Why US Needs its Liberal Empire
Image Credit: US Navy

Why US Needs its Liberal Empire


Political sentiment in the United States seems to be turning against the interventions and nation-building projects that have characterized US foreign policy in recent years. The revulsion at the cost and size of government, including the cost of expensive wars in the Middle East, has been amply demonstrated during the debt ceiling drama of recent weeks.

President Barack Obama has spoken of the need to nation-build at home rather than in Afghanistan, while most Republican presidential contenders showed an aversion to the Libyan operation and an unending expansive role in Afghanistan during their first primary debate in New Hampshire. Congressional grumbling is growing against further doubling-down in Afghanistan and the meandering intervention in Libya.

This is very much to the good. At times over the past two decades, US foreign policy has lost its moorings in distinguishing the vital from the desirable, with the result that conceptions of US security and humanitarian interests have become so expansive as to be seen to obligate preventive war against rogue states, coercive intervention against recalcitrant dictators, and inordinately ambitious efforts at forcibly modernizing backward societies – with baleful results. If this disorienting fever is subsiding in favour of a return to the more restrictive war-making and intervention criteria typified by the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine, then there’s cause for satisfaction.

But the pendulum shouldn’t be allowed to swing too far toward an incautious retrenchment. For our problem hasn’t been overseas commitments and interventions as such, but the kinds of interventions. The US alliance and partnership structure, what the late William Odom called the United States’ ‘liberal empire’ that includes a substantial military presence and a willingness to use it in the defence of US and allied interests, remains a vital component of US security and global stability and prosperity. This system of voluntary and consensual cooperation under US leadership, particularly in the security realm, constitutes a formidable bloc defending the liberal international order.

But, in part due to poor decision-making in Washington, this system is under strain, particularly in East Asia, where the security situation has become tenser even as the region continues to become the centre of the global economy.

A nuclear North Korea’s violent behaviour threatens South Korea and Japan, as well as US forces on the peninsula; Pyongyang’s development of a road mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, moreover, brings into sight the day when North Korea could threaten the United States itself with nuclear attack, a prospect that will further imperil stability in the region.

More broadly, the rise of China – and especially its rapid and opaque military build-up – combined with its increasing assertiveness in regional disputes is troubling to the United States and its allies and partners across the region. Particularly relevant to the US military presence in the western Pacific is the development of Beijing’s anti-access and area denial capabilities, including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, more capable anti-ship cruise missiles, attack submarines, attack aircraft, smart mines, torpedoes, and other assets.

While Beijing remains a constructive contributor on a range of matters, these capabilities will give China the growing power to deny the United States the ability to operate effectively in the western Pacific, and thus the potential to undermine the US-guaranteed security substructure that has defined littoral East Asia since World War II. Even if China says today it won’t exploit this growing capability, who can tell what tomorrow or the next day will bring?

Naturally, US efforts to build up forces in the western Pacific in response to future Chinese force improvements must be coupled with efforts to engage Beijing as a responsible stakeholder; indeed, a strengthened but appropriately restrained military posture will enable rather than detract from such engagement. 

In short, the United States must increase its involvement in East Asia rather than decrease it. Simply maintaining the military balance in the western Pacific will, however, involve substantial investments to improve US capabilities. It will also require augmented contributions to the common defence by US allies that have long enjoyed low defence budgets under the US security umbrella.  This won’t be cheap, for these requirements can’t be met simply by incremental additions to the existing posture, but will have to include advances in air, naval, space, cyber, and other expensive high-tech capabilities.

August 20, 2011 at 14:26

That is correct

Winston Jia
August 17, 2011 at 01:16

US should start a massive education about Asia, both their languages and their cultures and histories. This would be more important than just maintaining her military presence. For example, the kind of initiative of education about Asia such as East-West Center should be strengthened rather than stopped as the Foreign Relations Committee of the Congress has supported!!!

August 16, 2011 at 23:34

The USA is greater threat to rest of the world than all the evil axis put togather.

August 16, 2011 at 00:31

@venkat s.k Hello Venkat. May I ask how old are you ?

August 16, 2011 at 00:27

I, for one, would not give up on America. They still have a bellyfull of fight in them. They have the resilience and resource to get back on track. They’ll still be No. 1 for many years to come.

America will pull through , the sooner the better.

August 15, 2011 at 13:47

What good is a military empire without the economy to support it?

With the current dismal prospects of the US economy, the American economic and political model stands to lose legitimacy, especially if a non-democratic China continues to soar upwards to become the world’s largest economy between 2020 and 2030.

The USA might be better served by trading in their swords for plowshares.

John Chan
August 15, 2011 at 00:52

Look, who is talking here, a nation rather spends tens of billions on buying used aircraft carriers for the rich countries instead of feeding its own poor people who accounts more than 70% of its population; a nation rattling nuclear sable to anyone in sight; encircling its neighbour with electrical fence and shooting anyone in sight crossing the fence; exploiting and abusing its own citizens by birth with an inhumane caste system; inciting other nations to fight its war, etc.

Who can be more evil than such unmoral nation? No one. China should supply WWII rifles to the suppressed indigenous people in India to kick out the high caste aliens in India, and recover their freedom.

August 14, 2011 at 04:14

@ John Chan – how many Germans and Japanese killed by the US in WWII? Who are the closest allies of the US in Europe and Asia now? Germany and Japan.

@ megakids – who said “US would go to war with, of all nations, China”? I did not see it anywhere in the post. Can you point it out? Tiny and pitiful? You mean the same tiny Vietnam that the barbarians from big China tried and tried to swallow for the last few thousands years and still fail and fail and suffered humiliation defeats after humiliation defeats? Yes, you are absolutely right, “It’s beyond belief and fundamental intellectual analysis” – about Chinese bloggers lack of basic reading comprehensive skill and history knowledge. LMAO.

August 14, 2011 at 02:55

Pearl Harbor happened because of China. The US were doing an embargo of petroleum products to Japan for it to stop the invasion of China. So yes the American Death’s in WWII started with helping China.

August 14, 2011 at 02:05

@John Chan John, you are fond of History you should know that history proves how helpful the United States are in both WWI and WWII if not for them Germany might have won the war. So I do not get the meaning when you said flattery’s they did not deserve? Millions of American’s died fighting against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. They were bombed by Japan because of their oil embargo to stop Japanese Invasion of China.

So yeah they do deserve flattery for that.

August 14, 2011 at 02:02

@Sinodefender: The reason the USA got attacked in Pearl Harbor was it embargoed all Petroleum products going to Japan leaving the Japanese Navy only a month or so supply of fuel. That is in order for Japan not to advance into China without its Mechanical Equipment (Tanks, Trucks, Planes, etc.) so it was in defense of China that the United States was bombed by Japan.

At least acknowledge that fact. It was not only the United States after that immediately all her military bases in the vicinity got attacked.

August 14, 2011 at 01:46

Yes but if the US abandons Asia and let China have free reign it would be a big blunder also strategically. Since Asia Pacific is the backyard of the United States. If US looses Asia then Guam would be vulnerable to attacks with no buffer on Guam.

The US just left China alone before to build up its armed forces it is only recently that the US have been vocal when China tried to muscle its way through ASEAN Claimants with its superior Military.

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