In some ways the nations of the world have never had it so good. With a few exceptions, sovereignty is more secure than at any other time in world history. In other respects, however, most nations are rapidly losing sovereignty, a trend I expect to accelerate over time.
For most of human history, the normal state of affairs was for countries to attack their neighbors, often annexing territory of the weaker foe. For various reasons, this state of affairs changed after 1945. In the past 50 years we’ve seen a few successful forcible annexations (Goa, Crimea) and a few failed attempts at annexation (the Falklands, Kuwait, East Timor). But for the most part countries have refrained from an activity that was the norm throughout all of recorded history. We should celebrate that fact!
This may be partly due to the hegemonic influence of what I’ll call “the blob”, a huge group of countries with defense treaties with the US. NATO is the most important part of the blob, but the US also has important links with Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as more informal links with places like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
[As an aside, I don’t entirely agree with claims that the US spends a lot of money defending our allies. The relevant counterfactual is how much we would spend if we were on our own, without all of these alliances. In that case, the world would be a far more dangerous place. It’s true that we spend a lot on defense (and other countries free ride), and it’s also true that we intervene heavily in many different wars all over the world. But (AFAIK) over the past 65 years we’ve spent essentially zero dollars defending members of the blob against actual attacks. The deterrent effect of the blob has been sufficient to prevent wars of annexation against our formal allies. If the troops weren’t stationed in Korea and Germany, they’d probably be stationed in the US. We do spend too much. But that’s another issue, for which we cannot blame NATO free-riders.]
People are so used to this state of affairs that I think they tend to overlook the overwhelming power of the blob. The US alone spends more on defense than the next 9 countries combined. The blob also includes most of the other top ten industrial powers, including two (or three) other nuclear powers. The only other geopolitically important entities are China and Russia, each of which has a pathetically small system of alliances (basically North Korea and Belarus, respectively.) We (rightly) worry about their power and intentions, but from their perspective the blob must seem like a very intimidating entity.
In my view, we are near the end of wars of annexation. Not at the end, as attacks on Taiwan and Ukraine are possible. But at some point the status of those two places will be resolved, borders will be locked in place, and geopolitical competition will almost entirely switch to an alternative track. Indeed the shift is already occurring. Sovereignty is eroding rapidly, due the increasing ability of four great powers to shape affairs in other nations. Those four powers are the US, the EU, China and Russia. Each of those four entities are “bullies”, but they are not at all equal in other respects, with China and Russia being essentially illiberal and the US and EU being much more liberal (albeit far from perfect.)
Here’s Tyler Cowen:
I still largely agree with most of the hawk worldview: America can be a great force for good in the world, the notion of evil in global affairs as very real, America’s main rivals on the global stage are up to no good, and there is an immense amount of naivete and wishful thinking in most of those who do not consider themselves hawks.
This is certainly a defensible claim, but I worry that the (hawkish) foreign policy establishment is too complacent about our moral virtue, just as they are usually too optimistic about what US military intervention can accomplish. Consider the following:
A resolution to encourage breast-feeding was expected to be approved quickly and easily by the hundreds of government delegates who gathered this spring in Geneva for the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly.
Based on decades of research, the resolution says that mother’s milk is healthiest for children and countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes.
Then the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations.
American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.
When that failed, they turned to threats, according to diplomats and government officials who took part in the discussions. Ecuador, which had planned to introduce the measure, was the first to find itself in the cross hairs.
The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.
Just to be clear, I have no problem with the US voting against this resolution. But I do have a problem with the US threatening trade sanctions again Ecuador just because they have a different point of view on a (mostly symbolic) UN resolution.
It hard for me to see much difference between this threat to Ecuador and some of China’s recent bullying, such as their trade sanctions against Australia in reaction to that country’s call for an investigation of the lab leak hypothesis.
This is not at all to suggest that the US and China are morally equivalent. With all our flaws, we are usually promoting a more liberal world order, whereas China favors a less liberal world. That’s a fundamental difference, and that’s presumably what Tyler is referring to in the quote above. On the other hand, power is easily abused and the US has far more ability to bully other nations than does China.
China wields essentially one powerful tool—trade. Russia has essentially one tool—its military. The EU has essentially one tool—trade. The US has three extremely powerful tools, all of which are used quite aggressively: trade, banking and military force. And we do not just use these tools against our foes. We threaten Canada and Mexico on trade, we threaten sanctions against Germany over the Russia pipeline, we threaten countries like Switzerland over bank secrecy, we threaten Latin American countries over their drug policies, and there are innumerable similar examples. In some cases, I agree with our ultimate objectives while in others I do not. But there is no doubt that the US is by far the most aggressive country in the world in terms of forcing outside countries to bend to our will. (Of course the EU is very interventionist regarding countries within Europe, but much less so outside the organization.)
In my view, the EU represents the future of the world. Large and powerful hegemons will increasingly demand that smaller countries adopt policies that conform to the wishes of great powers. Sovereignty will steadily decline. With a tiny number of exceptions, countries no longer need fear military invasion. Instead there will be economic pressure to conform to the wishes of the four great powers. The recent move toward an international agreement on minimum corporate tax rates is a sign of where things are going. Global warming policies may be next.
PS. There’s been a lot of recent nonsense written on the supposed loss of US “credibility” due to the pullout from Afghanistan. I’ve even seen comments comparing our troop presence there to South Korea and Germany. But in the latter two cases we have commitments to protect the countries from outside invasion, not internal revolution. AFAIK, the US broke no significant commitments to the Afghan government.
PPS. Some might question my claim that Chinese bullying is mostly economic, citing their recent actions in the South China Sea and the mountain border with India. But those examples are of trivial importance relative to the US military interventions in dozens of countries all over the world. After all, Taiwan is also a bully in the South China Sea and no one cares. We only pay attention to China’s actions there because we have a geopolitical rivalry with China due to other factors. In contrast, Taiwan is not a threat outside the South China Sea. Even a mid-level power like France is more likely to militarily intervene in foreign countries than is China (at least since 1980.) That would change if China were to invade Taiwan, which is probably my biggest single foreign policy worry other than accidental nuclear war. But as of today, China mostly relies on its economic power to bully other nations.
PPPS. While Russia and China share an interest in promoting illiberal values, they differ in certain important respects. Because Russia has a disappointing record in terms of economic development, they are less interested in the stability of the global economy. Putin is basically what people on the internet call a “troll”, and sees Russia benefiting from global chaos. China benefits from a well functioning global economy, albeit with much less liberalism than the West would prefer. Xi Jinping is confident that China’s power will grow over time as its economy expands and its market becomes increasingly important. China knows that it will have increasing ability to intimidate other nations. Putin knows that Russia’s influence is almost entirely due to its military power. “Bangladesh with nukes”.