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Is America Abandoning the World?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Opinion Piece

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

About a week ago, the Chairman of Global Weekly, Toby Gill, wrote an excellent article discussing America’s growing disengagement with the world. In it, he correctly pointed out the growing trend of isolationism within both major American political parties, and how such trends will prove to be disastrous for the Western alliance network and global peace. All of this is true. America has backslidden from its former position as the leader of the free world. Support for continued military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine continues to dwindle, and a growing number of Americans would give little more than a shoulder shrug should China invade Taiwan. The U.S. has fewer troops deployed abroad since the Great Depression. All of this will have serious consequences for global peace and security. This also isn’t new. Not even remotely. In fact, one can argue that this was entirely predictable.

Our current global order, the one that the Americans have been retreating from, from an economic position, was a loss for the United States. For context; the Allied powers had just won the war in Europe, and Western military and political leaders were just receiving stories about the Soviet Red Army’s numerous war crimes across Eastern Europe. Understanding the threat that the USSR possessed, leadership in the United States knew that being primarily a naval power, the U.S. on its own, did not have the ability to fight back the Soviet Union in a purely land-based conflict. It needed allies. However, the Western European nations, having just emerged from the Second World War, were in no position to be able to defend themselves from Soviet aggression, and didn’t exactly have a history of successful collaboration. So the United States created an alliance structure that opened all Western European nations to American capital and markets, and agreed to use their navy to patrol global oceans, making international shipping lanes relatively safe (relatively speaking) for all. All a country had to do to be accepted into this international order was ally itself with the United States, and pledge to fight the Soviet Union should they be called upon.

Broadly speaking, this was a wild success. As a result of this “Guns for Butter” model, more people have been lifted out of extreme poverty than ever before. Fewer wars have been fought, and fewer people, as a percentage of the global population, have died because of war, disease, or famine than at any other point in human history. This global order allowed for humanity’s breakneck technological progress throughout the 20th & 21st centuries. Then the unthinkable happened: the Soviet Union collapsed, and the entire bogeyman that led the Americans to create such a prosperous alliance structure vanished almost overnight.

Of course, globalisation was not going to vanish the night that the Soviet Union collapsed. With the collapse of the USSR, an empire’s worth of commodities was dumped on the global market, helping to fuel global economic growth while simultaneously keeping inflation remarkably low. Even so, since the fall of the Soviet Union, American presidents have increasingly distanced themselves from maintaining this global order. The only justification for continued global engagement was to maintain oil flows from the Persian Gulf. However, since the Shale Revolution made the United States net energy independent, even that justification has become outdated.

George H.W. Bush was the first to suggest to the American people the idea of maintaining such an order, but those same Americans thought that raising taxes was a non-starter. Bill Clinton’s foreign policy was largely nonexistent unless there was an economic incentive attached. George W. Bush’s idea of foreign policy was absolutely wrecking the Middle East. Obama was one of the most insulated presidents of all time, rarely meeting with even his own political allies, much less foreign leaders.

Trump’s presidency was openly hostile to this global order. Many people have seen Biden, because of his staunch support of Ukraine, as a quasi-return of the United States to the global order, but forget that Biden has enshrined almost every Trump-era trade policy, and withdrew troops from Afghanistan. It’s also worth remembering that aid to Ukraine, consisting of just 5% of the American defense budget, and selling outdated weapons systems that U.S. forces aren’t even using anymore is increasingly being viewed as too costly of a sacrifice by the American public.

Additionally, in purely economic terms, globalisation was a net loss for Americans. While global free trade did lift billions out of extreme poverty and create a global middle class, it also had the side effect of hollowing out the industrial base of the United States, hampering its own development. Such sacrifices are much easier to sell to the American people during the Cold War. But convincing Americans now to fight and die in an effort to maintain order in an area of the world in which the United States has little-to-no economic or strategic interest? That’s a much tougher sell. Truth be told, the United States, of all major international economies, remains the least integrated within the global system and thus has the privilege of being able to walk away from the wider world and suffer minimal consequences.

This increasing isolationism will have disastrous effects on the global commons. Whether or not Biden wins the next general election will have little to do with these outcomes. As a result of the current chaos in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. aid to Ukraine has been temporarily frozen, and in all likelihood is not long for this world. In just about every way, President Biden has proven to be every bit as populist as Donald Trump, with Ukraine serving as the exception that proves this rule. Had Russia swept through Ukraine the way most analysts predicted, chances are incredibly high that the American response would be little more than a shrug.

Lastly, a big reason for America's increasing disinterest in the world has to do with recent history. Post 9/11 American interventions can broadly be described as a flawed endeavour.. In Iraq, Americans were deceived by their own government into believing that Saddam Hussein possessed both weapons of mass destruction, as well as ties to Al-Qaeda. Turns out neither of these was true, but the United States still invaded, largely shaping the rampant instability seen in the Middle East today. Oh, and it also gave us ISIS. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Military intervened in Libya, helping to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, despite never getting Congressional approval, in flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution. Today, Libya remains in a state of civil war, with many NATO countries backing opposing factions. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, but continued to stay a decade after he was found in neighbouring Pakistan, ostensibly to defeat the Taliban.

We all saw how that ended. Simply put, Americans now no longer know who to trust when it comes to foreign intervention, having been promised results and seeing nothing but failure.

In conclusion, America's trajectory of disengagement from the global stage, spanning nearly three decades and amplified by the transformative impact of the shale revolution, signifies a paradigm shift in international relations. This shift reflects a recalibration of priorities, with the United States seemingly retreating from the role of the world's primary guarantor of stability and order.

However, this departure from global engagement is not without consequences. As America withdraws from international commitments, it risks ceding influence to other nations, potentially reshaping the world order in ways that may not align with its long-term interests. Furthermore, the erosion of trust and cooperation with traditional allies can undermine collective efforts to address global challenges, from climate change to pandemics.

As we navigate these uncharted waters, it becomes imperative to strike a balance between safeguarding national interests and recognizing the interconnectedness of the world. America's evolving role on the global stage should be driven not only by short-term considerations but also by a clear understanding of its enduring commitment to the principles that underpin the international order. In an era where isolationism seems increasingly attractive, it is essential to remain cognizant of the complex web of relationships that sustain global stability and prosperity, as well as the role the United States plays in upholding this delicate equilibrium. The future of America's engagement with the world will undoubtedly shape the course of international affairs for years to come.


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