Columns / Discourse / October 28, 2010

Voice of Reason: Imperial decline

Britain, faced with a fiscal crisis not unlike our own, has recently chosen to enact dramatic cutbacks in spending across the board, including a well-publicized cut in defense spending. Britain, however, has long since ceased to be a relevant world power. It is only a matter of time before this debate starts seriously on this side of the Atlantic, so we should all be asking ourselves what happens if the U.S. decides to follow a similar course.

Such a question is not just idle speculation. We have a massive budget deficit and defense spending is the single largest expense in that budget. Sooner or later a coalition of tea-party deficit hawks and pacifist liberals will try to seriously reign in the Pentagon’s allowance. Though I think such a move would be beneficial for the taxpayers and soldiers of the United States, we need to realistically look at what that would mean for the world beyond our shores. Let’s say that tomorrow we withdraw all American military personnel from outside our borders overnight and cut off American military assistance to other countries.

Afghanistan would almost certainly collapse and the Taliban would be reestablished in power, putting serious pressure on an unstable and nuclear Pakistan. Iraq might limp on without us, but it is doubtful. Likely Iran would seize the chance to capture the influence it has always desired with the Shiites, as Saudi Arabia did the same with Iraq’s Sunnis and Turkey with the Kurds. Iraq would likely fracture into pieces and proxy war between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran would not be out of the question. Israel and Egypt would no longer be held together by American aid and might resume their tradition of conflict every decade or so. Israel would realize if Iran’s nuclear program is to be stopped it must strike itself, threatening to cause war between Israel and Iran as well.

In East Asia, China would find no convincing reason to not finally take over Taiwan by force, finally eliminating that blemish on their national honor. It might even be tempted to solve other lingering disputes in the Spratly islands or Kashmir. Japan would be terrified and would likely develop a nuclear capability. North Korea would realize that the way to re-unification by force was as open as it was ever likely to get. Tyrannical regimes in Myanmar and elsewhere would realize no one is either interested or capable of moderating their behavior.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the welfare states of the EU would collapse as the continent has to begin paying for its own defense instead of relying on the generosity of America. Since most of Europe is already in fiscal crisis, adding in serious defense expenditures would mean budget cuts that would have the entire continent looking like Greece. Or if they chose not to do so, it is not out of the question that Russia would wield its superior power to threaten its defenseless European neighbors. One can easily see the Kremlin trying to distract domestic dissent by another adventure along the lines of the 2008 invasion of Georgia. Without the US to threaten to step in, what would stop them from finishing the job this time?

On a more humanitarian note, it is worth remembering who it was that was there first in South Asia after the 2006 tsunami and in Haiti after its recent earthquake. How many more would have died without American assistance? Who would keep Somali pirates from praying on civilian ships in the Indian Ocean? What nation keeps the Persian Gulf free and oil flowing to the entire world?

The world needs a strong American presence overseas. There is no way around it. Russia is a shell of its former self and wouldn’t help out in much of the world even if it could, the European Union is incapable of actual military operations, the UN is functionally useless in combat situations and the Chinese show no desire to be the world’s policeman. No one else is remotely capable of doing what the U.S. does right now. If you want to know what the world could look like again, think back to Rwanda in 1994 to how the world would look if the US had chosen to do nothing, or even farther back, to the 1930’s when America was beset by economic problems and refused to intervene abroad.

Many on both right and left would love to see the military gutted to fix our budget crisis. The world would be advised to pray they don’t get their wish.

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