A quarter-century ago, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld questioned the Central Intelligence Agency’s estimates of the Soviet threat. He believed that the CIA, led then by George Bush, had underestimated the strategic military power of the Soviet Union. Rumsfeld’s warnings led to a reassessment of the threat and later the formation of the Committee on the Present Danger—a group of intellectuals who made the case that America had fallen behind and had not taken the precautions to secure its defense. William Kristol, the editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard, and Robert Kagan, an associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have edited a fresh series of essays written in the same spirit though against a different enemy. The new present danger, say Kristol and Kagan, is the reluctance of the United States to stand alone on the world stage and exert its influence on the post-Cold War world.
The 15 essays colleted in Present Dangers have a very specific purpose: to offer a moral defense of U.S. intervention in world affairs. Put simply, the United States stands as the principle bulwark against evil and tyranny in the modern world. Just as Ronald Reagan unapologetically denounced the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire,” so too do Kristol, Kagan, and other authors blame current U.S. foreign policy for coddling regimes that do not respect freedom and human rights. Although such regimes may not pose an immediate threat to the United States, conflict is more likely than not because tyranny and liberal capitalism are ultimately incompatible. Left unchecked, nations like North Korea and Iraq may well acquire the means to pose a strategic threat to the United States or its allies. If the United States is to “shape the international environment to its own advantage,” as Kristol and Kagan put it, this will require “being more rather than less inclined to weigh in when crises erupt, and preferably before they erupt.”
The essays in Present Dangers are by some of the most thoughtful writers on American defense and foreign policy, including Ross Munro, Donald Kagan, Frederick Kagan, Nicholas Eberstadt, Richard Perle, and Elliot Abrams. William J. Bennett and James Ceaser, two analysts not known for their work on defense issues, contribute fine essays, too.
William Schneider and Paul Wolfowitz deserve special commendation. Schneider explains the reasons behind America’s failure to check the spread of ballistic missile technology and shows why we must be prepared for nuclear, chemical, or biological attack. Schneider knows well the emerging danger, having been a member of the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission that assessed the ballistic missile threat to the United States. Much of the blame he places at the feet of the Clinton Administration, which delayed research and development on promising missile defense programs and gutted the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Trade Controls (COCOM), enabling Russia and others to trade sensitive technologies to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq virtually without oversight.
Wolfowitz tackles the question of “Statesmanship in the New Century.” Like others in this volume, he argues for the strategic importance of promoting democracy throughout the world. This is no easy task, of course. In the case of China, Wolfowitz explains that the U.S. must fulfill its obligations to Taiwan without unduly alienating Communist China. It will be in America’s long-term interest for a free and democratic Taiwan to remain an example to which the people of the mainland can aspire. Wolfowitz is under no illusions that China can be made easily into a constitutional democracy that respects the rights of man. But he believes that China—given the openness that comes with trade and a growing private sector—is fundamentally different from the old Soviet Union.
Most importantly, Wolfowitz argues for statesmanship and prudence in the conduct of foreign policy. No general idea of theory—isolationism, multilateralism, etc.—will ever be sufficient to lead a president to do what is right on every occasion. This is perhaps the central lesson of Present Dangers. Although offering a compelling defense of American interventionism in the world, the authors recognize that in the final analysis everything comes down to strategy and statesmanship.
Some will find this conclusion remarkable, since it was Kristol and Kagan who advocated intervening in Kosovo primarily, though not exclusively, on humanitarian grounds. Many in the conservative movement found this course of action ill-conceived and imprudent.
Although Wolfowitz avoids passing judgment on the U.S. action in Kosovo, he does question whether Clinton understood just how difficult it would be to conduct a foreign policy promoting ethnic diversity and tolerance in Yugoslavia. Wolfowitz reminds readers, “Statesmanship requires, therefore, not only a moral vision, but a willingness and ability to take a hard-headed and clear-eyed view of the world.” Oddly enough, Present Dangers—Wolfowitz’s chapter in particular—is actually a kind of corrective to Kristol, Kagan, Senator John McCain, and others who zealously supported Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia mainly for the sake of U.S. moral hegemony. Such lessons are especially timely at the beginning of a new administration. For both policymakers and students of foreign affairs, Present Dangers is essential reading.