EFOUR FOUR YEARS Japan bombed Pearl Harbor a few years ago. This was a serious mistake, dragging the most powerful country in the world into war and dooming the Japanese Empire to oblivion. A lucid Japanese admiral reportedly lamented, “I’m afraid all we’ve done is wake a sleeping giant and fill it with terrible resolve.”
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Today, Japan is peaceful, rich and innovative. It was the Japanese who rebuilt their country, but their task was made easier by the superpower that defeated them. Not only was America the midwife of a liberal and capitalist democracy in Japan; he also created a world order in which Japan was free to trade and develop. This order was not perfect and did not apply everywhere. But it was better than anything that came before.
Unlike previous great powers, America did not use its military dominance to gain a trade advantage at the expense of its smaller allies. On the contrary, it allowed itself to be subject, most of the time, to common rules. And this rules-based system has allowed much of the world to avoid war and become prosperous.
Unfortunately, America is growing weary of its role as the guarantor of liberal order. The giant hasn’t really fallen asleep again, but his resolve falters and his enemies are testing him. Vladimir Putin is massing troops on the border with Ukraine and may soon invade. China is buzzing Taiwan’s airspace with fighter jets, using model US aircraft carriers for target practice, and testing hypersonic weapons. Iran has taken such a maximalist stance on the nuclear talks that many observers expect them to collapse. Thus, two autocratic powers threaten to seize lands currently under democratic control, and a third threatens to violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty by building a nuclear bomb. How far would America go to prevent such reckless acts?
Joe Biden can seem energetic at times. On December 7, he warned Mr. Putin of the serious consequences if Russia launched another attack on Ukraine. He maintained the sanctions against Iran. And in October, he said America was “committed” to defending Taiwan, although his aides insisted the policy had not changed. (America has long refused to say whether it would send forces to repel a Chinese invasion, so as not to encourage Taiwanese action that might provoke one.) China has questioned whether Mr. Biden was wrong or artfully hinted at a firmer stance. On December 7, the United States House of Representatives voted to significantly increase the defense budget. Also this week, Mr. Biden was to organize a “Summit for Democracy” to encourage countries that play by the rules to join forces.
And yet, as our Briefing explains, America has become reluctant to use hard power in much of the world. A coalition of hawks and doves in Washington calls for “restraint.” The Doves say that in trying to control the world America is inevitably drawn into unnecessary conflicts abroad that it cannot win. The hawks say America must not be distracted from the one task that matters: standing up to China.
Either of these two visions would result in a partial and destabilizing American retreat, leaving the world more dangerous and uncertain. Mr. Biden’s debacle during the withdrawal from Afghanistan has led some to doubt America’s willingness to defend its friends or deter its enemies, and many to worry about the competence of its planning. The president’s cowardly remarks about America’s nuclear umbrella have undermined confidence among allies that he still protects them. And although Mr. Biden does not insult the allies like Donald Trump did, he often fails to consult them, eroding the bonds of trust that have long multiplied American power.
The mood of the country that elects him is just as important as the instinct of any president. America is no longer the confident hegemony of the 1990s. Its relative power has weakened, though it remains unmatched. After Iraq and Afghanistan, voters grew weary of foreign adventures. Partisan politics, which once stopped at the water’s edge, cripples most aspects of politics. More than 90 ambassadorial posts remain vacant, blocked by Congress. America refused to join a trade pact that would have supplemented its military ties in Asia with economic ties. The relentless drama of politics, including on such topics as contested elections and the wearing of masks, makes America appear too divided at home to show a sustained purpose abroad.
It would be a mistake to assume that the old committed America will return – after all, Mr. Trump could be re-elected in 2024. If liberal order is to be preserved, other powers will have to do their part, both to prepare for a world in which they have less help, but also to keep America engaged. There are signs of this. Japan and Australia have said they will help defend Taiwan. Britain has joined America in sharing nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia. A new German government hints at a tougher line against Russia.
Greater adaptation to a world with less America will be necessary. Democracies, especially in Europe, should spend more on defense. Those like Taiwan and Ukraine at risk of attack should make themselves indigestible, for example by boosting their asymmetric warfare capacity. The better prepared they are, the less likely their enemies are to attack them.
Fans of the rule-based order should share more intelligence with each other. They should bury old feuds, such as the futile feuds between Japan and South Korea throughout history. They should forge deeper and broader alliances, formally or informally. India, out of self-interest, should abandon the vestiges of non-alignment and move closer to the Quad, along with Australia, Japan and America. NATO can not admit Ukraine, because the rules say that an attack on one is an attack on all, and Russia has already occupied Ukrainian territory. Corn NATO members can offer Ukraine more weapons, money and training to help it defend itself.
If the liberal order collapses, America’s allies will suffer cruelly. Once it is gone, Americans themselves may be surprised to find out how much they have benefited from it. However, all is not lost. A determined and united effort by democracies could preserve at least part of the rules-based system and prevent the world from falling back to the sad historical norm, in which the strong prey free themselves from the weak. Few tasks are more important or more difficult. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “What Will America Fight For?”