Fuel to the fire: U.S. military vehicles in Kuwait, Feburary 2010 João Silva / The New York Times / Redux

The collapse of the Soviet Union revealed the bankruptcy of international communism. In time, the absence of a Cold War foe also exposed the bankruptcy of Washington’s global ambitions. Freed from major challengers, the United States had an unprecedented chance to shape international politics according to its wishes. It could have chosen to live in harmony with the world, pulling back its armed forces and deploying them only for vital purposes. It could have helped build a world of peace, strengthening the laws and institutions that constrain war and that most other states welcome. From this foundation of security and goodwill, the United States could have exercised leadership on the already visible challenges ahead, including climate change and the concentration of ungoverned wealth.

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