There was some positive feedback last July when I wrote about a World Without America. The underpinning idea of the series was simple: a world with many equal powers is way more dangerous than one with just one superpower. Having a world cop isn’t as bad as the alternative.
Now, a bit over a year later, Obama has given us the glimpse we need to understand the role America plays in the world. Around the world, the use or refusal to use American power has defined what regions are at peace and what are not. Let’s take a global walk.
The Middle East is divided into two zones – the areas the Americans have given up on and the areas it’s still willing to fight for
Not coincidentally, the Gulf states are still the most stable states in the entire MENA region. Partially that’s because they have tons of cash to paper over their many social problems. But almost as important is that the U.S. has not yet walked away from them. With U.S. bases in every single Gulf state (save Saudi Arabia), and with all under American military protection, the Persian Gulf is quiet, safe, and still a holiday destination for those looking for the venal in the world.
Take a walk up north, however, and everything changes. The rise of ISIS is totally the result of the America having refused to back a side strongly in the Syrian civil war. Had, one year ago, the U.S. started a bombing campaign against Assad, it could have easily grown to bomb ISIS as well and to provide the tactical support the moderate Free Syrian Army needs to win battles. But the U.S. didn’t bother. Without American airpower, nobody could stop ISIS from doing what it’s done. And it’s arguable that only with American power can Iraq be saved from it.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the pivot has very probably kept the Chinese from acting the fool
Unlike the Middle East, which Obama clearly wanted to wash his hands, the Pacific has been the centerpiece of his world strategy. The Pacific Pivot was clearly aimed at China. Beijing, in response, declared a nonsense air defense zone, which the U.S. thumbed its nose at by plowing a B-52 bomber straight through it. The result? Not war, but a holding of the status quo. China knows that America will fight to protect its Pacific allies. And so Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea are all safe from the growing might of the Chinese navy.
As for North Korea, Pyongyang is playing the desperate cards it has against a vastly superior opponent. Whatever rot has set in within the Hermit Kingdom is hidden from public view, but rot there must be. With American forces in South Korea and staying there, the Peninsula is safe. One should consider how long it would take for a war to break out if public pressure forced U.S. troops to leave.
In Africa, American disinterest has let Somalia fester, Ebola spread, and Boko Haram run amok
Africa isn’t pivotal to American worldwide strategy for a few reasons: it doesn’t need much from Africa and no terrorist groups have yet attacked America from an African state. While Africa is resource rich, those resources are needed in China and Europe more than the U.S., which can content itself to guarding sea lanes rather than trying to solve the continent’s many, many problems.
That disinterest is part of the reason no great effort is being made to stop Ebola that’s currently raging in West Africa. Such expense would be worth it if Ebola was ravaging Western Europe in the same way, but West Africa still holds some of the world’s poorest countries who the U.S. doesn’t need to dominate the rest of the world.
Somalia is a place where American interest has warranted a few air strikes and navy patrols, but by and large the U.S. is approaching the country with the lightest touch possible and letting the AU run the show. Somalia threatens the U.S. only as a failed state where al-Qaeda-type jihadists might strike from. Beyond keeping terror camps from getting too comfortable, the U.S. doesn’t have much use for Somalia.
As for Boko Haram – well, that’s very much Nigeria’s problem. As horrific as the group is, they have yet to threaten the U.S. directly. In all three cases, the U.S. has the power to at the very least improve the situation. But in all three cases, the U.S. doesn’t want to.
The greatest pity can be bestowed upon Ukraine, who only became interesting after it became off-limits
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not entirely America’s fault (Putin really is the one who shoulders that responsibility), but the fact that NATO stopped expanding eastward is certainly a big reason why there’s a Russian military intervention underway. Ukraine is part of Europe Without America – a state that must face down the vastly more powerful and more assertive Russian bear. The Russians still hold the borders of an old empire, and will, on occasion, act like one to secure themselves, even if this is the 21st century. But they cannot over the American nuclear arsenal that guards Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states, much as it would serve Russian interests to bring those back into the fold once more.
As for places like Modolva, Finland, Georgia, and Central Asia – they must not be feeling great right now. They are protected by no one.
It’s likely Obama will end his lame duck years dragging his feet, and a new president, with new political capital, will reassert American might
Remember that under Bush America went too far. Bush overestimated American power. Obama has underestimated it. Under Obama, America could afford to do more, but chose not to because the public was war weary. With the twin specters of Putin and ISIS, the public can no longer pick fights it likes. Obama’s political capital is virtually exhausted, so two more years of chaos with Russia, ISIS, and ISIS-like phenomenon will be enough to galvanize Americans into action. The new president in 2017, whoever that is, will be able to act.
Key to building that capital will be the repeated demonstrations to both the world and to Americans themselves that there truly is no one else. If what’s left of this shaky world order is to be held, the U.S. must police it. From Eurocrats who once dreamed of the EU rivaling the U.S. to Arab citizens exposed to the chaos of a collapsing social order, the blame game will shift away, and coalitions that once seemed unlikely will come into being (as we’re in seeing in the response to ISIS). America may not be loved, but it’s power will be tolerated.
In a crisis, someone strong must sort the fire and keep it from spreading. Obama may start the process, but it will be up to his predecessor to finish it.