There are strong headwinds pushing against U.S. engagement on the world stage.
Just 20 percent of Americans favor overseas engagement; 41.9 percent literally “favor greater isolationism”; 51 percent of Americans say the U.S. should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home—up from 30 percent in 2002. We see evidence of these headwinds in the most important polls of all: elections. In 2008, 2012 and 2016, Americans elected candidates who advocated and implemented policies of disengagement: President Barack Obama announced, “It is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” In strikingly similar language, President Donald Trump declared, “We have to build our own nation” and “focus on ourselves.” And today, there are growing blocs in the party of TR, Eisenhower and Reagan and in the party of FDR, Truman and Kennedy that want America to pull back from the world.
President Joe Biden has made efforts to reverse this drift toward disengagement—arguing that America should “defend democracy around the world,” “stand in solidarity with those beyond our shores who seek freedom and dignity,” “champion liberty and democracy,” and “rally the free world.” By coming to the aid of democratic Ukraine and bolstering democratic Israel, Biden lived up to those words. But Afghanistan serves as a grim reminder that policy hasn’t always matched rhetoric. It pays to recall that Afghanistan held seven free and fair elections in the 20 years before the withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021—a withdrawal negotiated by the Trump administration and carried out by the Biden administration. But again, this was a reflection of the national mood: In the spring 2021, 69 percent of Americans supported completely pulling out of Afghanistan and leaving its flawed and feeble democracy to fend for itself.
All of this is evidence of an enduring, if sometimes-overlooked, truth: How a president defines and pursues the national interest must have national support—which means that it’s time for policymakers and organizations of influence to make a better case for engagement.
The Biden administration, it seems, is trying to carve out a middle-ground path between the Obama-Trump policies of disengagement and the ambitious, audacious policies of President George W. Bush, who declared, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” This is just the latest example of the tension that has long existed between the American people’s desire to spread free government and their desire to avoid the headaches and heartaches that come with engagement. At its core, this is a tug-of-war between interests and ideals.
Americans have always embraced the ideal of promoting freedom and justice in the world.
President Thomas Jefferson saw America maturing into “an empire of liberty” that would serve as a driving force for the “freedom of the globe.”
President Theodore Roosevelt declared, “The steady aim of this nation…should be to strive to bring ever nearer the day when there shall prevail throughout the world the peace of justice.”
President Woodrow Wilson argued that America should “fight…for the ultimate peace of the world,” for “the liberation of its peoples,” for a world “made safe for democracy.”
President Franklin Roosevelt envisioned “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms…freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world…freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world…freedom from want…everywhere in the world…freedom from fear…anywhere in the world…the supremacy of human rights everywhere.”
Costs and Benefits
These words represent America’s ideals, and at the heart of these ideals is promoting freedom. But as history repeatedly reminds us, that’s an endless task in a world shackled down by the two main enemies of freedom: tyranny and chaos. Promoting freedom in such a world requires the American people to make open-ended investments of time, treasure and blood. That understandably forces the American people to weigh and temper their ideals against their interests. And that leads to periods of disengagement (post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan), doubt (post-Vietnam) and isolationism (post-World War I).
The challenge for policymakers and organizations of influence is to remind the American people that turning inward is never in the national interest.
We hear about the costs of engagement—and they are many—but we seldom contemplate the costs of disengagement: Pearl Harbor in 1941; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan, which birthed the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al-Qaeda, which maimed Manhattan; Iraq in 2011, which spawned ISIS and chemical warfare; Afghanistan in 2021, which is birthing another generation of nightmares. And we seldom stop to consider the benefits of engagement: During World War II, U.S. engagement prevented a return to the Dark Ages. During the Cold War, U.S. engagement protected free government, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, and transformed Europe from an incubator of war into a partnership of prosperity. During the war on terror, U.S. engagement put the enemy on the defensive, prevented a second or third or fourth 9/11, forced the enemy to expend finite resources on survival, and pushed the battlefront away from our shores. For 75 years, U.S. engagement has bolstered free markets, kept the sea lanes open, kept civilization’s enemies at bay, and prevented great-power war—the norm between 1745 and 1945.
Public support for planting and nurturing democracy may ebb and flow, but the benefits of engagement and the dangers of disengagement are constant. “In each cycle of retreat,” as former National Security Council official Henry Nau observes, America “leaves the world at its own peril.”
America engages the world not only—and arguably not primarily—to promote freedom, but to keep the enemies of freedom at bay. America engages the world—and maintains a military with global reach and global presence—not to go looking for problems, but to address problems before they explode into something unmanageable or unthinkable. That was the lesson of 1941—a lesson many Americans have forgotten in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq.
A New Strategy
With the American people wearied by the burdens of engagement, hyperactive interventionism isn’t politically sustainable. But with aggressive authoritarian regimes literally trying to roll back the free world, inward-looking isolationism isn’t an option, either. The solution to this conundrum may be found in a national security strategy of “free world defense.”
A national security strategy of “free world defense” would be premised on restraint. It would focus on defending democracy, not planting democracy. Under a strategy of “free world defense,” America would neither “fight” for the “liberation” of all the world’s peoples, as Wilson declared in 1917, nor pursue “the goal of ending tyranny in our world,” as Bush declared in 2005. Those are worthy goals, but those goals do not have broad public support today.
While a strategy of “free world defense” would avoid overreach and overextension, it would require America to stand with established and emerging democracies.
Consider the policies of President Harry Truman and President Ronald Reagan.
Truman didn’t try to plant democracy in East Germany. But he did support European democracies under assault from Moscow; he did launch NATO to defend the democratic space; he did support fledgling democracies in Japan and West Germany.
Likewise, Reagan didn’t dispatch the Marines to plant democracy in Warsaw or Kabul. But he did welcome a democratic Spain into NATO; he did support South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines as they walked the path from dictatorship to democracy; he did shore up what he called “the infrastructure of democracy” around the world.
Regrettably, Washington didn’t follow the Truman-Reagan example in Iraq and Afghanistan. What followed the Iraq and Afghanistan pullouts would highlight how America’s ideals and interests are linked: Backstopping Iraq’s democratic experiment—even one marred by corruption and low-grade sectarian strife—was far more manageable and far less dangerous than uprooting the Islamic State’s death-cult caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. And leaving Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy to the tender mercies of the Taliban sent a terrible signal to Xi and Putin—and likely served as a green light for Putin’s plans in Ukraine.
Under a strategy of “free world defense,” America would not go “in search of monsters to destroy,” to borrow President John Quincy Adams’s famous phrase, but it would marshal and maintain the resources necessary to deter the monsters. Truman did exactly that, laying the groundwork for containment of the Soviet empire and deterrence of Moscow’s aggressive impulses. Reagan revived that proven peace-through-strength doctrine, rebuilt America’s deterrent capabilities and reinvested in freedom’s greatest defender: the U.S. military.
With an $886-billion defense budget planned for 2024, it might look like America is fully funding its military. But looks can be deceiving. Undersized and overstretched, the Army is trying to deter war in Europe with one-third the soldiers it deployed during the Cold War. Navy leaders report that they need 500+ ships; they have 296. The Air Force is undermanned, undersized and old. The average age of America’s B-52 bombers is 60+. With only 20 stealth bombers in service, just 14 percent of the current bomber fleet would be able to penetrate and survive Russia’s or China’s air defenses.
The cause of these self-inflicted wounds: For more than a decade, America has invested just over 3 percent of GDP in defense. The average during the Cold War was more than twice that. While Washington limited the reach and resources of America’s military, Beijing engaged in the largest peacetime buildup in history. As we enter what the late Henry Kissinger called the “foothills” of a new Cold War, a strategy of “free world defense” would shift toward Cold War-levels of investment in defense. The aim would be to deploy sufficient military capability to deter war—not wage war. As President Dwight Eisenhower explained, “Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk its own destruction.”
Shifting to a Cold War defense posture will demand bipartisan cooperation, fiscal discipline and hard choices: Fueled by torrents of domestic spending the past 20 years, the annual deficit tops $1 trillion and the national debt is a staggering $32 trillion. Defense spending is not to blame for these fiscal challenges. In fact, we could eliminate the entire defense budget and turn the Pentagon into a mega-mall, and we would still face a budget deficit—and wouldn’t even put a dent into the debt.
Some will argue that investing more in deterrence is costly. They’re right. But there are two things far more costly than deterring war: waging war and losing a war.
A strategy of “free world defense” would deliver a sustained supply of deterrent assets to at-risk democracies. “Freedom must be armed better than tyranny,” as President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine observes. When it’s not, the result is Ukraine 2022, Korea 1950, Pearl Harbor 1941, Czechoslovakia 1938. “Free world defense” would aim to ensure that Taiwan, the Philippines, the Baltics, Kosovo, Moldova, Israel and other free nations aren’t added to that list.
Russia’s rampage through Ukraine reminds us that helping free nations harden their territory against invasion—which sometimes means deploying U.S. forces as a deterrent—is wiser and less costly in the long term than scrambling to help them try to claw it back. As Reagan declared at Normandy, “It is better to be here, ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost.”
A “free world defense” strategy would, by definition, enlist the entire free world to deter the axis of autocracy. America cannot bear this burden alone; the American people have made it clear that there’s no longer any room in the free world for free-riders.
The free world has gotten the message. Twenty-seven members of NATO—history’s greatest alliance of free nations—have increased defense spending. Britain is deploying 20,000 troops to defend NATO’s northern flank. Poland—the new center of gravity in Europe—is devoting 4 percent of GDP to the common defense. Germany is nearly doubling defense spending, as is Japan. Japan will soon boast the third-largest defense budget in the world. South Korea’s defense budget has jumped 37 percent in recent years, Australia’s 47 percent.
In the wake of the Hamas onslaught, Germany has sent military aid to Israel; and British, Italian and French warships have joined a U.S. armada in the eastern Mediterranean to keep watch over Israel’s northern flank.
“Free world defense” means reinvigorating the free world’s industrial base.
The bad news is that America’s defense industrial base is a shell of what it was before the fall of the Berlin Wall—and what it needs to be going forward. Where dozens of defense contractors once served as the arsenal of democracy, only a handful remain: 51 defense firms have been whittled down to five. My Sagamore colleague Capt. Jerry Hendrix adds, “One of China’s shipyards is so large that its capacity surpasses that of all U.S. shipbuilders combined.”
The good news is that Congress is hammering out plans for new weapons-acquisition funds; multiyear contracting to incentivize arms manufacturers to make long-term investments in facilities; fresh funding for munitions production; and new resources to replenish key weapons systems. The Pentagon is finalizing a new “national defense industrial strategy” and recently began building a constellation of regional microchip-manufacturing hubs. The Navy is mulling partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines to speed repair and refurbishment of U.S. warships. U.S. and allied nations are collaborating on joint weapons production. NATO members are streamlining purchasing cooperation and mitigating supply-chain constraints. Some European arms manufacturers are even merging to boost production.
The investments are starting to pay dividends: U.S. industry is increasing artillery shell production from 14,000 a month before Putin’s war to 70,000 per month by 2025—and 85,000 per month by 2028. Germany has quadrupled tank-shell production to 240,000 rounds per year. Sweden is quadrupling production of NLAW anti-tank systems. Europe’s largest munitions producer will pump out 600,000 shells in 2024, up from 150,000 in 2022.
It’s well known that President George Washington advocated military preparedness to deter America’s enemies and preserve America’s independence. “There is nothing so likely to produce peace,” he counseled, “as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.” Less well known is something Washington said about maintaining a strong defense industry: “A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined,” Washington declared. “Their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent on others for essential, particularly for military, supplies.”
Yet a policy of “free world defense” would harness far more than defense capabilities. Nineteen of the 20 largest tech companies are headquartered in the free world. Eight of the 10 largest 5G providers are headquartered in the free world. Without essential raw materials from Japan, South Korea, North America and Europe, China cannot produce scores of dual-use goods. The U.S. alone possesses more untapped oil than OPEC’s combined reserves, along with vast stores of natural gas. The stunningly rapid way Poland and Germany replaced Russian natural gas with U.S. natural gas offers a glimpse of what’s possible when America is engaged and flexes its energy muscle.
Leveraging all of these resource advantages to defend the free world and weaken the axis of autocrats is a matter of will.
A national security strategy of “free world defense” would engage our allies and draw clear lines for our enemies.
Washington is starting to do former, as highlighted by a growing list of new initiatives: the creation of AUKUS; the modernization of the U.S.-Japan alliance; the establishment of the U.S.-South Korea Nuclear Consultative Group; the development with Tokyo and Seoul of a “trilateral vision for addressing global and regional security challenges”; the move toward annual U.S.-Japan-ROK combined exercises and U.S.-Philippines joint patrols; the elevation of the Quad partnership; the reinvigoration of NATO and reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank; the hardening of strategic nodes key to defending the free world—Guam and Tinian, islands in the East China Sea, Baltic territory and Baltic airspace, the Suwałki Gap, space assets and cyberspace vulnerabilities.
Next, America and its free world allies must draw the line against authoritarian aggression: A strategy premised on “free world defense” would make clear that Moscow won’t be permitted to resurrect a dead empire, that Beijing won’t be permitted to build a new empire, that this axis of autocracy and the enemies of civilization—Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, al-Qaeda—won’t be permitted to roll back free government. At first glance, it may seem these stateless terrorists have nothing in common with tyrant states, but they are bound by a virulent hatred of the free world and liberal democracy. And their methods are growing strikingly similar. As Biden observes, “Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.” Adds Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “For our adversaries, be they states or non-states, this is all one fight.”
A Path Forward
“Free world defense” is not a perfect solution. Doubtless, it’s too realistic for the idealists and too idealistic for the realists. But it represents a framework for understanding national security in the 2020s, a happy medium between “ending tyranny in our world” and “focusing on nation-building here at home,” and a prudent path forward in an increasingly dangerous world.