Ted Galen Carpenter criticizes defenders of the “indispensable nation” argument for American “leadership” in the world for the new issue of The National Interest. As I was writing the previous post, I was reminded again of one of the major flaws in the claim that America is “indispensable,” which is that it implies American responsibility to respond to virtually anything that happens in the world with more urgency and more concern than the states in a given region show. It isn’t the case that other governments couldn’t do more to aid the Syrian opposition. They choose not to do more unless America entangles itself in a conflict that necessarily matters far more to regional powers than it does to us. America is indispensable only in the sense that other states would prefer that Washington take on a large part of the burden of regional problems that are properly the responsibility of the states in that region. Each time that America indulges the expectation that our government will take the “lead” in response to each new conflict or crisis, Washington makes it that much harder to refuse in the future. By taking on other states’ responsibilities, our government keeps them dependent on American involvement, which greatly increases the burden on the U.S. and keeps putting America in the absurd position of having to bail out allies and clients that have come to serve more and more as drains on American resources.
Indispensability is a fantasy that Americans continue to promote, perhaps because it is a source of pride or because it makes incessant meddling in others’ affairs seem less obnoxious, but it’s one that keeps dragging America into conflicts that have nothing to do with our security and often aren’t even directly related to the security of our allies. When American “leadership” and credibility are seemingly always at stake almost everywhere, it’s inevitable that both will suffer when the fantasy of indispensability runs into the practical limits of American power.