How War is Like NIMBY
Highlights from the comments on "How I Learned to Love the American Empire"
As I’ve previously noted, I’m going to start doing posts on the highlights of the comments with my replies for subscribers only.
I’m beginning here with my piece on “How I Learned to Love the American Empire.” It generated some good discussion, and I think that this is a fruitful topic to debate precisely because it’s one where reasonable people can disagree strongly on the underlying facts and have different models of causation. As a general rule from now on, when I’m responding to another writer who has made a substantive critique, I’ll leave that in the unpaywalled section of the post, while paywalling most of the rest.
Below, you’ll find responses to comments touching on woke imperialism, whether and how much the US should defend Taiwan, whether Hamas would have attacked Israel if Trump was in office, and much more.
To start, Bentham’s Bulldog has a response to my article up at his Substack. He begins by arguing that there are more clearly bad US interventions than clearly good ones. That may be true, but the main basis of my argument is that the US global empire is valuable mostly for the unseen conflicts that it prevents, which includes making most kinds of aggression unthinkable. One example demonstrating this point is that he brings up Korea as one war that even he acknowledges was likely good, but doesn’t consider why North Korea has never invaded the South again. Is it just because they decided it wasn’t worth doing? Seems to me that the Kim family could reasonably think it could accomplish its stated goal of uniting the peninsula if American troops weren’t in the way. The same can be said about China and Taiwan, or Russia and the Baltic states. He ignores the first Gulf War, and the possibility that if the US had not been involved in the Middle East, Saddam would have eventually monopolized the oil supply of the region. Maybe all of these conflicts would work themselves out and reach a stable equilibrium at reasonable cost without the American empire being what it is, but that seems unlikely given what we know about what the world was like from basically the beginning of time until 1945.
I think these paragraphs form the most interesting part of his critique.
Hanania notes that the world has gotten dramatically more peaceful and claims “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.” But this is true only in the sense that there are two types of people—the Irish and everyone else. There are, in fact, a whole host of theories purporting to explain why the world is getting more peaceful including the spread of better ideas as a result of liberalism, greater prevalence of nuclear weapons, trade interdependence, changing global demographics wherein people are getting older, various international institutions, and the spread of Democracies that are much less likely to go to war. Each of these theories have independent motivations—trading partners don’t go to war, nuclear weapons deter great power war, and Pinker has extensively documented dramatically shifting ideas.
One reason to be skeptical that U.S. hegemony is the cause of the decline in conflict is that pretty much everything has been getting better! It’s not just conflict that’s dropped—as Pinker shows in his book The Better Angels of our Nature, we’ve gotten less poor, hungry, and uncivilized. Looking for some specific explanation of this particular trend is misguided when other things that have nothing to do with U.S. hegemony are also improving, like global poverty.
This is a passage I would have wholeheartedly endorsed a few years ago, and I also would’ve cited the exact same Steven Pinker book to make the case.
Now, however, I’d respond that while many things are getting better, namely those having to do with technology and living standards, many things have gotten worse. Just looking at the last century, we’re in many cases not as good as we used to be at preventing crime and public disorder, having stable families, or forming functioning states in places currently experiencing anarchy. I think that if you look at the areas where things have gotten worse, what they have in common is that they are problems that involve shaping human behavior. When it comes to the manipulation of nature and improving living standards, things are going in the right direction. So while the technology exists to build cheaper and more affordable housing, for example, actually getting all the permits and clearing the bureaucratic hurdles to do so is more difficult than it used to be. We have facial recognition technology and DNA databases that can significantly reduce crime to almost nothing, but again it is our politics that gets in the way, including concerns over new harms like “racial profiling.”
If we think about the problem of international peace, it certainly seems to fall into the category of political issues involving constraining human nature and competing ideas and interests, rather than manufacturing goods and providing services. It is therefore far from self-evident to me that we should have expected to see a natural decline in war starting in the second half of the twentieth century.
I have to again stress how the Ukraine war has changed my outlook here. If you asked me in early 2022 whether any European country would be willing to fight a war that cost hundreds of thousands of casualties, I would have said no way. Yet both Russians and Ukrainians have been slaughtering each other in droves. Not quite at the level of the two world wars, but much higher than what we’ve seen in any other conflict in Europe since 1945. The only thing that is even within an order of magnitude is the conflict in the former Yugoslavia from 1991-2001, which had actually a higher death rate than Russia-Ukraine thus far on a per capita basis, but that region was much poorer and more fertile than Russia and Ukraine are today. And that was also before widespread internet availability, iPhones, and unlimited free porn, which one might suspect would distract men from fighting bloody wars.
People have mocked my theory that we could predict that Russia and Ukraine wouldn’t fight all that hard because their birthrates were too low, but looking back I still think it was a reasonable hypothesis. Countries with birthrates as low as those of modern developed countries are a historical rarity, and one would reasonably expect them to be unusual on all sorts of dimensions. One of those dimensions might be willingness to sacrifice in a war. A low birthrate indicates a concern primarily with material pleasures, and perhaps an indifference towards future generations. You would expect a country with these characteristics to be the type of place where the population just surrenders to whoever has the most guns, in the case of Ukraine, or gives up on a war of aggression as soon as things get tough, in the case of Russia. Since neither side would be willing to die in large numbers, and Russia had greater conventional military capabilities, I expected Ukraine to roll over.
But the conflict has changed what I think is possible. If Russia and Ukraine can practically overnight go from sort of normal seeming countries to places that are willing to lose hundreds of thousands of young people in the course of a few years, I have no reason to doubt other countries can undergo a similar transformation. The war in Gaza was likewise unexpected given recent history, and shows that a modern government, or quasi-government in this case, can take a radical gamble that causes extreme damage to its society. A bloody conflict in the Middle East is of course less shocking than one in Europe, and we’ve of course seen others in recent decades, but October 7 reminds us that even in 2023 crazy people can still have power.
If human nature hasn’t changed to the extent that I thought, this increases the likelihood that the decline of war has been due to something we’ve done politically. But we’re not clearly getting better at politics, or at preventing violence. Depending on what we measure and how we frame the question, we might say that we are getting worse. This increases the probability that we are doing at least one big thing right to have so much peace and prosperity, and American hegemony looks to me to be the most likely candidate for that one big thing.
Bentham goes on:
I used to think it was plausible that U.S. hegemony was the main cause of greater peace. But then I read this extremely convincing piece by Fettweis. Fettweis notes several facts that are discordant with the hegemony causes peace hypothesis.
First, various places where the U.S. has largely withdrawn from have displayed the same trends. In Latin American, as well as much of the global south, the U.S. hasn’t been much of a player since the end of the Cold War. Still, things have progressed just as they have in other places. The main areas that have displayed significant conflict have been in the Middle East, where the U.S. has maintained quite a significant role.
This is a terrible argument. To say that the US hasn’t been much of a player in Latin America is laughable. It regularly arrests former leaders of these countries and takes them to prison for violating our drug laws. I’m not going to bother googling how many coups the US has encouraged or undertaken in the region over the decades. Yes, Latin American countries don’t consider invading one another. This is because US power in the Western Hemisphere is so pervasive that doing so would obviously be suicidal, or at least a terrible decision.
Bentham goes on to quote Fettweis on how the US has been inconsistent in enforcing international norms, which is like saying that if a police department ignores certain areas or shows favoritism towards its friends, there is no way that it is doing anything to reduce crime.
Fettweis furthermore writes,
The Horn of Africa is hardly the only region where states are free to fight one another today without fear of serious US involvement. Since they are choosing not to do so with increasing frequency, something else is probably affecting their calculations. Stability exists even in those places where the potential for intervention by the sheriff is minimal. Hegemonic stability can only take credit for influencing those decisions that would have ended in war without the presence, whether physical or psychological, of the United States. It seems hard to make the case that the relative peace that has descended on so many regions is primarily due to the kind of heavy hand of the neoconservative leviathan, or its lighter, more liberal cousin. Something else appears to be at work.
I’m not sure what evidence he thinks exists to support the claim that states are free to do whatever they want without American interference. Maybe the US wouldn’t get militarily involved in each case, but it will usually make conquest a lot less likely to succeed and less profitable if it does. The author seems to argue that if war exists anywhere at any time it means that US power is a non-factor.
This is simply the wrong way to analyze the issue. Right now, for example, Venezuela is making noises about potentially invading Guyana. The Maduro government has faced the brunt of the US sanctions regime in recent years, with the Biden administration recently easing restrictions on the sale of oil in exchange for promises of free and fair elections. If the government in Venezuela has thoughts about seizing a part of Guyana in order to gain control over its oil, it can be certain that it will be sanctioned heavily by the United States and end up in a worse off position. This kind of conflict, where a large poor state seeks to push around or even annex a smaller and wealthier neighbor, in part or in full, is what we also saw in Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Maduro is probably bluffing here, but either way the US must factor into his decision-making process. If Washington is willing to sanction foreign governments for what they do at home, as it did in the case of Venezuela, the potential consequences of an invasion across globally recognized borders are even more extreme. No one has to ever talk about this, but it’s clear and well understood by all parties.
This article needs to be framed in terms of the debate between structural and classical realism. It's all over the place. So it’s either Mueller’s theory of ideas or US hegemony that has been keeping the peace? Totally discarding established theory. Not the right comparison. Either you debate classical vs. structural realism, or you debate environments under unipolarity vs. bipolarity vs. multipolarity. But having both conversations at the same time really muddles any argument here. That being said, happy to discuss either topic!
I’m glad someone said this, because it provides a great opportunity to explain why I hate academia. If my piece was going to be published in an international relations journal, it indeed would have needed “to be framed in terms of the debate between structural and classical realism” or taken up the issue of “unipolarity vs. bipolarity vs. multipolarity.” I don’t think, however, that these are useful ways to understand international relations, for reasons I partly wrote about in my book on grand strategy. For many IR theorists, one of the most important questions when analyzing the international system is whether there is one great power, two, or many. This relies on a few assumptions that I don’t believe are warranted. Among them are the ideas that
We can just look at the relative power each state has, along with material factors like its geographical situation, without thinking too much about its ideology, culture, form of government, etc.
Countries can be classified as “great powers” or not, and this distinction tells us something important, rather than being a practice of arbitrary line-drawing and relying on a definition that is circular, in the sense that great powers are countries that have an imperial mission or take an aggressive posture towards other countries (i.e., not modern Germany or Japan, which have larger economies than Russia and could be just as interventionist abroad if they chose to)
I don’t think these assumptions are justified, so I am uninterested in engaging in theoretical questions that rely on them. I am writing for a popular audience, so can frame the arguments in ways that I think are useful and make intuitive sense to reasonable people, rather than in ways that satisfy academics.