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The End of the Era of Stability

by R. Anthony Arnold
October 2023

Over the second half of the 20th century, something odd happened. One country, in this case the United States, had an enormous, outsized, influence on the foreign policy of peer nations.

From a world where seemingly every major global power was anxious to flex their muscle, to one where, especially post-Soviet Union, almost all of those powers were incapable of shaping, or unwilling to shape, world affairs.

The results were mixed.

On the one hand, you have America’s well-documented history of foreign policy missteps. Some of these, like the Korean War, were well-intentioned but ultimately led to disappointment. Others, like the War in Iraq, were both poorly conceived and poorly executed.

But regardless of intent or execution, the end results were the same: a gradual loss of respect for America’s status as “world cop” in other nations, a steady loss of domestic support for spending lives and money chasing what seemed like unattainable goals. We have been sent back to a world where Great Powers, both real and imagined, were active once again.

In Asia, the arms race has officially begun. China, determined to challenge American hegemony, has spun up military spending to a level that may possibly exceed what we spend here. India, long seeing itself as a regional counterweight to China, has reciprocated, and is now a Top-5 military spender. Pakistan, India’s long rival, may soon eclipse the United Kingdom in terms of nuclear weapons, no doubt seeing India’s spending as a threat to themselves.

North Korea continues to develop new missiles, in defiance of Western wishes, going back decades. South Korea and Japan, being legitimately worried about all of this spending around them, have both been considering growing their military budgets lately. While an arms race doesn’t guarantee war, it’s a start that makes peace less likely for everyone, America included.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel are warily circling each other on their way to a partnership. The outbreak of war may slow the process, but it won’t stop it. The two countries want the same thing, which is to dictate what happens in their region. And the Western world, which is becoming less dependent on the region’s oil, and less tolerant of the political price of continued intervention, is happy to let them.

Of course, this is part of what led to the Hamas attack. A world where Israel and Saudi Arabia are the big nations on the block is one where the strained link between Hamas and Saudi Arabia is severed completely. It’s a world where the secret money that flows from various nations into Hamas’ coffers is slowly strangled. Because rest assured, Israel won’t make any deal that doesn’t harm Hamas, and increase their control of what happens to Palenstine.

Lastly, we have Europe. In addition to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, you have quieter rumblings of war, as well. Azerbaijan is pressuring Armenia, and Serbia is doing the same to Kosovo. In both cases there’s now a real chance of long dormant cold wars turning very hot, very fast.

Even among our allies, questions have risen. Can Germany maintain its position as the de facto leader in Europe? Will the U.K. really accept backseat status in a region where they once ruled the roost? And what about France? Having been spurned by the U.S. in a submarine deal, they’ve recently been selling to India, recognizing that a country with money to burn and global ambitions will need some help along the way, help they’re more than happy to provide for a price.

The only areas where these sort of power games aren’t being played, yet, are Central/South America, where the U.S. shadow is still too long, and Sub-Saharan Africa, an area that has yet to find its footing. But it will happen. As U.S. power weakens, especially as our own internal divides make us less capable of projecting power, countries in our region will either seek better deals with us that lift them up, or they’ll seek deals with each other, and potentially outsiders, that do the same.

And Sub-Saharan Africa, with a young, growing population and tons of headroom, could eventually fill the role China did previously, and India will soon, as the next “hot spot” for investment and opportunity. If that seems ridiculous now, then look back at what China was in 1960, when the Great Famine was on its way towards killing tens of millions and the rule of Mao Zedong was shutting them off to the outside world. Stranger things than a suddenly resurgent Africa have happened.

If everything that I’ve just described sounds unsettling, maybe even a little scary, then that’s the point. For decades the world grew accustomed to a certain level of stability. One enforced by a hopelessly flawed protector. But, it was never going to last.

The status quo that took hold after World War 2 was too fragile. It only existed because of the unprecedented destruction that took place after consecutive wars. Major powers had been leveled, but they were never going to stay that way. And we were happy to help them rebuild.

The Marshall Plan, the United States effort to help Western Europe recover after the war, has a somewhat exaggerated reputation. The amount of money and aid that we spent in both Europe and Asia ultimately didn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. However, it did signal a commitment to helping those areas, which was just as important as the exact benefits delivered.

That’s because things could have gone very differently. While everyone else was on the mat, the United States could have taken that opportunity to ensure our ongoing dominance via more expansionist routes. We really could have gobbled up territory and areas while there was nobody left to stop us. And while it seems absurd to get credit for not turning to naked imperialism, the truth is that many countries, including the ones we just fought, don’t even clear that bar.

Because having just defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan, we promptly turned around and gave aid to every one of them. However, our decision wasn’t guided by generosity, but by practicality. The best way to counter the Soviet Union was to make partnering with us a more attractive option. You catch more flies with honey, right?

What’s fascinating to note is that our promise to help is what set the table for where we are today. By ensuring that one day the rest of the world would return to power, we also ensured that we’d have rivals. Critics of American foreign policy will regularly claim that we behave like an imperial power. If that’s the case, then we must be the most incompetent one in history.

Yet, not even all that, combined with decades of relative stability, was enough to stop the world from backsliding to where we are now.

Everything that’s coming won’t be bad. Chaos and conflict do produce new possibilities. New alliances. New technology. New figures.

The hope is that as this process continues to play out, wise leaders will partner up in ways that lower the temperature on potential conflicts, finding common cause with others, even when there are reasons to fight. Cooler heads will eventually prevail, and the potential benefits of cooperation will ultimately outweigh what gains could be made from competition.

One thing that makes writing a column like this difficult is that there’s always a temptation to make a prediction at the end. To try and guess what will happen. Nothing makes a pundit look smarter than saying “I told you so.” But people doing that are falling into a trap.

The first half of the 20th century was genuinely surprising. People knew those European countries had differences, but I don’t think many people believed they would explode in such a spectacular way. The rise of China, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the second half of the century, were understood to be possible, but the exact ways in which they happened caught many people off-guard.

So instead of making predictions that neatly align with what I already think, I’ll say this. What’s coming next will simply be different. Whether it’s mostly good, mostly bad, or something in-between has yet to be determined. But the leaders we choose, and the choices they make, will matter more than they have in a very long time.