When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the United States could have decided that its great fight against totalitarianism was finally over. America could have downsized its involvement in all but the most vital parts of the world, lessened its dependence on imported energy supplies, demilitarized its global strategy and abandoned the quest for primacy. But it did not. By then, Americans had become addicted to primacy, convinced that a militarized form of global leadership was both vital and sustainable.
All of this no longer seems so clear today, as Americans have begun the most serious reconsideration of their nation’s role in the world since the 1940s. The eventual outcome is uncertain. It might seem that COVID-19 is driving this reappraisal, but, in fact, the pandemic is only part of a perfect storm that is undercutting the viability of the global strategy America forged during and after the Cold War.
The first blow to the old strategy was the cost of the U.S. response to 9/11. The attacks forced the United States to build an expansive and expensive system for homeland security and counterterrorism. That was a given; national leaders essentially had no choice. But they also chose to involve the conventional military in the conflict with transnational jihadism, claiming that creating and sustaining friendly governments in the Islamic world was necessary to prevent terrorists from attacking the United States. Iraq and Afghanistan became the laboratories to test this idea, turning a global conflict that didn’t have to be a war into one. It was the ultimate war of choice.
Now, after years of effort, trillions of dollars spent and thousands of American lives lost, the original assertion that the United States must either fight extremists “over there” or face them at home no longer seems as certain as it once did. Most Americans no longer believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made them safer. And to make matters even worse, the United States didn’t pay for its extraordinarily expensive “war on terror” by cutting costs and increasing taxes at home or dropping security responsibilities elsewhere. Instead, the nation relied on deficit spending. That decision might have made sense at the time, given the robust strength of the American economy, but now the bill is coming due.
Read the full article here in World Politics Review.