In the 1600’s, English political theorist Thomas Hobbes wrote his now famous work “The Leviathan,” in defense of the British monarchy. A political realist at heart, Hobbes’ view of the world was that monarchy, although oppressive and at times even monstrous, was still a lesser evil when compared to the anarchistic chaos that he believed would exist absent any form of government. In the following centuries after his death, many have used his and similar arguments to justify not only monarchy, but indeed the superpower status of countries like the United States as a force for world stability.
That assertion, however, often appears invalid in the 21st century. There is much evidence to suggest that America’s leviathan is out of control. Since 9/11, various reactionary defense policies from the Pentagon have done a great deal to isolate the U.S. from its allies, inspire more radicalized enemies, eliminate a domestic sense of privacy, and convince the developing world that America is a resource-hungry empire, not a democratic power fighting for human rights. From Bush’s oily crusades to Obama’s destructive drones, it’s a very common argument both at home and abroad that America’s military industrial complex is a dangerous force that systemically invents and then obliterates enemies in order to justify its very existence. Although that argument is not invalid, many events in the past year from Australia, to Norway, to Northern Iraq are now supporting another point of view, and one closer to that of Hobbes. With a war-ravaged Syria spitting out ever more violent militias, an emboldened Chinese Navy aching to burst beyond the confines of the South China Sea and a more aggressive Russia annexing Ukrainian territory while also taunting northerly NATO members’ airspace, many in the world are starting to be less concerned with U.S. power, fearing instead what creatures of the night might be willing to take its place.
Part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet near Singapore
Before going any further it’s worth remembering that the United States still has by far the most capable and expensive military ever created. Its budget is bloated to the point where even top military brass is known to occasionally request less funding for certain programs. It’s also true that some other countries have more troops than the United States, but in an era where an unmanned aircraft can take out an entire tank battalion from several thousand feet in the air, this statistic means little. The U.S. Navy is larger than the next 13 navies put together, 11 of which are U.S. allies (to some people’s surprise, Japan is the world’s second largest navy). Many militaries in Europe and the Middle East buy most of their aircraft and small arms from U.S. defense contractors. American political comedian Bill Maher summed up this reality by saying “Jordan has an air force. Egypt has an air force. Saudi Arabia has an air force. We sold it too them. You go f***ing fight ISIS!”
This line, and lines from other pundits, gets right to the point of where trouble starts to brew. Despite its absurd amount of strength, the truth is that no power, not even a hegemonic power like the United States, has the resources or even the moral obligation to put out (or start) every firefight on the planet. If America is guilty of over-extending its military reach across the globe–and arguably it is–then many other countries around the world are also equally guilty of continuously outsourcing their defense capabilities to the United States. Most of East Asia, Japan included, is happy to economically intertwine with China, but will also cling to U.S. relations at the slightest sign of Chinese aggression. France, a famous critic of American intervention in the Middle East, very recently launched a major military operation to fight extremists in West Africa (Arguably though, the Malian government did request French help. They weren’t invaded). Middle Eastern countries are also utterly divided, with some leaders absolutely despising the United States for intervening in their region’s affairs, while others criticize it for responding too softly in the wake of groups such as ISIS.
The U.S., at least under the current administration, has largely been admirable in trying to take a balanced approach of restraint and assertiveness in the wake of international crisis. Using a mix of diplomacy, sanctions, limited bombing campaigns, and increased coordination of military activity with regional allies, America has done much to assert that it will no longer go it alone in pursuing world security. Toned-down aggression is certainly a positive trend, but with special forces teams and drones still dropping in all over the world, America remains very far from a John Lennon-approved approach to foreign policy. Even so, it is still in many ways far more restrained than previous administrations have been since the end of the Cold War.
Military capability on its own is a strong deterrent against potential aggressors. Obama’s threat of bombing Assad did largely prevent the expanded use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Russia, although acting very aggressive of late, has not taken over the whole of Ukraine, though the Crimean peninsula is annexed and the southeastern part of the country is still far from peaceful. In the Pacific, U.S. Naval exercises have remained non-violent, and have done their part in keeping the peace in East Asia—for now. Up north, the presence of U.S. troops in Scandinavia during yearly NATO exercises is a modest start in a larger response to recent Russian assertions over arctic territory. Additionally, America has been scaling down its troop numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq, although of course very incrementally. But the path of balanced restraint is a tricky one in domestic politics. It infuriates many liberals back home who want no war whatsoever, and it emboldens right-wing hawks who seek election mandates by beating the war drums.
2009 photo from annual NATO exercises in Norway. Very recently, more and more U.S. troops have begun participating.
Additionally, the hesitancy of many medium-sized countries to involve themselves militarily in their region’s affairs can look good to an anti-war electorate, but just makes that country more dependent on the U.S. if a threat emerges in the long-run. It’s not to say that America needs to remain an all-out world cop in order to keep the world safe or that other countries should militarize themselves to be safer. All it means is that America’s 21st century role as a superpower is still largely undefined. Threats are more opaque now than they were in the 20th century. Other countries too are industrializing and many have their own conflicting interests that have little or nothing to do with the United States. There are many parts of the world where America should scale back and perhaps others where its military support could be quite helpful, assuming it’s packaged in a balanced way.
What’s still unclear to the United States and to the rest of the world is to what degree international stability exists because of American power, and to what degree stability exists in spite of it. It’s not an easy question to answer. During the Cold War, it certainly wasn’t a grand moment of empathy, but a complex recognition of military capabilities that kept the peace and gradually led to deescalating the overall conflict. The knowledge of American military capability plays a large part in putting a cap on the ambitions of more violent leaders. Although the military’s greatest achievement may be helping facilitate soft power, it obviously doesn’t always reinforce that notion. Does the United States military make mistakes? Of course. Has America destabilized functional democracies only to see them become its enemies? Yes. Is there yet to be a world power at any time in history that has been internationally known as benevolent? No. As the world’s security threats grow ever more diverse, it’s America’s responsibility to neither turn its back nor become overly aggressive when a threat emerges. It’s also much of the rest of the world’s responsibility to start doing more to address their own safety, so as not to give more trigger-happy American leaders another excuse to take the leviathan off the leash.