Where's the American empire when we need it?
Currency wars. Terrorist attacks. Military conflicts. Rogue regimes pursuing nuclear weapons. Collapsing states. And now, massive leaks of secret documents. What is the cause of such turbulence? The absence of empire.
During the Cold War, the world was divided between the Soviet and U.S. imperial systems. The Soviet imperium - heir to Kievan Rus, medieval Muscovy and the Romanov dynasty - covered Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia and propped up regimes in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The American imperium - heir to maritime Venice and Great Britain - also propped up allies, particularly in Western Europe and East Asia. True to the garrison tradition of imperial Rome, Washington kept bases in West Germany, Turkey, South Korea and Japan, virtually surrounding the Soviet Union.
The breakup of the Soviet empire, though it caused euphoria in the West and led to freedom in Central Europe, also sparked ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and created millions of refugees. (In Tajikistan alone, more than 50,000 people were killed in a civil war that barely registered in the U.S. media in the 1990s.)
The Soviet collapse also unleashed economic and social chaos in Russia itself, as well as the further unmooring of the Middle East. It was no accident that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait less than a year after the Berlin Wall fell, just as it is inconceivable that the United States would have invaded Iraq if the Soviet Union, a staunch patron of Baghdad, still existed in 2003. And had the Soviet empire not fallen apart or ignominiously withdrawn from Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden never would have taken refuge there and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, might not have happened. Such are the wages of imperial collapse.
Now the other pillar of the relative peace of the Cold War, the United States, is slipping, while new powers such as China and India remain unready and unwilling to fill the void. There will be no sudden breakdown on our part, as the United States, unlike the Soviet Union, is sturdily maintained by economic and political freedom. Rather, America's ability to bring a modicum of order to the world is simply fading in slow motion.
The days of the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency are numbered, just as our diplomacy is hobbled by wide-ranging security leaks that are specific to an age of electronic communication, itself hostile to imperial rule.
Then there is America's military power. Armies win wars, but in an age when the theater of conflict is global, navies and air forces are more accurate registers of national might. (Any attack on Iran, for example, would be a sea and air campaign.) The U.S. Navy has gone from nearly 600 warships in the Reagan era to fewer than 300 today, while the navies of China and India grow apace. Such trends will accelerate with the defense cuts that are surely coming in order to rescue America from its fiscal crisis. The United States still dominates the seas and the air and will do so for years ahead, but the distance between it and other nations is narrowing.
Terrorist acts, ethnic atrocities, the yearning after horrible weaponry and the disclosure of secret cables are the work of individuals who cannot escape their own moral responsibility. But the headlines of our era are written in a specific context - that of one deceased empire that used to be the world's preeminent land power and of another, the world's preeminent sea power, that finds itself less able to affect events than ever before, even as it is less sure than ever of the cause toward which it struggles.
This is no indictment of President Obama's foreign policy. There is slim evidence of a credible alternative to his actions on North Korea, Iran and Iraq, while a feisty debate goes on over the proper course in Afghanistan. But there is simply no doubt that the post-imperial order we inhabit allows for greater disruptions than the Cold War ever permitted.
Husbanding our power in an effort to slow America's decline in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world would mean avoiding debilitating land entanglements and focusing instead on being more of an offshore balancer: that is, lurking with our air and sea forces over the horizon, intervening only when outrages are committed that unquestionably threaten our allies and world order in general. While this may be in America's interest, the very signaling of such an aloof intention may encourage regional bullies, given that rogue regimes are the organizing principles for some pivotal parts of the world.
North Korea already plows onward with its nuclear weapons program, even as it lobs artillery shells on a South Korean island, demonstrating the limits of both U.S. and Chinese power in a semi-anarchic world. During the Cold War, North Korea was kept in its box by the Soviet Union while the U.S. Navy dominated the Pacific as though it were an American lake. Now China's economic dominance of the region, coupled with our distracting land wars in the Middle East, is transforming the western Pacific from a benign and stable environment to a more uncertain and complex one.
China's navy is decades behind America's, but that should offer little consolation. The United States, having just experienced asymmetric warfare on land, should now expect asymmetric challenges at sea. With its improving mine-warfare capability, seabed sonar networks and cyber-warfare in the service of anti-ship ballistic missiles, not to mention its diesel-electric and nuclear submarines, China will make U.S. Navy operations more dangerous over the coming years.
As for Taiwan, China has 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles pointed at the island, even as hundreds of commercial flights each week link Taiwan with the mainland in peaceful commerce. When China effectively incorporates Taiwan in the years to come, that will signal the arrival of a truly multipolar and less predictable military environment in East Asia.
In the Middle East we see the real collapse of the Cold War imperial order. The neat Israeli-Arab dichotomy that mirrored the American-Soviet one has been replaced by a less stable power arrangement, with a zone of Iranian influence stretching from Lebanon to western Afghanistan, pitted against both Israel and the Sunni Arab world, and with a newly Islamic, and no longer pro-Western, Turkey rising as a balancing power.
Yes, empires impose order, but that order is not necessarily benevolent, as Iran's budding imperial domain shows. U.S. threats against Iran lack credibility precisely because of our imperial fatigue resulting from Iraq and Afghanistan. Out of self-interest we will probably not involve ourselves in another war in the Middle East - even as that very self-interest could consign the region to a nuclear standoff.
One standard narrative is that as we recede, China will step up as part of a benign post-American world. But this presupposes that all imperial powers are the same, even when history clearly demonstrates that they are not. Nor does one empire sequentially fill the gap left by another.
While the Soviet Union and the United States were both missionary powers motivated by ideals - communism and liberal democracy - through which they might order the world, China has no such grand conception. It is driven abroad by the hunger for natural resources (hydrocarbons, minerals and metals) that it requires to raise hundreds of millions of its citizens into the middle class.
This could abet the development of a trading system between the Indian Ocean, Africa and Central Asia that might maintain peace with minimal American involvement. But who is to fill the moral void? Does China really care if Tehran develops nuclear weapons, so long as it has access to Iran's natural gas? And Beijing may not be entirely comfortable with the North Korean regime, which keeps its population in a state of freeze-frame semi-starvation, but China props it up nevertheless.
It can be argued that with power comes moral responsibility, but it will probably be decades before China has the kind of navy and air force that would lead it to become an authentic partner in an international security system. For the moment, Beijing gets a free ride off the protection of the world's sea lanes that the U.S. Navy helps provide, and watches us struggle to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan so that China can one day extract their natural resources.
If the Cold War was an epoch of relative stability, guaranteed by a tacit understanding among empires, we now have one waning empire, that of the United States, trying to bring order amid a world of rising and sometimes hostile powers.
Looming over all of this is the densely crowded global map. Across Eurasia, rural populations have given way to megacities prone to incitement by mass media and to destruction by environmental catastrophe. Lumbering, hard-to-deploy armies are being replaced with overlapping ballistic missile ranges that demonstrate the delivery capabilities of weapons of mass destruction. New technologies make everything affect everything else at a faster and more lethal rate than ever before. The free flow of information, as the WikiLeaks scandal makes clear, and the miniaturization of weaponry, as the terrorist bombings in Pakistani cities make clear, work against the rise and sustenance of imperial orders.
The American empire has always been more structural than spiritual. Its network of alliances certainly resembles those of empires past, and the challenges facing its troops abroad are comparable to those of imperial forces of yore, though the American public, especially after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, is in no mood for any more of the land-centric adventures that have been the stuff of imperialism since antiquity.
Americans rightly lack an imperial mentality. But lessening our engagement with the world would have devastating consequences for humanity. The disruptions we witness today are but a taste of what is to come should our country flinch from its international responsibilities.
Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a correspondent for the Atlantic. He is the author of "Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power."