US no longer world policeman: good or bad?

Sunday, December 30, 2018

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United States President Donald Trump's pronouncement that the US will no longer be the world's policeman is a statement of profound importance which will be greeted by some with grave concern and by others with a sense of relief.

The US has been the world's dominant and hegemonic power since World War II and, importantly, during the Cold War interregnum with the Soviet Union. The US has had a history of alternating periods of willingness to practice regular and consistent interventionist engagement in the world, and periods of isolationism in which intervention was episodic.

Whichever approach is being applied, the US has never practised genuine multilateralism, but has always pursued a policy of unilateralism. What has passed for multilateralism since the 1950s has been US dominance and rule by veto in all international institutions including: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

America has not, until the Iraq War, felt the need to have the support of other nations when taking military action. It has acted unilaterally with impunity. Thus, the US ran the world in its national interest until the Vietnam War proved unwinnable and showed that it could not always get what it wanted.

As hegemonic superpower and the largest economy in the world, the US shoulders by far a disproportionate share of the expenses of the defence of the non-communist world. This enormous national security expenditure helps to drive economic growth in the American economy by funding the military industrial complex.

However, as in the case of all empires, most notably the Roman and British empires, the end game is when the military expense causes the economy to atrophy, engendering a fiscal crisis of the State. This situation is known as “imperial overstretch” — an empire cannot extend its control beyond its ability to maintain or expand its military capacity.

President Trump must not be misunderstood. He is not saying that the US will not intervene militarily. What he means is that the US will not put boots on the ground everywhere. The US will spend its defence expenditures in other ways, such as border control and cyber-security.

Countries will have to pay a larger share or all of the cost of their own defence, particularly the European Union and Japan. This downsizing of its international role is eminently reasonable for the US from an economic point of view.

But it will mean a diminution of its global influence which, once lost, it might never be able to recover. Fortunately for the US and the world, China — the emerging superpower — has so far shown no inclination to fill the military vacuum left by the retreat of the US.

However, the new US approach will embolden many national and regional conflicts which could have international repercussions. US scaling down, Chinese reluctance and Russia's inability create a global context in which there is no hegemonic power to manage and ensure world order and collaboration among competing rival powers.

In this type of situation, instability is a very likely outcome, which is certainly not conducive to peace, democracy, and economic growth.

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