A fight breaks out in a bar. The brawlers aren’t armed, but with fists, bottles, and bar stools furiously flailing, people are bound to get hurt, maybe even killed.
Suddenly, there’s a warning shot: one person – the only one armed – fires a bullet into the ceiling. In stunned silence, the crowd fixates its eyes upon him. “Freeze! Nobody move!” he demands, punctuating his authority, as if the gunshot wasn’t enough.
As good fortune would have it, he’s not interested in using his dominance for evil purposes. For instance, he’s not going to demand everyone fork over their wallets and jewelry. Of course, if he tells the owner: “I just saved the day, the least you could do is pick up my bar tab and give me free drinks for a month,” that may run contrary to the magnanimity befitting a superhero, but no one ever said the guy’s perfect.
That scenario applies to the United States in 1945, when it was the sole occupant of an atomic weapon. At that precise moment, it could have had a “freeze, nobody move!” moment on the world stage, but it dropped the ball. Before you knew it, the Soviets and later a bunch of other countries had nukes too.
Much like our hero from the bar, America wasn’t interested in becoming the world’s oppressor; that’s not what we’re all about. But should we have become the world’s policeman? Absolutely. At least until we ensured no one else could obtain a nuclear weapon.
Our careless attempts to maintain world order failed miserably, and within 20 years we lost China and were on the brink of nuclear war with Russia. Then came Ronald Reagan.
By outmaneuvering Soviet leaders from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, Reagan deserves the lion’s share of the credit for winning the decades-long Cold War, all without firing a shot. Sure, there were other reasons for the Soviet Union’s implosion – not least of which strong support by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, thereby cementing America’s moral imperative to bring down the ‘Evil Empire’, Gorbachev’s own penchant for glastnost (openness), and President George H.W. Bush’s prudent handling of the baton passed to him by his predecessor – but Reagan was the driving, looming force behind that historic transformation.
America got its second “freeze, nobody move!” opportunity, but, sadly and astoundingly, managed to blow it yet again.
We can be disingenuous and blame one side or the other, but in reality neither major party was able to replicate Reagan’s command of the world stage. President Bush the younger said he looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and got a sense of his soul. President Obama praised Putin for the “extraordinary work” he did on behalf of the Russian people (yeah, Obama really said that, look it up). President Clinton had it easy; Putin hadn’t really risen to power yet – most of Clinton’s presidency took place during the Boris Yeltsin years. Though excoriated by his critics for cozying up to Putin, at least President Trump can claim – and he does, every chance he gets – that he’s the only president of the 21st century under whose leadership Russia didn’t annex any territory.
Now Putin has invaded Ukraine, and we’re back to free-for-all fisticuffs at the bar. What about the guy with the gun? The trigger is jammed and in any case, he’s got laryngitis.
Here’s some cold, hard, reality: the world is a dangerous place full of bad people. Even more importantly, it’s full of power-hungry people. The United States remains the world’s foremost political, economic, and military superpower, which causes other nations’ leaders to seethe in jealousy and vow to topple America from its supreme perch. That’s why we need to be absolutely dominant on the world stage. Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi would combine forces in a minute if it meant dethroning the United States as world champ, and all the while each plots to destroy the other and rule the planet. Let’s not pretend that’s not what’s going through their minds.
Last time we were worried about China, most of its citizens were riding bicycles to work. Now, Putin notwithstanding, they’re America’s top threat.
A bunch of terrorists from countries few laypersons ever even heard of managed to blow our Twin Towers to smithereens, because our porous immigration policies allowed them into the country, and a lackadaisical flight school where they learned how to pilot planes didn’t get suspicious when they said they were only interested in learning how to take off, not so much in landing.
We share our unparalleled military technology too readily with other countries. How many times have our troops been fired upon by enemies brandishing our own weapons?
In ex-Attorney General Bill Barr’s superb new book, One Damn Thing after Another, he offers a fascinating unvarnished look into the Trump presidency, and in one instance recalls how Trump threw an explosive tantrum as he watched American cities under siege in 2020 by violent thugs. Amid calling Barr and the others around the table “losers!” for not being able to get matters under control, Trump pointed out that such footage broadcast throughout the world emboldens the likes of Putin and Xi because they doubt our omnipotence.
Call Trump what you like, but how many others in his shoes would have conceptualized that connection so vividly?
Getting a third crack at being the world’s policeman seems like a tall order. Even more daunting is the belief that this time we’d really get it right and say: “Everyone up against the wall; we’re going to take this really slow, and, I mean it, nobody move a muscle!”