Journalist Robert Kaplan has written a timely reminder of all the benefits that America’s global military dominance has brought to the world. Many of these benefits are simply taken for granted, both by foreigners and by Americans, which is understandable: With all the crises and conflicts occurring at any given moment, it’s easy to lose sight of the potential crises and conflicts that aren’t happening.
In that spirit, here’s a short list of things that didn’t happen over the past 15 years, either partly or largely because of American power and American influence: (1) China and Japan did not go to war. (2) China and Taiwan did not go to war. (3) China and India did not go to war. (4) India and Pakistan did not go to war. (5) North and South Korea did not go to war. (6) Radical Islamists did not cause a massive disruption of oil flows through the Persian Gulf. (7) Colombia did not become a failed state.
None of those outcomes were inevitable, and neither is the endurance of the liberal international order, especially if America retreats from its global security role. (According to a recent New York Times report, President Obama “acknowledges, at least in private, that he is managing an era of American retrenchment.”) For that matter, events in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere underscore just how tenuous the liberal order already is.
To renew your appreciation for “the gift of American power,” it’s worth reading Kaplan’s essay in full. The key excerpt:
Because the American economy is the world’s largest, and because the American people have over the course of the decades agreed to employ that prosperity in service to an immense military armature across the globe, stability, such as it exists, and a new and unprecedented global civilization have been able to emerge. Take away that raw American power — which is first and foremost a geopolitical phenomenon — and the escape from geopolitics that many proclaim suddenly evaporates.
It is the various U.S. Navy fleets and numbered air forces that are the ultimate guarantor of stability in the key theaters of the globe. The U.S. Seventh Fleet, because it can easily defeat any rival, keeps the peace of East Asia. The spectacular Asian economic boom that commenced in the late Cold War decades is simply impossible to even imagine without the security provided by the U.S. military. Take away the Seventh Fleet and the chances of China and Japan going to war increase dramatically, roiling financial markets in the process. It is the Seventh Fleet that still stands in the way of China being able to Finlandize South Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Wide stretches of the Middle East may be in chaos or semi-chaos, but it is U.S. air and sea power that helps prevent a Persian Gulf war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and provides ultimately for the security of Israel and Jordan. As for Europe, without U.S. military power Russia is more dominant than the European Union on the Continent, and the independence of the Baltic states, Poland and Romania is crushed or dramatically diluted. Geography certainly matters, and Europe’s freedom survives best because of the geographical breadth of the U.S. military.
The United States is not a traditional empire because it has no colonies, but its military — and the diplomatic power that accompanies it — is deployed in an imperial-like fashion worldwide. The U.S. Navy calls itself a global force for good. That claim would pass the most stringent editorial fact-checking process. Without that very naked American ambition, which allows the Navy and the Air Force to patrol the global commons, the world is reduced to the sum of its parts: a Japan and China, and a China and India, dangerously at odds and on the brink of war; a Middle East in far wider war and chaos; a Europe neutralized and emasculated by Russian Revanchism; and an Africa in even greater disarray. It is not that regional powers cannot act rationally on their own; it is only that without a global hegemon of sorts, local balance-of-power interactions become more fraught with risk and are, therefore, more dangerous.
The 1914 scenario that many proclaim for both Europe and East Asia would become much more than journalistic hype absent American military preponderance. The spread of democracy that many celebrate would be impossible to imagine without the American military’s global footprint since, if you project your power, your values will often follow behind you.
It is true that the early 21st century is different from the 20th and 19th centuries. It is different not so much because of a change in human nature, or because of postmodern technology, or because of the disappearance of geopolitics. To the contrary, it is different because the United States, with all of its limitations and all of its mistakes, remains geopolitically dominant.
Great powers are rarely appreciated in their own time, for the benevolent order they spread goes unacknowledged by those who benefit most from what they provide. Global civilization — and the system of legal norms that arises from it — survives to a significant extent because the American military remains robust and widely deployed. And that, in turn, is not a situation that is necessarily permanent, or one that can ever be taken for granted.