Roger Scruton, the conservative British philosopher who passed away last weekend, once wrote that a foundation of conservatism was “the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” It’s a statement that reflects the principle of Chesterton’s Fence: The understanding that our forebearers laid down many rules and erected many structures, and though we may not understand why those fences are there or think them “irrelevant” today, better to keep the fence up and give them the benefit of the doubt. If we are to take it down, we’d better think it over several times first.
Which brings us to America’s present status as a global superpower. We have a president who has vowed to end our “forever wars” while also sending troops to conflict zones around the world and just this month took out Qassem Suleimani, a move that escalated tension with Iran. In his wild inconsistencies between intervention and isolationism, he seems to unintentionally embody America’s general debate about its place in the world.
But the debates over specific presidential actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere lead us to reduce America’s role in the world to the rights and wrongs of specific conflicts, as though we should stay or invade everywhere or run from everywhere. But that is to miss the forest for very specific trees, and confuse individual conflicts for the general purpose of American global dominance.
To correct this, we need to go back to the beginning and understand why the fence of American global power is up in the first place. It requires a foray into history; I will try to be brief.
The Structural Roots of American Power
In 1815, the great powers of Europe convened to secure peace after 25 years of devastating war with Revolutionary France and Napoleon. The leaders were determined to ensure that such a thing did not happen again. The outlines of this great power brokerage system, with some local exceptions, helped prevent a repeat of the experience or worse. Well, for a century at least.
Granted, European nations were growing more powerful through all kinds of colonialist domination and abuse. But given that the alternative was a massive bloodbath that would help no one, it was the best option around (while it lasted).
Which brings us to the United States. America was explicitly founded on the idea of fleeing the warring nations of Europe with all their foibles and bloodshed, to set up a “city on the hill” away from the Old Continent. While it was never perfectly “neutral”, it was largely able to stay out of core European affairs.
For a century, Europe maintained the peace, in the seas and around the world, as America grew in economic and geographical power.
Until August 1, 1914.
I won’t get into the specifics of why the system collapsed, but collapse it did. Europe’s powers were fighting the war they had hoped to avoid, in a conflict to the death so bloody that even the “victors” would never be the same. Even before America entered the war in 1917, the old system of Europe keeping the peace was over for good.
Many Americans attribute the rise of American power to FDR and the post-WWII era. The truth is that America was already the world’s most powerful country by default by 1917. No one else now had the economic, political, and potential military might to keep the peace and protect trade throughout the world on that scale. No
one else believed in themselves enough to do so anymore, either.
Americans, however, saw their role in WWI as “doing their bit,” ending the Kaiser’s threat, and going home. It hadn’t registered that something fundamental had changed, and that sometimes—you can’t go home again.
The isolationism of the 1920s did not mean America ceased to be a superpower. It simply meant America was an absent superpower. And without that power there to deter the rise of dangerous regimes or at least reduce conflict, a second world war came about, worse than the first.
World War II forced America and especially its leaders to recognize the reality that emerged in 1917: There was no one else. Either America kept the peace, even an expensive, morally compromising peace, or the unthinkable would happen again. So it was with FDR and Truman, and so it was with Ike, the Republican leader whose compromises with the New Deal appalled conservatives but whose American leadership on the world stage has few equals.
America now set in place a whole network of alliances, financial institutions, trade arrangements, and international bodies under its aegis—some more effective than others—meant to replace the vacuum left behind in the carnage of the trenches, and one more robust and hard-headed than the overly idealistic and naïve structures erected by America’s leader during WWI, Woodrow Wilson.
From the Cold War to Chesterton
The threat of communism was an important linchpin in all this, of course. The Cold War allowed America and Americans to imagine their efforts around the world as both the defender of freedom around the world and the defender of their country against external threats.
Like the old European peace, this one was also imperfect. America cut deals with more than a handful of unsavory leaders against greater evils. Wars happened at the edges of the system, bloody wars that left scars on America. But the system also increased prosperity, kept the general peace, and even spread freedom and democracy in direct and indirect ways.
We now live a generation removed from the end of that titanic conflict. More countries are free from tyranny than ever before in human history. People around the world and on every continent are enjoying a material prosperity—often driven by American institutions and trade—that would have been unthinkable in 1917. By any reasonable, non-utopian measure, the United States has succeeded in spreading its gospel far beyond even its wildest dreams.
But therein lies the rub. Just as Americans sought to return to being a “normal country” after they did their bit in WWI, many—and especially among the young—would like an end to the burden. In 1920, that came with the Republican slogan of a Return to Normalcy. Today, it comes with a damnation of “forever wars.”
It’s an understandable and entirely logical sentiment. America has not faced a global threat on the level of the Soviet Union since I was 9. There are localized or lower-level threats like terrorism or regional conflicts in places like Eastern Europe. China is aiming to become a global power with various projects but hasn’t gotten there, yet. But it’s hard to rally America around flags over these issues.
Then there is the sad reality that America’s foreign policy and defense establishment, having generally been careful and circumspect in handling the great tools they must use (exceptions like Vietnam…well, excepted), became way too overconfident and sloppy.
Whatever their original purposes or justifications, the handling of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan show a superpower moving largely on unthinking inertia and almost cosmic hubris than real purpose. And the younger people fighting in these conflicts bear the burden. The moral compromises once tolerated for the sake of a greater good are harder to sustain in the age of failed utopian Bushism, often feckless Obama-ism, and cynical mercenary Trumpism.
So it’s tempting to say “f—k it” and dismantle the system, just like the populists who wish to “burn it all down” would like to do at home. It feels good, it has ample justification, it’s understandable.
But it’s also wrong and extremely dangerous. As in 1917, so here—reality is what it is, whether we like it or not. America cannot be Switzerland for the simple reason that Switzerland would not be able to be Switzerland if it somehow became America. With great power comes great responsibility, after all. And barring the extremely unlikely emergence of a superpower roughly as committed to keeping the peace and protecting trade and supply chains—as well as serving as a beacon of democratic and Western values at their best—there simply is no one else.
I leave the detailed foreign policy programs to the experts, but at a minimum, it means honoring alliances, protecting friends, and showing enemies that the United States means business. Everywhere on earth. Whatever America does in any corner of the world—whether it’s abandoning friends like the Kurds or failing to enforce “red lines” drawn in the sand—the countries of the world are always watching, listening, and taking notes. Even with its enormous power, America needs all the friends it can get to more effectively do the job it must reluctantly bear.
Some may balk that there is no Nazi Germany or Communist Russia on the horizon to challenge America, and that the rest of the world can take care of itself. I don’t want to take that chance—or the chance that American withdrawal leads to any number of regional escalations and wars undermining the American peace. The fence of institutions and military might erected by America may gall, it may seem incomprehensible to those of us too young to remember global threats, but we take it for granted at our peril. We take it down at great, perhaps inconceivable risk to America and the world as a whole.
Want to debate specific policies or conflicts? Go ahead. Want to rethink how to work and manage alliances? Let’s debate. Want America’s leadership to act with much greater care with its treasure and power, using it responsibly? I’m all for it. Want presidents to be much more careful about when to put Americans in harm’s way and justify it to the public? Entirely on board.
But for God’s sake, leave the fence up.
Avi Woolf is an editor and translator. He has been published in Arc Digital, National Review, and Commentary.
Photograph of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division deploying on Jan. 1, 2020, in response to events in Iraq by Capt. Robyn Haake/U.S. ARMY/AFP via Getty Images.