Most of human history has been marked by war.
Between 1500 and 1945, scarcely a year went by without one great power fighting another. Then, in 1945, that stopped. Battlefield deaths have plummeted to the lowest levels in history. The world has experienced the greatest reduction in poverty in history, as well as the greatest spread of democracy and freedom.
Why did this happen? Mostly it was because the United States decided to lead a community of nations to create a democratic world order. It consisted of institutions like NATO, the U.N. and the World Bank. But it was also enforced by the pervasive presence of American power – military, economic and cultural power as well as the magnetic power of the democratic idea, which inspired dissidents worldwide.
Building any community requires exercising power. America’s leaders made some terrible mistakes (Vietnam, Iraq). The nation never got to enjoy the self-righteous sense of innocence that the powerless and reclusive enjoy.
But the U.S. having been dragged into two world wars, leaders from Truman to Obama felt they had no choice but to widen America’s circle of concern. As Robert Kagan writes in “The Jungle Grows Back,” “Very few nations in history have ever felt any responsibility for anything but themselves.”
This should be a source of pride for all Americans, but it is not. Researchers from the Center for American Progress recently completed a survey of American foreign policy views. They write: “When asked what the phrase ‘maintaining the liberal international order’ indicated to them, all but one of the participants in our focus groups drew a blank. Voters across educational lines ... did not understand what any of these phrases ... meant or implied.”
That by itself is not a problem. The liberal order was built by foreign policy elites. The problem is that voters are now actively hostile to the project. Instead of widening the circle of concern, most Americans want the U.S. to simply look after itself.
The CAP researchers asked 2,000 registered voters what U.S. foreign policy priorities should be. The top priorities were protecting against terrorist threats, protecting jobs for American workers and reducing illegal immigration. These are negative aspirations: preventing things from hostile outsiders.
The lowest priorities were promoting democracy, taking on Chinese aggression, promoting trade, fighting global poverty and defending human rights. The things Americans care least about are the core activities of building a civilized global community.
After Iraq and other debacles, many Americans are exhausted by the global leadership role. Many have lost faith in the nation’s leadership class. They say correctly that we have a lot of problems here at home.
But a big part of the shift is caused by many Americans having lost faith in human nature and human possibility.
Even after the horrors of World War II, most Americans said that people can be trusted. Building a community of nations seemed like a doable proposition because most people are basically good. Even today, people who express high social trust are much more likely to see America as an indispensable nation, much more likely to believe American values are universal values and much more likely to support the policies that preserve the liberal world order.
But social trust has collapsed over the decades, especially among the young. Distrustful, alienated people don’t want to get involved in the strange, hostile, outside world.
There are two types of low-trust voters. On the right there are the Trumpian America Firsters, who want to cut immigration and break alliances. On the left there are the New Doves. These are young people who express high interest in human rights, but having grown up in the Iraq era, they don’t want the U.S. to get involved in protecting them. A survey of American voters by the Eurasia Group Foundation reported, “People under 30 years old were the most likely to want the United States to abstain from intervening in human rights abuses.”
The America Firsters and the New Doves may think of themselves as opposites, but they wind up in the same place: America should not be abroad preserving the liberal world order.
The CAP study estimates that less than a fifth of voters are traditional internationalists. The Eurasia Group study estimates that only 9.5% are.
America is withdrawing from the world; the results are there for all to see. China is cracking down on democratic rights in Hong Kong. Russia launches cyber-attacks everywhere. Iran is destabilizing the Middle East. The era of great power rivalry is coming back.
We’re in a dark spiral. Americans take a dim view of human nature and withdraw from the world. Wolves like Putin and Xi fill the void, confirming the view and causing more withdrawal.
We need a leader who can grapple with failures like Iraq, build a younger, credible leadership class and embody an optimism that pulls us out of the spiral.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.