Memo to Mr. Obama: It's firm leadership and military strength that keep America safe

It’s been 25 years since the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” – a landmark essay in American intellectual life that argued that the post-Cold War era would be one in which economic and political liberalism would increasingly rule the world’s roost.

But with autocratic Russian and Chinese rule seemingly firmly in place, combined with Moscow’s and Beijing’s militarily aggressive behavior toward neighbors, the question mark in Fukuyama’s title becomes  more relevant by the day.

Indeed, the issue today is, have we now entered into a new period in which the U.S. will once again have to take account of the fact that, when it comes to the world’s other great powers, the trend line is not nearly as optimistic as Fukuyama’s essay once suggested?


This is of course not the first time the U.S will have had to reverse course.  In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the hope was that a new liberal order would arise that allowed Americans to return to taking care of business at home. With a war-weary public in mind, President Truman chose to slash the defense budget.  It was a decision that he would come to deeply regret as he faced increasing security problems in both Asia and Europe.

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    Will President Obama make the same mistake, believing Chinese and Russian ambitions are to be largely placated rather than firmly addressed?

    If he follows the advice of Fareed Zakaria (“The Perils of Leaning Forward,” June 5), he well might.

    The CNN anchor and Time magazine editor argues that despite America’s global preponderance of power following World War II, the Truman team could not forestall the emergence of Soviet threat, Mao’s victory in China, and the 1950 invasion of South Korea.

    Believing those perils arose in spite of the Truman build-up, Zakaria argues that “leaning forward” today in foreign policy may unnerve American allies while doing nothing to deter its adversaries.

    What Zakaria ignores is that the Truman administration’s vast commitment of resources to national security followed a series of Soviet coups in Eastern Europe, its support for communist insurgency in Greece, the Communist victory in China, and the 1950 invasion of South Korea. Truman only recognized the importance of investing in military strength after these setbacks in Europe and Asia.

    But it was precisely Truman’s reversal that ensured historians a half century later would recognize him as a key architect of the long, great power piece that ensued and, ultimately, the West’s victory in the Cold War.

    While it is difficult to think of the Greatest Generation as anything but selfless and resolute, the generation that endured the Depression and triumphed over fascism was exhausted by late 1945. Rather than preparing for a long twilight conflict with the Soviet Union, it demanded that it finally be able to enjoy the freedom and prosperity for which it strived.

    This was only natural. Almost 18 million Americans served in the war, each for an average of 33 months. More than seventy percent served overseas, each for an average of 16 months. Four hundred thousand Americans made the ultimate sacrifice – more each month than the number killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

    Truman cut the defense budget by 45% in 1946. Two years later, the defense budget bottomed out at a mere 12% of its wartime peak. This was not because Truman failed to comprehend the Soviet threat.

    In February 1946, George Kennan’s Long Telegram from Moscow electrified the administration with its warning that the Soviet Union was “committed fanatically to the belief that...the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”

    Truman took a number of bold and indispensable steps to hold the free world together, including the passage of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of NATO. Yet Truman refused to ask Congress for the funds necessary to preserve the level of American military prowess required to sustain his diplomacy.

    The cost of this unpreparedness became clear when Josef Stalin granted the North Korean request to invade the South. The first American troops thrown into battle in Korea belonged to an under-strength battalion known as Task Force Smith. They were mauled by a North Korean force ten times their size, which slaughtered a third of the battalion in a matter of hours.

    The shock of the invasion led Truman to approve a new strategy laid out in the classified directive known as NSC-68. Defense spending tripled within two years, then stabilized at a somewhat lower level after the war.

    For the next thirty-five years, the United States would retain a peacetime force unprecedented in its history. The Soviet Union tried many approaches to subverting American power, but it did not risk another direct attack in East Asia or Western Europe.

    With an eye toward China and Russia, Fareed Zakaria writes, “the central task of U.S. foreign policy over the next decade [is] deterring a great power challenge.” That is sensible, yet Zakaria wrings his hands at the prospect of the United States taking substantive measures to deter Chinese aggression, such as “building up its naval presence in the Pacific, creating new bases and adopting a more aggressive and forceful attitude.”

    Inexplicably, Zakaria suggests, “this would alarm almost all the countries in the region,” when in fact the overwhelming concern these days in capitals such as Tokyo, Manila and Singapore, is that the administration’s planned “pivot” to Asia is largely rhetoric.  And, needless to say, the nations of Eastern and Central Europe are just as uncertain about U.S. credibility in the face of Russian aggression when they see smallish numbers of American troops, planes and ships rotated into the region, and only a temporary basis.

    No great powers have come to blows since 1945 because, with some exceptions, the United States has offered firm leadership grounded in military strength.

    The peril today is hardly that President Obama is in danger of “leaning forward” too far. Quite the opposite. The danger today is that he has ignored the lesson of the Truman years that, absent American military strength, dangers will grow -- not recede.