The Myth of America’s Global Peacekeeping Past
Apparently recognizing that the American Unipolar Moment may be over, and that the international system is gradually taking a multipolar form, some pundits have been warning us that the day will soon come in which we will all be experiencing American Empire nostalgia. “If and when American power declines, the institutions and norms American power has supported will decline, too,” or “they may collapse altogether as we transition into another kind of world order, or into disorder,” wrote leading neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan. “Or we may discover then that the United States was essential to keeping the present world order together and that the alternative to American power was not peace and harmony but chaos and catastrophe—which was what the world looked like right before the American order came into being,” Kagan warned.
More recently, Kagan and others have blasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy at home and abroad for its alleged failure to stand up to U.S. adversaries in Damascus, Moscow, and Beijing. They sound even more agitated as they raise the specter of global disorder that would supposedly follow the deterioration of American power. “Some will celebrate the decline of America’s ability to deter. But wherever they live, they may find that whatever replaces the old order is much worse,” concluded The Economist magazine in a long essay which warned that “America is no longer as alarming to its foes or reassuring to its friends,” maintaining that “American power is not half as scary as its absence would be.”
These and similar arguments forecasting the End-of-the-World-as-We-Know-It unless the United States takes steps to depose Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and to force Russia’s Vladimir Putin to end Russian intervention in Ukraine, to defend American allies in East Asia in their territorial disputes with China and to end Iran’s nuclear program, to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace and to… (the list is long), are based on intellectually contradictory, if not dishonest assumptions.
When they refer to the good old days of a global stability guaranteed by American hegemony, the critics are presumably not referring to the Cold War era, but the period following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and what was celebrated as the defeat of the Soviet Union. That golden age of American military supremacy securing global peace is supposedly coming to an end because President Barack Obama was “pondering the limits of American power, out loud,” and projecting “the perception of growing American timidity” to use American military power in the Middle East and elsewhere,” as The Economist put it. This “timidity,” in turn, sends the wrong message to bad guys around the world and encourages them to challenge the power of America and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East; Poland and the Baltic states in Eastern Europe; Japan and Korea in East Asia), eventually leading to new military conflicts. It might leave the Americas no other choice but to distance themselves from the United States and take unilateral steps to protect themselves, or in the worst case scenario, make deals with the Assads and the Putins of the world. The Economist even warns that in a post-American world, Israel could end up gravitating to India and China.
Yet consider the following application of such thinking back to the supposed period of the Pax Americana: The United States emerged as the victorious and undisputed global power in the aftermath of the Cold War, and yet a tin-pot dictator by the name of Saddam Hussein was willing to invade Kuwait and defy the only remaining superpower and its freshly established new world order. So the United States had no choice but to come to the aid of its allies in the Persian Gulf and use its military power to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It followed the first Gulf War with the enunciation of a “dual containment” strategy vis-à-vis both Iraq and Iran that included the deployment of U.S. troops in the region.
And yet even this remarkable show of American military force did very little to deter another bad guy, Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević, from challenging American dictates and from asserting Serbia’s power during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. So again, the United States had to use its military force in the Balkans against the Serbs. The U.S. eventually agreed to the dismembering of Serbia and the secession of the Kosovars, a move that ran contrary to the America-backed international norm of maintaining the territorial integrity of a nation state (a principle that Washington is eager to defend in Ukraine today).
In any case, with all their military might and diplomatic power, U.S. presidents in the golden age of Pax Americana failed to bring peace to the Holy Land (the only successful deal, the Oslo Agreement, was achieved in bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians), or to weaken Saddam’s hold on power in Baghdad, or the Ayatollah’s grip in Tehran. They couldn’t even prevent the rise to power of new adversaries like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in the U.S.’s geographical backyard.
Eventually, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 demonstrated that, contrary to the prevailing axiom, American military supremacy not only failed to maintain global stability, but it helped ignite new threats to its own security at home and abroad, and required the United States to go to war once again in long and expensive military conflicts in Afghanistan and later Iraq. There is something morally appalling in Kagan, The Economist, and other cheerleaders for the botched wars in the Greater Middle East arguing once again that only the full application of American military power will deter aggression and build the foundations for stability. One would expect those pundits whose preferred policies after 9/11 helped destabilize the Middle East, strengthen the power of Iran and its Shiite partners, and eventually weaken American military and economic power, to demonstrate a certain level of intellectual humility.
Instead they are urging Washington to get tough and use its military power in order to deter aggressors and avert wars, and ensure that the Baltic or Southeast Asian states will not have to reach diplomatic deals with their respective powerful neighbors or that Israel will not drift towards New Delhi and Beijing. In sum, they are urging Washington to do everything possible to prevent the United States from adjusting its policies to the new era of Multipolarism.