Extending the American Century: Revisiting the Social Contract

Contributing USMA Research Unit(s)

Modern War Institute

Publication Date


Publication Title

Modern War Institute

Document Type



Americans today resent seemingly endless military deployments across the globe with no discernible security benefits, feel abandoned by the supposed economic benefits of globalization that have not accrued to a majority, and are suspicious of laissez-faire capitalism. In this article, we argue that the US role in world affairs is fundamentally shaped by its democratic system of governance. US foreign engagements historically depended on the government’s ability to maintain an implicit and explicit social contract with the American public that guaranteed domestic prosperity in exchange for supporting foreign-policy goals. The social contract remained legitimate to the extent that the government fulfilled its obligation to pursue goals abroad that contributed to the public interest. When the government failed to do so, the public withdrew its support by demanding new policies and electing new leadership to act in accordance with the public’s will.

Growing levels of domestic political turmoil increasingly point to a failing American social contract that does not contribute to improves economic wellbeing for all Americans. The indictment of America’s foreign-policy elites is the result of a fundamental breakdown of the social contract that undergirded the domestic legitimacy of American global engagement during the twentieth century. Our article suggests that strategic retrenchment may provide an opportunity for reevaluation that will contribute to the strategic solvency necessary for maintaining American leadership in the twenty-first century.

First Page


Record links to items hosted by external providers may require fee for full-text.