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The Guns of August: Lowering the Flag on the American Century
Posted on Aug 17, 2010
So where are we this August of 2010, with guns blazing in one war in Afghanistan even as we try to extricate ourselves from another in Iraq? Where are we, as we impose sanctions on Iran and North Korea (and threaten worse), while sending our latest wonder weapons, pilotless drones armed with bombs and missiles, into Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, Yemen, and who knows where else, tasked with endless “targeted killings” which, in blunter times, used to be called assassinations? Where exactly are we, as we continue to garrison much of the globe even as our country finds itself incapable of paying for basic services?
I wish I had a crystal ball to peer into and see what historians will make of our own guns of August in 2060. The fog of war, after all, is just a stand-in for what might be called “the fog of the future,” the inability of humans to peer with any accuracy far into the world to come. Let me nonetheless try to offer a few glimpses of what that foggy landscape some years ahead might reveal, and even hazard a few predictions about what possibilities await still-imperial America.
Let me begin by asking: What harm would befall the United States if we actually decided, against all odds, to close those hundreds and hundreds of bases, large and small, that we garrison around the world? What if we actually dismantled our empire, and came home? Would Genghis Khan-like hordes descend on us? Not likely. Neither a land nor a sea invasion of the U.S. is even conceivable.
Would 9/11-type attacks accelerate? It seems far likelier to me that, as our overseas profile shrank, the possibility of such attacks would shrink with it.
Would various countries we’ve invaded, sometimes occupied, and tried to set on the path of righteousness and democracy decline into “failed states?” Probably some would, and preventing or controlling this should be the function of the United Nations or of neighboring states. (It is well to remember that the murderous Cambodian regime of Pol Pot was finally brought to an end not by us, but by neighboring Vietnam.)
In other words, the main fears you might hear in Washington—if anyone even bothered to wonder what would happen, should we begin to dismantle our empire—would prove but chimeras. They would, in fact, be remarkably similar to Washington’s dire predictions in the 1970s about states all over Asia, then Africa, and beyond falling, like so many dominoes, to communist domination if we did not win the war in Vietnam.
What, then, would the world be like if the U.S. lost control globally—Washington’s greatest fear and deepest reflection of its own overblown sense of self-worth—as is in fact happening now despite our best efforts? What would that world be like if the U.S. just gave it all up? What would happen to us if we were no longer the “sole superpower” or the world’s self-appointed policeman?
In fact, we would still be a large and powerful nation-state with a host of internal and external problems. An immigration and drug crisis on our southern border, soaring health-care costs, a weakening education system, an aging population, an aging infrastructure, an unending recession—none of these are likely to go away soon, nor are any of them likely to be tackled in a serious or successful way as long as we continue to spend our wealth on armies, weapons, wars, global garrisons, and bribes for petty dictators.
Even without our interference, the Middle East would continue to export oil, and if China has been buying up an ever larger share of what remains underground in those lands, perhaps that should spur us into conserving more and moving more rapidly into the field of alternative energies.
Meanwhile, whether we dismantle our empire or not, China will become (if it isn’t already) the world’s next superpower. It, too, faces a host of internal problems, including many of the same ones we have. However, it has a booming economy, a favorable balance of payments vis-à-vis much of the rest of the world (particularly the U.S., which is currently running an annual trade deficit with China of $227 billion), and a government and population determined to develop the country into a powerful, economically dominant nation-state.
Fifty years ago, when I began my academic career as a scholar of China and Japan, I was fascinated by the modern history of both countries. My first book dealt with the way the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s spurred Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party he headed on a trajectory to power, thanks to its nationalist resistance to that foreign invader. Incidentally, it is not difficult to find many examples of this process in which a domestic political group gains power because it champions resistance to foreign troops. In the immediate post-WWII period, it occurred in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia; with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all over Eastern Europe; and today, it is surely occurring in Afghanistan and probably in Iraq as well.
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