The World Without U.S.

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(Fozzman / Flickr)

In his 2007 bestseller, The World Without Us, journalist Alan Weisman describes a planet that regenerates itself after the disappearance of human beings. Skyscrapers crumble and bridges collapse into rivers, but the primeval forests take over and the buffalo return to roam. It’s an optimistic vision of the future—if you’re a buffalo or a dolphin or a cockroach. No more ranchers. No more huge trawling nets or D-Con.

But it’s not such a great future if you’re a human being. In its dispassionate, non-human-centered perspective, Weisman’s book is designed to shake humans out of our naïve assumption that we will always be around, regardless of the existential threats that drape our shoulders like the cloak of Nessus. Evolution has, for some reason, made us incapable of facing our own demise. It’s almost as if we wouldn’t be able to balance our checkbook or plan our vacations unless we treated nuclear weapons and climate change and pandemics as just another set of vaporous bogeymen that scare the bejesus out of us but always disappear at morning’s light.

Now let’s turn from the existential to the geopolitical. What would the world be like without the United States?

The recent government shutdown has prompted many to contemplate a world in which the United States hasn’t so much disappeared but collapsed in on itself. Focused on domestic issues, Washington would cancel Pax Americana (or Pox Americana, as anti-imperialists like to say) and step down from its role as the world’s policeman and the world’s financier.

Would the world be better off? As in Weisman’s hypothetical universe, how one answers this question depends a great deal on who one is. Americans certainly profit from our country’s economic and military hegemony: our carbon footprint, our per capita GDP, our mighty dollar, our reliance on English as the world’s default language. We take these entitlements for granted. Non-Americans, however, might feel a bit differently. Like the buffalo and the dolphins and the cockroaches in a human-free world, everyone outside the United States might very well applaud the end of American superpowerdom.

At the height of the recent political crisis in Washington, an English-language opinion piece from the Chinese news agency Xinhua called “for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.” It repeated many familiar arguments. The United States “has abused its superpower status and introduced even more chaos into the world by shifting financial risks overseas, instigating regional tensions amid territorial disputes, and fighting unwarranted wars under the cover of outright lies.” The solution, according to the widely read piece, is to strengthen the UN, create a replacement for the dollar as the global currency, and give more power to emerging economies in international financial institutions. These all seem like sensible suggestions.

But as several U.S. commentators have pointed out, this provocative essay doesn’t necessarily reflect Chinese government opinion. Beijing remains dependent on U.S. economic power, whether in the form of American consumers or Wall Street liquidity. And, to the extent that the United States fights terrorism, polices the world’s sea lanes, and continues to more or less constrain the ambitions of its key allies in the Asia-Pacific, China is also dependent on U.S. military power. Chinese leadership values domestic, regional, and international stability. It wants, in other words, to preserve an environment in which it can pursue its primary objective: domestic economic growth. If it can hitch a free ride on the gas-guzzling, armor-plated American Hummer, China will gladly get on board.

But if the Hummer starts to mess with China—its economic growth, its political stability, its regional interests—then China will bail. For now, after a congressional deal has averted default and ended the government shutdown, Chinese calls for “de-Americanization” have subsided. But political deadlock in Washington is by no means over. And the structural issues that underlie the relative decline of the United States over the last decade remain in place.

This is not the first time that the death of the American empire has been foretold. Most memorably, Paul Kennedy diagnosed “imperial overstretch” in 1987. Twenty years later, after the palpable foreign policy failures of the George W. Bush era followed by a world economic crash, Fareed Zakaria made the case for the “rise of the rest” in his book on the “post-American world.” In 2009, the new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wrote in The New York Times that “as a result of the failure of the Iraq war and the financial crisis, the era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end and that we are moving toward an era of multipolarity.” He didn’t last long in his position.

But Zakaria, Hatoyama, and other observers have generally shared the same ambivalence as China. They see American decline as relative, as gradual, and as something to be mourned in the absence of a viable alternative. The same could be said of the Latin American nations that have long decried U.S. imperialism. The latest salvos in this conflict have concerned the Snowden affair and revelations of the NSA’s overseas surveillance. But like China, Latin America is heavily dependent on trade with the United States. If a viable alternative to U.S. consumers and U.S. exporters can be found then Latin America will perhaps become more vigorous proponents of de-Americanization.

Some participants in this debate, of course, have no ambivalence at all. The 2008 documentary The World Without US describes the state of anarchy that would result if a future progressive president trimmed the military budget and withdrew troops from around the world. The film relies heavily on British historian Niall Ferguson’s rosy descriptions of American hegemony. At one point, Ferguson suggests that U.S. military withdrawal would likely send the world down the same path of destruction that Yugoslavia experienced in the 1990s. The European Union was feckless back then, and continues to be so today. No other guarantor of peace has stepped forward. Only China looms on the horizon, and the film ends with images of nuclear blasts hitting Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, presumably from Chinese missiles launched in the wake of the U.S. military’s departure from the region.

In Alan Weisman’s book, the primeval forest takes over the once-civilized world. In The World Without US, the primeval forces of anarchy take over a world once made stable by U.S. military presence. The United States, in other words, is all that stands between the new world order and the world of all against all.

It is, in so many ways, a dangerously silly movie. The United States has supported plenty of dictators in the interests of stability. We have generated considerable instability—in Afghanistan, in Iraq—when it has served our interests. Our stability is often unjust; our instability is devastating.

Moreover, we have cut back on our military involvement in Latin America and the region has prospered. We’ve reduced our troop presence in South Korea, including the legendary “trip wire,” and no anarchy has been loosed upon the peninsula. We are finally closing down many Cold War-era bases in Europe, and Europe remains calm.

Remember, the real message of Weisman’s book is that there are still things we can do, as humans, to develop a more cooperative relationship with nature and prevent apocalypse. Similarly, the United States can take positive steps to avoid the global Balkans scenario. It’s not a matter of appointing a successor as global guardian or duking it out with China to prevent Beijing from stepping into our shoes. It’s not about crawling into our shell and pouting because the world no longer wants to follow our orders.

We are in the world, there’s no escaping that. Just as humans must reconfigure their relationship with nature, the United States must reconfigure its relationship with the world. In both worst-case scenarios, the only winners will be the cockroaches.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Dr V N Sharma

    I will prefer a world which has only materialistic approch and outlook to life, consumerism and governance today and in future ever. The US has acted like a Bull and a global police to subjugate others resources and murder all who opposed their dictatorial, immoral, unethical and illegal actions. Now that this low grade policy is so clearly visible I do not think there are many people in the world to see the US prosper ever in future. I wish it continues its downward journey.

  • drvnsharma

    Pl. read the 1st sentence of my previous comment as “I will prefer a world which does not have only materialistic approch……………”

  • Critical_Reading

    “Thirty years later, after the palpable foreign policy failures of the George W. Bush era followed by a world economic crash…” You mean twenty years later (although I suspect we’re headed for another world economic crash pretty soon).

    • johnfeffer

      I meant 30 years after Kennedy’s analysis in 1987 — my apologies if this wasn’t clear…

      • Critical_Reading

        30 years after 1987 would be 2017. Zakaria’s book was published in 2007.

        • johnfeffer

          True — I was getting ahead of myself!

          • DangerRuss

            You’re usually ahead of the rest of us. Now you’re ahead of yourself, as well?

  • TruckerMark

    Modern sustainability science says that immense capitalist economies that survive or fail based on an annual economic growth rate are doomed before the end of our current century, likely well before, due to the depletion of critical resources versus an ever-growing population.

    Oil, natural gas, copper ore, silver ore, raw phosphate, nickel and zinc, various critical rare earth metals, and even iron ore at a grade sufficient to refine economically enough at retail prices that the masses can afford are going to disappear this century, and we must as quickly as possible move away from burning fossil fuels for energy toward 100% renewable energy if we want our grandkids to have a viable planet to live on.

    Worse yet we are rapidly running out of fresh water as well as viable farmland. Once phosphate runs our, already predicted between 2070 and 2090, crop yields will fall by half, and we don’t have twice as much fresh water to devote to food production either.

    I read a very interesting piece in Forbes the other day that claimed that we are facing an immense fossil fuels reserves valuation bubble, quite likely even worse than our last housing value bubble. The theory says that as we are forced to move away from burning fossil fuels, that 2/3rds to 3/4ths of all known fossil fuel reserves will have to be written off, and today known fossil fuel reserves amount to approximately $21 Trillion dollars of value. The consequence would mean the bankruptcy of many oil & gas companies unable to diversify.

    Over the last 10 years or so there has been an immense rush to frack for natural gas just about everywhere no matter the consequence to our environment. Is it because we are running out of natural gas above the shale layer, or is it because of a fear among oil & gas company executives that if they can’t recover, sell, and then burn their reserves as fast as is possible, those reserves will increasingly have less value as renewable energy standards are increasingly mandated in order to attempt to save our planet for our descendant’s use?

    I have to wonder how well renewable energy will work to power jet aircraft and ships, because without fossil fuels and with an immense premium on food-growing farmland as well as an immense premium on a number of metals critical in the continuing operation of any large-scale electrical grid and refrigeration, my guess today would be that the maintenance of gigantic worldwide empires through immense military force may very well become a thing of the past too.

    And then our descendants we might yet find out what would happen without large empires based on massive military force being able to move their troops all over the world to enforce order, though my guess is that the outcome will be a lot more like that in the movie “The Postman” than it will be one where a loss of central armed control results in some kind of non-violent utopia where its residents are willing to respect each others rights.

  • John Smith

    The fall of America as an economic and military power and of all other similar centres of power (China, Russia) would be the best thing that happened to the human race since the hunter gatherer epoc. I pray for its/their fall.

  • Didier Jacobs

    Thanks for this piece, John. I like it as it goes at the heart of the hawk-dove divide in international affairs.

    The first half of it is spot on: many foreigners would be glad to see the back of US imperialism while being anxious about what fills the vacuum it leaves behind.

    On the other hand, I would like to take issue with your comment on the documentary The World Without US. I have not watched it yet, but I can imagine it going over the top as you describe. Nevertheless, the core argument that American military supremacy is preventing wars is sound. It is a truth that we – doves or progressists – are uncomfortable with, but it is healthy to face it.

    You are right that Latin America and Europe do not need the US. But Asia does. If the US were to withdraw its military from the Pacific, Japan would certainly rearm. A generalized arms race would ensue in East Asia. The likelihood of a war between China and Taiwan would significantly increase. It would not be inevitable, but too likely for comfort. Likewise for a war between the two Koreas. Skirmishes among the navies and air forces of China, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and perhaps others in the South China Sea would become very likely. They would probably not escalate into a full-blown land invasion of Japan by China because Japan would have acquired a nuclear deterrent in no time. Both Koreas and Taiwan would likely go nuclear, too. Deterrence would prevent a full apocalypse, although nuclear war between the two Koreas would not be unlikely: they have a track record of skirmishes, and if one skirmish blew out into a war, the use of nuclear weapons would be likely to end it quickly as conventional warfare would itself be hugely devastating. Anyway, even short of full-blown war, the instability would be greatly detrimental to the region: partial disruption of trade, collapse in foreign investment, likely denting or collapse of domestic economic confidence, which could mark the end of the economic expansion of the region. There is also great potential for negative spillovers into South Asia and Western Asia (the Middle East), two regions that are quite unstable in their own right. I am talking about a multilateral cold war among Asian powers.

    The existing economic interdependence among East Asian countries would be a potent force to prevent such bleak scenario. However, the strident nationalism that we can already observe could overcome rational, interest-based policy. More to the point, an arms race, skirmishes etc. are rational responses in this typical “prisoner dilemma” scenario.

    I do not mean to conclude that the existing American military supremacy is just fine and that we should embrace the current US policy, which is all about preserving the status quo. In the end, I do agree with your conclusion: between the status quo and just packing and leaving and turning inward, there ought to be a third way.