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How I Learned to Love the American Empire
The US should promote more growth and order abroad, and less chaos
My graduate studies were focused on international relations, and when I started writing for a broader public I was mostly publishing essays and reports calling for a less interventionist US foreign policy. My first book was based in IR theory, but in a practical sense could be read as a call for taking a less militarized posture abroad.
In early 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I thought that this had confirmed much of what I believed. I still think that the US should have been willing to take NATO membership off the table in order to try and avoid war. But once it happened, and it became clear that Ukraine could fight back and the US could help it do so effectively, I changed my mind on whether we should be involved in the conflict. By November, I had come around to the idea that support for Ukraine made sense. The month before, I had written “The Year of Fukuyama,” where I discussed how the events of 2022 belatedly converted me to the end of history theory. Whatever problems that democracies have, every tested alternative has clearly been much worse by any reasonable measure.
Despite these previous essays, I have yet to write a full explanation of how my views on foreign policy have changed over the last few years. I’ll therefore take the opportunity to do so now.
The study of geopolitics should begin by understanding that the world has gotten a lot less violent, as aptly demonstrated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Even if you’re like Taleb and don’t believe the data, just look at the fact that the most powerful countries in the world have not fought a direct war against one another for three-quarters of a century, and think about how rare that has been historically. Interstate wars between lesser powers likewise remain extremely uncommon compared to the past.
There are two main theories that try to explain the relative peace we’ve seen since the end of WWII. One can believe that it is the result of US hegemony, or it is something else in our economics, ideas, technology, or culture that has changed. When I interviewed John Mueller about his The Stupidity of War, I was surprised to hear that his view is that this is purely a matter of better ideas winning at the expense of dumb ones. I tried to press him as to why the idea that war is dumb might’ve taken hold in the twentieth century when it hadn’t before, and become so universally accepted, but he didn’t seem to find any of my theories plausible.
The American empire can be seen as both a source of chaos, and a source of order. Its defenders argue that it keeps the peace throughout various regions of the globe: in Europe via NATO, in East Asia through its alliances, mainly with South Korea and Japan; and in much of the developing world by providing military bases, funding and training for other governments, and being there to economically sanction or even use military force against disruptive actors, such as Islamists in West Africa. At the same time, the US is an agent of chaos in the sense that it often overthrows governments without leaving behind anything in their place — think Libya and the early days after Iraq. And although it doesn’t get talked about much these days, the drug war is pure insanity. Except in the rarest circumstances, I don’t believe government should ever engage in paternalism, but even if one disagrees, it’s certainly not worth destabilizing entire nations and empowering cartels in the service of protecting people from themselves.
Sometimes a foreign policy debate is over whether a particular action contributes to stability or chaos. From one perspective, NATO expansion into Eastern Europe has solidified borders and kept the peace. From another, it is NATO expansion itself that led to Russia feeling under threat and provoked the current conflict in Ukraine.
If John Mueller is right that war has declined just because everyone now thinks it’s dumb, you really don’t need a global policeman. But if it is US hegemony that has been keeping the peace, then it would be foolish for America to step back and hope that a superior order emerges. I think that your belief as to what has caused the decline of war since 1945, regardless of where you come down on the question, should be at the root of your understanding of geopolitics.
Two years ago, I wanted the US to have a less militarized foreign policy because the idea of America as an agent of chaos was most prominent in my mind. I argued then that we should basically withdraw from everywhere. Today, while I wish the US would do less chaos promoting stuff like the war on drugs or pushing back against Bukele for violating human rights, I think that if anything it is not heavy handed enough in protecting liberal states from their enemies and pressuring countries to accept democratic capitalism, with more of an emphasis on the capitalism part.
Three Reasons to Support American Dominance
There are three main reasons I shifted my views on American foreign policy. The first is based on a new consideration of old evidence, while the other two involve appreciating the significance of recent geopolitical events.
Taking the availability bias seriously
In early 2020, I wrote a report on how economic sanctions don’t work, based on the history of how they have been used. However, the more that I’ve thought about the issue, the more I’ve come to realize that this is like looking at the people in jail and concluding that the criminal justice system doesn’t prevent crime, since it didn’t work on the population being studied. You don’t check whether laws against murder are effective only by studying murderers, and you likewise can’t judge the effectiveness of economic sanctions by looking at outlier regimes only, which can be considered a classic case of the availability bias.
It is true that Kim Jung Un does not do what the United States wants after it has sanctioned him, but when countries are punished for doing things like violating human rights or building nuclear weapons, the hope is that this can deter other states. This is a very obvious objection to my old argument on sanctions, but I missed it or didn’t appreciate it enough, probably due to motivated reasoning.
Deterrence is a good explanation of why we don’t see more dysfunctional behavior in the international system, but the way this works is by necessity mostly unobservable. If we woke up tomorrow and found out that, say, Cambodia had invaded and annexed Thailand, there would be a global consensus around sanctioning Cambodia, making it an international pariah, and sending arms to whoever in Thailand is willing to resist their new occupiers. Cambodia, of course, probably doesn’t even dream of invading Thailand given the current state of the world, and maybe they wouldn’t under any circumstances. But since all throughout history we’ve seen leaders believe that war is a good idea, how many of them are now prevented due to American global dominance? Note that Russia and China are the two main countries in the world that the US can’t crush like a bug, and they seem to have a lot of conflicts with their neighbors, indicating that other states would behave similarly if they could get away with it.
There’s no way to know for sure. But in some areas it’s difficult to deny that American leadership has led to real successes. In the middle of the twentieth century, political scientists and government officials assumed that basically everyone would try to get nuclear weapons eventually. Here we are, 78 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the nuclear club remains at 9. How often in history have countries refrained from trying to get the most powerful weapons they could in order to defend themselves or threaten their enemies? One can talk about a “norm” against developing and using nukes, and that certainly exists, but very often norms are created and sustained by force. It’s impossible to run the counterfactual, but I think that if the US had withdrawn from the world after 1945, many more countries would have developed weapons of mass destruction.
There’s a tradition in international relations that argues it would actually be good if more countries went nuclear, because then they would be less likely to fight wars against one another. This idea rests on the assumption that states, even those run by third world ayatollahs and socialists, are rational, and leads to the second point.
Autocrats are much dumber (or at least misaligned) than I previously thought
Mueller is correct that war is stupid. The problem is that dictators are also really stupid. Or, in what for our purposes amounts to the same thing, they have misaligned incentives and do crazy things all the time. As I wrote in “The Year of Fukuyama,” the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Zero Covid policy in China are mistakes on a different level than the worst of what we’ve seen in Western democracies. Beyond the coronavirus freakout, Xi Jinping has clamped down on successful companies, leading to a flight of foreign capital, and made it explicit state policy to prioritize equality over an expanding economy, which, along with Zero Covid and the signals it sent to the world, has predictably led to slowing GDP growth. Noah Smith says Xi just isn’t very smart, but it really depends on what you think he’s trying to accomplish. If it’s to make China wealthy and successful, then he probably isn’t. But if his goal is to stay in power and rule over a docile and emasculated population, then the Xi era seems to have been a remarkable success. China is on a worse trajectory, but the CCP is more secure in its control over society than it was a decade ago.
And among autocrats, the Chinese are the smart ones. Most dictatorships, and even democracies, are run by people who are much stupider than Xi Jinping. The belief, often held by realists, that nuclear proliferation is nothing to worry about, is a case of relying on theory over real world knowledge. Third world countries are basket cases for a reason, and the few things the leaders of such nations do right are often the result of them being disciplined by international markets, global institutions like the IMF, and the shadow of American coercion.
Leaders who believe that it is in the best interests of their countries and themselves to prioritize facilitating markets and maintaining public order — the Bukeles, Lee Kuan Yews, and MBZs — remain remarkably rare. If they weren’t, the world probably wouldn’t need the US to maintain the international system. But elites in Washington by and large believe in free trade, prices being set by markets, the inviolability of international borders, and secular and pluralistic institutions. That means that in the end it is better for the US and the rest of the world if they have a large say in how other nations are run.
The fact that China has been so poorly governed in the Xi era furthermore strikes at an argument I used to believe, which was that its rise as at least a regional hegemon was inevitable and so we better find a way to get used to it. With slower growth, a collapsed birth rate, and Chinese assertiveness abroad being met with pushback in its own backyard, it’s become clear that Fukuyama wasn’t just correct in an ideological sense, but that for all practical purposes Western dominance is here for a while.
The undeniable successes of the Trump administration
When Donald Trump assassinated Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, I thought that there would be massive reverberations across the Middle East. But in response to killing arguably the second most important leader in their country, Iran did… basically nothing. It fired some missiles at two US military bases, and according to Trump they even told him that it was performative and they would miss on purpose. Who knows if this is true, but we could all observe that Iran took it remarkably calmly. This had me thinking, if Iran causes so much trouble in the region, why aren’t we killing their leaders all the time? If you asked American foreign policy elites, they would probably say something about international law or whatever, but it seems like an effective way to deter bad behavior and the idea of applying a liberal concept like this to theocrats stuck in the seventh century strikes me as pretty odd.
More important than the Soleimani killing, the Abraham Accords remain a massively underappreciated accomplishment. In late 2020, the US brokered an agreement in which the UAE and Bahrain recognized Israel. This was soon followed up with agreements with Morocco and Sudan, though the process of finalizing the new state of affairs with the latter is still ongoing. Previously, the last time a Middle Eastern country had officially recognized Israel was Jordan in 1994, and before that Egypt in 1977. I need to write more about this, because few people have been willing to admit how remarkable it was that Trump convinced four Arab countries to recognize Israel or move towards doing so. They may have gotten Saudi Arabia too in a second term, the symbolic significance of which it would have been difficult to exaggerate. For now, we can explain why Trump’s Middle East policy succeeded by saying that it drew a bright line between American friends and adversaries, and showed little interest in how countries were internally governed or Western ideas of human rights, particularly when it came to the Palestinians.
A hawkish policy on the Middle East makes sense. When it comes to questions surrounding how much to defend Taiwan or Ukraine, the issues involved are complicated by the fact that in each situation the US might find itself in conflict with another nuclear power. But in the Middle East there isn’t a similar reason to not strike hard against those who are hostile to American values or interests. And yes, that includes supporting Israel over the Palestinians, since civilization is just better than barbarism.
Unfortunately, recent regime change wars have given US military power a bad name. Enlisting the American military to try to build a democracy in a society with a Stone Age value system is a terrible use of resources. So was the intervention in Libya, which led to a civil war that is still ongoing to this day. But, as I think the successes of the Trump administration showed, the problem with humanitarian intervention is the “humanitarian” part. Using force to kick Saddam out of Kuwait worked, as does deterring Iran when American presidents show resolve.
It’s difficult to believe that Hamas would have undertaken an operation like that of October 7 if Trump was still in office. It’s clear that their entire strategy was based on the West pressuring Israel on human rights. It needed liberals, or quasi-liberals like Bush, to be in power, for it to have a chance of success. Hamas may have signed its own death warrant last month, but it would have been more certain to have done so under Trump, and it’s reasonable to believe that would have affected its calculations. As often happens with sentimental liberalism, Democrats caring more about Palestinian rights has made them worse off, because it led Hamas to take a radical gamble that caused Israel to set out to destroy Gaza.
More Order, Less Chaos
I haven’t forsaken my old views completely, particularly regarding US foreign policy being a malevolent force when it is a source of chaos. There’s a direct line between believing that criminals need love and understanding at home, and believing that you need democracy and a respect for human rights abroad to get at the “root causes” of conflict and instability. We shouldn’t do nation building wars like Iraq and Afghanistan anymore. But I think everyone has basically learned that lesson, so I don’t see a realistic possibility of us undertaking similar missions in the future. If anything, we might now be too hesitant to overthrow governments. In Iran, every decade or so now we see absolutely massive protests against the regime. Unlike Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan, this is a highly educated country with a history of secular rule and parliamentary governance. We probably should do more to help Iranians overthrow their mullahs, despite the risks that it would just lead to bloody chaos. The idea that you should never undertake regime change is simply another kind of safetyism. I was pleased to see Obama recently say that not supporting the Iranian protests in 2009 was a mistake.
I think that many international norms, namely those against seizing territory and building nuclear weapons, are good and worth defending. For that reason, I believe we should continue supporting Ukraine in the service of punishing Russia for its aggression, and stick to morally condemning Putin even if and when it comes time to seek a peace settlement. As a more general matter, we should take a hostile stand towards countries that would change international borders through the use of force. The fact that Taiwan isn’t even recognized as a country by most of the world is an argument for not risking much to defend it.
If there’s a reasonable critique of current US foreign policy, it’s that it doesn’t take the problem of order seriously enough and often emphasizes human rights at its expense. I believe that the US has a responsibility to the rest of the world and should care about the well-being of other nations. The problem with liberalism isn’t that it doesn’t care, but that it cares in a way that ends up hurting the objects of its compassion. Iraqis and Palestinians didn’t end up better off because George W Bush put a really high value on their right to vote.
Overall, I think that three years ago I overrated the degree to which the US is a source of chaos, and underrated the degree to which it was a source of order. And even though the war on terror was bad, the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were such disasters that we are unlikely to make the same mistake again. The war on drugs should be abolished, but that’s not something people even notice anymore, and seems orthogonal to other foreign policy debates. On the maintaining order side, there’s generally a bipartisan consensus in favor of using economic and military coercion against malicious actors abroad, and that should be strengthened.
It would also be a positive development for our leaders to consider being even more interventionist in the service of making other countries safer and wealthier, which is ultimately good for the US too. Not only should we not lecture Bukele over human rights, but I’d support sending police trainers and private contractors to help him, and actively incentivizing other Latin American countries with serious crime problems to adopt similar policies. Currently, we sometimes pressure states to adopt pro-market reforms when their economies become bad enough, but we should be pushing for policies that lead to growth whenever we can. The West has learned a lot over the generations about how to create secure and prosperous societies, and although we’ve gone a bit insane over the last few decades, it is still worth sharing and promoting the best ideas that we have.
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