(Originally published in July 2013, this piece still feels relevant today as people debate whether the world would be better off, especially given President Trump, absent the United States. It has been edited to reflect the more formal style the site has taken the past couple of years and includes both parts. Enjoy!)
Let’s play a thought experiment.
You hear plenty of foreign folk pining for a world without American hard power (that is, our military and our ever-expanding ability to kill people all over the world). If only America would just get out, utopia would pop right up. Moqtada al Sadr, the Shi’a militant who built his reputation on fighting the American army, was famous for saying as much. Leave, America, and Iraq will be great.
If you’ve followed the news in Iraq lately, you’re probably aware that’s not so true.
Contrary to popular world opinion, the planet benefits tons from an American military they don’t have to pay for
In economics, you term this a “free rider.” When you get something, but don’t have to pay for it, you’re like a hitchhiker on the back of a truck. Planet Earth actually free rides the hell out of the American military’s killing prowess. This is because the world trade system, and hence the world economy, is entirely dependent on the security system established by the Americans and Soviets after World War II.
Before World War II, the power structure was divided between European empires, a rising Japan, a surging Soviet Union, and America. No one force was strong enough to dominate all the others. This is why, in the 1930s, you start to get some rather ridiculous alliances with strange bedfellows. Why did racist Hitler ally with non-white Japan? Geopolitically, it was because he needed another great power on his side and didn’t care where they came from.
From the end of the Roman Empire to World War II, Europe was a multipolar environment – that is, no one nation was stronger than any other. The result was chaos. Pick a year and somewhere on the continent you’ll find a massacre from the year 450 to 1945. Not precisely ideal.
World War II ended that
After the war, only two powers remained strong enough to continue fighting – the U.S. and USSR. Japan and Germany were shattered; France and Britain, the other last great powers, were exhausted politically, psychologically, and materially. The 1950s were the age of the two superpowers taking primacy while former powers were relegated to mere back-up status. But it also meant that, because no European power was stronger than any other, and because America and the Soviets were guaranteed to involve themselves in any new continental war, all European nations froze in place. Borders stayed secure; armies went silent. Not since the Romans had Europe enjoyed such peace.
The world has a ton of really badly drawn borders. But hardly any of them have been adjusted since World War II. Why? Because to do so would have brought the superpowers to confrontation. Therefore, hardly anyone was allowed to invade anyone else, let alone change the map. This is unbelievably unique in human history. When somebody broke those rules – like, say, Somalia in the Ogden War or Iraq in the Gulf War – one of the two superpowers rode in and annihilated the aggressor.
When the Soviets went down, that left only America standing
Russia simply didn’t have the ability to force project after 1991. So that left America standing in place, still holding the reins, still guaranteeing borders. But America has gone one more step. Rather than encouraging frozen nations, it encourages states to break up. Yugoslavia, Sudan, East Timor, even Kurdistan to a certain extent are all products of American tolerance.
So nobody invades anyone anymore
Because to do so invites an American response. Bad governments can only get away with their bad behavior within their own borders, where America has less interest in solving messy local affairs. While you may point out – rightly – that Russia did invade Georgia in 2008, I might well point out that Russia’s forces never entered the capital, didn’t overthrow the government, and sure as hell didn’t try to annex the country, all for fear of an American response.
(EDIT: Since this was written in July 2013, the invasion of Crimea was still months off, and the many different invasions and interventions in Syria have shown that old-fashioned invasions are far from over. Yet this does not undermine the point that territorial conquest remains incredibly dangerous, and if we must have a post-Crimea rule, it is that only nuclear powers may annex territory).
Also, America’s navies and air force guarantee world trade
The last time the world didn’t have a preeminent naval power to patrol the waves, you had the age of piracy. Modern Somalia is a prime example of this phenomenon – without someone nearby to blow up badly behaved sailors, you get chaos and therefore rising prices. America’s navy ensures no other nation can dare disrupt world trade by starting up a stupid blockade. It also ensures that the other local navies are freed up to deal with local pirates rather than having to worry about an invasion from some far off power.
The air force places a similar role. Air routes are kept safe either directly or indirectly by the American air force. While it’s easy to route around a country that decides to block the skies, the American air force can force open those routes should world trade be threatened. Nobody else can do that today. As a result, world prices stay lower, food goes from farm to store, and our global economy we’ve all come to depend on remains the same.
So without American hard power, you get two immediate results
1). Wars become more frequent, small states get swallowed by big ones, and people die quite more often in violent conflicts.
2). World trade becomes more expensive, prices go up, the hungry don’t get fed and the fat don’t get their smart phones, and the world economy wobbles.
So let’s now take the fun to a new level and imagine planet Earth minus America.
The election of 2020
Some president is elected on a platform of “End the Empire now,” or something like that, and promises to withdraw all American forces from all bases worldwide within their first term (their gender is irrelevant). They win by some ridiculous margin – 60% or above, basically making them untouchable for at least two years. This president has tapped into American exhaustion with being the world’s policeman and an overriding belief that other people’s problems are just that – their problems.
The president goes further – they won’t sell arms to any state unless given approval by the UN Security Council. This is a clever move meant to ensure America will never sell arms again; it can be guaranteed that one of the permanent members will veto any sale.
Most of the world’s population cheers
At last! the blogs and newspapers and writers cry. An end to empires! Imperialism is dead, and so on and so forth. Most people welcome the call and the president’s worldwide popularity skyrockets,.
But most governments do not
Meanwhile, their leaders start to panic. They’ve basically been told they’ve got four years to militarize to take over America’s many worldwide responsibilities. Few of them suspect they’re up to the task.
In Asia, an arms race kicks off immediately
Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are left in the lurch. Used to American military backing, as well as its nuclear umbrella, Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei suddenly wonder how long it will take for China to aggressively grab up disputed islands all across the Pacific. All three begin nuclear weapons programs and build a new alliance system without the U.S.
Meanwhile, China, its population roiling because its economic miracle has finally come to a close, plays the nationalist card to retain power. They do exactly what the Asian allies fear; they invade islands, spook fishermen with their warships, and bully neighboring governments. North Korea acts badly and bombs the DMZ to keep South Korea’s government looking weak and unable to take decisive action. China’s full backing of this means South Korea dare not try to silence North Korea’s guns.
China exerts pressure on all its neighbors, bringing Myanmar into its camp, destabilizing Vietnam, and supporting Maoists in Nepal and India. During its brief window of opportunity before the Asian tripartite develop nukes, China bullies everyone and even fights a few short naval wars, winning most of them and becoming the preeminent naval power in the Pacific. The situation stabilizes once nukes come into play but the region remains as tense as anything during the Cold War. Worldwide trade suffers, spiking worldwide unemployment, and making both populations and governments everywhere less rational.
Meanwhile, NATO gives way to the EU’s new militarized vision to face down Russia
With nukes already in play, Europe closes ranks against Russian influence. Russia takes the opportunity to knock down governments all along its frontier, installing friendly regimes in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and most Central Asian states. It openly annexes Belarus while European budgets are strained by new defense demands. Few European countries can afford the bill; the Russians are making a final geopolitical play for security and rush into the void. The Baltic states fall; Russian tanks are soon back on the Polish frontier, where they hold for fear of a nuclear exchange with France and Britain.
Europe’s economy, full of aging workers demanding full pensions, simply can’t cope with the pressure Russia brings to bear through the use of its gas and oil reserves and military power. Most states reach an accommodation with the Russians and allow Russian military bases on their territory. The withdrawal of America gives Russia an economic boost, strengthening it just as seemed to be weakening. Russia gives a shit about democracy; democratic governments are curbed along Russian lines, with weakened medias, trumped-up treason laws, and crony capitalism.
Argentina and Brazil go at each other while Mexico takes charge up north
For Canada, little changes, still buffered by two great oceans and a peaceful neighbor down south. Cuba even feels more secure. Secure states are far less likely to start wars or make trouble, so Cuba feels able to reform itself without being threatened by the Yankee imperialists up north.
But elsewhere, violence goes up. Brazil and Argentina compete for supremacy in the south and start nuclear weapons programs. A South American cold war plays out in every country. Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru are particular victims as Brazilian and Argentinean proxies fight it out.
Mexico becomes a third pillar of the Latin American power system, going on to embrace Central America and the Caribbean, militarizing heavily and becoming a great power. It takes over America’s naval responsibilities in the region. It eventually picks a side in South America; the nation it backs ends up as the dominant power south of the equator.
While Africa goes nuts
Africa’s horribly drawn borders were held together by the UN, their former colonial masters, and regime strongmen propped up by the outside. As Europe suddenly can’t afford to play their reindeer games because they have to stop Russia’s advances, Africa is, for the first time in centuries, left to its own designs.
Almost every country except the handful of well-run ones come apart. Ethiopia invades Eritrea; South Africa overthrows every government on its frontier that it doesn’t like; Nigeria has another civil war; everyone invades the Congo (again). Meanwhile, virtually every border is redrawn in blood. Ethnic groups finally get lumped under similar leaders, but only after a lot of death. Better-run east African states survive, but hardly without cost, suffering internal unrest, cross-border invasions, and weakened economies. Several states cease to exist; others are carved out of larger, badly run ones. At the end, Africa is reorganized along more natural geopolitical lines. But the body count is in the millions.
Finally, the Middle East rides into hell
Israel panics the most. Without American support, they troll around for another great power to back them. If a secure state is peaceful, an insecure state is the most violent and dangerous. Feeling exposed, they also lash out more often and more viciously towards their neighbors. A Palestinian state, if it’s come along by then, is annexed and another wave of refugees floods the region. With nukes, nobody dares launch a direct assault on Israel. But Egypt starts its own nuke program as a deterrent and encourages insurgent attacks on the Israeli frontier.
Meanwhile, the Gulf states close ranks against Iran. While Iran feels, for the first time in a century, secure from invasion, the Gulf does not. Saudi leads a charge to counter Iranian influence and natural powerbase. The two fight several wars over control of the Gulf. Iraq becomes an Iranian satrap and Iran uses that as a base to attack Saudi. The region is convulsed by war after war that only end when Saudi Arabia buckles and breaks up into several new states.
Turkey uses this to its advantage and extends southwards. Many Arabs, after decades of war and unrest, welcome their arrival. Turkey builds a neo-Ottoman empire of sorts, although remains democratic. They too start a nuclear program to counter Iran.
Worldwide, small problems get big and big problems become nightmares
As the world suddenly dumps resources into militarizing itself, other problems go unaddressed. Piracy increases and harasses global trade, spiking commodity prices and making simple things harder and more expensive to get. For the world’s poor, this hurts the most. Already vulnerable regions suffer famines, disease, and shortages similar to what they went through during the Second World War.
Forget about climate change; forget global human rights. Everyone is scrambling so fast to ensure their own security that these things get forgotten in the rush. Worse, the world economy weakens. Dissent rises and governments either get bogged down, fall apart, or, worst of all, channel this anger into nationalist action. Everyone gets close to a war, or actually fall into one, as governments desperately seek security from both their own people and their neighbors.
Nukes keep the situation from spiraling into a world war. But lots of small, hot conflicts break out both over borders and within them. As new great powers assert themselves, small powers get caught in the mix. Their best case scenarios are simply suffering an overthrow of their governments. In the worst case, their countries are riven by civil strife, riots, and even war during the contests between their more powerful neighbors. Their national survival is not guaranteed. Everyone is happy to ignore America, glad to let sleeping dogs lie.
So it’s hardly a better world
If anything, America’s sudden, unilateral retreat has returned the world to the pre-1945 power structure, with many competing powers who all don’t trust one another. World trade slumps, hurting everyone but slamming the poor the most. As economies go downhill, governments fall and are replaced by less reasonable ones. The cycle continues over and over until either a state ceases to exist or a new normal appears.
While it would not be the end of human civilization, it would be the end of the world we have now. It would be a poorer, more dangerous place, where the poor were more likely to die in a famine and the planet has a lot more nuclear powers who hate one another. It would also be far more likely that someone, somewhere, would fire off one of these nukes, triggering a chain reaction of destruction.
This should not be taken to say that America is Good and the world should be grateful
America does what’s best for America. But it also happens to do things that benefit a great deal of other people. Trade security, border integrity, and the nuclear umbrella ensure that other nations don’t have to militarize to the extent that great powers once did. With fewer armies on the map, this makes the world a safer, more prosperous place. Sure, it’s easy to want to burn the American flag while saying Obama lied to you personally. That’s an emotional response to the many bad things a superpower by nature does.
But that doesn’t mean the world would be better off without
Because sometimes, it’s nice to have someone in charge, even if we do hate them.