American withdrawal: this time it is different
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 9:32AM
Thomas P.M. Barnett in China, Citation Post, India, US foreign policy

 

Eliot Cohen sounding very scared in the WSJ:

The arguments against far-flung American strategic commitments take many forms. So-called foreign policy realists, particularly in the academic world, believe that the competing interests of states tend automatically toward balance and require no statesmanlike action by the U.S. To them, the old language of force in international politics has become as obsolete as that of the "code duello," which regulated individual honor fights through the early 19th century. We hear that international institutions and agreements can replace national strength. It is also said—covertly but significantly—that the U.S. is too dumb and inept to play the role of security guarantor.

Perhaps the clever political scientists, complacent humanists, Spenglerian declinists, right and left neo-isolationists, and simple doubters that the U.S. can do anything right are correct. Perhaps the president should concentrate on nation-building at home while pressing abroad only for climate-change agreements, nuclear disarmament and an unfettered right to pick off bad guys (including Americans) as he sees fit.

But if history is any guide, foreign policy as a political-science field experiment or what-me-worryism will yield some ugly results. Syria is a harbinger of things to come. In that case, the dislocation, torture and death have first afflicted the locals. But it will not end there, as incidents on Syria's borders and rumors of the movement of chemical weapons suggest.

A world in which the U.S. abnegates its leadership will be a world of unrestricted self-help in which China sets the rules of politics and trade in Asia, mayhem and chaos is the order of the day in the Middle East, and timidity and appeasement paralyze the free European states. A world, in short, where the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must, and those with an option hurry up and get nuclear weapons.

Not a pleasant thought.

But the point I would make is, this time history isn't a guide.

During WWII, the US made the conscious decision to seek to remake the world in its rule-set image, and it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams in the phenomenon we now label globalization.  That process was most definitely undergirded by a US security guarantee, which we generally provided to a wonderful degree with definite lapses in execution and - almost as importantly - explanation.

Now we live in a different world thanks to that world-reshaping effort. Plenty of European powers had their shot at this brass ring, and those eras all ended in large scale warfare and decimation of both conquered and conquering.

But notice how the world now enjoys more wealth-creation and order and peace than ever before in history. This is no coincidence.  People will claim all sorts of meaningless variables (like the UN - a true laugher if ever there was one), but the reality remains:  the US showed up, took charge, and we got this world.

But the success we experienced in this amazing venture (the greatest gift any power has ever given this planet and humanity) means we enter new territory.  So no, history isn't any guide.  What we do now in some measure of withdrawal is highly unlikely to unleash the tide of misery that Cohen predicts.  We've simply incentivized too much of humanity in preserving this global system, meaning it is self-maintaining on many levels (easy to join and hard to upset, as they say).  

So why do experts like Cohen keep putting it in such Manichean terms?

We got used to thinking of ourselves as the savior of the world, but that's a been there, done that dynamic now. We came, we saw, we rearranged the rules.  Now the system does just fine on its own - for the most part.  

Yes, put the world economy in extreme crisis like 2008 and Obama's role suddenly looms incredibly large. Honestly, I think he deserved the Nobel for that - simply doing his best to defeat the widespread expectation that the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression would result in massive instability and warfare - none of which appeared (proving the realists antiquated yet again).

So what do we do now?

We learn to manage the world with the risers - plain and simple.  They have the money and the need and the fear and the willingess to kill to protect their interests.  In normal terms, those attributes = a genuine ally versus the free-loaders.

The two key players going forward are China and India.  America needs to work that trilateral-global-order-in-the-making.  Everything else is ancillary - remembering my recent admonitions that positive co-evolution on progressivism is the way to go on the transatlantic relationship.

But our experts and leaders still have light years to travel on such understanding.  We still imagine it's our way or the WORLD OF CHAOS!  This fear-mongering is, of course, rather silly.

But this is the state of strategic debate in the US.

Article originally appeared on Thomas P.M. Barnett (http://thomaspmbarnett.com/).
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