Monday 15 January 2024

USA: withdrawing from world affairs?

It may seem perverse to wonder whether the USA is withdrawing into an isolationist shell only a couple of days after it has orchestrated a rather modest coalition[1] into military action against the Houthis.  World Policeman, or what?  Yet I can't help feeling this may be the reflex action of a former bruiser who was in the process of retreating from the fray ("leave it babe, he ain't wurf it") when somebody rushed up to take another swipe at him anyway.

Well, maybe that will persuade him to get stuck right back in there again.  People inside and outside America have been urging its government since the first few years of the Monroe Doctrine to disengage from the ROTW and concentrate on self-sufficiency and domestic affairs.  That long-lived policy saw American governments intervening all over the place, to no obvious good effect, for many years.  There was always a "leave it babe" faction advocating the opposite[2].  But overseas intervention is a hard habit to break.

But what would getting stuck right back in there entail, in a world of truculent Russians, increasingly confident & capable Turks, Iranians and N.Koreans, an out-of-control Netanyahu, and, errr, China?

For one thing, it would require military spending on an implausible scale.  The USA of Bush / Clinton / Bush / early-Obama not only operated with no serious Russian threat and only the early signs of Chinese (and Iranian) upsurgence, but also with far and away the biggest & best-equipped armed forces on the planet.  Not any more.  The Peace Dividend[3] has been taken in no uncertain terms, and the USA could no more fight the fabled "two big wars and one small one, all at the same time" than fly over the moon.  (And it's not very good at flying over the moon any more, either.)

So what are the voices that will prevail, longer-term, in Washington?  There is certainly a bellicose "pivot to China" lobby, which thinks in terms of defending Taiwan and the South China Seas.  There's another modest coalition of nations behind this one, too (always us and the Aussies, eh?  Us with our two naked aircraft carriers and all.)  But drill down deeper, and the practical measures being advocated by all except the outright headbangers are a great deal less offensively-minded than in years gone by.  The talk is of porcupine defence, stand-off weapons, drone-swarms etc - not marine divisions storming up the beaches under 100% air-superiority.  Just as with the Roman Empire: when you trade in your stabbing sword for a long-sword, you're basically on the defensive, however widely you cast the perimeter. 

And that's the warlike lobby - many of whom would withdraw substantially from the Middle East, too - not to mention looking to Europe for the bulk of support for Ukraine.  The outright isolationists & Trumpists would cheerfully deal with China - perhaps in return for their taking N.Korea out of the equation.

And what will Starmer do then, poor thing?  Some, of course, think he'll rush to Rejoin.  There could conceivably be an intelligent offering from the EU on that score.  But, interestingly, his track record as DPP was of shameful, grovelling obeisance to Washington, which seems to be a deep instinct for him.  

He'd certainly keep the RAF busily bombing on whatever coordinates Biden dictates.  While old Joe is still slugging it out at the bar.



[1] What were we doing there?  The answer is obvious: the traditional combination of (a) the general policy of sticking with our biggest & most important ally, come what may (not entirely without merit, though Wilson never saw fit to gratify Johnson in Vietnam); and (b) the age-old tradition of us in these islands:  show us a good fight, and we're in!  (a.k.a. oi'll foight any t'ree of yuz!

[2] It's been argued that the only thrust under the Monroe Doctrine, broadly conceived, with genuinely strategic justification was the annexation of Hawaii in 1898.  The others, all over Latin America and even beyond, were generally deeply controversial within the USA itself

[3] What peace? - Ed


Sobers said...

The US has reached the point the UK reached in about 1920. Nominally the world superpower, never had there been so much red on the map, we'd just won a world war. But in reality the UK in 1920 couldn't afford its Empire any more after the expenditures of WW1, its population had been hollowed out (and demoralised) by the losses on the Western Front, and economically was being challenged hard by the US. This is the US today. Its no longer a question of if it decides to give up its empire so much as when it gives it up, and whether it follows Britain by doing so voluntarily and peacefully, or follows many previous empires that went down fighting.

Caeser Hēméra said...

Your timing is impeccable, as always, as Iran tosses a few missiles into a US installation in Iraq...

The US is never going to go full autarky/isolationist, mostly as enough people know if you're not projecting power, it's being projected on you, and that whilst democracy provides long term stability, it's fairly fragile short term - with autocracies being the reverse. So you need big sticks regardless of how softly you choose to walk.

Just reversing years of outsourcing and relying will take trillions, with results not guaranteed, and that means protecting trade routes.

The US has massive issues, much of its infrastructure isn't aging gracefully, as its political systems is riddled with pork barrelling ensuring costs are inflated and beaks get wet. The cities hide a lot of it, but when travelling by road you get to see the decay, the abandoned towns, towns that just look abandoned (yet have a well funded church.) Part of the reason there is a movement to move people into cities, concentrate the tax base and infrastructure in the name of efficiency - someone should hand them a few Judge Dredd stories.

The US by road is otherworldly, you can see why there has been so much romanticism, drama and poetry, beat or otherwise, attached to it.

As for Pax Americana, even Paul Mason worries about the alternative, even if he can't bring himself to say it was a positive.

I'm not sure if anyone is ready to take its place either, China is too riddled with corruption - water instead of rocket fuel, concrete that makes RAAC look good, demographic issues similar to the Wests, and a cooling internal market all mean Xi's ambitions need more time.

Russia's a joke, with the rolling blackouts and power failures they were threatening Europe with last winter very much happening there. Putin must be keeping an eye out for black swans.

The EU. More attuned to be a global nanny than a policeman, and I don't see Mrs Doubtfire bringing peace to the ME.

The rest of the world is too fractured.

Like a lot of older people, the US is going to find retirement just means keeping on working.

Wildgoose said...

Russia was one of the states that rejected communism and broke up the USSR. Its reward was to be the only post-communist state not welcomed with open arms by the West. (OK, Belarus as well). Western "partners" allied themselves with Russian oligarchs to economically loot the country, devastating the population. Putin is hated by Western leaders because he put a stop to that.

I have said for years that this was an historic mistake by the West - and it will be seen as such.

The US neo-cons have just made it worse with their blatant contempt for the concept of "collective security" and the glee with which they have fomented anti-Russian attitudes including backing the anti-Russian coup in Ukraine.

The USA retreating into "isolationism" would be a breath of fresh air given the damage and instability that they have spread.

Jeremy Poynton said...

Wislon. Three BIG pluses for Gannex Man

1.Staying out of Vietnam.

2. The OU. Which gave my very smart ex the oppo, in her late 30s to get a BA, an MA with honours, lecture at UWE and then start a PhD before stricken with MS

3. The 98% tax rate, which drove the Rolling Stones to the Cote d'Azur, where in a state of splendid and unparalled rock 'n roll debauchery, they produced one of the truly great Rock 'n Roll records in "Exile on Main Street".

Is it just me, or was the world a much simpler place back then, pace the now much missed Cold War?

To quote Mr. Dylan...

"Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now"

(My Back Pages)

Jeremy Poynton said...


Aye to all that

@Caeser Hēméra

"The cities hide a lot of it, but when travelling by road you get to see the decay, the abandoned towns, towns that just look abandoned (yet have a well funded church.)"

Lil's sister moved to North Carolina some years back, to marry her sweetheart, a true Hillbilly*, banjo luthier and player supreme

*"Indigenous Appalachian" as he says, with a twinkle. He came over with her one Christmas, touting a bottle of moonshine. Some of the best eau de vie I have evert tasted (started at 14 on Laphroaig, thanks to my dear old man). Not only that, it immediately made you start hillbilly dancing, knees knocking elbows stuck out.

I digress. Lil's sister noted she had never seen poverty the like of the poverty in rural and ex mining America

Clive said...

@ Wildgoose 9:51 a.m.

Are you saying there is no oligarchy in Russia? Or that Putin launched a hostile takeover bid of the oligarchs — and won?

Or that the hierarchical society which had to inevitably replace communism (although communism ended up just about the most hierarchical society imaginable, but that’s another story…) is organised in some other way?

Wildgoose said...

@Clive. I have no illusions about the state of Russian society. I'm just recognising that Putin's rule put an end to the devastation of rampant alcoholism and people starving to death on the streets that reduced Russian lifespan by around a decade. I don't care if he enriched himself in the process of applying some red lines to the oligarchs.

The real difference is that I also have no illusions about our own "leadership", which is something the "Putin-haters" seem particularly blind to.

Clive said...

@ Wildgoose 1:36 p.m.

Putin may have put an end to alcoholism and poor nutrition — but only if you’re a woman. For men, they’re still dunking themselves to death, by the looks of things. A gender gap of a staggering 10 years. And Alice expectancy a whole 2 (t-w-o) years longer than it was in 1995

So something is definitely still rotten in the state of Denmark, on the measure you chose.

Clive said...

@ myself

“dunking” == “drinking”

“Alice” == “a life”.

And, no, I’ve not been dunking.

Anonymous said...

Did you cover Grant Shapps yesterday?

“In five years’ time, we could be looking at multiple theatres including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Ask yourself … is it more likely that that number grows or reduces? I suspect we all know the answer. It’s likely to grow….We’ve come full circle, moving from a postwar to prewar world…An age of idealism is being replaced by a period of hard-headed realism.”

The product of apparent 'idealism' was Iraq, Libya, Syria plus a few colour revolutions. Lord knows what hard-headed realism will bring us, though I think I might have an idea.

Anonymous said...

Clive - it's obesity caused by too many ginger biscuits?

Well, operation "stop the average 30 year old buying a house" is pretty much complete, on to "stop the average 25 year old running a car".

"The average price of car insurance in the UK has broken records to stand at close to £1,000 after price rises of more than 50% last year, according to new data. Drivers can now expect to pay £995 for their car insurance, on average – the highest price ever in the UK – according to the latest index published by the price comparison website Prices rose sharply during last year, making car insurance almost unaffordable for many people, particularly if they have made a claim in recent years. Prices increased by an average of £366 (or 58%) in the past 12 months, said."

Anonymous said...

"the warlike lobby - many of whom would withdraw substantially from the Middle East, too"

Can't see that happening while the State Department is full of Israel-Firsters.

It must be said that even over here the perception of Israel among the youth has changed a lot. In my 70s day doing a few months on a kibbutz was quite common among Gentiles I knew - it was what a young socialist did. Mind you, a lot has changed since then - people used to take the Magic Bus to get intoxicated on hashish in Kabul. Not a thing today at all at all.

Colonel Fanhope said...

Pshaw! In my day it was all off to Tangier for the little boys. And camels.

Colonel Fanhope said...

Don't know if that's a thing nowadays, but it was certainly a thing then!

Went there on Guy Burgess's recommendation. Humf. Turned out he was batting for the other side in more ways than one.

Bad show, that. Pip pip!

Anonymous said...

Yes, in the 50s Tangier was all the rage for what Ken Livingstone described 50 years later as "radical urban perverts".

Anonymous said...

The definition of late middle age is when you know the country is going to the dogs. I suspect we will survive. One grandfather survived the Western front, the other Gallipoli. In the last war one uncle torpedoed on operation Pedestal, other uncle in Burma, father in Burma. I will take an iffy life of compromise rather than go through that. The irony is that Slim’s brilliant campaign in Burma was a complete waste of time. The empire it liberated was handed back to its owners and the USA nuked Japan, he could have sat in India and waited, it would have made no difference to the outcome.

All the best


Anonymous said...

Be fair, Charles - the country actually IS going to the dogs by pretty much every metric. The early Thatcher years were a relative paradise for young people compared with today.

Student grants, house prices up from the 70s but still within reach, we still made a lot of things (although the writing was on the wall, it was 1985 that I jumped ship from Birmingham industry to London financial services and doubled my salary in 6 months).

To think what remains of our steel industry is owned by Chinese and Indians, Chinese electric cars take an ever larger share of our market, our balance of payments is disastrous.

Cracks me up when we send missiles that we no longer make, and tanks that we no longer make, to Ukraine.

It's easier to list the few things we are still good at making than to list the vast amount of stuff we no longer make.

If (as is not impossible) missile technology renders seaborne transport impossible in some future war, we're going to look pretty damn stupid feeding 80 million people on food for 35 million. "Sustainable" my backside.

Anonymous said...

Or to put it another way, if for the last 63 years British politics had been infiltrated by foreign agents determined to reduce the standard of living and British power, what would be different?

Same thing in the US, they're just 25 years behind us.

Nick Drew said...

@ if for the last 63 years British politics had been infiltrated by foreign agents determined to reduce the standard of living and British power ...

according to this, they have been!

Nick Drew said...

Hadn't seen this before, by Gideon Rachman - but I'd have cited it in the post if I had