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Is the US an ‘indispensable nation’ or reckless and misguided?

President Biden is now doubling down on the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the 1990s, embracing the very logic that delivered the excesses and mistakes that he ironically urges others not to repeat.

President Biden spoke at the Rose Garden of the White House on Oct. 25.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Indispensable nation: Coined by Madeleine Albright in the 1990s, the phrase soon thereafter became an emblem of American hubris. Now, in the midst of a stalemated war in Ukraine, a second brutal conflict unfolding in the Middle East, and paralyzing political dysfunction at home, President Biden has chosen to revive Albright’s swaggering claim. “We are,” he announced, quoting Albright approvingly in his recent address to the nation, “the indispensable nation.” It was a daring rhetorical flourish.

This assertion of indispensability is an artifact of the post-Cold War era — that brief interval when it seemed that the United States enjoyed a unique status as sole global superpower and history’s chosen agent. Not long after Albright unveiled the term, the United States — stung by the events of Sept. 11 — embarked upon a global war intended to affirm that status.


The ensuing military campaigns, chiefly in Afghanistan and Iraq, did not fulfill the expectations of their architects. Intended to be brief and to end decisively, they turned out to be very long and very costly. In the eyes of many, both traditional allies and nations of the developing world, the United States appeared not indispensable but reckless and misguided.

The American people responded by installing in the White House someone whose worldview was the very inverse of Madeleine Albright’s. If elected president, Donald Trump vowed that he would put America First. To members of the establishment of which Biden is a member, the mere thought was heretical.

As was so frequently the case with Trump, he did not deliver on his promise. His single term in office posed first-order questions regarding America’s proper role in the world but did not resolve them. The establishment managed to stymie Trump’s efforts to reduce the nation’s commitments abroad while prioritizing concerns closer to home. In public discourse, America First functioned more as a slur than as an alternative approach to basic policy.


From his very first days in office, Biden has made it part of his mission to dismantle Trump’s legacy. He has repeatedly made reference to history teetering at an “inflection point.” With his ringing endorsement of American indispensability, Biden appears certain about history’s future direction, with wars in Ukraine and the Middle East (along with threats of a looming confrontation with China) offering the occasion to refurbish the nation’s claim to global leadership.

The effort will require considerable finesse on Washington’s part. While little evidence exists to suggest that Biden wants to see US forces drawn into another active war — such a development would almost certainly hurt his chances of winning reelection — he is counting on Russia and Hamas (and by implication Iran) to allow the United States to wage proxy wars without paying any immediate penalty. Recent casualty-producing attacks on US troops in Iraq and Syria along with US airstrikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria cast doubts on such expectations.

In effect, Biden is expecting America’s adversaries to demonstrate forbearance while allowing the United States a free hand to do what it will. This is a risky proposition, akin to expecting Russia to tolerate NATO’s eastward march or Palestinians to quietly accept the tacit demise of the two-state solution. Each of these has turned out to be a very bad bet.

On multiple occasions, Biden has urged Israel to avoid repeating the mistakes America made after Sept. 11. Yet the logic of his televised speech reaffirms the very assumptions that gave birth to America’s disastrous overreach during the Global War on Terror: that without US global primacy, the international order falls apart.


American leadership is what holds the world together,” Biden insisted. But self-flattery makes a poor basis for policy. The reality is that over the past two decades, the unrestrained exercise of American power has made United States a prime contributor to global disorder. Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Oct. 7 Hamas assault on Israel deserve condemnation. But to pretend that the United States has been simply an innocent bystander while others have committed crimes serves no purpose.

Oblivious to this reality, Biden is now doubling down on the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the 1990s, in effect embracing the very logic that delivered the excesses and mistakes that he ironically urges others not to repeat. He is counting on Americans to write off the costs in blood and treasure that the United States has paid as a result of Washington’s recurrent folly.

“Innocent people all over the world,” Biden asserted during his recent Oval Office address, “are waiting for us.” Perhaps, but if so, they are waiting for the United States to display the prudence and wisdom that in recent decades have been sadly lacking.

Andrew Bacevich is chairman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.