A recent post by Sean Gabb about the crossroads at which the UK now finds herself and his assessment of what will likely happen next got me thinking about the decision now confronting my own country and the likely results of that decision, whichever the choice we ultimately make. Below are my thoughts on this matter.
I don’t much care for Donald Trump. He’s loud. He has a strong tendency toward the bombastic in his speeches, especially the earlier ones, and has said and done many careless or ill-considered things in the past. He relies too much on hyperbole and insult for my taste. That said, my dislike for him is of the same sort as that, which I felt toward my little brother from time to time when we were growing up – he could get on my nerves (more often than not, that was his intention). On the other hand, I have a dislike for Hillary Clinton of the same variety that I generally reserve for murderers and serial rapists. I say generally because, though it may be injudicious of me, in a few instances the actions of some people, though less terrible, are so reprehensible in my eyes that my mind tends to lump them together with these harder criminals in a single – shall we say – basket of deplorables. This particular case, however, is not one of those instances.
My personal feelings toward these two individuals aside, I think this election will be an extremely important one. This is so because America is now at a crossroads and the direction she chooses to go will have serious implications both for the future of the United States and for that of the rest of the world. There are a great number of domestic issues I could refer to here to support this claim, and it would not be incorrect to bring them up in justifying what I’ve just asserted. However, domestic policy will not be the focus of this essay. Instead, it is American foreign policy that I wish to examine at present.
Following the Second World War, with much of the rest of the developed world having been left in ruins or close to it, the United States became the preeminent Western power practically overnight. Considering the arsenal she developed in the course of that war together with her unrivalled industrial strength and the shifting of the financial capital of the world from London to New York, there was little the former Western world powers could do to resist American influence. There were attempts to wriggle out from under her weight, but those failed for the most part. The difficulty in doing so was compounded by the threat posed by the Soviet Union and the acknowledged role America played in deterring its encroachment into Western Europe.
Though the Soviet Union served as a check on America’s world power (and America as a check on Soviet power), throughout the several decades of the Cold War, America’s armaments, financial, business, cultural, educational, media, and other spheres of influence grew up immensely. By the time the Soviet Union came apart in December of 1991, the United States had built up a massive apparatus of State, non-State, and quasi-State institutions and connections (formal and informal) for the purpose of projecting Washington’s influence beyond its own borders. It was a political machine the likes of which the world had never seen. And after 1991, it seemed that all the obstacles to the free exercise of those tools had withered away and a red carpet was rolled out for Washington to take the few short steps necessary to carry its imperial ambitions from dream to reality.
Much has been written from that time until now by the elites and their academic sycophants and sympathizers in attempts to elucidate and give expression to the United States’ mission in the world. Because its rise was so steep, and the exit of its only rival so sudden and unexpected, that mission was never allowed time to acquire a satisfactory definition. No clear goal was ever put forth. This presented problems for Washington throughout the 1990’s to the great frustration of the elite. From their writings, it seems to me that they felt a bit like a group of college students, finally permitted to go to Miami on spring break with no parental supervision, but confined to their hotel rooms out of an inability to agree amongst themselves on whether they should first go to a club or head to the beach.
The issue settled itself on September 11th, 2001. It is not that a clear goal suddenly presented itself and everyone agreed upon that course of action and acted in coordinated fashion to achieve it. Rather, the urge to act finally became irresistible. To return to our analogy, it was as if one of these teens finally stood up and said “well we’re not going to accomplish anything sitting in here! Let’s just go somewhere!” and with a nod they all marched out the door, each with his own particular destination in mind and the intention to go his own way without much regard to the intentions or preferences of his companions. This is more or less what happened after 9/11. The elite and the Washington bureaucracy were united only in the resolution that waiting around was now squarely out of the question. It was time to act. All the disagreements of how to act, how far that action should go, what goals should be sought, what entanglements should be avoided, etc. were not settled beforehand, but were rather left to play out in the field.
Thus we went from an indecisive war in Afghanistan, which seemed close to victory, to a sudden, ill-considered and poorly planned diversion to Iraq. Necessary resources were diverted from finishing what was started in Afghanistan, but the political need to shore things up there and declare a victory remained as strong as ever. Thus the haphazard bombing campaigns in Pakistan which led to all manner of unintended consequences (the overthrow of Musharaf, return & subsequent assassination of Benezir Bhuto, regrouping of the Taliban in the northern provinces, etc.). As a result, any hope of victory there was squandered.
Iraq also opened a can of worms, destabilizing the whole region. In the pursuance of that war, Washington used up its political capital at home, in Europe, and in the Middle East to no benefit. It lacked the resolution of purpose necessary to do all that was required in preventing things there from blowing up, so that’s exactly what happened. So it was decided by the next president to leave, but a clean break was not to be had. The segment of the establishment that wanted to change tactics was not dominant enough to bring its new plan into force in the purity in which it had been conceived. They wanted to begin their new strategy from a clean slate, as if the last half a decade had never happened… this was impossible, of course. Instead, they set about a new course of action with an incomplete break from the old. One foot stepped out, while the other remained – not with enough footing to accomplish anything, but just enough to muddy up the water and make waves. The Arab Spring was their attempt to salvage the strategic situation in the Middle East, but it too blew up in Washington’s face.
Again, Washington wasn’t willing to cut its losses on so much invested effort. So we had the Libya fiasco and now the present mess in Syria as impromptu attempts at carrying through the ultimate policy aims the Arab Spring failed to achieve. The original plan was likely a successful Arab Spring leading into a graceful pivot to Asia – showing the world that though we got off to a wrong start, America nonetheless remains the master of its domain – which happens to be the world. As things played out, though, the Arab Spring turned out to be a mess and, amazingly, very little in the way of a contingency plan seems to have been in place in the event of a failure – and a failure it was. Washington became increasingly entangled in that mess, but yet again the elite had already too much invested and too much momentum driving it into the Asia pivot. So, yet again, it went on its merry way in complete disregard of the giant mess it just left in its wake, cruising along like Mr. Magoo after having caused a traffic accident. ‘The truth goes marching on,’ after all.
As if all of this weren’t enough, the old Cold Warriors and proponents of the idiotic Atlanticist vs Eurasian, Great Game theory of geopolitics were continously attempting to ram through their policies to isolate and, if possible, break up Russia throughout this entire period. They accomplished very little in this, except to destabilize Eastern European and Central Asian politics and throw a wrench in the gears of Russian-US cooperation which was off to a surprisingly good start in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But all that potential was systematically squandered with one policy after another.
And so the whole period from 2001 up to the present is characterized by haphazard planning, massive strategic overreach, excessively numerous objectives combined with a failure to prioritize, and exclusively half-measured attempts at action. Not to mention the repeated stubborn refusal to reassess plans made, likely a decade or so in advance, within the context of their recent actions and the consequences thereof.
The result – Washington’s opportunity for “the American Century” or “the New World Order,” the “Pax Americana,” etc., has been squandered. The political capital Washington built up with European and other powers has dried up due to the endless negative side effects caused by Washington’s actions and felt primarily by them. They have to deal with the migrant crisis. They have to deal with a chaotic and dangerous Middle East. They have to deal with the destabilization of Eastern European politics. And if Russia is adequately provoked at some point in the future, it is they who will be hardest hit by that hurricane as well.
As a result of all the tied up resources, Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, etc. have decided that now is a good time to assert their independence. Washington’s answer to their intention to go their own way was met with an answer as dismissive and unconcerned as that of a man interrupted while speaking on the telephone, holding up a finger as if to say in silence “hold on a minute, I’m busy.” Then their actions began to conform to their stated intentions and Washington’s response thereafter has done little to satisfy its allies and much to rattle those nations which find themselves increasingly on the fence. Washington has thus left Russia, China, Iran, etc., confident that the road to independence is clear (I do not argue that this is necessarily negative, just that it is so).
That brings us to the present. But before we explore our options, let’s take a moment to quickly examine the past. Specifically, two instances when earlier societies were confronted with similar decisions. The consequences of such past examples are visible to us, while the consequences of potential decisions in the present are not visible. Therefore, the past may help us to weigh our options and push us in the right direction.
In Roman history, the emperor Trajan carried Rome to its greatest territorial extent. He defeated many of Rome’s foes and annexed a great deal of territory, but Rome’s hold on these was precarious at best. The next emperor, Hadrian, acknowledged that Rome had overextended herself and decided, quite prudently, that the best course of action was to withdraw behind natural boundaries and consolidate its core territories. This made the Roman Empire stronger, more stable, and better able to defend herself while removing a great burden of expense (in terms of money, manpower, and resources) that would have been necessary to maintain control of the newly acquired territories.
In contrast to this, Justinian I was a Roman Emperor who ruled from Constantinople in the time after the Western part of the Empire had already fallen. He too was faced with a choice – consolidate what he already had, or attempt to regain what was lost. He decided on the latter course and, in terms of territorial gains, he was immensely successful. North Africa, Italy, southern Spain, and Dalmatia were all returned to the Empire. However, his conquests left those territories in ruins. It was a massive expense to set about rebuilding the infrastructure, fielding troops to take, then hold the territories, and to re-extend the organs of State into these territories. It turned out to be a pyrrhic victory, for although the Empire was temporarily restored to much of its former size, the overextension of manpower and resources made the Empire increasingly vulnerable and unstable, ultimately hastening its decline. The recently won territories began slipping away as early as the reign of his first successor, Justin II.
With this in mind, we may return to the present. We are left in much the same position as Hadrian and Justinian I. We are overextended. The choice before us is this – either Washington embarks on a renewed and vigorous effort to restore that which has been lost and reaffirm its status as sole world hegemon, or it accepts the present trend toward multi-polarization of the world and falls back, cutting its losses and securing its most vital interests at the expense of its more ambitious dreams.
Hillary Clinton seems to be a proponent of the former course of action. In every speech and public statement that touches upon the topic, she is preaching a policy of renovatio imperii. She promises a stern rebuke to Russia and a commitment to the Syrian rebels under the mantra that ‘Assad must go’. She reassures our allies that America’s commitment to them is still in force, that America will take an energetic and leading role in NATO, that the pivot to Asia will continue and so will Washington’s commitment to Japan and South Korea. The Pax Americana will not be at an end, and shall go on with renewed vigor. However, given the lengths to which she will likely be required to go at this point in order to retain the empire, whatever is left of what she manages to bring back into the fold may not be much. That which is sacrificed to achieve those ends, however, may be great indeed.
Donald Trump, as far as I can tell, seems to advocate the latter course of action. He urges the need to reexamine America’s commitments to its so-called allies, whom he accuses of taking advantage of us. He questions the purpose of NATO and has expressed intentions of a rapprochement with Russia and a willingness to work with Vladimir Putin as partners, rather than hegemon and client. He has expressed his support of the UK’s leaving the EU and his stated intention to build a wall on the US-Mexico border is decidedly at odds with any attempt to create a North American Union. Under a Trump presidency, then, it seems that Washington’s empire ambitions will be scaled back.
In my eyes, the choice is clear. A continuation of chaos, ill-fated half-measures, massive expenditures of resources with nothing to show for it but new, more numerous, and increasingly serious problems on the one hand – perhaps even escalated to levels we never could have conceived of and for which we are entirely unprepared – or a stepping back and a return to a more modest and traditional course of action on the other. One that requires a decidedly less burdensome expenditure of resources and human lives. I, for one, have had enough of empire. For all that the elite might have gained from it, the people have gained nothing and lost much. Furthermore, the elite have clearly shown themselves incapable of the role they envision for themselves. For that reason, come November I will be casting my vote for Trump – come what may after that.