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Podcast: Stephen Wertheim on the End of the Indispensable Nation


EB: Welcome to Opinion Has It. I’m Elmira Bayrasli.

For decades, American leaders have viewed the United States as the indispensable nation.

Archive Recording, John Kerry: We are known as the indispensable nation for good reason.

Archive Recording, President Barack Obama: It has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.

Archive Recording, Hillary Clinton: And part of what makes America an exceptional nation is that we are also an indispensable nation.

EB: The phrase’s meaning boils down to a simple idea: only the US had the power to guarantee global security. And yet on September 11, 2001, America’s own security was breached.

Archive Recording: We understand that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. We don’t know anything more than that. We don’t know if it was a commercial aircraft.

Archive Recording: I looked up, and all of a sudden, it smashed right dead into the center of the World Trade Center.

Archive Recording: Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on the country.

Archive Recording: And you can see the two towers, a huge explosion now raining debris on all of us.

EB: Terrorists carried out a major attack on the territory of the world’s only superpower. For many in the US, there was only one solution: remind the world who was boss.

Archive Recording, President George W. Bush: In a single instant, we realized that this will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty, that we’ve been called to a unique role in human events.

Terror unanswered can not only bring down buildings; it can threaten the stability of legitimate governments. And you know what? We’re not going to allow it.

EB: Over the last two decades, the US has fought terrorism on many fronts – too many fronts, it’s often argued. But the global war on terror launched by President George W. Bush has done little to deliver peace in the Middle East, Africa, or anywhere else. And now with the Taliban back in control in Afghanistan, the world is asking a fundamental question: Is the indispensable nation dispensable?

Hi, Steve.

SW: Hello. How are you?

EB: Good. How are you doing?

Here to help us answer this question is Stephen Wertheim.

SW: I’ll close some windows to my many tabs.

EB: Stephen is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy.

SW: Thanks for organizing this.

EB: Stephen, American politicians have used the idea that the US is the indispensable nation to justify military interventions all over the world. It’s a phrase that was actually coined by my former boss, Madeleine Albright, in 1998. But you point out that the idea extends back to World War II. What was the purpose of American power back then, and was it justified?

SW: As World War II began in Europe, Americans engaged in a very difficult debate over what role the United States should play in the war and the world. Now, prior to WWII, there had been a long-standing tradition that the United States should avoid entering into political and military entanglements, a term that was used by some of the founding generation like Thomas Jefferson. The idea was that the New World was the proper sphere in which the United States would exert its leadership. But the Old World back in Europe, and also covering Asia, that was a separate matter. That was a corrupt sphere where if the United States tried to use military power and enter into political commitments, it would only corrupt itself and do itself harm. And the United States essentially tried to work within that framework for what is still most of its history.

And so, in the 1930s, there was a movement to keep United States out of a looming war, first in Asia and then in Europe. And so, what happened over a, I think it was actually quite a short amount of time, from the fall of France to Nazi Germany – a stunning event in the middle of 1940 – through the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into the war, the United States recalculated its role in the world. And, fearing that totalitarian powers might for the first time come to become the dominant powers in Europe and Asia, and thus in most centers of global power, they decided the United States had to seek supremacy for itself. And so that initiated a new era for the United States and the world, in which the United States would pursue economic, political, and military dominance in principle on a global scale. That didn’t mean the United States would act wherever there was a conflict, but it did mean that the United States perceived a vital interest in matters that pertain to where the overall distribution of power lies. And that continued through the end of WWII and into the Cold War.

Read entire article at Project Syndicate