Thirty years ago, the U.S. was winning the Cold War, but then it fell prey to the arrogance of power.
In the first week of December 1989, President George Bush and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met for a summit at Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. It was an unusual scene. Their respective delegations had their sleeping quarters on American and Soviet warships, and the talks occurred on the Maxim Gorki cruise ship. The talks were so meaningful that historians saw them as representing the end of the Cold War.
At the joint news conference, Gorbachev declared, “The world is leaving one epoch and entering another.” It is unclear whether the Soviet leader realized it at the time or not, but his country was on its last breaths. Two years later, on Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin. The U.S. had won the Cold War.
The U.S. was the lone superpower now and was presented with tremendous opportunities. After decades of exhausting superpower competition, it would now be able to disengage from areas that had lost strategic significance, decrease its military presence all over the world, cash in on the peace dividend and focus on domestic priorities.
Alas, it would not be. Instead of engaging in measured restraint and focusing on urgent needs at home, the U.S. took full ownership of the new epoch that Gorbachev was talking about at Malta. President Bush hailed it as the New World Order. In this new order, “there is no substitute for American leadership,” he explained. America was the “indispensable nation,” as his successor Bill Clinton agreed.
Indeed, both parties fell prey to what Sen. William Fulbright had warned of during the Vietnam War, namely the arrogance of power. The U.S. was now to reshape the world, and toward this end, it regularly outspent anywhere from the next 10 to 20 most powerful countries combined.
As the U.S. was strengthening its arsenal of primacy, it also engaged in formal commitments for the defense of more countries than ever before, and it came to entertain about 800 military bases around the world. Russia, by comparison, has about nine.
How much power is enough? Can there ever be too much? Such questions were often deemed as unpatriotic to ask. Largely, the American people followed their leaders in defining the country’s strength in terms of military power.
It was wrongheaded. American power did not deter 9/11. It did not help win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It did not create stability or democracies in the Middle East, it did not dissuade North Korea from going nuclear, and it does not deter Iran from doing the same if it really wanted. The list goes on.
It is, however, not only that there are serious limits to what U.S. military power can accomplish. Its excessive power also compels the U.S. to overcommit itself all around the globe and to entangle itself in affairs that are counter to its interests. The special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel are just two of many examples.
With the conclusion of the Malta summit and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. took a wrong turn. It didn’t have to own the new epoch. It didn’t have to be more powerful than the next dozen most powerful countries put together. It didn’t need to police the world. Its global over commitment has only been a peril to the country’s troops and a drain on its treasury.
Being powerful is important; being too powerful is a problem. President Trump had promised the American people more restraint, but, in fact, he pushed the country to new heights of defense spending. The democratic hopefuls are talking about cuts to the military budget, but largely falling short in making concrete proposals.
These are easy, however, and could start with reducing hundreds of U.S. bases overseas, reducing its global military footprint, and shifting its nuclear posture toward sufficiency - a capability large enough to deter attacks on the U.S. or its allies, but not more.
By virtue of its geographical position, the American homeland is uniquely safe. Such measures would not jeopardize the country’s security and the U.S. would remain uniquely powerful. They would, however, also help get the country on a track of prosperity that its people deserve.
Akan Malici is a professor of international politics at Furman University. Among his books are "U.S. Presidents and Foreign Policy Mistakes" (Stanford, 2011), and "Role Theory and Role Conflict in U.S.-Iran Relations: Enemies of Our Own Making" (Routledge, 2016).