With Russia “invading” (in quotes because right now we don’t know if it’s official yet) the Crimea and the 20th century spectre of the Soviet War Machine raising its head within Ukraine, there are a lot of interesting and very good articles out there about the situation, like this one at The Bridge and another by Robert Kagan from Brookings. They and a great many others coming out are actually focusing less on the Ukrainian situation and more on how we’re finally witnessing firsthand “the decline of America as a superpower.” I won’t pretend to have their credentials and expertise, but I do have some opinions and comments on the subject.
First, I don’t believe America is declining as a superpower. We may well be choosing not to exercise that power as freely as we did in the past, but even with the proposed cuts in the American military, the ability to project power – be it by aircraft carrier, cruise missile, aircraft or ICBM – is still there, and even if we’re shrinking in numbers, the technological capability continues to increase (even if we have a terrible habit of fielding it before it’s truly ready). There may well be damned good reasons for arguing against forces cuts, but frankly, “we can’t go back to pre-World War Two levels” isn’t one of them. Ignoring the point it’s an observation, not an argument, I propose that today’s Soldier/Marine, with enhanced body armor, comms, GPS and weaponry, is more capable and powerful than a platoon or more of WWII, Korea or Vietnam-era troops, so the straight-numbers comparison is fallacious. As none of our current adversaries have our levels of technology, experience and capability, I still say we have the cutting edge in all mediums of war, possibly excepting cyberspace, and in spite of the recessions and downturns, our economic power continues to be unparalleled.
Next, the reason we’re not exercising that power is due to the will of the American people. As has been shown in the past, after every major conflict America gets understandably war-weary, wanting to come home, lick her wounds and bury and mourn her dead. That is what’s happening here. After 13 years of war, we’re tired, and I can’t disagree with what seems to be a widely-held opinion that we need to pull back and focus on ourselves for a while; work a little harder at putting our own house in order, and maybe a bit of our backyard and areas and topics where we have a compelling national interest, but more on that later.
What does this mean for Ukraine? Unfortunately, not a lot from the American corner. I’m a huge advocate of diplomacy, and especially exhausting diplomacy before going the military-action route, but I don’t feel it’s going to work here, at least not to the benefit of the Ukrainians. Russia isn’t in the mood for talking, and they know we’re war-weary and are not about to put boots-on-ground in Russia’s backyard, so they’re going to take the Crimea and they’re going to get it. What’s unknown is how far they’re going to push regarding taking at least eastern Ukraine or possibly the whole damn country along with it. What’s more likely to affect that equation is less what we’re doing and more on what Europe will do. This is Europe’s backyard as well, and you can be damn sure all the former Eastern Bloc nations are getting little beads of perspiration on their foreheads and wondering if they’re next. After most – but not all – of Europe leaning on the US all these years, expecting us to put our neck out, it’s time to grow some cajones and step up, and decide just how much western-style Democracy for your neighbors is worth to you.
However, in spite of the tragedy going on in Ukraine, I’m not finding many people talking about the greater strategic situation. The first article I cited above is one, but most are using Ukraine to lament our great demise as we’re about to be swallowed up into the history books. Russia isn’t the only one who’s been pushing the status quo lately – and Russia has been pushing, reestablishing military maneuvers, patrols and provocations not seen since the 1980s. China as well has been dipping its toe into provocative waters the past few years, culminating (for now) in this year’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) extending well past internationally-recognized territorial waters and more reminiscent of its ancient dynastic reaches. Along with the airspace, it’s making great efforts to claim oceanic zones well past the 12-mile limit, and is willing to come very close to direct confrontation with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam to do so. And why? Because like Russia, China can see the American cycle and knows that while we’ll posture and rant, we won’t act. Per the title of this post, I ask the question: do these events signify a tipping point, and into what? A lessening of American influence in certain parts of the world, or an outright new Cold War? I hope and believe it’s the former, but I can’t discount the latter. A major geo-political shift, or just ripples on the global pond? Time will tell.
So is the US developing a more isolationist outlook a bad thing, at least in terms of compelling US interests? Hard to say. Perhaps it will encourage Europe to take some risks with Russia. Perhaps it will push Japan, South Korea and the SE Asian nations into a military NATO-esque treaty much more formal, binding and important than the current ASEAN, which is just political and economic. Perhaps it will force the Middle East to finally do something about Iran and its financing of nearly every subversive group in the region. What does it mean to the US and our closest allies? It may well mean that since we’re unwilling to face more years of conflict – that we need a breather – we’ll have to accept ceding certain geo-political portions of the spectrum to our adversaries and deal with them down the road when, admittedly, they’ll be entrenched and it will be much harder. But maybe not that much harder, or one could even speculate the problem could take care of itself while we’re in a pseudo-isolationist mode. After all, Russia’s economy is still in poor shape, and any expansion attempts – which seem, in the Russian tradition, to be likely to include a lot of military forces – could see the whole country economically implode again a’ la 1989. And the Chinese have established a reputation for themselves as well: they go into developing countries with a lot of capital, improving the lives of the populations there, but their arrogance quickly makes it clear they see their “investments” as inferiors, and so prospects for long-term relationships wither as the indigenous populations realize the Chinese will never view them as equals, but merely resources to be expended as needed.
And as for us? The will of the people seems to be clear, if not a mandate: end the long wars, bring our troops home, focus on our economy and bringing jobs and manufacturing back to the US (and if you don’t believe that’s a priority for Americans, check out how fast Mike Rowe’s and his mikeroweWORKS Foundation pages have been growing). In spite of our greatness, we’re not perfect, and there are areas where we are surpassed in other parts of the world: aspects of education, health care (and I’m NOT delving into a health care debate here!), and seemingly small but actually very important things like parental maternity leave.
Along with getting our own house in order, maybe it’s also a chance to help our closest neighbors and build security in our own neighborhood. The Ukraine situation has largely overshadowed the revolutionary events happening in Venezuela this week (who also happens to be our biggest oil supplier; talk about your strategic interests!); Cuba is enacting more and more reforms, and it just may need an economic push to take it over the top; Columbia was once synonymous with drug lords and drug wars and it now a thriving nation (with admittedly some lingering problems), and the southern South American (is that redundant?) nations of Brazil, Argentina and Chile could be economic powerhouses and powerful allies, with a little help, assistance and advice.
As always it is, in the end, in the hands of the American people. We – and our votes and polls – will decide, and the whole world will, to different extents, have to live with our decision.