The initial American response to the massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s was to let the European powers take care of it. Europe’s response, however, was late and meaningless: they sent soldiers but told them that they could not shoot anyone. As a result, Dutch soldiers holding a supposed place of refuge were forced to surrender to Serbian forces. They then watched as Serbian soldiers dressed in Dutch uniforms lured 8,000 Bosnian civilians to their deaths. Such violence continued until the Americans came.
The documentary The World without US cites a number of such scenarios, in which, for all reasonable purposes, the United States military either is or was the only thing protecting the people of the world from genocide and unmitigated horror. While many of the concerns often voiced against American imperialism are featured in the documentary, in no way could this be considered an unbiased or purely exploratory film: The World without US makes the case that, at least as recently as 2008, a sudden and full withdrawal of American forces from all foreign bases would lead immediately to conflict and atrocities across the globe.
Going into this film, I was decidedly supportive of a dramatic drawdown in U.S. military power stationed abroad, and I was a bit unnerved to hear my exact arguments made by the fictional American political candidate who is featured at various points. Our economy cannot maintain this type of military spending indefinitely. The very people we help hate us. Many of the countries where we are stationed are quite capable of defending themselves. While I have not been swayed from my concerns about the long-term viability of our current culture of military spending, what this film has begun to convince me of is the possibility that, regardless of our ability to continue standing as the world’s policeman, the world is not ready for us to stop.
In addition to references to American intervention in the Balkans and in the Middle East, the film also outlines the importance of maintaining a military presence in South Korea and Japan. As I have asked many times, South Korea has twice the population and twenty times the GDP of North Korea, so why do the South Koreans need us there at all? The reasons given are that, despite the discrepancies in resources, North Korea has twice as many soldiers as South Korea, and Seoul – capital of South Korea – lies dangerously close to the border. Any full conflict would most certainly begin with the merciless shelling of that densely populated city – if not the use of a North Korean nuclear bomb.
I would argue that one of the reasons for which South Korea’s military is outnumbered is specifically because of the American presence: Why spend money on a bigger military when the Americans are doing it for you? However, the reality of South Korea’s geographical vulnerability cannot be ignored. Also, and perhaps more importantly, there is the matter of China. While South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan belong to a generally American-aligned sphere of influence, North Korea is allied with China. And especially in the years since this documentary was published, China has become increasingly bellicose toward its neighbors. Indeed, China has border disputes with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, India – just about every nation with which it could have border disputes. This is an assertive nation with the intent of becoming this century’s unchallenged dominant force in Asia. While there is virtually no economic benefit for China in allying with the North rather than the South, face is very important for China, and failing to protect the Communist state it helped to create would be a loss of face. Therefore, in short, even if South Korea can manage against North Korea, it cannot manage against China. Without American support, any intent that entities like South Korea or Taiwan may have of standing up against China in East Asia or the Pacific would be pure fantasy.
So what is to be done? The message of this film seems clear: we cannot abandon our foreign bases. However, it is not so simple as that either, as the matter of economic continuity – barely mentioned – is still at the top of the list for many when it comes to concerns about American imperialism. We are not engaged in a war with any significant world power, and yet we account for roughly 40% of all military expenditures for the entire world. Our economy, though large, is stagnant, and even while our national debt is still not the highest in the world relative to GDP, when unfunded federal liabilities are taken into account, the future looks bleak for those now being born unless something is done to cut expenditures and manage liabilities right now. Some would say that we should make cuts, but not to military. However, it is hard to rationalize such thinking when we consider just how massive our military spending really is. Have we decided, then, to become more Sparta than Athens?
Unfortunately, what this film has caused me to consider is the possibility that there is no right answer. What if we are on the tail end of a Pax Americana that will continue to go unnoticed until it ends? Because, as long as the federal government continues to spend more than it brings in – in both peace and war, both expansion and recession – that day will eventually come. All that this film shows is that, when that day does come, the world may not be ready for it.