In recent years in the West, it has become fashionable to argue that the United States should relinquish its global military dominance. American supremacy, these voices say, has been bad for the world, creating more war and violence, and advocating such chauvinistic power is a sign of one's brutishness, one's lack of intellectual sophistication. Stephen Wertheim, a visiting assistant professor of history at Columbia University and a visiting scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, articulates this view in a new essay for the New Republic titled, "How to End Endless War: The Case Against American Military Supremacy." Like all others who lambaste and lament American global leadership, Wertheim makes faulty arguments based on misguided assumptions that overlook basic facts: American power mitigates rather than aggravates conflict, and it preserves peace and prosperity in an unforgiving world.
The main problem with Wertheim's article concerns his ambitious claim about ending endless war. "In order to stand for peace, systematically not episodically, the left should oppose armed supremacy as a perpetual goal of America's foreign policy," Wertheim writes. "For permanent armed supremacy produces permanent armed conflict. And its burdens are mounting." This argument is simply wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. As I wrote recently:
In the international system of states, war is natural and peace an aberration, not the other way around. History shows that peace does not preserve itself; powerful countries with the ability to wield influence on a regional or global scale do so. "The preservation of peace," writes the American historian Donald Kagan, "requires active effort, planning, the expenditure of resources, and sacrifice, just as war does." Such efforts include "maintaining a strong military … and the willingness to use it when necessary." When great powers choose instead to withdraw, disarm, and disengage, conflict is more likely to follow. The outbreak of World War II is the classic example, but far from the only one.
That is the historical record, which leaves us with a question today: going forward, who will take on the burden of preserving the peace? Before looking at possible alternatives, it is necessary to examine how the United States has performed in that role. Wertheim makes his view clear: "All other things equal, the world will be better off as America retracts its coercive power, and so will America." Many people will focus on America's mistakes abroad, of which there are many, but they fail to see—or perhaps acknowledge—the bigger picture, which is an overwhelming success.
The United States leads, dominates, and largely created the world order that formed after World War II and reached new heights after the Cold War. Three key foundations—an open global economic system, international institutions, and liberal values—define this order, which is based on norms that have changed international behavior and conduct for the better. These norms—which include promoting democracy, prioritizing human rights, establishing an unprecedented taboo against armed aggression across borders, and making mutually beneficial globalization preferable to zero-sum rivalry—have replaced the principle of "might makes right," the idea that larger, more powerful countries can simply coerce weaker states into accepting new geopolitical situations. That is why American supremacy is so great: it is benign and mutually beneficial to all who get on board. But there is a catch to this wonderful system: it relies on American military power, which serves as its foundation. The order, and the norms that flow from it, cannot endure without, for example, the U.S. Navy ensuring freedom of navigation in international waters, or without Washington supporting and guaranteeing the security of dozens of allies around the world. The whole system would collapse into a much more violent, chaotic world without such hard power, which is only sufficient to meet the task if the United States seeks global military supremacy. Just retaining enough military might to pursue "the genuine interests of [the American] people," as Wertheim suggests, would be an abandonment of the very system that has, along with nuclear weapons, helped deter wars between great powers since World War II and deterred adversaries such as Russia, China, and Iran from using force more blatantly in their regions.
But forget about all of the above for a moment. Who else will preserve the peace if not America? Wertheim does not seem sure. "And it matters what powers might take the place of a hegemonic America," he writes, without elaborating, only adding, "But endless supremacy must itself end." Yes, it matters very much what will replace American leadership. What about China? After all, the country is huge and has the world's second largest economy. But the Chinese government is investing heavily in its military, so that is no good. The Communist Party has also imprisoned more than a million Muslims and created a dystopian surveillance state because it lives in fear of its own people. And it needs to steal intellectual property from the United States because it does not come up with the same ideas on its own. It is hard to see such a world being more peaceful. What about the United Nations? The organization is in need of serious internal reform and spends more time obsessing over Israeli apartments than mass slaughter around the world. The U.N. is both unable and unwilling to replace the void that the United States would leave. There have been other interesting proposals, such as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council exerting influence as some sort of reinvigorated Concert of Europe, among others. None compare to the battled tested order that has, over the last 70 years, created more prosperity than any previous period in human history.
Wertheim does make an interesting point: American leaders should not strip military supremacy of "ethical pretense and strategic justification." Wertheim is right. The United States should seek dominance in practical ways with its interests and values in mind, not simply in pursuit of some abstract goal of "supremacy" as an end itself. But Wertheim misses something important: what is good for America, the greatest hope and supplier of freedom in human history, is good for the world. As President Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, has suggested, defending American interests in turn benefits the world and promotes American values. By building up its military to protect its interests, which includes preserving a world order based on benign norms, the United States is building a better world, providing hope to oppressed peoples everywhere suffering under monstrous dictators. Such a posture also—and most critically—benefits the United States itself, creating prosperity, better ensuring national security, and deterring adversaries from taking unwanted actions.
"The burden of proof now falls on those who favor a large military role, and they must justify not only the purposes they seek but also the perils that outsize power poses when the vicious and the reckless get to swing the sword," Wertheim writes. Well, there you have it.