August 7 marked the 80th anniversary of U.S. landings on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. American World War II buffs will note that the U.S. first took the strategic initiative with these landings – until then we had been responding to enemy offensives. Students of wider U.S. military history may further note that the U.S. had always had the strategic initiative since at least the War of 1812. The eight months from Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal were an exceptional reactive, defensive period.
We have continued in this forward, expansionary mode, arguably up to the present day. The Cold War was militarily a defensive campaign, but by 1980 our growing economic and cultural capacities had become a different kind of force that ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union.
But today Americans feel as though we are on the defensive, possibly on the wane, in nearly every sense, military, economic, and cultural. Events and adversaries present challenges that we might not contain. Even in commemorating the Guadalcanal landings Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman attended as a response to the Solomon Islands’ diplomatic recognition of the PRC, and cutting of ties with Taiwan.
Is America on the strategic defensive? Are we a declining power? Is our “liberal world order” on the wane? The answer will play out in coming years. The bigger question, though, is what is our objective in the world? If America exists for its status as linchpin of this world order, we may well be vulnerable. If we cannot abide the existence of challenges such as China’s, we will always feel besieged.
America’s purpose, and self-preservation, are both tied to the terms of our founding. The nation conceived itself by the creed of the Declaration of Independence. We hold as self evident truth that all individuals are equally endowed with unalienable rights and that governments exist to secure those rights. That was a radical new idea for a nation, and its ethos still has only limited hold in the world. It is a new idea, and drives America as a new venture. Even as the dominant global power, we are still insurgents in the world. Most people still live in the fears that underpin clan based rule, and in poverty that inhibits independent thought and allegiance. Even we ourselves still need to develop further toward realizing our own self conception.
There are those who say America is inherently expansionist. Frederick Jackson Turner fretted over the full settlement of the continent. Communists deem us Capitalist expropriators by nature. What really drives us is our own enterprising energy, and the need for environments that allow us, and others, to live by their own chosen lights. The more we do, the more we reach into the world, the more the appeal of rights and freedom looks real and feasible to people who have not enjoyed them. We will expand, not as a political plot to dominate others but because freedom’s appeal is universal once it is seen.
The idea that people should live by their unalienable rights is new, even though we are 240 years old. In a long view, we are as new as start-up company. Our value does not rest on arms, money, institutional norms, or world orders. Those help us build an environment for rights but they are means to our fundamental ends, which is not even to “spread freedom.” We need only to live ever more fully in freedom and stand by others who seek to live by their unalienable rights. But if we do this, no, we will not lose the global initiative and not decline in our place in the world. Freedom is still young and growing.