What do Americans on both sides of the aisle mean when they call the U.S. the “indispensable nation”? It’s simply this: that without America maintaining its post–World War II role as the ultimate guarantor of the safety and security of the Free World, the world is more likely than not to revert to the historical mean of regional and perhaps even global conflict.
Acknowledging that the U.S. is “indispensable” does not mean that we’re the world’s hegemon, controlling all the Earth’s peoples from Washington, D.C. It does not mean that different administrations at different times haven’t chosen to retreat from this or that peripheral commitment. It does depend, however, on the understanding that American retreat necessarily means — in key strategic areas — the advance of powers hostile to American interests and hostile to international peace and security more broadly.
Writing in The New Republic, Jeet Heer thinks that Donald Trump is well on his way to destroying America’s status as the world’s indispensable nation — after just four months in office. And Heer is not alone. He cites multiple foreign-policy thinkers who are not only proclaiming America’s strategic demise; they’re already anointing international substitutes, such as China and Germany. Even worse, Heer is celebrating the new international landscape — believing it’s high time that the U.S. take a lesser role in world affairs. He thinks it’s time for other regional powers to fill the vacuum.
Heer’s analysis is fundamentally flawed on both counts. First, it’s simply wrong that Trump has fundamentally changed anything about America’s strategic approach abroad. For all Trump’s tweets and worrisome campaign rhetoric, since he’s been in office, his administration has reaffirmed its commitment to NATO, accelerated the fight against ISIS and other Islamic jihadists, enforced Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, rushed missile-defense batteries to South Korea, and announced its intention to expand and modernize a military that was already the most powerful in the world. While all these decisions may dismay some of President Trump’s more isolationist supporters, in real-world terms, they mean exerting more American power abroad, not less.
Second, Heer glosses over the Obama administration’s beta test for American withdrawal. Remember “leading from behind”? Remember the Iraq retreat? In many ways, Barack Obama came into office with a worldview that echoed Heer’s. Obama believed that American power was in many ways responsible for the world’s ills, and that less American influence could well lead to less strife and conflict. Yet in every strategically important arena where America stepped back, our nation’s rivals stepped forward. From the genocidal nightmare in Syria and Iraq to China’s aggressive moves in Southeast Asia to Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, American retreat or hesitation emboldened enemies, not friends.
By the end of his second term, Obama had become a miniature George W. Bush, launching combat operations in Libya, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He’d sent troops forward in Poland and Estonia. Obama had finally learned the enduring, eternal lesson of foreign affairs. The operative word in the phrase “great power” is “power,” and absent that power the greatness or morality of a nation is of little count in international affairs.
In reality, Heer and others are engaging little more than a fantasy-land intellectual exercise without bothering to realistically explore the alternatives to American engagement. What happens to international trade and stability if America yanked the U.S. Navy off the high seas — leaving Western democracies with minimal ability to respond to regional instability and ceding the balance of power to those countries with the largest land armies? No nation can project power like the United States, and even if Britain, France, and Japan decided to reassert their historic international roles, it would take well over a decade of emergency efforts to design, build, and deploy naval forces even a fraction of our size.
Let’s put this another way. The international order can stand even if any given friendly regional power fails. It cannot stand if the U.S. abdicates. Germany can fail to meet its defense obligations, yet NATO can still deter Russia. The South Korean military could melt away, yet the U.S. could defeat North Korea. But if the United States retreats from these key strategic regions, can any allied regional power (or coalition) truly step up and guarantee stability?
What happens to international stability if America reneged on its commitments to NATO, South Korea, or Japan? What if the U.S. decides to leave the Middle East? Does Heer legitimately believe that the immediate beneficiaries would be anyone other than Russia, China, Iran, and the barbaric North Korean regime? Yes, Germany has economic power, but it is utterly unable to take effective action beyond even its immediate borders, and without allied help its own army can’t even protect its own nation. There are certain military realities, and absent resort to their nuclear deterrent, nations such France and Britain are less equipped to defend, say, Poland than they were in 1939.
During the campaign, intelligent critics of Trump’s proposed, more isolationist, foreign policy asked a consistent question: If America retreats, who advances? There are strategic backwaters (such as post–Cold War Latin America — left more benign after Cuba and the Soviet Union were neutered) where that question is less relevant, but in every strategically vital region in the world, the answer to that question in the short and medium term is quite simple: Our enemies. They’re the only nations with the will and the power to take advantage of American weakness.
Like it or not, America is indispensable to the preservation of an international order that has not only kept the world broadly at peace (certainly it has avoided catastrophes such as World War II, World War I, or even devastating conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars), it actively defeated an aspiring hegemonic power in the Soviet Union without a military cataclysm. Anyone — whether he be named Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, or Jeet Heer — who thinks that the United States can meaningfully change its international commitments without incurring an unacceptable level of risk not just to international peace and stability but to the prosperity and well-being of our own citizens is not living in the real world.
It’s true that President Trump has made statements that have made our allies unnecessarily nervous about American plans and intentions. It’s true that Trump is erratic. But he hasn’t diminished American power, and he certainly hasn’t changed the reality of international dependency on American power. America is the indispensable power, and not even Donald Trump can change that fundamental strategic fact.