Since 1941, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt dictated the principles of the Atlantic Charter to Winston Churchill, American elites have thought in terms of “running the world.” It is possible to argue endlessly about the successes and failures of the United States in building a liberal world order that has done well by the world and by the American people. Practical discussions of foreign policy, though, begin with the recognition today that the task is not to run the world but to share it.
In the 1960s and 1970s men like Henry Kissinger talked of coexistence or détente with communism, and to ensure that Soviet ambitions were contained, of triangulating with China. At the same time, and to some extent inadvertently, they agreed with the Soviets at Helsinki on a commitment to liberal rights and democracy that the Soviets could not live up to.
Thus Americans and Soviets joined in denying that the Soviet Union was a fully legitimate partner with whom the Americans would have to share the world. Even though President Ford and Kissinger tried and failed to find a basis for sharing the world with Soviet Communism, they failed not because the Soviets were unwilling to share but because the conflict of Communist ideology with human nature undermined that regime’s ability to be a partner and rival. American predominance after the end of the Cold War was thus acquired in a fit of absence of mind and quickly squandered.
Prior to 1941, apart from a brief flirtation with ideological hegemony under Woodrow Wilson, American leaders thought in terms of sharing the world and of finding principles of conduct that could be agreed upon by peoples and regimes who—though not all liberal or democratic—could make the world a bit more free, peaceful, happy, and wealthy.
For example, in June 1776, as they were composing the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress set out the “Model Treaty” which aimed at free trade in peacetime and amelioration of the horrors and destruction of fighting at sea in wartime. Henry Clay, 40-odd years later, preached his “American System,” with states north and south linked together in a common commitment to republican government, religious freedom, free trade amongst themselves, and protection of their developing manufactures from British competition. But Clay was quite clear that his American System would, at least for a period of years, have to share the world with the Holy Alliance of the Old World, an alliance of despotisms dedicated to the maintenance of “Throne and Altar.” Clay was certainly sympathetic to struggles for freedom outside the Americas, but he and (even more so) President John Quincy Adams, were often skeptical that America had much of a role to play in pushing freedom on others when America’s own interests were not in question.
The current rivals of the United States, Putin’s Russia and the only nominally Communist People’s Republic of China, proclaim themselves popular, republican regimes. They accept, if only on paper, the liberal rights enshrined in the great documents of the post-1945 order, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But because they allow and even encourage dissenters to emigrate, and offer in practice much greater economic and religious freedom than did their genuinely Communist predecessors, they are not to the same degree undermined as was the Soviet Union by the tension between their international commitments and their domestic practices.
These two rivals of the United States are not, as far as the eye can see, doomed by their ideological self-contradictions. Nor are the Islamic or semi-Islamic regimes that constitute the bulk of today’s Muslim world. Even where Islamic regimes have totalitarian aspirations, as in Saudi Arabia or Iran, the regime’s internal enemies try to appeal for support not as opponents of political Islam but as more thorough or, in some cases, more prudent, Islamists.
The task before the next administration will not be a reactionary reversal of Obama’s “leading from behind” but to return to the more sound vision of earlier Americans in world affairs. Beyond responding to transient threats and transient opportunities, Americans need to look for ways that American power and influence, most especially the lure of both intellectual and material commerce, can push or seduce foreign states and peoples to look, even in the tiniest of ways, to their own freedom and happiness.
America tried running the world. Sometimes it ran it well, sometimes it ran it poorly. Americans need to think now in terms of sharing the world. We must seek to do this not, one hopes, out of doubts about the worth of freedom, or a lack of commitment to preserving the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
Now that the world is no longer half slave and half free, but (outside of North Korea and a few other hellholes) some places are partly enslaved and some places are mostly free, Americans should recognize that it doesn’t look like there are going to be any easy or rapid victories for freedom anytime soon. Given that, let us pursue our own interests within the bounds of decency, and demand a decent respect for those interests from others. Apart from that, we will best express our faith in freedom by working to make ourselves a little freer and thus, one can reasonably hope, continue to provide “hope to the world for all future time.”