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U.S. “Indispensability” and Alarmism

David Ignatius dismisses current charges of U.S. “retreat” and recalls the mostly unfounded warnings of the Alsop brothers:

The worriers get one big thing right. A strong, forward-leaning United States is essential for global security. But many of the fulminations about supposed weakness and retreat of U.S. power tend to be mistaken.

It doesn’t say much for believers in America’s indispensability that many of the loudest adherents of this belief are routinely wrong about specific issues. Even if we took for granted that they get the “one big thing right,” that doesn’t change the fact that they get most or all of the smaller things wrong. Indeed, it should make us wonder if their understanding of the “big thing” is any more reliable or accurate than their serial misunderstandings and exaggerations of foreign threats.

Ignatius’ review of the Alsops’ constant alarmism reminds us of something else that should be only too familiar to those of us that have observed or participated in foreign policy debates. No matter how often such people are profoundly wrong about important events and the appropriate way that the U.S. should respond to them, they continue to be relied on as authorities and guides in subsequent debates. Alarmists are never held accountable for their alarmism, at least not as long as they subscribe to the prevailing consensus view about what the U.S. role in the world should be. If you can get “one big thing right,” you need never worry about being right ever again. Then again, the alarmists are just taking their belief in American “indispensability” to its predictable conclusion: if a “strong, forward-leaning” U.S. is “essential” to global security, frequently panicking about potential “retreat” and “weakness” becomes a major part of maintaining that role.

As Owen Harries observed in his criticism of Robert Kagan almost twenty years ago (via Tom Switzer), this compels hegemonists to see potential threats all over the world and to demand U.S. action as a habitual response regardless of the circumstances:

Thus the United States must involve itself in all matters large and small, must interfere everywhere, because “[t]here is no certainty that we can correctly distinguish between high-stake issues and small-stake issues in time to sound the alarm.” So habit must be substituted for judgment. Americans must, so to speak, keep in training by developing the habit of meddling everywhere, since otherwise they will get out of practice and fail the crucial “tests of American strength, character and endurance” when those appear. As he has no confidence in their power to select and choose, to calculate probabilities and degrees of seriousness, American foreign policy must be a matter of all or nothing at all; and as nothing at all is unthinkable, it must be all.

The false belief in American indispensability breeds intense anxiety about security and causes people to imagine dangers that don’t even exist, which has led the U.S. to engage in disastrous and unnecessary conflicts on more than one occasion. It turns that the constant worriers don’t even get the “one big thing” right.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. 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.

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