I’ve been thinking over conversations that I’ve had with people recently, and it seems to me that some, though not all, of them have a sort of fundamental assumption that the world is a worse off place for the US having become a superpower at the end of WW2. Further, they think that the US only deals in its own cynical self-interest at all times, and that any move it makes on the geopolitical stage, even when it seems benevolent, is purely for the gain of the US and the US alone. For example, there are people who claim the entire War in Afghanistan was just an excuse to grab mineral rights or oil rights, or something, so we could become richer. That the war has nothing at all to do with Al Qaeda or 9/11. This seems like nonsense to me, but I’m not going to debate the specific details. Instead, I’m going to talk about the underlying assumption. I would contend that not only is the world a better place for the US having become a superpower, but that the world we live in today is one of the best possible outcomes for the last 50 or 60 years of history.
To do that, I’m going to start back at WW2, before the US was a superpower. In that world, you had multiple competing powers. Britain, France, Germany, and Russia were the major powers of the day. Due to its vast Empire and mighty Navy, Britain was probably the strongest of those powers, though it didn’t enjoy anything like the dominance the US has today. Prior to the outbreak of war, the US was in a firm non-interventionist mood. We wanted no part of what was going on in Europe, and did our best to ignore it. This had led to a number policies that made the US essentially a non-factor on the world stage, and especially it curtailed our military spending. There are some, today, who want the US to go back into that sort of shell. As it was back then, with the multiplicity of threats to world peace that exist right now, such a mindset is probably not a good idea. But I digress. So, why did the US become involved in the war? Well, as anyone with even the slightest knowledge of history knows, the attack on Pearl Harbor is what finally galvanized the US to declare war. However, thanks to the rather hawkish foreign policy of FDR, the US had been steadily becoming more involved in the war before 1941, including things like the Lend-Lease Act, and starting a military buildup in a competition with Japan, as well as enacting policies designed to curtail Japan’s power. Those who cared, like Roosevelt, were also absolutely appalled at what Japan was doing in China. The oil embargo we levied against Japan, in response to the atrocities in China, is probably the most direct cause for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and our entry into the war. When war was actually declared though, we were still in a pretty sorry state to actually pursue it, especially with half our Pacific Fleet on the bottom of the ocean. This was actually something of a blessing in disguise though, as it allowed the US to build a new, entirely modern military in the course of the war. This massive military apparatus, combined with our status as really the only belligerent in the war to have an undamaged homeland, left us in a somewhat unique state at the end of the war. We, along with the Soviet Union, were one of the two most powerful countries on Earth. In addition, of course, we had developed nuclear weapons during the course of the war, and used them to end the war in the Pacific. Our status as the world’s only nuclear power, and the counterweight in power to the Soviet Union essentially forced us into the role of a superpower, whether we really wanted it or not.
I think most people (well the ones who read this blog anyway) know the history after that, first the Marshall Plan, where we rebuilt the countries we had just finished demolishing in order to provide a solid resistance to the encroaching totalitarian Communist rule from the Soviet Union. After that came the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which were proxy wars also against the spread of communism, and finally the Reagan and Bush years which saw the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union. There are, of course, legitimate criticisms of the way the US acted during the Cold War. However, I think many people mistakenly view the US as having acted solely out of cynical self interest. To those people, I ask this question, what do you think would have happened had Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union won the race to build the first nuclear bomb? To me, that is the crux of the matter. If the US was truly as cynically self-interested as some people think, there would have been no Marshall Plan, no bulwark built against Soviet aggression. We would have simply gone to the Soviets and demanded they disband their military and nuclear program, or we would carpet-bomb them with nuclear weapons. Then we would have actually done so if they showed the slightest bit of resistance. We would have instituted a global hegemony using the power of our sole possession of nuclear weapons, and proceeded to sell other countries the means, at a profit, to begin to rebuild their countries. There is little doubt in my mind that if the Soviets or the Nazis had gotten nuclear weapons first, they would have done something much like that. We’d be living in either Der United Fascist States of Amerika, or the Glorious United People’s Republic of America. The reason the US didn’t do anything like that is because we are a country committed to the ideas of freedom, democracy, and self-determination. We are certainly not the only country with a commitment to such ideals, but we were the only country in a position to do something about it at the end of the Second World War. Had Britain been relatively undamaged, and retained her Empire, and gotten the bomb first, I’m pretty sure Britain would have done things in a similar way as the US. France never really had a chance to do so, but they are another country with similar enough ideals that they would have also done things in a similar way to the US.
Which leads me to my conclusions. The US is not perfect, and I’m hardly claiming it is, but if you look at the history from WW2 onwards, two things jump out at you. The first is deaths from war. A graph of deaths from war from the beginning of civilization to 1945 is a steady upward curve. After 1945, it falls off a cliff. The 60 years or so of history coinciding with the US being a superpower has had the lowest relative death rates from war, well, ever. The US being a superpower has coincided with a period of peace basically unknown in human history. Now, part of the reason for this is because of nuclear weapons. They have made it just too dangerous for the world’s major powers to go to war with each other anymore. I would also say though, that the presence of the US on the global stage, being a counter-weight to the Soviet Union, as well as after the dissolution of the USSR, where we have been working to calm trouble spots, defuse conflicts, and generally act as a sort of “world cop” has played a big role in that as well. We are living in a Pax Americana, in many ways.
The second thing that jumps out at you is the steady increase in the number of democracies in the world. I’m pretty sure people were screaming at their computers during that last section, raging at me for not mentioning the various wars we have been involved in. I would point out though, that the conflicts we have been involved in have in large part been in support of freedom, democracy, and self-determination, and against tyranny and oppression. Has that been the case all the time? No, as I said the US is not perfect, we have sometimes allied ourselves with or supported some rather vile people, simply because they were anti-Soviet. However, in such cases, I would argue that it was the choice of the lesser of two evils. The Soviet Union was a far greater threat to freedom, democracy, and self-determination worldwide than the little tinpot anti-communist dictators we supported during the Cold War. The policies we enacted during the Cold War and since the end of it have, in large part, resulted in the steadily increasing number of democracies we see in the world today. This is even true, to certain extent, with the second Iraq war. Yes, there were of course other motivations, like oil and claims of WMDs, and George W. Bush’s personal animus against Saddam, but really the US taking out a dictator and installing a democracy in his place is in line with many of the ideals Americans hold dear, and the sort of policies we have been enacting and following ever since the end of the Second World War. Is that a good enough justification for the Iraq War by itself? That’s for each person to decide I guess. For myself, I think the problem in Iraq was less the goals than the execution of them. Had I known going in how it would turn out, I would not have supported the Iraq War, but I still support many of the ideals behind war as laudable in and of themselves.
Which is why I say, given the conditions at the end of the Second World War, the US becoming a superpower was overall a good thing. We have made mistakes, and yes, sometimes acted out of self-interest, but I think our worldwide power coupled with our ideals and idealism have resulted in one of the best possible outcomes of the Second World War and following Cold War. This isn’t meant to be an argument for American Exceptionalism, I don’t think the US is really all that exceptional. Its more just me pointing out to people that maybe the US isn’t as bad as some think it is, and that maybe we really aren’t that global threat to world peace that some people think we are.
One additional thought, I also think the past 60 years of history tell us that we can’t really afford to stop being a superpower. We could pretty effectively defend ourselves just by building a fleet of nuclear missile-armed submarines and telling the rest of the world not to mess with us or else. However, in the power vacuum that would create, I think some people might step in who most certainly do not have the level of commitment the US does to freedom, democracy, and self-determination. Frankly, I think if the US stopped being a superpower, the rest of the world would go to hell in a hand-basket, and we’d swiftly be in a situation similar to the one that led to WW2. Only this time there would be states armed with nuclear weapons involved.