America Can't Retreat from the World
Despite its troubles at home, the U.S. remains uniquely placed to lead on the global stage.
By Hal Brands
Can America defend the liberal world order it created when its own liberal experiment is in peril? More than a year after the January 6 insurrection, this question hangs over the debate on America’s foreign policy. For decades, the United States stewarded an outrageously ambitious geopolitical project that—for all of its imperfections and failures—produced unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom in the world. Now, many believe America must turn inward to focus on saving itself.
“America can’t promote democracy abroad,” argued one writer after the Capitol assault. “It can’t even protect it at home.” Richard Haass, the dean of America’s foreign policy establishment, concurred that America should curb its global ambitions until its “own house is in better order.” Last month, the Biden administration’s “Summit for Democracy” was met with widespread derision. The United States, Chinese propagandists taunted, should stop its meddling and heed the maxim “Physician, heal thyself.”
This idea that America should pull back from the world and salve its wounds goes beyond the decision to end a frustrating “forever war” in Afghanistan. It often implies that the United States should dramatically scale back its post-1945 efforts to protect a favorable balance of power, promote democracy and human rights, and contain hostile authoritarian states. Yet this prescription, common as it has become, misreads both American history and the needs of the current moment.
Since America’s founding, democratic perfection has never been a prerequisite to global leadership: The United States has shaped the world even as it has struggled to overcome its own deeply rooted evils. An ambitious foreign policy is hardly a distraction from democratic rejuvenation. Historically, the need to overcome authoritarian rivals has motivated America to become a better version of itself. And America’s wisest policymakers have long understood that the fate of democracy at home is linked to the balance of power and the balance of ideas abroad. Today as before, an America that allows the forces of authoritarianism to run rampant will eventually inhabit a world that is unsafe for liberalism in America itself.
The current moment feels so precarious because the key pillars of the old order are under strain. After World War II, the United States sought to ensure its own freedom, prosperity, and security by creating a larger international system in which America and likeminded countries could flourish. That system, commonly known as the liberal international order, required the United States to bear extraordinary burdens. It also delivered extraordinary benefits: averting global wars of the sort that plagued the early 20th century, lifting billions of people out of poverty, and creating an environment in which democratic values could spread more widely than ever before. Yet that system is now being challenged from without and within.
An ambitious, totalitarian China and a vengefully resurgent Russia are expanding their influence at the expense of America and its allies. Authoritarian models of governance are advancing and democracy is eroding. America’s own competence and commitment are in doubt, after the aggrieved unilateralism of the Trump presidency and the debacle of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a witch’s brew of polarization, tribalism, and surging domestic illiberalism have cast deep uncertainty over the future of American democracy.
These domestic strains are troubling enough in their own right, but they also have pernicious impacts on foreign affairs. After January 6, people in many democratic countries believe that America’s political system is broken. The moral prestige that lubricates American global influence is in shorter supply. American allies wonder about the prospect of a Trump resurrection, and fear that extreme polarization will make U.S. foreign policy erratic for years to come.
It is no surprise, then, that counsels of retrenchment have been proliferating: Surely America will have to deal with its own demons before it can deal with China, Russia, and a host of other rivals. Yet if the United States must indeed get its act together, it doesn’t follow that it needs to beat a geopolitical retreat.
Attaining a flawless democracy at home has never been a precondition for defending a favorable order abroad. The United States has been a major world power since the early 1900s; it has had significant global influence since its creation. For much of this history, American democracy has suffered from what we would now consider deep and deplorable weaknesses.
In the decades after independence, America served as an inspiration to revolutionaries and freedom fighters, even though it held millions of individuals in slavery. The United States fought to make the world “safe for democracy” during World War I, at a time when most female citizens were excluded from democracy back home. During World War II and the Cold War, America beat back totalitarian threats even as the persistence of Jim Crow until the mid-1960s ensured it fell far short of its own ideals.
The record of modern American foreign policy is one of an imperfect country defending itself, and much of the world, from the truly abhorrent alternatives of militarism, fascism and communism. “I am entirely convinced,” as French intellectual Raymond Aron put it, “that for an anti-Stalinist there is no escape from the acceptance of American leadership.”
That’s not to say that the United States should be complacent about internal dysfunction—quite the opposite. What history shows is that rivalries with authoritarian powers can be a powerful force for democratic self-improvement.
During the 1940s and 1950s, American leaders often worried that a long, intense Cold War would do grave damage to American democracy. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower warned that America might become a “garrison state”—a society so fearful for its security that it destroyed its own economic and political liberties. They weren’t being paranoid: McCarthyism showed the potential for democratic self-harm. But if the Cold War left scars on America, the country emerged with a richer, more vibrant democracy for having waged it.
The Cold War spurred groundbreaking investments in higher education to help Washington outthink and out-innovate Moscow; the result was to give America the premier university system in the world. National security concerns justified transformative infrastructure projects, such as the interstate highway system. Defense spending drove the creation of semiconductors, the Internet, and other groundbreaking technologies that heralded the digital age.
Most important, the Cold War helped break the civil rights deadlock in postwar America. Segregation, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles lamented in 1957, was “ruining our foreign policy.” The need to burnish America’s image figured prominently in the federal government’s attack on segregation and Black disenfranchisement in the late 1950s and 1960s. A long struggle against a totalitarian enemy forced America to prove that its system was indeed superior to the competition.
That’s a good way of thinking about the connection between foreign and domestic affairs today. Initiatives that seem politically difficult—revamping immigration policy to attract more high-skilled workers, reinvesting in education and basic research—can become more feasible when foreign dangers loom. Bold projects that are important in their own right—tackling corruption, improving America’s digital and physical infrastructure, designing a twenty-first century industrial policy—take on added importance amid global competition.
Challenges from Xi and Putin may seem like distractions from domestic rejuvenation. But Americans will fare best if they once again embrace the former as a way of tackling the latter.
Finally, Americans should bear in mind that the fortunes of liberalism at home are closely connected to the strength of liberalism in the world. As Franklin Roosevelt recognized, America could not survive as “a lone island” of democracy “in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”
If aggressive authoritarian powers became dominant, the United States itself might not be invaded. But it would undoubtedly be coerced and subverted by its enemies, and it might have to militarize its society to find security in a hostile world. Once the Soviets ran roughshod over Europe and Asia, Truman warned “we would have to…change our way of life so that we couldn’t recognize it as American any longer.” If America abandoned its defense of a healthy world order, the result would be the deterioration of democracy everywhere, including, eventually, in the United States itself.
It may seem alarmist to invoke this parallel today. But it isn’t. The fundamental question of our era is whether democratic societies or the forces of illiberalism will shape the 21st century. China is seeking to dominate Asia en route to global primacy; Russia is aggressively revising the European status quo. Both countries are developing and employing an array of tools, from disinformation to weaponized corruption, that allow them to weaken and divide democratic societies. And both are threatening to use coercion and outright aggression to break down the international order that has allowed democracy to flourish since World War II.
If the United States turns inward, the world it faces when it turns outward again will be a much uglier place. American withdrawal will clear the way for determined enemies of liberalism to gain the ascendancy, a development that cannot fail to ultimately injure the United States.
None of this means that Washington should be heedless of the limits of its power, or engage in the unrestrained interventionism that leads, invariably, to exhaustion. There are reasonable debates to be had about where, how, and through what methods the United States should best defend its interests. Yet one of the best safeguards of democracy, in America and around the world, has long been the preservation of an order in which aggressive authoritarians are well contained. Retrenchment may seem like a solution to the domestic dilemmas America faces. In reality, it is the path to a far more serious set of problems.
Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This essay draws on his new book, The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today.