Dr. Strangelove rides again: a response
Last week The Tartan published an article titled, "America's refusal to show military supremacy will be our downfall," and I wanted to respond with this piece.
“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” It’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain, one of those authors who wrote way too much in his life to not be quotable. The quote, or one of its derivatives, is used constantly. Hell, it's so relevant that one might start thinking the entire world is just a sitcom created by writers who started recycling ideas centuries ago. Mark Twain essentially says we are living inside the Simpsons. I call being Bart.
My colleague recently wrote a piece talking about one of those apparently repetitive moments in history, proclaiming us to be in a second Cold War, with China replacing the Soviet Union as our global adversary. It’s a very poignant comparison, especially for those who believed that we had achieved the so-called “End of History.”
Perhaps the reason for the failure of that dream is the U.S.’s inability to step up. Perhaps we should have done more, been more willing to flex the might of the largest military in the world. It’s a romantic notion, evocative of “Idealistic Intervention,” something criticized across the board.
Here’s the thing though: "Idealistic intervention" is complicated. While it’s easy to point out where the U.S. simply didn’t do enough — like our failures in Iran during Carter’s presidency, or the disaster that was the Afghanistan withdrawal — there are plenty of times the U.S. did too much. One could compare U.S. relations with Yugoslavia or Romania, with our work in South America during the (previous) Cold War. While Yugoslavia was explicitly socialist, the U.S. and Western allies were content working with them in order to further foreign policy, while the U.S. was also willing to aid fascists across South America come to power. Also consider how the U.S. put massive political and economic pressure on the democratically-elected socialist president of Chile Salvador Allende while simultaneously giving help to Ceausescu’s Communist government in Romania. The U.S. stepped up often — and not always in a way that followed the principles the country was founded on. And for every Bosnia or Kosovo, where the U.S. stepped up and saved lives, there’s a Vietnam, where we fought a possible ally in Ho Chi Minh and killed millions.
It’s hard to explain why some of these failed while others succeeded. Our support for the dictatorial governments of South Korea and South Vietnam involved us in conflict, but one of those governments is now a democracy and has one of the largest GDPs in Asia, while the other is no longer a nation (though Vietnam is very friendly to the U.S., and another powerful economy).
So when it comes to China, the U.S. ought to step up in the way that was popularized during the 90s — make allies and promote friendships. In weeks past, the U.S. negotiated a larger military presence in the Philippines, a country that was once a U.S. territory, then a U.S. ally, but seemed to have pivoted towards China in recent years. These bases represent a pivot back to the U.S., a big step towards unity in the South China Sea and the long-term American goals of a NATO-equivalent in the Pacific. It’s easy to point to the failures of appeasements like the Munich Conference or MINSK II and claim the only solution is to fight, fight, fight, but sometimes it’s not that simple. Americans thought that fighting would give the Afghans the ability to create a stable country. Instead, the Afghan National Army collapsed, and the U.S. realized that nation-building was more than just conflict. We learned the same in Libya, Syria, and South Vietnam. Each was a conflict that expanded in scope and scale and left the regions decimated.
It’s true that a Chinese spy balloon was flown across U.S. airspace in the last month. It was shot down over the coast of North Carolina, away from any harm it could have caused to civilian populations. Many on the right have claimed that this represents a gap in our defense, a serious issue in American technology and policy that puts us on the back foot against China. To those objections, I point out that NORAD had been tracking that balloon since it approached U.S. airspace. We been knew China had a spy balloon, we just waited to shoot it down. And then we did. It’s gone now. It took a single missile from an F22.
It’s easy to claim that the time it took to shoot down the balloon is a symptom of a lack of resolve. Biden might be soft on conflict and soft on China. Perhaps the U.S. is missing the bite that we had in the Cold War. Too many peaceniks, in the parlance of the 60s.
That’s unfortunately not something borne out in the policies of the current administration. Besides the new bases on the Philippines, there’s been more military trade with Japan, as their new “Helicopter Destroyers” are fitted with F35s. Biden reaffirmed America’s support for Taiwan, confirming a 70-year-old policy that we refuse to shift, as major American leaders traveled to the island as a show of support. Canada has finally confirmed purchase of American F35s, making them another part of the American defense complex. And that’s before we even look at Ukraine, Lend Lease Two, and the massive arms donations the U.S. has made towards the country. This isn’t the actions of a country looking for peace above all, but a country concerned with protecting its allies, and affirming its promises. The U.S. destroyed ISIL in 2018, and has continued to remove Al-Qaeda’s leaders in the years after.
Perhaps you disagree with America’s actions as of late. It’s perfectly acceptable; the U.S. has made unilateral moves. But to call the U.S. too soft, too peaceful, too forgiving is mistaken. The words of Teddy Roosevelt still ring, and the U.S. has continued to carry its "big stick." Whether you agree with it or not, the U.S. continues to act. We don’t need to put troops in every conflict zone, we don’t need to deploy the Marines whenever some tin-pot dictator rattles his saber. That’s a trap, a money sink that will drag us into conflicts we don’t understand against nations who aren’t amenable to our aid. Even as the world’s leading economic and military power, we don’t need to flex that every time something we don’t like happens.