The Age of Perpetual Conflict

The U.S. has more determined and probably more numerous enemies today than at any time, and many of those who hate it are ready and able to inflict destruction on its shores. Its interventions often triumphed in the purely military sense, which is all the Pentagon worries about, but in all too many cases they have been political failures and eventually led to greater American military and political involvement. Its virtually instinctive activist mentality has caused it to get into situations where it often had no interests, much less durable solutions to a nation’s problems, and thereby repeatedly creating disasters and enduring enmities. America has power without wisdom, and cannot, despite its repeated experiences, recognize the limits of its ultra-sophisticated military technology. The result has been folly, and hatred, which is a recipe for disasters. September 11 confirmed that, and war has come to its shores.

That the U.S. end its self-appointed global mission of regulating all problems, wherever, whenever, or however it wishes to do so, is an essential precondition of stemming, much less reversing, the accumulated deterioration of world affairs and wars. We should not ignore the countless ethical and other reasons it has no more right or capacity to do so than any state over the past century, whatever justifications they evoked. The problems, as the history of the past century shows, are much greater than America’s role in the world; but at the present time its actions are decisive and whether there is war or peace will be decided far more often in Washington than any other place. Ultimately, there will not be peace in the world unless all nations relinquish war as an instrument of policy, not only because of ethical or moral reasoning but because wars have become deadlier and more destructive of social institutions. A precondition of peace is for nations not to attempt to impose their visions on others, adjudicate their differences, and never to assume that their need for the economic or strategic resources of another country warrants interference of any sort in its internal affairs.

But September 11 proved that after a half-century of interventions America has managed to be increasingly hated. It has failed abysmally to bring peace and security to the world. Its role as a rogue superpower and promiscuous, cynical interventionist has been spectacularly unsuccessful even on its own terms. It is squandering vast economic resources, and it has now endangered the physical security of Americans at home. To cease the damage the U.S. causes abroad is also to fulfill the responsibilities that America’s politicians have to their own people. But there is not the slightest sign at this point that voters will call them to account, and neither the American population nor its political leaders are likely to agree to such far-reaching changes in foreign policy. The issues are far too grave to wait for American attitudes and its political process to be transformed. The world will be safer to the extent that the U.S.’ alliances are dissolved and it is isolated, and that is happening for many reasons, ranging from the unilateralism, hubris, and preemptory style of the Bush Administration to the fact that with the demise of Communism the world’s political alignments are changing dramatically.

Communism and fascism were both outcomes of the fatal errors in the international order and affairs of states that the First World War spawned. In part, the Soviet system’s disintegration was the result of the fact it was the aberrant consequence of a destructive and abnormal war, but at least as important was its leaders’ loss of confidence in socialism. But suicidal Muslims are, to a great extent, the outcome of a half-century of America’s interference in the Middle East and Islamic world, which radicalized so many young men ready to die for a faith. Just as the wars of 1914–18 and 1939–45 created Bolsheviks, the U.S.’ repeated grave errors, however different the context or times, have produced their own abnormal, negative reactions. The twenty-first century has begun very badly because of America’s continued aggressive policies. These are far more dangerous than those of the preceding century. The destructive potential of weaponry has increased exponentially and many more people and nations have access to it. What would once have been considered relatively minor foreign policy problems now have potentially far greater consequences. It all augurs very badly. The world has reached the most dangerous point in recent, perhaps all of history. There are threats of war and instability unlike anything that prevailed when a Soviet-led bloc existed.

Even if the U.S. abstains from interference and tailors its actions to fit this troubled reality, there will be serious problems throughout much of the world. Internecine civil conflicts will continue, as well as wars between nations armed with an increasing variety of much more destructive weapons available from outside powers, of which the U.S. remains, by far, the most important. Many of these sources of conflicts have independent roots, but both principles and experiences justify America staying out of them and leaving the world alone. Both the American people and those involved directly will be far better off without foreign interference, whatever nation attempts it.

The U.S.’ leaders are not creating peace or security at home or stability abroad. The reverse is the case: its interventions have been counterproductive and its foreign policy is a disaster. Americans and those people who are the objects of successive administrations’ efforts would be far better off if the U.S. did nothing, closed its bases overseas and withdrew its fleets everywhere, and allowed the rest of world to find its own way. Communism is dead, and Europe and Japan are powerful and both can and will take care of their own interests. The U.S. must adapt to these facts. But if it continues as it has over the past half-century, attempting to attain the vainglorious but irrational ambition to run the world, then there will be even deeper crises and it will inflict wars and turmoil on many nations as well as on its own people. And it will fail yet again, for all states that have gone to war over the past centuries have not achieved the objectives for which they sacrificed so much blood, passion, and resources. They have only produced endless misery and upheavals of every kind.

From The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World by Gabriel Kolko. Copyright © 2006 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher.

February 1, 2007

Gabriel Kolko is the author, among other works, of Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another Century of War?, and Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book is The Age of War.

Copyright © 2006 Gabriel Kolko

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