The comments here on Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ commencement address at Notre Dame have been largely positive. At a time when fiscal constraints are leading some American leaders to call for a reduced U.S. role in the world, Gates made the case for a strong, well-funded military. While I agree that the speech was, on the whole, a good one, I do take issue with his conclusion (and I am nitpicking here). He finished by quoting a letter from John Adams to his son Thomas Boylston Adams:
He wrote: “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or another. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”
To this I would add: if America declines to lead in the world, others will not.
I’m not so sure that this is true. Indeed, one of the scary thoughts about America declining its global leadership role is that there might be nobody to step in and lead in her stead. The problem, I would argue, is not so much that we would have dishonorable or unwise leadership, but that we would have no leadership at all.
Without the United States providing the public goods it provides now—especially security—the world would enter a much less stable era. Without a dominant America keeping the peace, we would see a proliferation of arms races, debilitating competition over the commons, and a greater likelihood of armed conflict. It’s no surprise that Gates, as he put it, has “been struck by the number of countries—from Europe to Southeast Asia—who want to forge closer ties with us and with our military, and want the United States to play a bigger, not smaller, role as partners providing stability, security, and prosperity across the globe.” The costs of American global leadership are high, yes. The costs of abdicating that leadership are higher still.