The next president, whoever he is, will not determine the future of America’s role in the world. Joe Biden does not recognize there is a problem. President Trump has no answers.
Three decades into the “post-Cold War era,” still named for what preceded it, the United States possesses no widely shared, deeply felt purpose for vast global power. America’s armed dominance today occupies a position similar to that of liberal immigration, free trade or private health insurance a decade ago. Taken for granted by political elites, it is nonetheless ripe for challenge beneath the surface.
One source of challenge comes from recent experience: America’s wars have projected mayhem across the greater Middle East and brought militarized violence home to American streets. Another source is prospective: As both liberals and conservatives rack up debt, they will face pressure to cut the gargantuan, trillion-plus sum lavished annually on national security.
But the most profound challenge is rooted deep in the past. If many Americans no longer understand why their country should police the world, it is for good reason: U.S. military supremacy has outlived its original purpose.
Eighty years ago, as it prepared to enter World War II, the United States made a fateful choice not only to pursue military supremacy but also to sustain it long into the future. This decision, tragic even then, has become immobilizing now. It has caused America’s leaders to see armed dominance as the only way the United States can relate to the world.
Both candidates for president pine to restore America’s righteous might circa 1945 — Mr. Trump with his paeans to Generals Patton and MacArthur, Mr. Biden with his pledge to defend the postwar “liberal international order.” Such nostalgia is precisely why we cannot confront today’s problems, which have their origin in our greatest moment as a nation.