Op-Ed: Should the U.S. still carry a ‘big stick’?


To the extent that President-elect Donald Trump has articulated a coherent view of foreign affairs, it appears to be that the United States needs to reject most policies of the post-1945 period. NATO is a bad bargain; nuclear proliferation is a good thing; Russian President Vladimir Putin is an admirable fellow; great deals that advantage only us should replace free trade.

In his unique way, Trump is forcing a question that probably should have been up for debate 25 years ago: Should the United States stay a global power that maintains world order — including by force of arms, what Theodore Roosevelt famously called “the big stick”?

Curiously, the death of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War did not immediately occasion that debate. In the 1990s, keeping a global leadership role for the United States looked cheap — other nations, after all, paid for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In that conflict and America’s succeeding interventions in the former Yugoslavia, costs and casualties were low. Then in the early 2000s, Americans were understandably absorbed by the consequences of 9/11 and the ensuing wars and terror attacks. Now, for better or worse, the debate is upon us.


It is worth keeping some history in mind as we decide whether to reject the posture that the United States has maintained abroad for more than half a century.

Stepping away from global leadership will not be as easy as some Americans and our new president think.

In a prescient 1901 speech, Roosevelt called on his fellow Americans to understand that henceforth the United States had to accept responsibilities abroad as well as at home. “We can be certain of one thing,” he said. “Whether we wish it or not, we cannot avoid hereafter having duties to do in the face of other nations. All that we can do is to settle whether we shall perform these duties well or ill.” He acted accordingly as president by brokering a peace treaty between Russia and Japan, but also by building up and conspicuously deploying the American military.

After his presidency, Roosevelt urged the nation to promptly enter into World War I because he knew a German conquest of Europe would have terrible consequences. We delayed, and the result in Europe was chaos and revolution in the wake of protracted bloodletting. Following the inevitable disappointments of an imperfect peace, the United States withdrew from global responsibilities, walking away from the settlement it had helped to create.

During and after World War II, presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman understood just how ruinous that mistake had been. They created, in reaction, a system of alliances and institutions and commitments — including NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the Marshall Plan — backed by armed force that the president-elect seems to view as outmoded, superfluous or simply crummy deals.

Before abandoning America’s leadership role, we should remember that in the 20th century it helped give birth to the greatest prosperity and the most extensive scientific, economic and social progress humanity has ever known. None of this would have been possible in a world racked by conflict on the scale of the world wars. None of this would have happened without U.S.-led efforts to build organizations and practices that we all take for granted.

The Pax Americana allows goods and information to flow freely around the world. It means that the satellites upon which pilots, meteorologists and even our mobile phones rely can operate without interference. It has created norms — increasingly under assault — of free governance. We must recognize that all of that is a product of human effort and considerable military power, not just the natural way of the world.

Generations of American diplomats and generals were convinced that this outcome was worth the commitment in treasure and blood this country has made. The overwhelming majority still are.


American statesmen in the last century rejected the selfish and shortsighted isolationist creed of “America First.” The United States was not a hegemon, and our statesmen worked with their counterparts to achieve the postwar order. But today, as in 1919, as in 1946, as in 1990, other countries look to the United States to take the lead. When it chooses not to, consequences follow. The ruins of Aleppo and near half a million dead in Syria testify to that fact.

Moreover, stepping away from global leadership will not be as easy as some Americans and our new president think.

President Obama hoped to end the wars he had inherited in 2008. Instead, he launched America’s third war in Iraq, ramped up our deployments in Afghanistan, expanded by an order of magnitude our campaign of counter-terrorist assassination and ordered an air campaign against the Libyan government. He deployed warships near China’s man-made islands and began redeploying American forces to a frightened Eastern Europe. Reality, not ideology, overcame his principled reluctance to exerting American power.

The choice between global engagement and America First is bogus. As in the last century, our choice is whether to lead wisely, firmly and usually peacefully while we can, or to send men and women into harm’s way belatedly and bloodily when we must. Let us hope that the new president comes to understand that we need the “big stick” not “to make America great again,” but to keep a peace that is precious, fragile and worth protecting.

Eliot A. Cohen is the author of “The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.” He teaches strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. In 2007-2008, he served as counselor of the Department of State.

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