The United States: Atlas for a Modern Era


Obama Doctrine

Photo courtesy of Peter Schrank

By Matthew Rock.

America and its Western allies know that they have to do something when international trouble strikes, but they’d rather not… 

For the first time in America’s history, the president is set to dispatch troops in an attempt to stop the spread of a disease. On Sept. 16, President Barack Obama announced he would send 3,000 troops and spend more than $750 million to contain the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. This follows more modest moves by countries such as Cuba and China (each sending about 170 people), and Britain, which will build a 62-bed hospital. Germany is set to give a paltry few million dollars, and the EU has thrown in $15.5 million and has committed to the construction of a laboratory. 

As the West dawdled in its response to the disease, the initial few cases of Ebola in West Africa precipitated into the disease’s biggest epidemic in history, with official figures suggesting almost 5,000 people have been infected and more than 2,400 have died, mostly concentrated in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Given that roughly half of those infected go on to die, it greatly disturbs the likes of Médecins sans Frontières and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The implication of this disease for many West African governments and economies has been devastating, particularly in Liberia. Lacking appropriate equipment and preparedness, some 144 health-workers have died trying to treat those infected. The World Bank reports that unless the epidemic can be contained, the Liberian economy will contract by 4.9 percent and the growth rate in Sierra Leone will fall 9 percentage points from 11 percent to 2 percent. 

Given such potential destruction and the advanced months of warning presented to them by the WHO, Western governments have come under increasing fire for not having effectively nipped this epidemic in the bud before it got so out of hand. The American director of Doctors Without Borders publicly stated that she was astonished that the effort to curb Ebola in Liberia was not met with more Western governmental support, hinting that blame falls squarely on Western leaders. 

However, comparing this scenario with the precedent that Western nations have set from other crises throughout the world, the informed observer should really take no surprise at the slow Western response to the Ebola epidemic. It is almost guaranteed these days that when confronted with a situation that will inevitably and obviously result in an international crisis, the U.S. and the EU will drag their feet until public opinion compels them to slightly lift their heel. 

Two cases-in-point serve to buttress this claim. First, let’s turn to the Syrian Civil War. When rebel groups first broke out against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in early 2011, the West stood by as they took the complacent and optimistic view that the rebels would quickly overthrow the oppressive regime without significant Western aid. Three years later, with 200,000 dead and millions of people displaced, the rebels have failed to topple the regime and out of the shambles of the war arose ISIL, which managed to channel enough of the widespread discontent to raise an army to overtake vast swathes of Iraq. With a string of beheadings of Western and British journalists, ISIL has made it clear that its stance is staunchly anti-Western, even more painfully obvious when considering that its platform calls for the establishment of a worldwide caliphate through any means possible (meaning terrorism). 

There is consensus among the writers of The Economist and The Wall Street Journal that these negative effects could have largely been curtailed if only the West had intervened earlier, much like the Ebola epidemic could have been contained within a matter of weeks had intervention been swift and effective. With the memory of the Afghani and Iraqi Wars still fresh in its collective mind, America only provided symbolic support to the moderate Syrian rebels, failing to provide them with sufficient weaponry and military aid to turn the tide swiftly in their favor. Europe, perpetually depending on America to initiate action, did virtually nothing. Only after the brutally ironic insult of a successful ISIL invasion of Iraq, a nation which thousands of Americans had died to preserve and to which billions of dollars had been funneled, did the U.S. government begin to respond with airstrikes against ISIL and Syrian strongholds. Only on Sept. 30 did Europe offer any meaningful aid, with Britain providing an airstrike against ISIL-held territory. 

Yet another Ebola-like languor can be seen in response to Russia’s bombastic return to cold war-style politics. Giving a simplified summary of the well-known tale, Russia incited rebellion in the Ukrainian region of Crimea starting in February and March of 2014, sent Russian military support in the form of both weapons and disguised personnel to the Russian separatists in Crimea, held a rigged referendum among the chaos that led Russia to annex Crimea, and then proceeded (and still continues) to hold a proxy-war in the eastern region of what remains of Ukraine by supporting Russian separatists in rebel-held territories. The tragic consequences of these events have been enormous. The precedent of international law regarding the sanctity of borders has basically been shattered by Russia’s actions. Billions dollars of damage have been incurred in both the short-term to capital and property in Ukraine and in the long-term to Ukraine’s economic prospects, and a recidivist Putin has been emboldened by his success and might look to further reconstruct the lost Soviet domain. More vividly, a Malaysian airlines flight with 298 people aboard was shot down on July 29, 2014 by a missile launcher that the Russian government provided to Ukrainian rebels. The West’s initial inaction and proceeding slow response, as in the previous two cases of Ebola and the Syrian civil war, were astonishing. 

The EU passed only token sanctions against key Russian officials, and although America offered a beefier list of sanctions targeting more powerful people in the Russian regime, theirs seemed strict only in comparison to the EU’s. Rather than issuing wide-reaching import bans and refusing to do business with the Russian government, Europe continued its shipment of oil form the Russian east, London continued to conduct financial services for wealthy Russians, and France even delivered Russia a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier. Only after Russia’s involvement in the east Ukrainian rebellion became painfully obvious in August 2014 (with the downing of the commercial flight) did President Obama respond with a sharp reinvestment in NATO and more widespread, yet still soft, sanctions. Europe then responded with its usual token bits of policy action following the U.S.’ example.  

Atlas’s Atrophy 

So what’s up? All three international crises, though widely different, have three main phases. Phase 1: initial outbreak and Western inaction. When Ebola’s first victims died, Syria’s first hundred thousand were killed, and Ukraine was first jeopardized, the West dawdled. Phase 2: Things blow up (most of the time literally). Ebola is projected to take the lives of hundreds of thousands and send West African economies into severe recession. ISIL took shape out of the ruins of the Syrian Civil War. And Crimea was stolen, and Russia was emboldened. Phase 3: America is forced to respond (however unwillingly), with European countries offering, if anything, token support. America sends troops to Liberia with the EU sending money in that direction. America holds airstrikes against ISIS and Syrian-government strongholds in the Middle East with Britain providing some support. And America beefs up sanctions against Russian and increases spending on NATO with Europeans letting on corresponding sanctions. 

But why so much initial unwillingness to respond? Yes, America takes a little bit of a more cautious step in world affairs ever since its bout of cowboy diplomacy in the Bush administration blew up America’s good image (and ruined America’s appetite for more military intervention). But surely President Obama has learned by now that he is going to have to intervene sometime, and the longer he waits, the more prolonged the crisis is going to be. Thus, a more nuanced approach to the causation behind Western inefficacy is in order. 

When Obama first took office, he championed an approach to international policy that would focus on equal-weighted collaboration with allies, intending for America to become an international arbiter in Western-ally policy discussion that would supposedly enable a more effective international response. After all, if two heads are better than one, then dozens must be an exponential improvement. 

By empirical observation, that logic is deeply flawed. When the theory of collective action is championed, it appears as though everybody else is looking to his neighbor before jumping into the fray. When the supposed leader, the de-facto world superpower, the U.S., is looking around with its arms crossed as well, then crises get out of hand. Collective action can only be deemed effective when all parties involved feel an equal obligation to serving the world interest; a stagnant EU, with much economic woe at home, is particularly disinclined to take a broader worldview. 

The best solution as of now, then, is also the simplest. America must act early, intelligently, and powerfully when a crisis first hits, rather than let it grow out of hand and have it grow increasingly costly to manage. The sad fact is that an early quarantine of Ebola patients would have prevented the widespread troop deployment. Likewise, a more decisive bet against Assad and support of moderate rebels would have reduced the likelihood of a prolonged battle against ISIL. Lastly, an industry-wide sanction against entire Russian economic sectors would have pushed him to back off of the region and spared the U.S. and EU countries the billions of dollars of increased NATO spending. The U.S. and all other parties are paying the initial price many times over. 

The obvious counterargument to this is that America should simply not respond at all. Let Ebola take its course, let ISIL have its day, and let Putin take the territory nobody else besides Ukraine really cares about. Sure, this would save money, reduce the potential for American deaths, and finally let the world superpower focus on home. However, the additional costs to such seemingly practical isolationism are far more severe than the cost of involvement. Not intervening in conflicts would lead to drastic direct and indirect consequences to the U.S. 

Decision not to act in the Ebola epidemic, for example, would destroy key supply lines to such commodities as cocoa in West Africa, delivering blows to the trade-dependent U.S. economy. This effect is paltry when one takes into account the severe damage to the U.S.’s image if it were to allow hundreds of thousands of people to die in the country of Liberia, a nation carved out of its own freed slaves, thereby compromising the Obama Administration’s and the U.S.’s perception as a guideline for morality. 

Failure to act in Syria and Iraq would produce the most tangible ill effect: terrorism. With several Western journalists already decapitated at the hands of these extremists, the U.S. need only utter 9-11 to recall the vast amount of damage a highly motivated, well-organized terrorist group can do; furthermore, terrorism against other countries in the Middle East, which is bound to occur if ISIL is let to stay, would disrupt an already fragile order, jeopardize thousands of lives, and set the world into unstable speculation about the supply of oil. Finally, if no response whatsoever were given to Putin, he would take it as an invite to try the stunt again and again, as he has shown from his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and his continued proxy in Ukraine; eventually, America would lose the potential for eastern European allies as they consolidate into a Soviet-esque bloc around their former mother country. 

However, when it is all said and done, the one key reason why the U.S., as the lone superpower, should take the lead in world affairs is because it is in its most strategic interest to remain the sole superpower (and definitely in the interests of its allies as well). Though the job might be tough, it is a powerful advantage in economics, politics, and the social workings of the world to have people look to you for guidance and for you to contribute to the world playbook more than anyone else, and an isolationist America would lose this advantage that it and no one else possesses. Even more frighteningly, when the leader steps aside, a vacuum is left in its place, a space which will likely remain a vacuum only for so long. Many powers not too keen on Western ideology—China and Russia to name the two most obvious—have not felt like the leaders in a long while and would be among the most eager to step into a world on which America turns its back. A world order whose diplomacy, trade networks, and international organizations are underpinned by American political and military might would begin to come apart at the seams and leave untold years of economy-shaking instability.

Message to the Guy Holding Me Up

Thus, the next time a pesky disease rears its head in a poor region, a civil war with a clear favorite breaks out, or strongman disrupts international order, America should decide to act then and there, or not act at all. If it is better to act, which it normally is, America ought to give the EU a heads-up and go on to make as swift and effective a move as possible, because the cost-meter for intervention is ticking ever upward.

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