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America Has No Reason to Be So Powerful

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.

无论谁当选下任总统,都决定不了美国在世界上角色的未来。乔·拜登(Joe Biden)没有意识到存在问题。特朗普总统没有答案。

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.


Dec. 7, 1941, lives in infamy as the date when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II. By then, however, U.S. leaders were already planning to install America as the pre-eminent superpower in the epoch to come. It was a stunning event 18 months earlier — the fall of France to Nazi Germany — that led them to make the decision for dominance.


When France imploded within six weeks, Adolf Hitler suddenly bestrode Europe. He soon joined with fascist Italy and imperial Japan to form the Axis alliance. For the first time, Americans faced the credible prospect that totalitarian powers could ascend to primacy in Europe and Asia. Congress swiftly approved a vast military buildup and the first-ever draft in peacetime.

法国在六周时间里崩溃后,阿道夫·希特勒(Adolf Hitler)突然横扫欧洲。他不久就与意大利法西斯和日本帝国一起组成了轴心国联盟。美国人首次面临了一种可信的前景:极权主义国家可能会在欧洲和亚洲占上风。美国国会迅速批准了用于军事建设的大笔拨款、以及和平时期的第一个征兵法案。

Yet acute observers recognized that the United States remained in an enviable position. “We shall not be invaded,” the columnist Walter Lippmann acknowledged as France collapsed. The oceans, fortified by air defenses, would thwart any attack launched from beyond the hemisphere. And the country’s economy was so self-contained, especially after the Great Depression, that it did not rely on foreign trade.

然而,敏锐的观察人士认识到,美国仍拥有令人羡慕的地位。“我们不会被入侵,”专栏作家沃尔特·李普曼(Walter Lippmann)在法国崩溃的时候这样写道。美国两边都是大洋,加上空中防御,可以阻止任何发自西半球以外的攻击。而且美国的经济如此自给自足,特别是在大萧条后,以至于美国完全不依赖对外贸易。

For these reasons, some Americans wanted to guard the entire Western Hemisphere against outside attack but go no further. An eclectic coalition — embracing the democratic socialist Norman Thomas, future presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, and the anti-Semitic aviator Charles Lindbergh — rallied under the banner of “America First.” They hoped to uphold America’s traditional aversion to entanglements in the Old World (which might yet resist Axis rule without American intervention) and preserve the New World as a bastion of freedom.

由于这些原因,一些美国人想保护整个西半球不受外来攻击,但不想更多地参与。一个各种人的联盟——包括民主社会主义者诺曼·托马斯(Norman Thomas)、未来的总统约翰·F·肯尼迪(John F. Kennedy)和杰拉尔德·福特(Gerald Ford),以及持反犹观点的飞行员查尔斯·林德伯格(Charles Lindbergh)等人——在“美国优先”的旗帜下形成。他们想维持美国传统上对卷入旧世界事务的反感(旧世界在没有美国干预的情况下仍可能抵抗轴心国的统治),将新世界保留为自由的堡垒。

But most foreign policy elites came to a different view. True, the United States could remain safe by steering clear of European power politics. Yet America, or its ruling class, aspired to more. It wished to interact and transact across the globe and to determine the direction of world history. Axis dominance endangered less the United States proper than its expansive vision of itself. If confined, America would become “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in June 1940. Such a fate, he warned, would leave the American people “lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.”

但大多数外交政策精英们形成了一个不同的观点。的确,美国可以通过避开欧洲强权政治自保安全。但美国或其统治阶级有志于更高的目标。它希望与全球互动、做交易,希望决定世界历史的方向。轴心国的支配地位对美国自身的威胁要小于对美国浩瀚视野的威胁。1940年6月,美国总统富兰克林·D·罗斯福(Franklin D. Roosevelt)曾宣告,如果闭关自守,美国将成为“一个以武力哲学为主导的世界上的孤岛”。他警告说,这样的命运将把美国人民“锁在监狱里,带上手铐,忍饥挨饿,靠其他大陆上毫无怜悯之心的主宰者们从铁栏外面投食给他们过一天算一天”。

As Roosevelt spoke, the United States remained safe, prosperous and regionally dominant. But now that totalitarian powers had proved capable of attaining mastery in Europe and Asia, hemispheric leadership looked like “isolation,” even imprisonment. The United States could no longer usher in a new and better world unless it acquired the military power to impose its writ. And even if the Nazis had failed to attain primacy, who might try next? The United States would henceforth take up arms not only to defeat today’s totalitarians, but also and especially to deter tomorrow’s.


Global dominance, experts understood, would come at a terrific price: perpetual warfare and the transformation of America into something like an empire. “World domination by the United States and the British Empire” is how the military analyst Hanson Baldwin summed up the vision of his fellow planners in 1941. Public intellectuals were no less shy about the consequences. “Tyrannies may require a large amount of living space,” noted the publishing mogul Henry Luce in his essay announcing “The American Century.” “But Freedom requires and will require far greater living space than Tyranny.”

专家们明白,在全球占据主导地位是要付出巨大代价的:无休止的战争,以及将美国转变为一个类似帝国的东西。“由美国和大英帝国统治世界”是军事分析家汉森·鲍德温(Hanson Baldwin)在1941年对他和同僚们的构想所做的总结。公共知识分子对这种后果也毫不避讳。出版业巨头亨利·卢斯(Henry Luce)在他宣布《美国世纪》(The American Century)到来的文章中指出,“暴政可能需要大量的生存空间。但自由需要而且将会需要比暴政更大的生存空间。”

For half a century, American leadership fulfilled the objectives it set for itself. The United States won absolute victories over the Axis in 1945 and the Soviets in 1991, even as it meted out continual violence against Guatemalans, Vietnamese and others. So long as totalitarians stalked the earth, threatening to close off liberal intercourse and subvert “world order,” the United States retained a coherent rationale for its costly pursuit of armed dominance: better us than them.


When the Soviet Union collapsed, officials scarcely considered pulling back U.S. deployments and commitments. To the contrary, they extended them. The original dream of 1945 — of one world united under American supervision and following American terms — seemed to have arrived at last. Who could deny that in the “new world order,” proclaimed by President George H.W. Bush as he readied for war on Iraq, “there is no substitute for American leadership”? In any case, Russia was flattened. China remained poor. The United States cut its military spending and still exited the 1990s as the global colossus.

苏联解体后,美国官员们几乎没有考虑减少美国在全球的部署和承诺。相反地,他们扩大了部署和承诺。1945年的最初梦想——一个在美国指导下,按照美国条款统一起来的世界——似乎终于实现了。谁能否认在乔治·H·W·布什(George H.W. Bush)总统为伊拉克战争做准备时宣布的“世界新秩序”中,“没有能取代美国领导地位”的东西呢?不管怎样,俄罗斯已经倒下。中国依然贫穷。美国削减了军费开支,但仍作为全球巨人走出了20世纪90年代。

Yet the decades went on and no totalitarian rivals arose to take the place of prior nemeses. America’s new antagonists were hardly capable of gaining immense global power, no matter how U.S. leaders inflated weak states as the “axis of evil” or the terrorist threat as “Islamofascism.” In the early 21st century, if any power sought world domination, coercing others and flouting rules, it was the United States. Instituted to enable engagement across borders, American supremacy began to obstruct it. Today the United States deploys troops in more than 170 countries. Its military operates against terrorism in roughly 40 percent of the world’s nations. Dozens of countries are targets of U.S. sanctions.


Many in Washington now acknowledge excesses. Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden alike vow to bring endless war to an end. At the same time, leaders in both parties identify China as the adversary the United States has been missing — an expansive, crypto-totalitarian force whose containment could restore purpose to American power. Citing China’s “bankrupt totalitarian ideology,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heralds a new dawn for U.S. leadership. “Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party,” he said in July, “is the mission of our time.”

华盛顿有许多人现在承认这些做法过头了。特朗普和拜登都誓言要结束无休无止的战争。与此同时,美国两大政党的领导人都将中国视为美国一直没有认识到的对手,遏制中国扩张的、隐秘的极权主义力量,可以让美国的实力恢复用途。国务卿迈克·庞皮欧(Mike Pompeo)指出,中国“完全缺乏新意的极权主义意识形态”,预示着美国领导地位的新曙光。他在今年7月的演讲中说,“从中国共产党手中确保我们的自由是我们这个时代的使命。”

Is it? China is authoritarian and on the rise. But it is hardly Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. China is open for business, whether on fair terms or not; the world’s largest trading nation makes a strange candidate for a totalitarian menace whose every activity closes off the earth. And unlike 20th-century rivals, China has long abstained from armed conquest. Though it threatens Taiwan, no one thinks it is about to invade U.S. allies like South Korea or Japan.


There was a time when Americans believed that armed dominance obstructed and corrupted genuine engagement in the world, far from being its foundation. That insight has been buried, now nearly beyond living memory. But it is perhaps not altogether lost.


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