Capstones: Rediscovering America's Purpose
Providence Magazine, August 2023
What is America’s purpose in the world? Americans have answered that question in different ways over the centuries.
When the United States was young and weak, George Washington plotted a path of nonintervention, concluding that America’s purpose was to prove that self-government could work at home and “to steer clear of permanent alliances” abroad.
Thomas Jefferson envisioned America’s purpose as building “an empire of liberty” and serving as the driving force for the “freedom of the globe.”
Abraham Lincoln saw America’s purpose as ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
For Theodore Roosevelt, America’s purpose was nothing less than to civilize the world: “The steady aim of this nation,” he declared, “should be to strive to bring ever nearer the day when there shall prevail throughout the world the peace of justice.”
Woodrow Wilson believed America’s purpose was “to fight…for the ultimate peace of the world,” for “the liberation of its peoples,” for “the rights of nations great and small,” for a world “made safe for democracy.”
Calvin Coolidge suggested a more modest purpose for America, famously concluding, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
Franklin Roosevelt, joined by Winston Churchill, used the Atlantic Charter to outline a new purpose for America: to support self-government, promote free trade, defeat and disarm aggressive nations, ensure freedom of the seas, and build a liberal international order out of the rubble of war. This encompassed America’s interests and ideals.
Cold War-era presidents used FDR’s roadmap to forge a national consensus that America’s purpose would be to sustain and expand that freedom-friendly order, guard the frontiers of liberty, deter aggression and lead the Free World. (Along the way, America spent much of the 20th century proving Jefferson’s prophecy correct.) Having an enemy like the Soviet Union—bent on military expansion and committed to fomenting communist revolution—helped maintain that consensus. But more than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War—and after two decades of hot wars against far-flung terrorist groups and regimes—that consensus has frayed, as has the postwar order.
There was a brief moment after 9/11, when George W. Bush tried to build new consensus around a new/old purpose for America: “It is the policy of the United States,” he declared, echoing Wilson, “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.”
Any hopes for Americans embracing such an audacious purpose would evaporate in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. As Barack Obama observed, “Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters.” Obama was not able to redefine America’s global purpose or rebuild a national consensus. Instead, he invited America to “focus on nation-building here at home.”
Similarly, Donald Trump declared, “We have to build our own nation” and “focus on ourselves.” In keeping with his “America First” slogan, Trump’s NSS argued that America’s purpose would be “to protect the American people, the American way of life and American interests” and to “promote American prosperity.”
Joe Biden has taken a more internationalist approach, arguing that America’s purpose is “to defend democracy around the world,” to “stand in solidarity with those…who seek freedom and dignity,” to “champion liberty and democracy,” to “rally the Free World.”
While policy has matched rhetoric in Ukraine, it didn’t come close in Afghanistan—a fledgling democracy that, despite its flaws, held seven free elections in the 20 years before Biden’s chaotic pullout. Still, Biden’s answer to that question about America’s purpose harkens back to the Cold War consensus. Less insular than the Obama-Trump approach, less sweeping than the approach championed by Bush after the Cold War and Wilson after the Great War, Biden’s approach might be ideal for this moment in history.
As during World War II and Cold War I, Biden’s approach is aided by the fact that aggressive authoritarian regimes—China, Russia, Iran and their vassals—are openly challenging the U.S., threatening the Free World and dismantling the international system. And as during World War II and Cold War I, FDR’s ideas serve as a roadmap for America in a dangerous world.
A year before the attacks on Pearl Harbor—over just an eight-day timespan—FDR declared that America was committed to “armed defense of democratic existence,” that the defense of democracy abroad would be “aided by the rearmament of the United States” at home, and that America would become “the great arsenal of democracy.” The Biden administration appears to be following FDR’s playbook.
Even before its formal entry into World War II, America provided the Allied powers a substantial amount of war materiel. American factories produced two-thirds of all war-related supplies used by the Allies during the war. “By the end of 1942, America’s output of war materiel already exceeded the combined production of the three Axis powers,” the Economist points out. By 1944, American factories “built a plane every five minutes…launched 50 merchant ships a day and eight aircraft carriers a month.”
In Ukraine, America has reopened the “arsenal of democracy”—pouring $46.6 billion in military aid into Ukraine. Some 50 nations are following America’s lead, with Britain, Germany, Netherlands, Canada, Poland, Norway, France, Sweden and South Korea supporting Ukraine in its existential fight against Russian aggression. Thus, we see Ukrainian troops armed with American and British antitank systems, launching Swedish rockets and British missiles, firing French and Polish and American artillery with South Korean shells, riding into battle in American IFVs flanked by British and German tanks, while under the cover of American air-defense systems and repurposed Soviet-era aircraft and soon F-16s from NATO nations (and perhaps F-18s from Australia).
Russia’s rampage through Ukraine reminds us that helping free nations harden their territory against invasion is preferable to scrambling to help them try to claw it back. As Ronald 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.”
Even as they give Ukrainians the tools to liberate their land, America and its Free World allies need to bolster other frontline democracies—Moldova, Georgia, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, the Baltics—and thus deter other aggressions. “Freedom must be better armed than tyranny,” as Volodymyr Zelensky has said. FDR would agree. When it’s not, the result is Czechoslovakia 1938, Poland 1939, Pearl Harbor 1941, Korea 1950, Ukraine 2022.
In a dangerous world full of broken men, “armed defense of democratic existence” is the wisest way forward.
The good news is that the Free World is stronger than it was when FDR outlined his grim battleplan. Democracies in the Americas, Euro-Atlantic, Indo-Pacific and Middle East enfold 71 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of global defense spending and what former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen calls “a thousand-ship navy.”
Beyond military power, the Free World has vast energy and resource advantages. America alone possesses 327 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas in the Outer Continental Shelf, 264 billion barrels of oil (the world’s largest recoverable oil reserves) and 3 trillion barrels of oil-shale deposits (equaling more than OPEC’s combined reserves). 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 flexes its energy muscle—just as the full-spectrum response to Russia’s war in Ukraine serves as evidence of the staggering power the Free World wields when its members work together.
Leveraging these resources to defend the Free World is a matter of will.
Of course, America’s arsenal must have the tools needed to defend America’s democracy—which brings us to “the rearmament of the United States.” FDR called for “a swift and driving increase in our armament production.”
With an $886-billion defense budget planned for 2024, it might look like America is well-armed and 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 Cold War I. Navy leaders report they need 500+ ships; they have 296. Undermanned, undersized and old, the Air Force is short 1,650 pilots; the average age of the B-52 fleet is 60+. 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 Cold War I was more than twice that.
To prevent Cold War 2.0 from metastasizing into something worse, larger and more sustained investments in defense are needed. Former national security advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster suggests 4.5 percent of GDP for defense. A panel of military experts calls for annual increases to the defense budget of 3-5 percent above inflation.
A refurbished arsenal of democracy. A recommitment within the Free World to armed defense of democratic existence. A rearmament program to keep the Free World free. These are the strategies and tools that can prevent another great-power war—and rescue an international order that reflects America’s values and serves America’s interests. That seems a worthy purpose for America today.
Alan Dowd is senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. Morgan Rossman served as a Sagamore Institute research assistant. A version of this piece appeared in Providence.