Tuesday, 25 February 2014

America the brave, the powerful, the isolated

As I wrote last week, the United States is gradually pulling itself out of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Coupled with a natural resources boom, a hegemonic position in the world system, and a uniquely American set of ideals about capitalism (among other factors), there is a distinct bounce-back occurring for the largest economy on earth.

Perhaps it is useful to ask what the United States is planning to do with all this new power.

For a person reading a newspaper in 1914, it would have been almost laughable had a time-traveller from 2014 described the trajectory of the intervening years. That the Americans would emerge as the preeminent world power after two world wars to begin the 21st Century without peer would sound like the stuff of fiction.

Yet this is the reality today. The question is: how will the United States deal with the situation they’ve largely stumbled into?

The Europeans, according to Ambassador of the European Union to Australia and New Zealand Sem Fabrizi, will discuss the Great War’s anniversary in the language of beginnings. WWI represents the birth of what would eventually become a peacefully united Europe, starting with the opening salvo of artillery. For the Americans, that war was also the beginning of its current supremacy. All Europe felt defeated after the Great War, but the United States and Britain felt victorious by default. They were essentially the last two powers standing.

In the early 21st century, after 100 years of American ascent, it is hard to refuse a classification of the American system as anything but an empire. It may be an unanticipated and unrecognised empire, but an empire is an empire. Even though their economy grows by the willpower and ideals of its people, the American empire emerged for more prosaic and largely predictable reasons.

The United States is not powerful today because of its people’s vigour, but because of its geography and how, by chance, the nation sits isolated from the rest of the troubled world. New Zealand in much the same way is not secure either or economically safe strictly because of its people’s efforts.

Driving anywhere in New Zealand, as in the United States, will not send you over borders where people speak a strange language and see the world differently. New Zealand and America have no military threats, and this breeds a tendency for reclusiveness. It is hard to know from a moral standpoint whether this mindset is good or bad, reflecting as it does only the geographic realities connecting America and New Zealand.

America has a degree of responsibility to maintain the world system, by virtue of its size and range of interests around the globe. New Zealand over the past 100 years has relied on America for implicit, and sometimes explicit, safety even while it too faces few existential threats. Yet their connections run deeper still.

It isn’t often America and New Zealand find fundamental traits they share entirely. Tying these nations together is a balance between enjoying the fruits of globalisation and staying out of trouble as much as possible. What separates them is how much power their isolation and geographic benefits can afford them. In what has become a controversial statement, the United States acting as an empire nevertheless accurately explains American goals for the future.

Intervention and involvement might have appeared to be the norm for America for a long time. And for the last century whenever there were inter-state squabbles one of the first questions asked was, “What is the American position?” With very few exceptions, every country either aligned itself with the United States, or against it, each largely reacting to whatever Washington thought was the best for its own interest.

Today, even while the United States pushes ahead economically, there is a change in the way they are interacting with the world. Intervening in world problems has reached a point of diminishing returns for America, preferring now to balance regional powers rather than coerce forcefully.

The United States has the luxury to detach, as does New Zealand. Flanked by two massive oceans - both completely controlled by the US Navy - and bordered by two largely friendly neighbours, the United States enjoys an enviable default status of peace on the home front. Just like New Zealand, continental American soil has not seen the aggression of war for hundreds of years.

This natural isolation is the default mindset for the American and New Zealand citizens. War and pain are things that happen to other people in faraway lands. New Zealanders use the phrase “overseas” when discussing foreign affairs, in the same way as do Americans. Both countries essentially feel the same way about the rest of the world: sometimes it is necessary to get involved, but in totality, what happens overseas is never really all that important.

That both the average New Zealander and American couldn’t care less about the past week’s upheavals in Ukraine, or the ongoing horror in Syria, reflects more the natural isolation of the two countries than it does any insidious apathy. After all, both nations have had plenty of sporadic engagement with the world’s problems over the past 100 years.

It would be something close to a mistake to assume a revived America immediately translates into greater interaction in the world. America will remain close to the geopolitical action as always, but there is a cycle towards detachment. Just because they depend on low-priced goods from China or high-quality hardware from Germany no longer means the United States feels compelled to be an intervening parent every time a flashpoint sparks somewhere on the globe.


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