History is a relentless process and one that does repeat itself. Empires emerge, hold power, grow wealthy, and then find ways to commit suicide while new ones push them aside.
I was thinking of this while listening to outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ speech on NATO’s future. He virtually spelled out why the United States is in decline and why Great Britain and Europe, once the seat of great empires, have been in decline since the end of World War Two.
The Second World War so sapped the energy of Europe and the United Kingdom that neither were able to retain the sources of their former wealth, their colonial empires composed of nations in the Middle East and Asia. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was formed after World War Two out of fear of an aggressive Soviet Union.
The United Nations was also created at that time and it too has long been sustained by U.S. financial support.
Gates made no secret of the fact that he thought the European members had been getting a free ride from NATO as U.S. funding had risen from “roughly 50 percent of all NATO spending” to “more than 75 percent in the twenty years since the collapse (1989) of the Berlin Wall.” The USSR ceased in 1991 and became the Russian Federation.
The generations that lived through the Cold War from the end of World War Two in 1945 until 1991 are now senior citizens. For nearly fifty years it was the focus of American concern and wars from Korea to Vietnam were fought to restrain Communist expansion whether it was motivated by Russia or China. Those wars, however, left those generations, their children and grandchildren, with a distinct distaste for combat in far-off places.
The 9/11 attack was unique in that it was not perpetrated by a nation-state, but by a stateless organization calling itself al Qaeda. It took a decade to find and kill its leader, Osama bin Laden. In the meantime, the United States had become mired in Afghanistan and had initiated an invasion and occupation of Iraq to rid the Middle East of Saddam Hussein, a constant threat to the region’s fragile stability.
It’s not that the United States wasn’t joined by a coalition of NATO and other nations. It was, but it was also understood that the U.S. would contribute the bulk of the forces and machinery of war.
There is considerable irony in the way the Iraq war has since led to the instability of Middle Eastern nations whose dictators have been forced to flee or fight. If Saddam Hussein could be brought to justice, Middle Eastern people concluded that any dictator could be overthrown if they united against them. It did not escape notice that even longtime allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak would be abandoned.
The result is that the U.S. and NATO have stumbled into a conflict in Libya that has demonstrated their present state of weakness. Moreover, the mission in Afghanistan continued throughout the entire decade with no real end in sight.
As Secretary Gates noted, “It is no secret that for too long, the international military effort in Afghanistan suffered from a lack of focus, resources, and attention, a situation exacerbated by America’s primary focus on Iraq for most of the past decade.” He warned against NATO nations pulling out “on their own timeline in a way that undermines the mission and increases risks to other allies.”
“Turning to the NATO operation over Libya,” said Gates, “it has become painfully clear that similar shortcomings—in capability and will—have the potential to jeopardize the alliance’s ability” to conduct a successful mission. The key word here is “will.” When a coalition lacks the will to win, it will not.
This applies as well to the United States. Said Gates, “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress and in the American body politic writ large to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Just as the NATO nations lost the will to defend themselves, preferring to let the U.S. pick up the bill, it is America’s turn to examine its own financial situation and to reduce its own defense expenditures.
For some time now, it has been reducing its naval capabilities in terms of warships. It has aircraft that are wonders of technology, but much of the fleet is aging and in need of replacement. Its warriors have been in fields of combat for twice as long as it took to fight and win World War Two in two separate theatres, Europe and the Pacific.
As the U.S. appetite for combat diminishes and its financial stability remains uncertain, it is experiencing much the same events that ended the British Empire. At one time it was so vast it was said that the sun never set upon it.
The juggernaut that was U.S. military power is being hollowed out. The value of the U.S. dollar, the default currency for the world, is declining. The empire that was Great Britain is no more and the influence that the U.S. has had and the power it could once project is fading.
Some very hard decisions must be made—and soon—or the United States of America will join the ranks of empires that exhausted themselves.