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A nation must think before it acts.
Library of Law and Liberty
Review: Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Civil Religion, Progressivism, Robert Kagan, The Tragedy of U., The Will to Lead, Walter McDougall
A populist backlash against globalization during 2016 brought a series of events culminating with Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. presidential election. The results marked a sharp break with a muscular form of liberal internationalism committed to spreading democracy and promoting human rights that guided policy since the 1990s. That establishment consensus spanned center-Right and center-Left opinion. Critics lacked traction until failure in the Middle East and a global economic crisis brought widespread disillusionment. American voters lately rejected both Republicans and Democrats campaigning on their parties’ version of the consensus while choosing instead an outsider with the provocative slogan, “America First.”
The outcome must dismay Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish premier and NATO Secretary General, who penned an extended appeal for American leadership in upholding liberal internationalism. Claiming a voice, if not a vote, in the presidential election, Rasmussen urged Americans not to withdraw from global leadership. Pointing to a world on fire with conflicts from Ukraine to East Asia, he warned that American reluctance to use hard power encourages aggression and authoritarianism at democracy’s expense. Like nature, power abhors a vacuum. If the United States fails to lead other democratic countries in upholding liberal norms, other powers will fill the gap to promote their own illiberal ambitions.
Rasmussen’s slim volume takes what he calls the lessons of the 20th century as a starting point. World War II showed that appeasement encouraged oppression and only postponed conflict. The Cold War, by contrast, demonstrated how resolute leadership could resist totalitarianism and then contain it to collapse from its own contradictions. Rasmussen frames an account of America’s role around the examples of Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Aspects of their presidencies offer points to press his case. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon—both internationalists—fit the arguments less smoothly, even though Nixon’s adjustment of American policy to global challenges after Vietnam offers a better parallel to current difficulties. Those lessons, however, do not further Rasmussen’s case.
Truman set up multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and NATO, that provided a rules-based international system. He also committed the United States to aid democratic nations resisting Soviet Communism. Truman took risks in shaping institutions in America and preventing chaotic rivalry from dividing the West. Filling the leadership gap after World War II, Rasmussen insists, sets Truman alongside Abraham Lincoln. Here Rasmussen invokes Robert Kagan’s argument in Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the Word from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (2006) that the United States has always been strongly internationalist with “a deep sense of mission beyond geographical boundaries.” Far from an aberration in U.S. history, Truman’s internationalism by his reading put principle into action.