Recently, Donald Trump sent out a tweet in which he criticized the U.S.-led liberal international order. In this tweet, Trump announced that “The U.S. has 69 treaties with other countries where we would have to defend them and their borders. How nice, but what do we get? NOT ENOUGH.” Drezner’s response – “Seventy years of a US-created international order pissed away by this intellectual weakling” – pretty much sums up my reaction to Trump’s tweet. However, the twitter arguments became even more convoluted and bizarre as far left conspiracy theorists united with Trump supporters to challenge U.S. hegemony. It was a long, arduous day for defenders of American primacy, but they valiantly fought on against the neo-isolationist Trumpsters and the loony, anti-capitalist leftists. This Twitter battle inspired me to write a more thorough response that addresses both the isolationist elements of the GOP and the liberal groups who subscribe to ideas like Dependency Theory. In short, I want to make the case that the preponderance of evidence seems to support the notion of the U.S.-led international order being a boon for America and a boon for the planet.
First, to understand the benefits of a unipolar American-led system, we need to look back at the historical record. Throughout history, there have been innumerable conflicts and wars. As recently as the 20th century, great power wars were recurring and devastating features of the international system. Indeed, in a 30 year period, two world wars were fought that claimed millions of lives. Since the United States became a regional (and later global) hegemon, creating global institutions and leading a strong, unified alliance of liberal and democratic powers, there have been zero great power wars. Zero. There have of course been a number of conflicts and militarized disputes since the imposition of the U.S.-led international order – Vietnam, Grenada, Afghanistan, etc. – but there have not been any wars that have required the U.S. to enter a full war-footing as it did during both world wars. Clearly, then, this system of globe-spanning alliances isn’t worth nothing.
Trump is correct that the American network of alliances is not cheap, but it is also not all that expensive. The U.S. spends around 3%-5% of GDP on its military, a figure not much different from other leading powers like Russia and China. Unlike Russia and China, however, the United States gets a lot more bang for its buck because it has a plethora of supportive allies. Ultimately, the costs of defense spending are not excessive, especially given the immense leverage and strategic flexibility America’s current policy of deep engagement affords it. There is also no strong link between high levels of defense spending and economic stagnation. Thus, there is very little reason to be concerned with the current American defense budget. Moreover, as Ikenberry, Brooks, and Wohlforth explain, costs are relatively stable, and defense spending as a percentage of GDP is steadily decreasing.
It’s also important that the costs of maintaining a favorable balance of power be weighed against the costs of a great power war. Sure, it’s expensive to finance a global military posture, but it costs much more to wage a major war. In a sense, investing in strong allies and a robust and capable military is like purchasing auto insurance: It acts as a backstop in case there is ever any trouble. Paying for insurance is a pain, and it is often expensive. Nevertheless, nobody ever regrets having insurance when they need it. The U.S.-led order is even better than insurance, though, because it not only acts as a security net, but it also prevents the accident – in this case, great power war – from ever occurring in the first place. It is like paying for an insurance policy that both covers you in case of an accident and simultaneously lowers your chance of getting into an accident at all.
Of course, the American alliance system is flawed. There are certain states (Pakistan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia come to mind) that are not always perfect allies. Some have ties to terrorist groups, others get into high-profile disputes with the United States, and many refuse to devote sufficient resources to maintaining their armed forces. Ultimately, though, the vast majority of U.S. allies go above and beyond to assist the United States in its global objectives. Even recalcitrant states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have proven themselves valuable allies during the recent wars in the Middle East. Pakistan has been crucial in providing supply routes to Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia played a key role in supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and is currently assisting in the fight against the Islamic State. Supposedly “free-riding” states like Germany and Japan have also been enormously supportive allies. For instance, they both supplied significant amounts of financial support to the U.S. during the First Gulf War, and during the recent bout of sanctions on Russia, the German economy absorbed the brunt of the economic blowback. No, Germany does not fund its military as much as it should, but that does not mean that Germany does not make major sacrifices in support of the United States.
While it is frustrating that certain countries in Europe refuse to meet their NATO defense spending obligations, it is not necessarily a bad thing. By weakening their armed forces, European countries essentially give America a monopoly on the use of force. European countries cannot engage in any major military operations without U.S. support and assistance, effectively granting the United States veto power over European foreign policy. If Europe wants to strike Libya, they need U.S. logistics and ISR support. If they want to punish Russia, they need the aid of U.S. EUCOM and the American financial sector. As Ikenberry, Brooks, and Wohlforth point out, “U.S. dominance of the high-end defense industry also allows Washington to trade access to its defense market for compliance on key security issues, such as technology transfers to potential geopolitical opponents. The embargo on military sales to China—in place since 1989—is a case in point.” In short, the United States has immense leverage that it can use to further its interests and control the actions of other sovereign countries. Moreover, it’s not as if European militaries are pushovers. They are underfunded, but they are well-equipped and superbly trained organizations. When the risk of war goes up, their levels of funding and preparedness rise as well – a dynamic recently demonstrated by NATO’s response to a newly-bellicose Russia. In other words, Europeans strengthen their militaries when an external threat emerges, but otherwise they sit back and stay out of the United States’ way. Also, it’s important to remember that while it is true that many U.S. allies free-ride militarily, they also spend much more on humanitarian aid, peacekeeping missions, and per capita refugee acceptance. In these areas, at least, the U.S. is the one free-riding.
Not everyone is concerned about U.S. allies being too passive, however. Some are concerned that allies – shielded by an American security guarantee – might become aggressive and expansionist, recklessly starting wars they otherwise wouldn’t. These people fear that U.S. allies will drag America into unnecessary wars, sapping its economic strength and costing American lives. The evidence, however, does not support this concern. While it is true that the U.S. has entered into foolish wars to burnish its reputation with its allies, very rarely have American allies actually wanted the U.S. to engage in these foolish wars. For example, America lingered in Vietnam because it was concerned that withdrawing would signal weakness to NATO and Asian allies, making countries like Japan and France question American fortitude and resolve. In reality, the French wanted America out of Vietnam as soon as possible because they were more worried about an overstretched America being unable to block a Soviet invasion of Western Europe than the loss of a minor and insignificant country to communism. Indeed, a recent study by Michael Beckley indicates that the risk of entanglement in foreign wars due to allies is almost nonexistent. America does get itself into stupid conflicts, but that is almost always the fault of the United States, not its allies. It’s important to remember, for example, that the only time NATO invoked Article V (the collective defense clause that requires alliance countries to come to the aid of each other) was after 9/11. In this case, it wasn’t Britain or Italy dragging the U.S. to war; it was the U.S. dragging them into a conflict.
Besides bilateral and multilateral military alliances, the U.S. also has much leverage through global institutions like the United Nations. For all the black helicopter conspiracies about international fora like the U.N. trying to usurp American sovereignty and “take away our rights,” there is very little evidence to support the idea that the U.S. is overly constrained by the network of international institutions regulating global activity. Indeed, most of these major institutions were created and designed by the United States. From the U.N. to the Bretton Woods institutions, the U.S. has immense leverage over the largest, most significant international bodies because it had a hand in creating them. It’s no accident that the U.S. is on the U.N. Security Council and has veto power over the IMF, after all. Because America helped create these institutions, it has been able to ensure that it has an oversized influence on how they operate. Scholars like G. John Ikenberry and David Lake have studied these phenomena extensively, and there is a strong scholarly consensus suggesting that active participation in multilateral fora is in the best interests of the United States. By being deeply engaged in these institutions, the U.S. is able to better exert its influence – leading international sanctions regimes, pushing American foreign policy agendas, and creating coalitions to deter and defeat rival states – and signal its benign intentions by binding itself to the same rules and laws that govern other states. Moreover, by promoting and participating in a network of inter-state cooperation, the U.S. is better able to tackle global and transnational threats like pandemics, terrorism, climate change, and proliferation. Many problems are simply too complex and wide-ranging for even a superpower to address unilaterally. Only through international and institutional engagement, then, can the U.S. fully exercise its influence and power.
American power preponderance and the liberal international order that it supports have benefits beyond just the prevention of wars, however. They also help to maintain a free and open global economy. With the United States Navy acting to defend and secure global trade and the U.S.-led financial system (Wall Street, the IMF, the World Bank, etc.) allowing for the free and easy flow of capital between borders, the world has witnessed a period of immense economic growth. As Ikenberry, Brooks, and Wohlforth explain, “Today, as the discussion in the previous section underscores, the security commitments of deep engagement support the global economic order by reducing the likelihood of security dilemmas, arms racing, instability, regional conflicts and, in extremis, major power war. In so doing, the strategy helps to maintain a stable and comparatively open world economy—a long-standing U.S. national interest. In addition to ensuring the global economy against important sources of insecurity, the extensive set of U.S. military commitments and deployments helps to protect the “global economic commons.’” U.S. leadership is beneficial to all because it contributes to increasing global economic wealth tremendously while also helping the U.S. in particular by granting the United States a privileged seat at the table. Specifically, U.S. predominance allows the U.S. to strong-arm allies into supporting U.S. economic initiatives and trade deals, and U.S. leverage and power also allows it to engage in “macro-structuring” of the global commons in a way that benefits U.S. economic interests (ie. promoting neoliberalism, free trade, easy capital flow, floating currencies, etc.).
It is in the economic realm, however, that the far left agitators get frustrated; they think that the U.S. has embraced a sort of neo-imperialism, using slave labor and oppressive regimes to fuel its profligacy. In short, this is utter nonsense. Yes, the U.S. deals with unsavory actors and regimes, and many countries from which the U.S. imports heavily have substandard worker protection. This is largely irrelevant, though. The story of development is one of a temporary decrease in quality of life followed by an enormous improvement. European workers suffered unimaginable horrors during the early industrial revolution, but now Europe has some of the highest per capita GDP in the world and exceptionally high quality of life. Slave wages are upsetting, but they are certainly preferable to no wages and extreme, inescapable poverty. Indeed, the U.S.-led economic order has created the greatest net reduction of extreme poverty in the world. Period. I, too, wish that worker exploitation could be eliminated. Sadly, it cannot because small developing countries are only able to compete via cheap labor. However, over the long-run, this model of exploiting comparative advantages in cheap labor to expedite economic growth yields enormous returns for society. Just look at Taiwan and South Korea: They started out as poor, developing countries, but today they are economic giants.
Far left protestors also need to consider the alternative to the U.S.-led global economic system before they start agitating too aggressively. Would it be preferable to have not opened up trade with China and Vietnam? In our effort to maintain moral purity by boycotting products from exploitative developing economies, would we be willing to force hundreds of millions of people to survive on subsistence farming and live in destitution? That is the alternative, after all. Should we dismantle the liberal order, allowing regional trade blocs to emerge and protectionism to proliferate? That would certainly keep the greedy American capitalist pigs at bay, but it would also block the easy access to capital and goods that have led to cheap products and critical FDI. Do you honestly think China would be as productive and developed as it is today if it didn’t receive hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. capital? Clearly, the answer is no. The point is that the U.S.-led economic system is certainly imperfect, but there are no real alternatives. For all the exploitation and corruption of the U.S.-led system, it is better than all the rest. For example, China doesn’t even pretend to care about the kinds of regimes it associates with, arming and financing brutal dictators in Africa without even seeking token concessions on human rights. At least the U.S. stands for something other than just pure imperialistic exploitation. It doesn’t always live up to its ideals, but at least it tries.
In summary, the United States has created a mostly benign international order. Of course, the U.S. acts unilaterally and distastefully on occasion. That is the nature of being a great power; every sane leader puts the interest of their country above the interests of other countries. However, compared to every other great power, America has been the greatest steward of the global order in the history of the world. While it has balanced against rival powers, it hasn’t started a world war just to acquire territory like Germany did. While it has certainly undertaken questionable missions to promote the American ideology of democracy and neoliberalism, it hasn’t depressed the economy of an entire continent in the name of an inane theory of politico-economic development like the U.S.S.R. did. Criticism is inevitable when you are a great power, a lesson Germany is now learning as it deals with the Greek financial crisis and the flood of refugees entering Europe. However, the fact that no major country (with the exception of Russia) is actively seeking to openly resist U.S. power indicates that for all the grumbling, the world isn’t too concerned by U.S. dominance. Clearly, then, the U.S. has been a fairly benign hegemon.
You have to laugh when populists like Trump ally with communists. Their complaints remind me of the joke, “the food here is terrible, and it comes in such small portions.” In other words, the U.S. does everything poorly, and it doesn’t do enough. Either the U.S. intervenes too much, or it intervenes too little. Either way, nobody is satisfied. Many people who argued that invading Vietnam was a rash decision also believe that not intervening in Cambodia to stop the Khmer Rouge was an unjust decision. Many Trump supporters who decry U.S. intervention in Iraq and Libya as neocon tomfoolery vehemently support overthrowing the vile Assad regime. Unfortunately, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Nobody is arguing that the U.S.-led international system is perfect or entirely benign, but it is telling that people on the fringes of both parties oppose U.S. hegemony. After all, my general principle is that if I’m pissing off the far left and far right simultaneously, I’m probably doing something right. As the title of one influential IR paper goes, don’t come home America! The world needs your leadership.