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Opinion | Is the United States Done Being the World’s Cop?


There were liberal defenders of intervention too. One of its foremost champions emerged in Samantha Power, an ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack Obama and the current administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. If the United States rightfully prided itself on helping to end the Holocaust, she wondered in her 2002 book, “A Problem From Hell,” why had it done nothing to stop the Rwandan genocide that left some 800,000 dead in 1994? The promise of “never again,” she argued, obligated the United States to prevent atrocities around the world — by unilateral force, if necessary.

To the Times columnist David Brooks, both the national-security and humanitarian justifications for U.S. military hegemony still hold sway. “Every day I see progressives defending women’s rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and racial justice at home and yet championing a foreign policy that cedes power to the Taliban, Hamas and other reactionary forces abroad,” he writes. “If we’re going to fight Trumpian authoritarianism at home, we have to fight the more venomous brands of authoritarianism that thrive around the world. That means staying on the field.”

How the postwar consensus cracked

For better or for worse, military engagement abroad and U.S. dominance more generally have become unpopular with the American public.

One reason is that national-security justifications for U.S. supremacy no longer pack the same punch they did after Sept. 11. “Americans live in a world that is safer and freer than ever before in human history — and it is not even close,” Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen wrote in their 2019 book, “Clear and Present Safety.” Decades of fear-mongering about foreign threats by Washington insiders, they argued, have obscured what truly harms Americans: substandard education and health care systems, dilapidated infrastructure, gun violence, inequality, congressional gridlock and climate change.

The global war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq also did severe damage to the humanitarian justification for military intervention. In a 2010 article in The Journal of Genocide Research, the historian Stephen Wertheim argued that after the Rwandan genocide, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists like Power fatally underestimated the difficulties of stopping ethnic conflict and ignored the challenges of postwar nation-building. In casting military intervention as a categorical imperative — regardless of the consequences, and regardless of public opinion — interventionists laid the path for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Nearly two decades later, Peter Beinart argues in The Times, it is difficult for the United States to maintain its preferred image as a uniquely beneficent global actor. According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, post-Sept. 11 wars in which “U.S. forces have been most significantly involved” have killed over 800,000 people, displaced 37 million and cost the United States some $6.4 trillion. (For reference, that is about $1.9 trillion more than the estimated cost of completely transitioning the U.S. power grid off fossil fuels.) The United States also continues to export more weapons than any other country, including to five of the six most interventionist states in the Middle East.