The conceit that America is "the indispensable nation" has been a core assumption of US policymakers for at least the last thirty years. The idea of American indispensability has served as an excuse for the US to interfere in many other countries’ internal affairs and to wage illegal wars in the name of "maintaining" international order. As then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright infamously put it, "But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us." This sums up so many of the pathologies of US foreign policy all at once: arrogant presumption that our government knows best and sees "further" into the future, belief that the US use of force is necessary and something that is forced upon it, and the myth that US interventionism protects the world from danger. Indispensability has served as a ready-made justification for militarism and an impediment to reducing US commitments abroad. If we would have a more peaceful and less ambitious foreign policy, we will have to dispense with this belief in America’s indispensable role.
If there was ever a time when the US might have plausibly claimed to be indispensable, it was more than seventy years ago in the wake of WWII when the rest of the world’s major powers were devastated by the war. That is no longer the case today, and it has not been the case for a long time. The US is experiencing relative decline and even the so-called "unipolar moment" ended decades ago. Belief in US indispensability has become an article of faith among American policymakers, but because it is increasingly divorced from reality it threatens to lead the US into more unnecessary conflicts and commitments that will only hasten further decline.
A new paper from Christopher Preble at the New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI) challenges the assumption of indispensability and lays out what the US ought to do once it recognizes that it is not indispensable. Having shown that international security and global trade do not depend heavily on US military power, Preble makes several recommendations for what the US needs to do differently to adapt to present realities. First, he argues for much less coercion in US dealings with other states: "The United States should restrain its impulse to wield its military and economic power in a coercive way and do so only when essential to advancing its security and prosperity." Preble proposes that the US accept that it will not always be in a leading role everywhere: "Americans should not presume to be the primary actor in every region of the world." In recognition of the limits of US power, Washington will have to eschew its arrogant and overbearing approach to other countries: "US policy makers should prioritize, act with humility, take account of other states’ legitimate interests, and be prepared to compromise." Finally, the US should abide by the rules of the international order that they claim to support: "US officials should recommit themselves to upholding the principles and norms that are broadly conducive to global peace and prosperity." These recommendations may sound modest, but if they were adopted it would mean a radical overhaul of the US conduct of foreign policy.
The idea of US indispensability is bound up with the belief that the US is entitled to issue ultimatums and inflict punishments on recalcitrant states in the name of the greater good. That is impossible to square with respect for other states’ legitimate interests and international law. Belief in indispensability gives US policymakers an excuse to ignore the rights of other nations and to renege on US obligations at will. An "indispensable" US assumes that it is permitted to mete out vigilante justice and to trample on the rules if they get in the way. An "indispensable nation" presumes to have the right to lord it over weaker states and tell them what their "real" interests are, and then to penalize them for disagreeing. Looked at this way, we can see that indispensability is a myth that policymakers invoke as a license for imperialistic policies.
Believing that the US is the "indispensable nation" is an invitation to irrational policymaking disconnected from any discernible interests of the United States. It practically guarantees that the US will continue over-committing itself in multiple regions on the misguided assumption that it is supposedly preventing the world from falling into chaos. We need only consider how much damage the believers in indispensability have done to the world in just the last twenty years to understand just how wrong that assumption is. The more that the US uses coercion to try to impose its notion of "order" on the world, the more instability, violence, poverty, and dislocation it produces.
History is littered with the wreckage of "indispensable nations." If our leaders learn nothing else from the last twenty years of costly failure, they should realize by now that the US does not see any further than other states and its frequent uses of force have created many more dangers than they prevent. As long as they remain in thrall to the false notion of US indispensability, they will keep making the same kinds of destructive decisions that have defined US foreign policy for decades.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.