The doggedness of old habits
The old saying that old habits die hard is a good thing to think about these days. It used to be that post-war American foreign policy was reasonably understandable, even by a young 7th grader in the mid-1950's like myself. The American world view was simple, clear and easily stated: the existential threat to the United States and its western European friends was a pervasive, atheistic, warlike totalitarianism nominally called Communism, the hub of which was in Moscow, and from where radiated misery and hatred of all things democratic, to the far corners of the world from North Korea to Namibia to Havana.
Like two boxers slugging each other senseless for 50 years after World War II, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States was able to see the slow retreat in the amount of influence each of the only two true powers standing after the war were able to exert over dozens of post-colonial nations across the world. Indeed, some of the smarter regimes were able to successfully play both ends to the middle for a number of years. Small, tin horn dictators could adroitly – and sometimes not so much so - extract billions from each of the contestants: Nasser in Egypt; the Shah in Iran, Castro in Cuba; Sukarno in Indonesia; Marcos in the Philippines; Somoza in Nicaragua; on and on, almost all of whom accumulated fabulous personal wealth.
Each of these great powers had their client states. We youngsters in post-war America all knew who were the bad guys and who were the good. It was “us” and “them.” It was accepted faith that the United States would of necessity have to engage with the rest of the world and that any notion of beating swords into plowshares and simply doing what we thought we did best, making money, was to be an isolationist. We sacrificed men and treasure to stop the spread of communism in places like Korea and Vietnam; and where there were no American or Soviet soldiers taking on so-called liberation movements directly, the American and Soviet governments waged proxy wars in places like Central and South America, Africa and beyond. We built an impenetrable economic and military wall around our next door neighbor, Cuba, while the Soviets walled off East Germany.
A change of scenery: Nixon in China
It's arguable that President Richard Nixon was the first leader of either the USSR or the USA to see that a third wave was building. It was he who, in the midst of his own war in Indochina, could see that China was about to abandon its Maoist collectivism and that he could drive the ultimate wedge between China and the USSR. And so began “ping pong diplomacy” in 1972. For the next 15 or so years, China developed itself from a backward, doctrinaire, corrupt oligarchy teeming with 800 million dirt-poor peasants into the capitalistic factory to the world (and run by the same corrupt oligarchs) whose economy would grow in double digits for the next 40 years.
By the late 80's it was all over. The Soviet satellite nations of eastern Europe, not to mention the Russian people themselves had had enough. It didn't pass unnoticed that as Americans and West Germans were buying mini-vans and BMWs, and vacationing in the Costa del Sol, or in Italy and Cancún, or Hawaii, the folks stuck on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate were literally choking on ageless Trebants (if they could even get one) and living in postage stamp apartments, four-to-a-room. Post-war command economies all over the world simply collapsed of their own weight.
The Great Crossroads
By the time, in 1990, that President George H.W. Bush, proclaimed that the prospect of a “new world order” of peace and prosperity was at hand, the two power centers on the planet had now become one. It was now a mono-polar world. The Russian war machine had begun rusting away in ports and airbases and its armies were dejected and riven with desertions, its economy contracted to a third of its size. Alone among the nations of the world, the United States continued to spend like a profligate sailor on arms. In fact, arms had become an integral part of the economy both in terms of jobs at home and exports overseas.
It is fair to say that, in those heady days after the collapse of the collectivized economies of eastern Europe and the end of the cold war, Americans felt especially sure of themselves; perhaps even smug that the American “idea” had proven itself to the rest of the world. We dabbled in the possibility of expanding NATO right up to to the Ukranian-Russian border; we intervened in the Balkans while the Russians could only register their disapproval and nothing more. We kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, after which we feted the commanding American general with his own Triumph down Wall St. For about 10 years, Americans felt themselves to be at the top of the heap. That all ended on September 11th, 2001.
Dealing with the reality
Since 9/11, we have been engaged in the longest war in our rather short history. We have suffered the worst economic collapse in four generations and still have not emerged from it as soon – or as convincingly - as we thought we would, causing many to wonder aloud if it may be all over for us, too. (Indeed, Mr. Putin, the newly reelected President of the Russian Federation so proclaimed it, not too long ago.) One of the great issues in the upcoming presidential campaign is that of so-called American exceptionalism: the notion that we are, in fact, different from previous world powers. Are we?
On one side of the argument are doctrinaire, rather simplistic ideologues, most recently incarnated in neo-conservative thought in which power, even if it emanates from the barrel of a gun, should be used as a force for good (read: a force for American interests). We saw it in action in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The other side, considerably more realistic, nuanced, and in many ways tentative, questions the advisability and indeed the economic ability of the United States to continue being the policeman of the world, keeping the sea lanes open in sensitive areas and using uniformed military to crush home grown, civil and religious wars. To observe the results of one and surmise the possible results of the other is, to say the least, an intimidating and dangerous position, perhaps, to hold. President Obama's recent declaration of a few days ago that the US would be ill-advised to inject our own military into the events in Syria was based on the the demise of the recent Egyptian and Libyan regimes being largely a result of the Americans standing down. It is a realistic evaluation of events. On the other hand, Senator McCain, ever the exceptionalist, berates his former opponent for not “sending in the Marines.”
The question is begged
Can a nation dealing with its own severe economic problems continue to spend 5% of its gross domestic product (about 43% of the military expenses of all nations), maintaining the largest standing military of all time? In any event, both sides – the exceptionalists and the realists - operate from the understanding that the last truly global power standing is the United States. For nearly 70 years the US has been the guarantor of commerce across the world. Will the United States always be the sole, unchallenged military power?
The emerging nations of the world have become powerful entities in themselves. China and the “Asian tigers” of Indochina and the Indian subcontinent are new power centers, economic in their clout presently, but with no less ability to shape events throughout the globe. China has cut deals in Africa and Latin America in its never ending need for raw materials and energy. It is actively pursuing Iraqi oil, which we thought would be accessible to American energy companies after the fall of Saddam. Recently, China and Russia alone prevented the UN from tightening sanctions on Iran's nuclear ambitions, a clear nod on the part of China to Iran's importance in securing its own energy needs, and a reaffirmation of the historic ties Iran has had with Russia since the tsars.
Yet, oil tankers flagged from around the world and bound for Europe, China and India sail seas protected by the American fleet. The Mediterranean Sea is still mare nostrum with American warships based in Spain, Italy, and Greece. The American navy still runs interference in the South China Sea between Taiwan and mainland China and maintains a considerable presence in the Indian Ocean.
As American presence throughout the world has shaped post-WWII economic growth, the nations most benefiting from it are now going to decide whether or not they will build their own military to a size commensurate with their economic clout. China has already begun to expand its navy. Russia, under a newly minted Putin presidency and loaded with oil rubles to do so, is also on an announced campaign to rebuild its fleet and its armies. What will be the American position as this occurs? The military power vacuum created with the fall of the Soviet Union will soon be filled with new ships, submarines and airplanes bearing Chinese, Russian, and Indian flags (giving further worry to the Pakistanis that they're being bested by their neighbor to the east). Even Brazil and Chile look to break through to the top tier of industrialized nations and will play a much more vocal role in international affairs. No longer will they be rubber stamping American interests.
The past as prologue?
The American response to this growth in military power will be either to unilaterally re-embark on another arms race (the exceptionalist response) or it will concede that other players on the global scene should take care of their own interests (the realist response). If China needs Arab oil, perhaps it is they who should protect Hormuz. If Turkey (now with currently the hottest economy in Europe), Germany and France depend on Libyan oil, perhaps they should take over patrolling the Mediterranean Sea. Since the vast majority of our energy needs come from Canada and Mexico, it is arguable as to whether we actually need to do what we have always done in view of the fact that the wealth of the world is far more spread out than it was 30 or 40 years ago.
Even a sloppy reading of world history reveals that a nation cannot have guns and butter indefinitely. We saw this in in the USSR, and we may be seeing it in the United States. To nations, armies are not an asset. They are a liability. They consume resources which could otherwise go to build lasting wealth. For the United States to trim its global military presence is one of the hottest political potatoes of this upcoming campaign season; but it is also something that must be confronted as we go forward into this new multipolar world. The exceptionalists, with McCain leading the way, are already on the attack. Yet the President has unwillingly demonstrated the limits of American power by his persistence in his (inherited) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which countries will ever amount to much in the way of being stable democracies (another, long post-colonial horror story), and by his correct decision to stay out of the burgeoning Arab Spring.
The coming election in November will be, in part, a plebiscite on how we view ourselves in the changing dynamic of global economic power and yes, military power. As China and Russia resurrect their own military forces, they, too, act as much from pride as from real need.
Old habits die hard.