The United States of America constitutes a vast continent in the temperate zone of North America, bordered by two great oceans to the east and west and by the Canadian arctic to the north. This geography grants Americans a large measure of safety and separation from the infernal conflicts that dominate much of the globe.
Yet, it cannot be denied that technology has shrunk geographical distance. The world of geopolitics is simply smaller than it ever has been. The 9/11 attack on the American homeland, the impetus for which originated in the remote hills of Afghanistan, is the most obvious example of this. Then there is the new world of global financial markets, whereby stock movements in East Asia and Europe can instantaneously affect Wall Street. And, of course, as recent headlines show, there is the spread of disease, whereby a small country in West Africa suddenly looms geopolitically vital.
In short, the United States is more vulnerable than ever before to events in the outside world, and more influenced by them.
This is especially true of the elite that implement and help control foreign policy. Elites always exist in democracies and non-democracies alike. The masses may shape the political environment in which policy is made, but an elite is required to give it form and substance. And because of the shrinkage of geography wrought by technology, America's foreign policy elite are more cosmopolitan than ever before, meaning they have more professional connections with other elites worldwide than ever before, which has a profound influence upon the American elite's own values and how they think.
These cosmopolitan elites have not emerged in a foreign policy vacuum. World War II and the decadeslong Cold War that followed brought America into a reinforced webwork of commitments — and of history itself — that gave the United States, Europe and Asia a common destiny to a degree that never existed previously. The most poignant demonstration of this was the military interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, driven to a large extent by an elite that felt a strong commitment to European order even though, one might have argued at the time, no obvious American security interest was at stake in the Balkans.
And there is no retreat from any of this. In the autumn of 1990, the late conservative intellectual Jeane Kirkpatrick published an essay in The National Interest advising that with the Cold War over, the United States had the possibility of becoming a "normal country" once again — that is, a country defined more by domestic concerns than by foreign policy. The problem was that this essay was likely written after the Berlin Wall fell, but before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. For when Saddam invaded Kuwait, upsetting the status quo in the Middle East, only the United States was in a position to reverse what he had done. And it was in such a position only because of the military armature it had built up in the course of the Cold War. In other words, having defended the free world for almost half a century, there was no possibility of retreating back into itself.
There are, too, the periodic outcries for humanitarian intervention, which are directed at the United States naturally because of its military power — a power that has the possibility, at least, of setting things to rights in a manner that no other country can do.
Like it or not, we are utterly enmeshed in the world.
And yet there is still this grand pull of a continent whose immensity can only be grasped by traveling around it by road, as I have done on several occasions, from one coast to the other. Inside this continent the world across the oceans can still seem distant, for there is just so much going on inside America, peculiar to America, that demands action and reflection. Yes, America, like the world, has been made smaller by technology. But America is also more populous and urbanized — and therefore more complex — than ever before, so that the country's own problems require more urgent attention than ever.
When it took five days to cross the Atlantic by ocean liner, foreign policy was simpler than at a time when one can cross it in six hours by commercial jet, or communicate anywhere in a flash by email. In the former era, a degree of isolationism was natural, and America's very late entry into World War II — at the end of 1941, when Nazi Germany was already at the gates of Moscow — was comprehensible. Indeed, the consensus up until the early 20th century was that the United States only got involved overseas when an overwhelming interest demanded it. Back then, the idea that evil anywhere threatened the American heartland was much less easily entertained than it is now.
Now there is no consensus. There are those whose attitudes emanate from the undeniable immensity of the continent, who want America less involved overseas; and there are those whose attitudes emanate from the undeniable forces of globalization, who want America even more involved. We have both a cosmopolitan elite and a population with sturdy elements of old-fashioned nationalism. These two forces coexisted during the Cold War only because of the demonstrable ideological and strategic threat that had emerged from World War II in the form of Soviet-led communism. And the intensity of the current foreign policy debate indicates that even Muslim jihadism is not yet considered a threat of quite the same magnitude, 9/11 and the beheadings of journalists notwithstanding.
This does not necessarily mean that American foreign policy is immobilized or that it cannot usefully evolve. A healthy debate conducted within limits can result in a moderate course that provides for continued American leadership in the world. Perhaps an innovative formula for squaring the circle here was provided in a January 2009 essay in Foreign Affairs, "America's Edge," by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who later served as the State Department's director of policy planning. Slaughter indicates that while America might no longer necessarily be preponderant in a fading hierarchal world of geopolitics, it still can — and must — serve as the "center" of a webwork of power relationships the world over. In this formula, America cannot dictate, but it can be the organizing principle for global leadership — the state that puts together the coalitions for dealing with this problem and that one, through the power of its various political and economic networks.
America at the "center" rather than always on top is a starting point for another, more nuanced American century, given the changes in geography wrought by technology. America might, given the combined forces of geography and technology, begin to lose itself in the wider, increasingly borderless world, as it becomes less and less exceptional. The challenge will be to control this process and actually slow it down as much as possible so that America remains at the "center" for a long time to come.