America’s Late Imperial Dilemma

NEW YORK – US President Barack Obama is under attack – from so-called liberal hawks, more or less to the left of center, as well as from active interventionists on the right – for being a weak president, leading a war-weary (even world-weary) America in retreat.

Obama’s critics, whether on the left or the right, believe that the United States has a unique calling to impose its will on the world. The only difference is that the former justify their views with talk of democracy and human rights, while the latter do not need any such justification, because, after all, America is the greatest country on earth.

Either way, the premise that the US should lead forcefully rests on the idea that without a benevolent hegemonic power to police the world, chaos will ensue and more malevolent forces will take over. This opinion was expressed most clearly in a recent article by the conservative foreign-policy thinker Robert Kagan.

Kagan’s argument is that other countries cannot be relied upon to behave responsibly without strong US leadership. Like other hawks, he warns not only that dictators will behave badly if given the chance, which is certainly plausible, but also that democratic allies need to be kept in their place by a firm hegemonic hand.