The two decades after the Cold War were the high water mark for American force projection and primacy. Without the Russian Bear front and centre of its policy making process, the US was free to remodel the world in its own image. For our generation, the salient geopolitical events were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These, along with the 9/11 attacks which spawned the former, were the inevitable result of what happens when American power was allowed to go unchecked. So it might be with some glee that we witness, if not American decline, then at least a less active and interventionist US.
But this would be a mistake. For despite the headline acts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US keeps the peace far more than it disrupts it.
To understand this, we need to understand the M.O of the US, and rule set it established after 1945.
After Japan’s surrender, the US had to resist the temptation to disarm and retreat back to the homeland. The military empires of Germany and Japan had been replaced by the military empire of the Soviets. Western Europe and Asia lay prostrate, and Pearl Harbour had shown that distance was no defence. So to deter further Soviet expansion, the US linked its security with that of its allies, and poured money into the coffers of its recent enemies.
This linking of US security with world security was frequently tested, such as Korea and the Berlin Airlift, but it held.
It would be wrong to call this an ‘Empire’ as many on the Left have, as ‘Empire’ implies a maximum rule set; i.e things you must do. America didn’t run the world through viceroys, but instead enforced a minimum rule set; things you must not do. The Pax America wasn’t great at resolving problems, but it at least put them on stasis. The minimal rule set enforced by the US stopped rivalries and disputes from becoming shooting wars. In most of the world, people have never been less likely to be killed in organised conflict.
But like all Empires, even a unique one like the US, fatigue sets in. For the US the usual symptoms of imperial over reach are exacerbated by problems at home. Washington taxes like a conservative but spends like socialists. Being able to print the world’s primary reserve currency buys you time, but something has to give. Combine this with a public who are tired of being the world’s policeman and social worker, and still being hated for it.
The problem is that once you take the threat/promise of American muscle out of the equation, the rule set of the modern world has painfully few enforcement institutions. As Syria and Crimea have shown, the UN Security Council can be dismissed with a simple veto. The sort of countries likely to upset the peace aren’t likely to be in the G7 so equally won’t fear being booted out. And what’s more, there are international groups being established specifically to offer an alternative to the Pax America, institutions that go out of their way to shield members from the type of censure that might influence them to cease disruptive behaviour. The Eurasian Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Pact being the two most powerful of these groups.
Wars won’t break out en mass in the next five years, but American retraction has started the defrost process on dozens of frozen conflicts.
Even the US talking about decline has real world consequences. Israel is less sure it can count on US protection, which makes a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities more likely. In Asia, America’s allies question how committed it would be in the event of a dispute with China turning hot. Doubt about American resolve is forcing Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan to invest heavily in weapons, investment that should funding social and economic development. And as these nations begin to make calculations based on American ambivalence, they’re having to develop and deepen security ties with each other and India, which in turn fuels Chinese fear of encirclement. A fearful China then arms itself further, becomes more bellicose, which thus prompts China’s neighbours into a fresh round of arms and defence agreements…and so the cycle continues.
Peace comes through order, and order only lasts so long as everybody playing the game knows the rules will be enforced. When rules are broken and culprit gets away with it, those who dislike the current order become emboldened to challenge it. Russia stole twenty percent of Georgia in 2008 without consequence. This would surely have factored into it’s decisions over Crimea. And Chinese naval planners have made no secret of their plans to seize and hold islands in the South China Sea, because it knows nobody can stop it and the consequences will be minimal.
The US has long sort partners in enforcing its rule set, hence the desire to get China into the WTO. Give China a stake in the current order, and it’s less likely to disrupt it. The same theory lay behind Russia and the G8.
Growing up under the shadow of the American colossus, it has been easy to mark it out as being the sole cause of conflict in the world. But throughout history prolonged periods of peace have required one dominant power for enforcement. You may not like American power, but you’ll like American weakness even less.