December 16, 2014

This is How the American Empire Ends.

peace officer

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Often it happens that a sharp object lodged deep below the surface of the skin must be kept in place for some time, lest in removing it without proper medical care the bleeding proves too great.

It is similar with the American empire. It is a dangerous and unsustainable object, but it must be removed carefully so as to avoid hemorrhaging.

The Presidential election of 2016 provides candidates an opportunity to announce a plan to scale back the American empire over the course of a generation, to pass power to a wider coalition of democracies, and to facilitate the entry of emerging and non-Western democracies, like India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Japan, into the U.N. Security Council.

The American empire is financially unsustainable. It burdens a generally inward looking and often ethnocentric society with taking responsibility for global order. It fails to account for the interests of the wider portion of humanity and thereby breeds resentment. And it strains cooperation on a multitude of global challenges, like climate change and nuclear proliferation.

Maintaining the empire is like holding a wolf by the ears. When America pulls troops from Iraq, the Islamic State fills the void. If America pulls out of East Asia, China threatens the autonomy of Thailand, Taiwan, Burma, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Japan could very well acquire nuclear weapons in an arms race with China. In almost every case where America might remove military bases, the country that fills the void is the most expansionist and authoritarian in the region.

But maintaining power in these places breeds resentments and opens the way to imperial abuses.

Contrary to what most critics of American foreign policy believe, the American foreign policy establishment is obsessed with stability. It is foremost on the minds of the officials passing in and out of academia, foreign policy think-tanks, and the State Department. Global stability tends to be equated in their minds with greater security, increasing trade, and democratization. And they tend to favor democracy because they believe it allows for greater human freedom and stronger American alliances.

Back in the late nineties, the political scientist, Michael Doyle, brought attention to the fact that no two stable democracies had ever gone to war with one another. The finding was highly dependent on definitions of stability. For instance, America and Britain did help overturn democracies, like Chile, Guatemala, and Iran in their incipient stages. Yet the point stuck that America is far more likely to form alliances with democracies than autocracies. Still, a whole new generation of massive democracies has yet to be integrated into the American system of alliances as well as the wider global order.

The current order has been a sort of Pax Americana, a general period of world peace, punctuated mostly by American big wars. Yet, an unsustainable debt burden, an increasingly irrational electorate, and a long history of American chauvinism leave the global order subject to American whims.

America is far from a disinterested power. Whether Iraq was invaded in 2003 because of weapons of mass destruction, protecting Israel, controlling oil supplies, spreading democracy, or taking down a hated dictator, few would now assert that America was maintaining global stability.

The generation long plan would reduce the financial burdens of empire, with the costs saved being put toward reducing the national debt. It would also help stabilize the global order by enfranchising more nations. By going about scaling back the empire gradually it would prevent power vacuums from arising where America pulls troops, as in the case of Iraq. It would gradually introduce emerging democracies to the idea of sharing power in a global order.

With more nations so empowered, we would all move a step closer to a fair and representative system of international law.

The plan might also go over well in the Security Council. The less developed China and Russia might welcome in other less developed countries like Brazil, India, and Indonesia, which share many of their interests. Britain and France might welcome more democracies and a more representative system that might better assure their places of power. Many would welcome the weakening of American power. Of course, it would be no smooth path and there were be much political wrangling. And something would have to be done about the single country veto in the Security Council.
The deal making that would almost certainly occur would present a unique opportunity to forge a climate deal among the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters—China, America, Europe, Japan, India, Brazil, and Indonesia.

These seven entities are responsible for the vast bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. Forging a new global order together would present unique opportunities for using trade-offs and a sort of natural division of labor to halt global warming.

You might say that I’m a dreamer, but (to quote a recent Hollywood one-liner), I’m not. The idea of expanding the U.N. Security Council to these and other democracies is actually quite popular with otherwise conservative foreign policy thinkers, like Walter Russell Mead and Samuel Huntington Jr. And there is much talk on both the left and right of scaling back American military commitments. But the dangers of wars breaking out in power vacuums is all too real.

Whether or not this is the right solution, we should be looking for the opportunities involved in making this transition and we should be thinking about how we back away from the wolf with little or no bloodshed.


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Author: Theo Horesh

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Elvert Barnes at Flickr 

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