The Road from Westphalia

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Henry Kissinger meeting with Zhou Enlai during his secret trip to China, July 1971


Almost from the beginning of its history, America has struggled to find a balance in its foreign policy between narrowly promoting its own security and idealistically serving the interests of others; between, as we’ve tended to see it in shorthand, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick and the ideals of Woodrow Wilson. Just as consistently, the US has gone through periods of embracing a leading international role for itself and times when Americans have done all they could to turn their backs on the rest of the world.

Two new books now join this never-ending debate: Henry Kissinger’s World Order and America in Retreat by Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Both sound a call for more powerful and more engaged US leadership around the globe. Both Stephens and Kissinger appear to be worried about a return to isolationism, or at least a more inward-looking American policy, and are doing what they can to head it off. Both offer their own view of the relation between US interests and US values. Stephens’s formula, roughly speaking, is 90 percent interests, 10 percent values, when convenient. Kissinger frames the debate more elegantly as one of power vs. principle, but he often comes down on both sides of the fence.

Beyond this, the books have little in common. Stephens’s is a facts-be-damned polemic, designed to show that the world has gone to hell since President Obama took office. Somehow, Obama is saddled with responsibility for the success of North Korea’s nuclear program. Stephens does not say that North Korea began the program in the 1950s, succeeded in building its first bomb twenty-two years ago, and carried out its first atomic test three years before Obama took office.

He also makes the serious charge that Russia has achieved “nuclear superiority over the United States via the [Obama administration’s] New START Treaty.” He does not acknowledge that today the US has many more deployed strategic launch vehicles than Russia, and that the two sides have equal numbers of warheads and launchers (including those not deployed). Moreover, the US arsenal is much more able to survive an attack than Russia’s and is almost certainly far more lethal. His claim is baseless.

Yet to his credit, Stephens is explicit and unapologetic in defining what he thinks the posture of the US should be, namely the world’s policeman or, as he describes it, a cop walking a global beat, “reassuring the good, deterring the tempted, punishing the wicked.” The metaphor fails because police are servants of the law. Without it, a policeman is merely a vigilante with no independent legitimacy. What Stephens describes is a world in which the US alone decides what behavior it considers unacceptable and rides out to punish it. To my…

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