As the United States evacuates its forces in the cover of the night in Afghanistan, leaving the country to an empowered Taliban and al Qaeda, after 20 years of wastefulness; while the Biden Administration fecklessly announces “an end” to America’s engagement in Iraq (the fifth time in four consecutive presidencies such an announcement was made), all as Washington cedes the Greater Middle East to the Iranians (and their Russian and Chinese counterparts), it’s fairly obvious to the rest of the world that the United States has lost the counterinsurgencies that it waged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Thus, what many Washington “experts” dubbed as America’s “Small Wars” (implying that these tiny conflicts would be a cakewalk for America’s elephantine, world-straddling military) have proven too much for the mighty American military.
In light of these epic American defeats by puny, rag-tag forces, the world’s bigger “baddies” (China and Russia), as well as America’s traditional allies (like New Zealand and Canada) are making new calculations about America’s staying power on the world stage (or lack thereof).
For his part, the noted geopolitical analyst, Peter Zeihan, has spent the last two years talking about how the world will look back on the Trump years in the next decade as the “most internationalist” American administration of the 2020s.
Despite all of the rhetoric from the Biden Administration about the need for multilateralism and America embracing the world as it purportedly did before the Trump Administration came to power, the actions of Mr. Biden, as evidenced by the poorly executed (though long overdue) Afghan pullout–as well as the absurd regional handoff to Iran–indicate that America is becoming somewhat more isolationist.
The last time this happened, during the Interwar years (that was the period between the First and Second World Wars), America’s perceived isolationism contributed to the rise of authoritarianism in the form of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and the growth of the Soviet Union.
The interwar years saw the rise in sympathy among many people–even those in the West–with Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia…even at the expense of democracy. Again, today, everything old is new again, as radicals of the Left yearn for “democratic socialism” and those on the Right pine for…something bloodier.
America draws down in the face of (to use a favorite word among the chattering class) “stunning” defeats in the Middle East; the United States increasingly turns inward, all while China, Russia, and Iran boldly move to fill in the growing gaps created by America’s inward turn. There are other frightening parallels between today’s tragic world and the world of Interwar Years: structural military weakness.
The US Navy of today is the smallest it has been since the 1920s.
The US Army is stretched to its breaking point.
The US Marine Corps, the most promising of the military branches presently, strains to adapt itself away from fighting landlocked counterinsurgencies in the desert to waging more amphibious, expeditionary-type wars that it was originally created to fight.
The US Air Force is in a rut, too, as it struggles to field enough warplanes; midair refueling tankers and equipment in the age of constrained budgets, contested areas of operation, and mismanagement at the political and strategic levels.
The newly formed Space Force is also, sadly, proving to be problematic. Its focus is too small (as is its budget) and its leadership far too fixated on defending satellites in the near-term (certainly, an important mission). Yet, little thought or strategy has been formed in what the Space Force’s long-term mission set will be (after all, “Space Dominance” has become a dirty word).
And the Coast Guard is too small to be of much use these days both nearer to America’s shores and beyond.
The United States today is looking very weak in the eyes of ravenous rising powers, such as China. Meanwhile, China’s leaders are keenly attuned to the fact that the American people are far less inclined to concern themselves with the world beyond their shores today than at any other time in the post-Cold War era.
Chinese and Russian agents of influence have found fertile ground in the United States’ rancid domestic political situation to sow their poisonous seeds of disinformation and provocation in and among the people of the United States.
Americans understandably hold the majority of their nation’s institutions in very low regard, for a variety of reasons.
Meanwhile, US businesses and elites continue looking beyond the United States for their wealth and opportunities (often at the expense of Americans in the “lower” socioeconomic classes).
All of this plays into America’s current defeat in the “Small Wars” of the oughts and, I fear, will play heavily into America’s coming defeat in the next “Big War” of the 2020s.
Beijing and Moscow have perfected asymmetrical warfare on a scale previously unknown to American strategists. Both China and Russia are beginning to work together on a level not seen since the heady days of the Cold War, when the Sino-Soviet alliance was seemingly unbreakable.
To the leaders of these authoritarian states, America looks as enfeebled as she did in the run-up to the Second World War.
And the key difference between then and now is that America’s latent industrial capacity is lacking. Whereas after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States could mass mobilize both its industry and population into a united patriotic endeavor, the United States of today cannot achieve this.
Less than one percent of the nation’s population of 320 million-plus people are under arms. American manufacturing is nonexistent in purported “peacetime.” If an actual shooting war with either China and/or Russia erupted soon, the United States would not likely be able to recoup the losses of their equipment and personnel in a timely manner (thereby negating whatever combat effectiveness the US military hopes it will have in the next great power war).
In 2005, my colleague George Friedman wrote an excellent book entitled America’s Secret War. In that book, the respected geopolitical guru, Friedman, assessed that the United States did not have to win its ongoing wars in the Greater Middle East to maintain its grip on global power…it just didn’t have to lose these wars.
But why is it assumed that because the United States can lose (or, in Friedman’s postulation, “not win”) its “Small Wars” that it can somehow win its next “Big War”–especially if, as my colleague Gregory Copley has said repeatedly, America is using the same strategic systems to fight small enemies that it would use against its more conventional, larger foes?
Besides, perception in politics, both international and domestic, is key…and perception is power. Both China and Russia are making the case that authoritarianism and “State Capitalism”–the so-called “Beijing Consensus”–are the wave of the future. To many nations, whether they like American blue jeans and rap or not, the claims made by today’s autocrats are appealing and seemingly true.
If the world’s perception of America as a waning power about to implode under the weight of its own internal contradictions is, in fact, accurate (and I believe it is), then a challenge by America’s great power rivals is in the offing. At best, a world war will occur which the United States manages to win. At worst, the United States loses a world war; is no longer a superpower…and becomes a broken, defeated nation choking on its own former greatness and subjugated beneath the jackboots of the victorious authoritarians.
Remember, democracy vs. authoritarianism is as old as democracy itself. The great conflict between democracy and authoritarianism in the ancient world–the Peloponnesian War–was won by the authoritarians and oligarchs (led by Sparta) over the democratic (though imperialistic) Athenian Empire.
So, perhaps, we’ve embraced the worst of the two eras, ancient and modern: the military weakness and societal decadence that defined the United States during the interwar years, with the ascendant strength of authoritarians in the Peloponnesian War.
If America cannot win its “Small Wars” it most certainly will not win its next “Big War.” And the dirty little secret is that most of our political elites know it…but they don’t care (because they’ll ultimately capitulate to and appease China, at the end of the day).