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America Unhinged

January 2, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: United States

America Unhinged

Mini Teaser: The "most secure great power in world history" continues to engage in costly interventions to defend merely peripheral interests.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

SINCE EARLY 2011, political developments in Egypt and Syria have repeatedly captured the attention of the American foreign-policy elite. The Obama administration has tried to guide the turbulent political situation in post-Mubarak Egypt and become increasingly engaged in Syria’s bloody civil war. The United States is already helping arm some of the forces fighting against the Assad regime, and President Obama came close to attacking Syria following its use of chemical weapons in August 2013. Washington is now directly involved in the effort to locate and destroy Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles.

These responses reflect three widespread beliefs about Egypt and Syria. The first is that the two states are of great strategic importance to the United States. There is a deep-seated fear that if the Obama administration does not fix the problems plaguing those countries, serious damage will be done to vital American interests. The second one is that there are compelling moral reasons for U.S. involvement in Syria, mainly because of large-scale civilian deaths. And the third is that the United States possesses the capability to affect Egyptian and Syrian politics in significant and positive ways, in large part by making sure the right person is in charge in Cairo and Damascus.

Packaged together, such beliefs create a powerful mandate for continuous American involvement in the politics of these two troubled countries.

Anyone paying even cursory attention to U.S. foreign policy in recent decades will recognize that Washington’s response to Egypt and Syria is part of a much bigger story. The story is this: America’s national-security elites act on the assumption that every nook and cranny of the globe is of great strategic significance and that there are threats to U.S. interests everywhere. Not surprisingly, they live in a constant state of fear. This fearful outlook is reflected in the comments of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, before Congress in February 2012: “I can’t impress upon you that in my personal military judgment, formed over thirty-eight years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” In February 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that Americans “live in very complex and dangerous times,” and the following month Senator James Inhofe said, “I don’t remember a time in my life where the world has been more dangerous and the threats more diverse.”

These are not anomalous views. A 2009 survey done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 69 percent of the Council on Foreign Relations’ members believed the world was more dangerous than—or at least as dangerous as—it was during the Cold War. In short, the elite consensus is that Egypt and Syria are not the only countries Washington has to worry about, although they are among the most pressing problems at the moment. This grim situation means the United States has a lot of social engineering to carry out, leaving it no choice but to pursue an interventionist foreign policy. In other words, it must pursue a policy of global domination if it hopes to make the world safe for America.

This perspective is influential, widespread—and wrong. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the United States is a remarkably secure country. No great power in world history comes close to enjoying the security it does today. What’s more, Egypt and Syria are not vital strategic interests. What happens in those countries is of little importance for American security. This is not to say they are irrelevant but rather that Washington’s real interests there are not great enough to justify expending blood and treasure. Nor is there a compelling moral case for intervening in either country.

Equally important, the United States has little ability to rectify the problems in Egypt and Syria. If anything, intervention is likely to make a bad situation worse. Consider America’s dismal record in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Moreover, it does not matter much who is in charge in Cairo or Damascus. The United States has a rich history of working with leaders of all types, including Communists, fascists, military dictators and traditional monarchs. For all the talk about the need to topple Syria’s Bashar al-Assad because he is a ruthless tyrant, Washington was able to live with him—and his equally ruthless father—for more than forty years.

Interfering in countries like Egypt and Syria and turning the world into one big battlefield has significant costs for the United States. The strategic costs are actually not great precisely because the United States is such an extraordinarily secure country. It can pursue foolish policies and still remain the most powerful state on the planet. (This is not to deny that America’s interventionist policies are the main cause of its terrorism problem. Nevertheless, terrorism is a minor threat, which is why Washington is free to continue pursuing the policies that helped cause the problem in the first place.)

The pursuit of global domination, however, has other costs that are far more daunting. The economic costs are huge—especially the wars—and there are significant human costs as well. After all, thousands of Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many more have suffered egregious injuries that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Probably the most serious cost of Washington’s interventionist policies is the growth of a national-security state that threatens to undermine the liberal-democratic values that lie at the heart of the American political system.

Given these significant costs, and given that the United States has no vital interests at stake in Egypt and Syria, let alone the capacity for fixing the problems afflicting those countries, it should adopt a hands-off policy toward them. American leaders would do well to honor the principle of self-determination when dealing with Cairo and Damascus, and with many other countries around the world as well.

THE UNITED STATES is an exceptionally secure great power, contrary to the folderol one frequently hears emanating from America’s national-security community. A good way to illustrate this point is to reflect on isolationism, a grand strategy with a rich but controversial history.

Isolationism rests on the assumption that no region of the world outside of the Western Hemisphere is of vital strategic importance to the United States. Isolationists do not argue that America has no interests in the wider world, just that they are not important enough to justify deploying military force to defend them. They are fully in favor of engaging with the rest of the world economically as well as diplomatically, but they view all foreign wars as unnecessary.

I am not an isolationist, but the logic underpinning this grand strategy is not easy to dismiss. Quite the contrary, as President Franklin Roosevelt discovered in the early 1940s, when he had great difficulty countering the isolationists. It is commonplace today to dismiss those isolationists as fools or even crackpots. But that would be a mistake. They were wrong to think the United States could sit out World War II, but they made a serious case for staying on the sidelines, one that many Americans found compelling. At the heart of the isolationists’ worldview is a simple geographical fact: the American homeland is separated from Asia and Europe by two giant moats. No great power can mount an amphibious operation across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, and thus no outside power, whether it was Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, could directly threaten the survival of the United States.

If the case for isolationism was powerful before Pearl Harbor, it is even more compelling today. For starters, the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons, which are the ultimate deterrent and go a long way toward guaranteeing a state’s survival. No adversary is going to invade America and threaten its survival, because that opponent would almost certainly end up getting vaporized. In essence, two giant oceans and thousands of nuclear weapons today shield the United States. Moreover, it faces no serious threats in its own neighborhood, as it remains a regional hegemon in the Western Hemisphere.

Finally, the United States faces no great-power rival of any real consequence. In fact, most strategists I know believe it has been operating in a unipolar world since the Cold War ended, which is another way of saying America is the only great power on the planet; it has no peers. Others believe China and Russia are legitimate great powers and the world is multipolar. Even so, those two great powers are especially weak when compared to the mighty United States. In addition, they have hardly any power-projection capability, which means they cannot seriously threaten the American homeland.

All of this is to say that the United States, which is the most secure great power in world history, has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time in its history. General Dempsey’s assertion that the present marks the most dangerous era in his lifetime is completely wrong. The world was far more perilous during the Cold War, which witnessed the various Berlin crises, the Cuban missile crisis and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. And it is hard to fathom how Senator Inhofe, who was born one year after Hitler came to power, could think today’s world is more dangerous than the first decade of his life.

Image: Pullquote: The United States, which is the most secure great power in world history, has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time in its history.Essay Types: Essay