conflicts that will not be in the US’ interest and security. So, the time has come to assume global responsibility by supporting the global liberal order in a stronger way, because its collapse will not serve American interests better. This is the task that Biden and his administration must undertake today. The author defends his argument, dividing the article into three parts. The first part explains the roots of continentalism in the United States, then how the country exited from it to become the center of a liberal world order that it created, and why Washington had to lead this order and engage in world affairs for nearly a century. The author attributes the Americans’ preference for a limited international role to their history, experiences, and the myths they tell themselves for being a nation flowing with moral ideals, safe, geographically immune from external threats, without global commitments or responsibilities, and that any violation of this mainstream is rebellion against the ancient traditions of the founding fathers. Thus, America spent the 19th century mired in selfishness, conquering the continent, and struggling against slavery, which made it the richest and most powerful nation by the 20th century without global commitments. However, the collapse of the UK-led old order with the rise of Nazism—and the Europeans’ realization that they were unable to restore it—made the US pivot in policy and join the rest of the world in its struggle. The US was the only country capable of being a great power in the Atlantic and the Pacific alike, the country that could send the bulk of its forces to fight in far-reach arenas without endangering its homeland, able alone to finance and arm its wars and the wars of its allies without going bankrupt, but on the contrary, the country that is getting wealthier and dominant with every major war. The author wonders if the US was truly safe and self-sufficient, so why did it need to engage in distant conflicts since World War I, and with what right did it do so? The main reason was the vision formed by Presidents Wilson and then Roosevelt when they both proposed the idea of creating a new liberal international order with the United States at its center, as this was the only possible alternative to the resumption of chaos and conflict that ravaged Europe before and during the First World War. Wilson warned the Americans at the time that return to their “narrow and selfish regional goals” (continentalism) would cause the collapse of peace, the division of Europe again into “hostile camps” and the decline of the world into “absolute blackness” with the United States then finding itself dragged again into a war. As for Roosevelt, he believed that the closing up would cause the gathering of fascist dictatorships abroad. It would only be a matter of time before they launch their final attack on the remaining fortress of democracy (America). Democracy might eventually disappear. So, Europeans should be helped. Thus, the US had an interest in upholding and leading a liberal world order. The author explains how these opinions were met at that time with strong opposition inside the United States by continentalists who saw this as a betrayal of the founding fathers’ vision. The interest of the United States in the world order meant, in their view, a violation of this vision that made it a peace-loving nation in a world undergoing war, which would make it lose its spirit and make it “the world’s dictator.” Wilson-Roosevelt’s vision triumphed after the Pearl Harbor attack, and the United States became involved in the world, bearing the responsibility of leadership, fighting communism, and building a liberal world order, while continentalists have been expecting – since the Pearl Harbor attack – to return home when the matter is over. In the second part, the author explains how the US remained lost after the demise of communism, which in the eyes of most Americans had become a major justification for its unusual engagement in the world, establishing alliances and so on. The fight against communism became synonymous with the national interest, while only a few Americans understood that the primary goal of this engagement is to preserve the liberal world order. Thus, as soon as communism fell, the debate about US foreign policy returned again and the continentalists came back to the fore (academics and officials) with the arguments of realists, conservative nationalists, progressives, and even some liberal internationalists who the author describes as dreamers who have come to accept “the world as it is” instead of pushing towards exercising a wider role commensurate with the huge and real American power. The author provides examples of the rebellion of continentalists after the end of the Cold War, such as their opposition to Bush’s vision of establishing a “new world order” and his intervention against Iraq in 1990, Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans and his expansion of NATO, Bush Jr.’s war on Iraq in 2003 to preserve the world order and rid the Middle East from an aggressor (Saddam Hussein) who imagines himself the new Salah Al-Din; even Obama (the liberalist) was influenced by them (under the pressure of the disappointed American public after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the growing interest of Americans in nation-building at home instead of abroad), so he adopted a realist policy that prefers to accept “the world as it is”, not as the advocates of the world order wish it to be. Kagan argues that continentalism is the dominant perspective today, as there are calls for greater restraint that echo the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and declaim its betrayal as acts of hubris, messianism, and imperialism. Americans still—in his view—yearn to escape to a past more innocent and simpler, to the point that they yearn to possess less power. This is what makes realists (in his view) always insist that American power is in decline, as it will be difficult to avoid the “imperial temptation” as long as the United States is portrayed as very powerful. This is why realists have treated every failed American war – from Vietnam to Iraq – as a sign of the final decline, and they are now presenting the rise of China or the decline of the United States’ share in the global economy, for example, as signs of the decline of the American global order. Of course, the author disagrees with this perspective. America is still able to follow a global order strategy, as the superpower seated on its vast, isolated and secure continent, in a time when other regions are overwhelmed with great powers competing with each other that always need external help from Washington. According to Kagan, Trump’s years had positive aspects, as it showed how much unused extra power the United States enjoys, as all other powers were concerned about the horrible fate of confrontation with the United States. In the third part, the author urges the need for Washington to shoulder the global responsibility and burdens, and to play a role befitting of its huge power, which it has used only a fraction of, because it is the only way to make other powers, including China, in trouble due to its inability to keep pace with the American power, as happened with the Soviets. By presenting many examples, he tries to break the claims of the continentalists about the US’ decline, and he argues that surrendering to their vision or reluctance to play a wider global role will lead to a power vacuum, conflicts, and global oscillation that would extend for a century and be difficult to change later. Therefore, Americans must be told that the task of preserving the liberal world order and preventing it from collapse is the most appropriate way to better serve their interests. It is a costly and unending task, but is better than the expected alternative.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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