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Normal Nations Have Allies, Not Just Dependents

This is going to be too short a post for such a large topic, but I’m prompted to ask it by William Chip’s article suggesting we create a power vacuum in the Middle East for Russia, China and India to fill, and by this bit from Jacob Heilbrunn’s review of the new Jean Kirkpatrick biography:

Instead of espousing the triumphalism that characterized much of the neoconservative movement, [Kirkpatrick] adopted a more severe tone. America, she announced, should become a “normal nation,” one that could return to “normal times” now that it had overcome the “messianic creeds”—Bolshevism and Nazism—that had sought to leave their impress upon history . . .

I strongly affirm the goal of a much-deferred “return to normalcy,” but I would feel more sanguine about the prospects of same if I had more of a roadmap from where we are to where we want to go. And, preferably, an example to follow.

Can anyone name an imperial nation that laid down the scepter successfully? America after World War I is not an adequate model – we had barely picked up the scepter at that point. Britain did not go gently into that good night – she fought a massive war for national survival against her principal geopolitical rival (Germany) that bankrupted her. She was able, then, to withdraw from her imperial role in Asia and Africa substantially because the close relationship with America meant the baton was being handed off to (somewhat) trusted hands. (Actually, America didn’t become all that friendly to British interests until the empire was largely dismantled, but you know, special relationship and all that.)

From my perspective, a “safe” withdrawal requires two things. First, it requires an international order that restrains Great Power adventurism at the margins. That’s one reason why I’m favorably disposed to liberal internationalism relative to the likely alternatives on offer – neoconservative interventionism and humanitarian interventionism – because it promulgates a norm that is relatively, though certainly not absolutely, restrained. Second, it requires that there is a set of powers with whom we are relatively in concord that are capable of operating internationally in defense of our shared interests.

In that regard, it’s notable that Chip dismisses Europe as disunited, and hence incapable of playing a productive role internationally. But this disunity is partly by American design. For decades, America favored expansion of Europe over the deepening of European integration. We consistently opposed the formation of a European defense force independent of NATO, and we were at best indifferent to the formulation of a common foreign policy. If we want effective allies – as opposed to “allies” incapable of either effectively opposing or supporting us – these were foolish choices, it seems to me.

It is striking that, in our common foreign policy discourse, we talk about “allies” as countries that we help, rather than countries that help us. Taiwan, Poland, Israel: these are our “allies” because they face enemies and we stand with them in confronting said enemies. That’s not what “ally” means. An ally is someone with whom you share common goals and interests, and with whom it makes sense to formalize cooperation to achieve the former and secure the latter.

A policy of constructive withdrawal implies a policy of promoting the self-sufficiency and effectiveness of our allies. From my perspective, that means cultivating a Turkey that conceives of itself as a leading Muslim democracy and cultivating a Europe that is smaller, more united, more effective and (in practice) more German-dominated. These are allies that could be effective – if we understood their interests and our own, and sought to effectively align and advance both.

Chip is focused on how we are too interested in running things in the Middle East. But a major reason why we wind up doing that is that we’ve been trying to run things for our allies for coming on two generations now. If we treated them more as partners and less as followers, we might discover that not only don’t we have to do anything ourselves, we benefit from not trying to.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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