The world is a dangerous place, the upcoming anniversary of 9/11 reminds us. And that is true, though not, paradoxically, so much for the U.S. At least, if Washington didn’t attempt to reign over everyone else.
Based on events, the world today should be far safer for America than during most of its history. Certainly less dangerous than during World War II and the Cold War. The US participated in the worst conflict in human history and then confronted another nuclear-armed superpower, fought two major regional wars, and suffered tens of thousands of casualties.
The country also is safer than during the early years after America’s creation, when the new republic was a lightweight state in a world filled with empires. Just a couple decades after achieving independence the US was dragged into the Napoleonic conflict that overran Europe. American trade suffered at the hands of both France and the United Kingdom. During the War of 1812 the latter threatened to overrun the new nation.
However, danger receded as US power expanded, aided by America’s relative geographic isolation. Moreover, the nation remained safer until World War I because Washington played a minimal role internationally. Americans were brutally aggressive in overspreading the North American continent and suppressing secession, but restricted their overseas military interventions to weaker states and movements, most notably Spain. War against the latter turned the US toward "salt water" imperialism with the conquest of the Philippines. That conflict was savage, as Washington crushed a local independence movement at the cost of 200,000 or more Filipino lives, but even defeat would have had no security impact on the American homeland.
World War I was a crucial moment of transition, when Woodrow Wilson ostentatiously disregarded George Washington’s advice and returned America to the ancient battlefields of Europe. The US had no vital interests at stake and there was little moral difference between the two competing imperial blocks. The criminal failures of the Central Powers have been extensively scrutinized, while the Entente included the terrorist Serbian state, autocratic Russian Empire, plunder-minded Italian Republic, and colonial oppressor triad of Belgium, France, and the UK. Hardly the sort of group to undertake a self-proclaimed "war for democracy."
At least World War I’s outcome mattered little to Washington. Even defeat would not have endangered America, though its influence in Europe obviously would have suffered. None of the major powers could easily reach the US Anyway, none of the Central Powers had the slightest ambition to rule North America.
After the Great War, as it was known, the US again looked safe. The American military was small, but adequate to defend a nation with large oceans east and west, and pacific neighbors north and south. There were no missiles, nuclear weapons, or long-range bombers to terrorize the US Nor was there any reason for even the autocracies in Asia and Europe to bother America. Washington was disengaged militarily and threatened no one.
This relative immunity lagged as World War II loomed. Yet not for the last time did America bring many of its problems on itself. Had the US not intervened in World War I, a compromise peace was possible, even likely. In fact, there was a major diplomatic effort to halt the war before America’s entry. Had the conflict ended early, postwar Europe would have looked very different – liberalizing empires probably would have survived (Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and maybe Russian), totalitarian movements likely would not have taken power (Soviet communism, German Nazism, and Italian fascism), and numerous regional conflicts would not likely have followed the original war’s conclusion (Balkans, Silesia, Russia). While the future would still have been difficult if not grim, the result would not likely have matched the unimaginable catastrophe that occurred.
Alas, World War I carried on and the Bolsheviks swept aside the liberals and socialists who had ousted Russia’s Czar Nicholas Romanov. Moreover, the Versailles Treaty, made possible only by US intervention, encouraged the rise of Benito Mussolini’s fascists and Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. Yet the peace proved to be one that even its creators, particularly London, refused to enforce. As a result, Washington eventually found itself choosing between Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler’s Germany, which could only end badly. Moreover, Moscow’s support was critical for the victory of the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong.
World War II’s end led naturally if not inevitably to the Cold War, when America acted on a quasi-war footing during nominal peacetime, fought major conflicts, and teetered on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Technology also increased America’s vulnerabilities, with the advent of the nuclear age and long-range delivery systems.
But America ultimately enjoyed the unexpectedly wonderful year of 1989, and the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Empire. The end of communism as a ruling force and the Soviet block as a military threat provided another transition, or would have had the US taken advantage of the opportunity to become a normal country again.
The US should have used the shift from a bipolar to a unipolar world to begin burden-shedding rather than burden-sharing. With the end of the Soviet empire Europe could have taken over responsibility for its security. Even more, South Korea, which possessed roughly 50 times the economic strength and twice the population of the North, could have defended itself.
Had Japan not limited its military outlays to one percent of GDP over the years, it would have no fear today facing the People’s Republic of China. Long ago Israel became a regional superpower with the Mideast’s finest conventional force and only nuclear weapons, and no longer needed US financial aid or military protection. And had Washington not engaged in promiscuous interventions in other nations’ foreign conflicts, domestic disputes, and political struggles, it would have created fewer terrorists determined to strike at Americans, civilians as well as military personnel.
Of course, even a superpower would face some threats. Today the internet is proving to be a national security bane. Moreover, the proliferation of missiles has given many nations offensive capabilities. Thus, a small, impoverished nation such as North Korea could launch both cyberattacks and missiles at the US, though the threat of retaliation deters a military attack, at least.
However, US foreign policy could push the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea toward war. In normal circumstances, neither country would have much to do with each other and few reasons to care about the other. However, Washington took over Korean affairs, guaranteeing South Korea’s security. Which means being prepared to defend the Republic of Korea from the North. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is not suicidal, but war could erupt out of a confrontation/retaliation gone wrong, or a mistaken assumption that the ROK and US intended to attack, as Washington did in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, among other nations.
Long a country of great concern, the DPRK has been receiving greater attention as of late. Concern has been rising because of evidence of increasing internal instability. In response to COVID-19 the regime sealed itself off from the world. Worse, Kim recently warned of potential famine. Purges continue and rumors circulate that Kim is ill. All told, analysts worry about the increased possibility of internal collapse or external explosion.
Imagine a war that began conventionally, in which the allies were poised to defeat Pyongyang. At which point the North would have no reason not to threaten to use nuclear weapons unless Washington retreated. The danger of such a confrontation is likely to grow. The Rand Corporation and Asan Institute recently warned that North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons just six years from now, with the ability to strike cities and bases in South Korea, Japan, Guam, and Hawaii, and probably the US mainland. America would "win," but at incalculable cost.
Such a result would be madness without reason, and would be largely self-inflicted, a consequence of Washington’s insistence to dominate the world, even when doing so is against Americans’ interest. So would most of the other fearsome military contingencies oft advanced to justify an oversize military.
Russia has demonstrated no interest in war against America; Moscow’s activities in Syria and Ukraine are morally wrong, not geopolitically threatening. The PRC is arming not to attack America, but to prevent Washington from attacking China – essentially to enforce a Sino-Monroe Doctrine, seeking to prevent US domination of its own border and nearby waters. North Korea fears preventive war, which only nukes can deter with near certainty. Iran is a malign power, but one that could be contained by Israel, the Gulf Arab states, and Egypt. And so it goes.
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches. This would be a good moment to revisit the foreign policy transition that never was. America’s stint as the celebrated unipower has been less than successful, let alone happy. President Joe Biden has begun to reduce Washington’s global role with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. That should be the start of a much larger military retrenchment. The US should remain capable and ready to act in extraordinary and emergency circumstances. But it should firmly set endless peace, not war, as its objective.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.