The past is always better in hindsight

W. Jonathan Rue put forward a little thought challenge to the readers of Gunpowder and Lead, after reading Stephan Walt’s latest piece in The National Interest.  One paragraph in particular piqued his interest, re-posted here, emphasis added by him:

The United States has been the dominant world power since 1945, and U.S. leaders have long sought to preserve that privileged position. They understood, as did most Americans, that primacy brought important benefits. It made other states less likely to threaten America or its vital interests directly. By dampening great-power competition and giving Washington the capacity to shape regional balances of power, primacy contributed to a more tranquil international environment. That tranquility fostered global prosperity; investors and traders operate with greater confidence when there is less danger of war. Primacy also gave the United States the ability to work for positive ends: promoting human rights and slowing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It may be lonely at the top, but Americans have found the view compelling.

Rather than biasing us with his thoughts, the readers were asked to consider two questions:

1. Does primacy actually foster a more tranquil global environment?

2. Given that primacy nests so well within American exceptionalism, will it be possible to abandon this endeavor? In other words, can Americans accept the idea of not being on top?

Short answer: no and yes.

Walt’s statement in the above paragraph understands tranquility in the idea that we haven’t had a resurgence of wars between the Great Powers since the ending of World War II and that America itself has remained safe from attack by these states. The military might displayed by the United States in the years between then and now has played a part in tamping down the rise of revisionist states with the actual power to shape their will like Japan and Germany did in the 1930s and early 1940s. However, the idea that American primacy in that regard has allowed for a more tranquil period than would have existed otherwise is mistaken.

Walt is correct that trade and economic growth are more feasible in times of peace and global prosperity has been on the rise since 1945. I would say though that a much larger portion of the calm that Walt writes about owes to the traditional powers being broken and battered by the effects of the war and being unable, and unwilling, to launch new struggles against each other. I would give more credit for Europe healing to the threat of the Soviet Union to its East and to the rise of what would become the European Union. The United States’ primacy gave breathing room for Western Europe to rebuild without the USSR engulfing it, but its own trust-building measures did far more to restore the battered continent to its traditional place in the world. Linking economies in the European Coal and Steel Commission and refusing to return to struggles that had been playing out for centuries is what gave the United States customers for its goods and partners in the international community, a self-chosen peace that the United States’ military primacy fostered without birthing.

American primacy also allowed for the rewriting of the rules of international finance through the Bretton Woods system, with none able or willing to challenge the ideas of capitalism set forward. Those accords gave birth to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and laid the foundation for the World Trade Organization, the last of which has given states a venue for the recourse of trade disputes unlike any the world has ever known before. Trade-based wars, wars based on the ending of access to materials and goods, have new mechanisms that allow their prevention, and while we are almost certain to see their resurgence in the future, it won’t be because America has fallen in the ranks of nation-states. American primacy has given the world the tools to reduce conflict and expand trade and growth, but those tools are no longer solely directed by the United States.

Further, conflict did not vanish in the age of American primacy, and to call this period tranquil is to ignore any conflict that the United States has not directly been involved in and many that we have been involved in through proxy. The ability to shape regional balances that Walt stresses were not calm and quiet discussions and diplomatic efforts but often bloody affairs as we waged shadow wars against the Soviets, allowing for all hell to break loose after the collapse of the Communist empire, unleashing the ethnic and civil strife that first and second world money had propped up. Total US hegemony in this sense has been a negative factor, as in a more complex world, outside the scope of Cold War tensions, long-held grudges have led to the intrastate wars that make up the majority of conflict today, in turn disturbing any sense of tranquility that allow some semblance of growth in many of these states. Only now, after twenty odd years, are many of the states of Africa beginning to show signs of improvement.

Middle Powers, and those destined for Greatness, most certainly didn’t lay down their arms against each other during this period. Iran and Iraq pulverized each other for almost a decade, the USSR and China fought several border skirmishes, as did China and India. India and Pakistan have fought three wars in this timeframe, all on the watch of the United States. The tranquility that Walt espouses is true if and only if you ignore any parts of the world that aren’t ensconced firmly within the borders of the Global North.

As for the second point, talking about any sort of American decline is political suicide for our elected officials. America can and must be the best with no questions or exceptions. To challenge the idea, though, that Americans will never be able to accept a diminished place in the world, I suggest looking at the United Kingdom. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the UK was the owner of the largest empire in the world and undisputed master of the seas. Today, they hover between Middle and Great Power status, but are still an integral part of the international community. The British people, more over, don’t clamor for a return to the old ways, to conquering their way back to the top. If these former lords of the Earth can accept decline, who is to say that Americans will never be able to accept it.

The alternative is far worse, in my opinion. The opposite of accepting change is to struggle against it, even when it goes against the rest of the world. While this may be a noble idea when set down in fiction, in reality this often leads to revisionist policies and discontent mutterings of what once was. These mutterings have a way of becoming a roar and then a whimper as the rest of the international community rallies together to put down the oppressor.

I don’t fall into the camp of those who believe that American decline is inevitable. Nor do I advocate for a loss of American standing in the world; as an American I am well aware of the privileged place I hold in comparison to the vast majority of the world’s people. That said, the idea that the United States one day may not be the undisputed most powerful nation on Earth, existing on a planet with several co-equals, does not keep me up at night. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, the United States will never fall so much as saunter slowly downward at worst. The yearning for a time when the United States was the clear and unchallenged master of the Earth is pretty ridiculous in light of the fact that even when we have been totally on top, there are too many factors to attribute the world’s successes to our dominance and we don’t really seem to be on the edge of some precipice into obscurity. The simple fact remains that the United States’ economic potential and geopolitical location will continue to grant this country an important, if not reigning, position in the world, with more than enough clout and ability to make the world move.


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