Jan 19, 2024

The Dangerous Myth of the “Indispensable Nation”

Photo by Saad Alfozan

But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us. Our nation’s memory is long and our reach is far.”

– Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, 1998.

“We are the indispensable nation.  American leadership is what holds the world together.”

– President Joe Biden, 2023.

“The United States is still…the ‘indispensable nation’ in the Middle East.”

–David Ignatius, Washington Post columnist, 2024.

There is no better declarative indicator of American arrogance and hubris than the self-appointed title of “indispensable nation.”  Liberal pundits and critics believe that the notion of the indispensable nation had its origins in the post-Cold War era following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  In actual fact, the ideological origins of the indispensable nation were “present at the creation,” if I can borrow the title of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s trenchant memoir.

The idea of the unique international standing of the United States was part of the Founding Fathers’ debate over our global role in 1789.  Liberal pundits and critics argue that U.S. “internationalism” was unique to twentieth-century diplomacy, but our notions of free commerce and liberal democracy were there at the outset.  They cite former presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman in their discussion of “internationalism.”  But John Quincy Adams, arguing that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” envisioned the United States as a threat to Europe’s autocratic regimes.  Adams added that the “influence of our example” would “overthrow them all without a single exception.”

The success of the Revolutionary War created a sense of American nationalism and internationalism that was manifested in our nineteenth-century wars against Britain (1812), Mexico (1846), and Spain (1898).  The Constitution has little to say about war, peace, and diplomacy: Article I grants Congress the power to declare war; Article II grants the president the power to serve as commander-in-chief.  But the Founding Fathers accepted George Washington’s dictum that “if you wish for peace, prepare for war.”  As early as 1783, Alexander Hamilton called for the drafting of our first national security strategy.

Ignatius’s notion that the United States is the “indispensable nation” in the Middle East is particularly naive.  In reality, the Middle East is our briar patch.  We have no influence over Israel, the region’s superpower; we have been unable—perhaps unwilling—to reduce the misery suffered by innocent Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank; and we have been unable to deter regional actors from using force despite our military presence.

The United States and Israel are totally at odds on the post-war scenario; the idea of a two-state solution; the role of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza; and the role of the Arab states in the rebuilding of Gaza.  President Biden’s address on the 100th day of the Gaza war made no mention whatsoever of the more than 24,000 Palestinians who have been killed in the war, mostly women and children.

Biden’s decision to expand the war into the Red Sea last week was predictable in view of the naval deployments in the region, but it is unlikely to have any favorable impact on the actions and policies of Yemen and the Houthis.  The U.S. and British attacks could lead to a wider war, however, that involves Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border.  On January 16, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched missiles at an Israeli intelligence facility in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, not far from the U.S. consulate.

More terrorism in the region is also likely.

If there is one indispensable factor in this rapidly changing international environment, it is the need for global diplomacy and cooperation.  The key international challenges involve strategic stability; the proliferation of conventional weaponry; international terrorism, and climate change.  There are no single indispensable nations in these difficult geopolitical challenges.  We need skillful U.S. diplomacy and must stop resorting to such counter-productive bromides as the “indispensable nation.”

The ultimate irony is that a nation that is so secure because of friendly borders north and south as well as protective oceans east and west has become so insecure.  U.S. complicity with Israeli war crimes will compromise U.S. influence in other international situations, and the overwhelming evidence of Israeli genocide will create additional problems.  The United States will not be helped by the comments of President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, all of whom dismissed the charges of genocide as “meritless.”

The Biden administration wants Russia to follow the principles of international law in Ukraine, but has no stomach for getting Israel to do the same in Gaza.

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