With the recent flurry over who’s winning and who’s losing in this whole Syrian disarmament thing, I found it a useful exercise to take a step back and focus on the bigger trends. A lot of people are calling this a win for Putin and a loss for Obama, with some going so far as to say that this is proof that America is going down the shitter with Obama as president. I can sympathize with the emotional sentiment; as a once-upon-a-time virulent Bush-era online dissident in university (that website’s thankfully been deleted, thanks to Geocities going under), I understand that knee-jerk reaction that comes when you see your leader make choices you consider to be clearly stupid.
It’s only with the past clearly behind us (and with my being introduced to a new understanding of the world through geopolitics) that I can see how much – and how little – influence Bush II had on the general swing of the United States. The same is true of the current president, and will be true of the president after that.
Personalities can make states, but they can’t make nations
Remember that a nation is a collection of people with a common culture, language, religion, or community values that are then consciously bound together. Nationhood is taught, not inherent – it comes from both state-sponsored education and the wider community. It’s also slow. The Soviet Union attempted to create the “Soviet” man by wiping out deeply rooted cultural identities across the USSR in the hopes this would bind their widespread citizenry to Moscow. Despite all the state powers of the Kremlin (and all the ruthlessness of Stalin), it didn’t work.
A person, on the other hand, can set up a state, or expand one, to rather spectacular levels. This is sometimes confused with creating a nation. But the reason that Alexander, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Hitler’s empires all crumbled either within their lifetimes or shortly thereafter is because while they’d grown their states’ to epic proportions, they hadn’t fundamentally changed the nations underneath them. Hitler was the one who most consciously understood that he had to be quite ruthless to expand the German nation-state beyond its 1939 borders. His program of annihilation for both Slavs, Poles, and Jews was partly an attempt to grow both the German nation and state into the territories of Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia.
But Hitler wasn’t build a nation. He was destroying them and making room for his own. Very little he did could have converted Poles to German culture and language; the Japanese found this out while trying to change Korea into a mini-Japan.
Strong nations mean nations that have tons of people and plenty of land
And such places are hard to take down. The leader of Luxembourg could well annihilate his country and nation simply by picking some dumb fights. This is because his nation is so small it could easily be swallowed up – within a generation – by Germany or France. But neither Germany nor France could subdue one another permanently. During Germany’s occupation of France, a great deal of mule work was done by Vichy government officials as opposed to German authorities. This is because the Germans had no interest in annihilating the French nation, nor did they have the available means anyway. Collaboration was the only way they could subdue the unruly French.
Take an even bigger country – like the United States or Russia – and suddenly it becomes quite difficult for a single leader to change its course. Russia is on a decline that’s difficult to reverse; sliding demographics, increasing dependence on energy exports, decreased economic diversity. Putin is currently winning tactical victories that cannot change the world’s great game. Like a man holding back a flood by shoving his back against a door, eventually, nature will take its course. Russia as a nation-state as currently structured isn’t going to last. Putin can only delay it.
The United States, on the other hand, has massive geographic advantages. It’s not saturated with people, like China or India, rich in resources (and could, in a pinch, cut off world trade and remain a major power without facing famine), and has easy access to both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A president can sink a trillion dollars into the Middle East and still hardly dent the American economy. This is the reason that the debt isn’t a strategic threat. Despite foreign bankers holding a great deal of American debt, they do not have the freedom to seize pieces of American territory or American strategic resources. What if America defaulted? Investors would be screwed, and there would be economic chaos, but of all nations on Earth, America could reorganize faster and more effectively than other powers purely because of its geographic advantages. (Debt, after all, can’t affect how much oil, iron, uranium, wheat, water or other strategic resources are still within America’s borders).
Rome didn’t fall under Nero
The Roman Empire is a prime example of a powerful state that couldn’t be swiftly undone by bad leadership. Nero, Caligula, and others were genuine madmen – but despite their insanity, the sheer size of the empire, as well as the fact that most of its citizens were isolated from the crazy in the capital, made their leadership style irrelevant. Only endemic civil wars combined with external threats, plague, and technological and economic stagnation could pull down the mighty Roman Empire. It took a variety of things to bring down that beast. The United States is just as tough.
Tiny Syria’s leadership style does matter in a way that America’s doesn’t
Syria cannot afford to antagonize big powers. Assad must tread carefully, appear to be rational at times, and calculate. Obama, on the other hand, can afford to bluster, backtrack, and lose a vote in Congress on an authorization of force. Assad is the man walking a tightrope over a pit of fire; a small wind is enough to knock him off balance. Obama is the man walking the Golden Gate Bridge; the only way to die is through suicide.
America’s leadership changeovers also guarantee strength. Under Bush, America spent too much on warfare; under Obama, the military has retrenched, spent less, and focused on pinpoint attacks while appearing to be more deferential to the international community. The next president will look at Obama’s foreign policy failures and recalculate. So will the next one. But in Syria, Assad is the be-all, end-all. There can be nothing after him for the current government. They have no out but to win or die.
Tactics and strategy are very different things
Much of what a president does is tactical. A strike on Syria is a small move meant to reinforce America’s ability to punish those who use chemical weapons. The wider strategy is the prevention of chemical weapons, which is both humanitarian and self-serving. Strategies can take years, even decades, to fully unfold. Soviet containment was started under Truman and ended under Reagan – no one president can be said to have beaten the Soviets as the strategy took decades to complete.
So calm down then
Pundits are essentially gossipy trolls giving points as if foreign policy were a game. But geopolitics are deeper than that. America can’t be thrown off the rails by a single president, or even a single decision (minus the choice to go to nuclear war). Only repeated, crippling mistakes can destroy a big nation-state. (Crippling, for our purposes here, should involved conventional battles lost or home territory occupied).
Ideology is a thick skin, however. People will reject that conclusion; I recommend waiting until 2026. America will still be here, and it will still be a country people don’t want to piss off. You are, of course, welcome to believe otherwise.