As a financial service company, we at Anfield occupy ourselves primarily with markets and their constituent parts. Until recently, geopolitics, though vital to risk management, was regarded as an ancillary discipline reserved for the back pages of annual outlooks. Needless to say, we now understate political risk at our peril. After all, when a sober-minded journal like The Economist publishes a special report on “The growing threat of great power conflict,” as it did recently, attention must be paid.
It is now clear that the quarter-century that followed the end of the Cold War was not a “New World Order” with the United States at its core but the sorbet between the collapse of one empire and the gradual obsolescence of another. What was briefly a unipolar world now accommodates such countries as China, Russia, Turkey and Iran as regional hegemons. American primacy is due for a rerating and the sooner Washington understands this, the better off we’ll be.
By now, President Trump should know that the leader of the free world is as much a spectator of seismic events as he is an author of them. Consider North Korea and its obstreperous leadership. Despite a massive display of US naval power off the Korean peninsula and a broadside of Trumpian invective, North Korea is no more likely to forego its nuclear ambitions than it was when George W. Bush was president, when Pyongyang ended a self-imposed embargo on its bomb program. Meanwhile, China engineers stalemate; it fears the collapse of its North Korean ally and a vacuum that the US military might fill and so frustrates any attempt to seriously inconvenience the regime.
If that wasn’t enough, Pyongyang’s gesture to participate in a joint-Korean team at the South Korean winter Olympics shifted the media narrative from imminent war to inter-Korean comity which, however ephemeral, makes the Pentagon nervous. (To say nothing about the Japanese.)
In Europe, NATO continues to neglect its treaty obligation despite Russian provocation of Scandinavia and the Baltic; NATO member Turkey, meanwhile, wages war on Syrian Kurds – key US allies in the fight against ISIS – despite protests from Washington; Trump’s defeat of ISIS – an aggressive prosecution of a plan crafted by the more skittish Obama – has only scattered the group into distant corners, raising the odds it will wage jihad on the west with greater ferocity than it did from its Iraqi enclave – as Al Qaeda did after it was expelled from Afghanistan.
Though the waning of American authority is neither absolute nor unnatural – it is simply a return to the multipolar power balance that defined sovereign relations for most of recorded time – our national security priesthood will resist it rather than relinquish its rice bowls. In fact, alone among his rivals on the campaign trail, Trump revealed an instinct for what Rudyard Kipling biographer David Gilmour calls “the long recessional” when he implied that America’s alliance system as it stands is a dangerous and costly anachronism and must be reformed. Sadly, thus far he has taken a tactical, scattershot approach to the problem when only a sustained strategic one will do.
When the US government in 1945 opted to keep residual forces in and around the defeated Axis powers, rather than demobilize as it did after most of its previous conflicts, it laid the framework for a global network that can swiftly deliver armed forces anywhere in the world. This expeditionary power represents a supply train that is the envy of both the military and commercial world – one reason why retired military officers are so coveted by industry is their knowledge for logistics – and that requires access to the world’s sea lanes and air corridors and related infrastructure. Over the years the US government has bartered with nations’ security guarantees in exchange for entry to the world’s choke points outside international waters and air space. These transactions, in addition to the far-flung military bases they serve, are the connective tissue of the American modern empire.
Since President Trump has threatened to reduce or scrap altogether US bases unless their hosts shoulder a larger share of their cost, defenders of America’s forward bases insist they “kept the peace” by dissuading troublesome states from menacing their neighbors. This argument rests on a static view of history, however. The Pentagon’s own Cold War post-mortem makes clear that US rivals, China and Russia, were limited by the inadequacy of their own systems to pose much of a non-nuclear threat to the West. Today however, both countries have modernized their economies and developed their own regional expeditionary forces with which they are reprising their historic spheres of interest. To the extent that these ancient claims conflict with Washington’s imperial obligations – in the South China Sea, for example, or the Baltics – its alliance systems are less guarantees of peace than they are trip wires for global war.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining to this story. America has at its disposal hugely underutilized assets in its allies. Until now, the Pentagon has assumed full responsibility for the security of its host nations which, like any welfare state, has spawned a subculture of inertia, opportunism and patronage. It is time for Washington to declare that its partners, having risen from the rubble of war to dominate the world’s most capital-intensive industries, are more than capable of securing their frontiers absent a dominant American role.
The profiteers and security fetishists will cry appeasement. Let them rant. Devolving deterrence to the regional level reduces the stakes of confrontation and thus the scope for escalation. Having spent years nestled in the imperiled bosom, America’s allies should welcome the chance to assume responsibility for homeland defense. At the very least, we’ll finally understand what kind of partners we’ve been nurturing all these years.