The 21st century has been marked by two complementary trends in global security: the rise of new and unexpected threats and the return of old ones. Terrorist organizations have adapted modern technology to deadly purpose and paired it with global ambition. Nineteen well-trained individuals killed more Americans on 9/11 than the entire Japanese fleet killed in Pearl Harbor. Our ubiquitous smartphones and social networks turned out to be agnostic tools, serving both good and evil. They are boons for economic empowerment and cultural exchange, but also allow terror movements to recruit internationally, creating a homegrown terror threat that no border wall or refugee ban will prevent.
The old menaces of the 20th century have reappeared in updated forms. Communism as a political ideology is as bankrupt as ever, but the aggressive despotism that enforced it for decades before the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union has returned to the world stage, due largely to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States, a global hegemon alternately over-eager or reluctant, has reacted in dramatically inconsistent ways to the new threats while mostly ignoring the resurgence of the old ones.
The checks and balances that frustrate every president domestically do little to prevent the commander-in-chief from wielding the power of life and death all over the world. The overwhelming military might of the United States is inherently agnostic as well. It can be used to attack or to defend, to protect innocent lives or to take them, to remove dictatorships or to support them.
The use of this fearsome power is guided by the American constitution and the founding American values of democracy and freedom. But it is up to the occupant of the White House to follow the Constitution and to live up to those values. The executive has found countless ways to evade checks on his authority, from signing “agreements” instead of treaties, to escalating foreign “police actions” instead of declaring war. American values have been applied selectively as well, as decades of relative unity in containing the Communist threat has given way to a neo-isolationist trend in both major American political parties. Instead of debating how the U.S. should act on the world stage, today’s presidential candidates are arguing about whether or not the U.S. should act at all. The specter of the 2003 Iraq War looms over every potential American action.
Such reflection is commendable, but in the seven years of the Obama administration we have seen that inaction can also have the gravest consequences. Inaction can fracture alliances. Inaction can empower dictators and provoke terrorists and enflame regional conflicts. Inaction can slaughter innocent people and create millions of refugees. We have the horrific proof in Syria, where Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” has been painted over in blood.
Leadership in a crisis is essential because collective response is nearly always a collective disaster. Social psychology documented the “bystander apathy effect” in the 1960s, a phenomenon in which the more people who witness a crisis together, the less likely any one of them is to help. Studies showed that while 70 percent of people alone will help a stranger in distress, the number drops to 40 percent when other people are in the room. Inaction is not only deadly, it’s contagious, and it applies to nations as well as to individuals.
The solution to this sort of paralysis on a nation-state level is to have strong global institutions and treaties that are binding and clear. For example, an agreement between countries to guarantee mutual defense or an organization that is bound to intervene to stop a genocide. In theory, contractual commitments and shared moral obligations will override the bystander effect. In practice, the fear of taking action is so strong that the leaders of the free world find excuse after excuse to ignore their commitments and their values.
These excuses range from feigned ignorance to legalistic pedantry to rhetorically reducing the national and international interests that must be protected. Hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Rwanda? We didn’t know. The Budapest Memorandum guarantees Ukrainian territorial integrity? Check the fine print, we’re technically not bound to defend them. Russian jets are crossing into Turkish territory? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization begs member nation Turkey not to invoke the mutual defense clause. Iraq and Syria are exploding into civil war? It’s a Middle Eastern problem. The civil wars are churning out terrorist groups and refugees reaching the West? It’s a European problem. Islamic State sympathizers killed 14 people in San Bernardino, the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11? Our anti-IS strategy is the right one.
Obama and his fellow neo-isolationists are well aware that few are condemned and fewer are convicted of having the power to prevent a tragedy but refusing to do so, while a single death resulting from intervention will be denounced. A quarter-million deaths, a dozen terror attacks, a million refugees, these are politically acceptable consequences of inaction, but a single casualty from action, even attempting to prevent those horrors, is considered politically unacceptable. That is the ghastly arithmetic of appeasement in the 21st century.
Knowingly declining to prevent a murder, or a genocide, cannot carry the same moral charge as committing one, but it is nonetheless a crime. When America, the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, is content to play the role of a just another apathetic bystander, it is a crime with a powerful ripple effect. Recently, Freedom House released its latest Freedom in the World report, finding “an overall drop in freedom for the ninth consecutive year.” It is no coincidence that this has happened as history’s greatest defender of freedom, the United States, has abdicated that role.
I reject the tired premise of whether or not the United States should be the “global policeman.” Global leadership is what is required, not a cop on patrol who occasionally shoots — or carpet bombs — a few bad guys. Leadership means inspiring, aiding, and influencing — using force only when necessary. A robust American foreign policy depends on constantly reinforcing alliances, on deterring dictators and protecting their victims, and on targeting terrorists and their supporters at the source. It requires institutions that will promote democracy and liberty and pressure friends and foes alike to adopt these values. It must be a strategy that will last for decades, not change with the wind. You can’t be America First unless you have a global strategy that is built to last.