Many people around the world, including Americans, look back with nostalgia to a time when they think their country was at the peak of its power and aspire to restore that influence abroad. How else to explain the outpouring of support for presidential candidates Donald Trump and Marco Rubio who pledge to restore America's "greatness"?
Trump, the flamboyant billionaire, must have a golden age in mind when he thinks America was strong at home and exercised great power abroad, for example, in the first decade of the 20th century when President Theodore Roosevelt built the Panama Canal and sent the U.S. Navy around the world to demonstrate America's emergence as a great power.
Most Americans living in 1945, including this writer, recall the euphoria that swept our country when World War II ended, when the world acclaimed the United States as preeminent world power for having crushed Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. No one in 1945-46 doubted that America was "king of the mountain" We could essentially remake the postwar world.
While America remained the leading economic and military power, its global influence was confronted during the Cold War by the Soviet Union and by Communist China's emergence as an Asian power. It was also challenged by the appearance of new nations in Asia and Africa resulting from de-colonization by European powers, notably Britain and France.
Overreaching by U.S. military and economic power in Vietnam during the 1960s forced Americans to question whether we should stop being "policeman" to the world and focus attention instead on pressing needs at home. The result was a strategic retreat in the 1970s, underlined by impeachment of Richard Nixon and the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Today, Republican presidential candidates cite the 1980s as the time when Ronald Reagan restored America's greatness as a world power. They hail him as the hero who restored U.S. military strength, rebuilt the Atlantic Alliance, brought victory in the Cold War, and witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire. But Republicans don't talk about the huge budget deficits that Reagan ran up accomplishing these objectives.
Democrats prefer to recall the 1990s as a time of America's greatness because the country emerged, as in 1945, as the only superpower. It resumed its role as the world's most powerful nation economically, which Bill Clinton used to advance U.S. political and security interests world-wide. A rapidly expanding economy produced ever smaller federal deficits, and by 1999 the U.S. Treasury reported a budget surplus for the first time in decades.
Most Republican candidates pledge to greatly increase defense spending and expand the armed forces as the way to bolster our diplomatic clout with adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran. A few, like Rand Paul, think strengthening the U.S. economy is a better way to expand America's influence internationally. Others, Jeb Bush and John Kasich, think the U.S. must lead a broad coalition of other powers in confronting ISIS, instead of trying "to go it alone."
The reality is that "making America great again" is a slogan that appeals to voters who long for a time when America dominated international relations and faced down adversaries who challenged its hegemony.
That time has never really existed since 1947, when the Soviet Union challenged us in Europe and the Middle East. Today, a rising China, a frustrated Russia, and an ambitious Iran are challenging U.S. supremacy in East Asia and the Middle East.
America remains a powerful country and its influence is recognized around the world. The real issue for voters in 2016-2017 is whether America should strive to dominate events in every part of the world, and the costs we are willing to pay for new military interventions abroad.
In my view, America is not ready for "greatness" if that entails spending huge economic and military resources for operations that are not vital U.S. national interests. The country surely needs a national debate about what those vital interests are.
File last modified on Tuesday, 10-NOV-2015 9:54 AM EST