The Decline of US Interventionism and the Future of Global Conflict

My experiences of the world in my youth were far more intense and definite. I would strive to find out whether an event was a good thing or a bad thing, sure that there was an answer that would offer reassurance to my understanding of life. Lucky as I was to never be directly involved in any of the conflicts that occurred as I grew up, they were always of great concern.

Like many a grief-stricken American citizen in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I was reassured by the ‘We’re gonna gettum’ rhetoric that the White House spun in the following days and weeks. This was reassurance to me that the United States, despite their flaws, were a clear and obvious force for good in the world. A force that could not be opposed by any force for evil. It is hard to overstate the United State’s military and diplomatic power across the twentieth century, but the legacy of the Cold War and Hollywood myth making have managed to do so through the creation of the American superhero narrative.

Reagan’s ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’; George H. W. Bush’s ‘New World Order’; Bill Clinton’s symbolic role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. To the casual observer, these events were given a sense of security and clarity by the domineering presence of the United States. This presence existed, in the West at least, for the latter half of the twentieth century and continued into the twenty-first century with the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. Of course, this view of the American hero is intentionally simplistic and there always have been severe criticisms of what some call ‘US Imperialism’. Some cynically dismiss all western intervention as motivated by oil, or some such financial factor. Some genuinely believe that such military action was in the name of democracy and liberty, and nothing else. When one departs from the good/evil perspective so prominent in childhood, it becomes clear that the reality is usually an indecipherable mix of both.

Contemporary international relations have become more complicated due to the emergence of other world superpowers. The economic power of China dwarfs that of the US, and the apparent turnaround in Russian foreign policy towards a more Soviet style of diplomacy both represent renewed post-Cold War competition for power and influence on the global stage. The US is now a less prominent figure in global conflict. Much verbal posturing occurred during the annexation of Crimea, but little else. A similar lack of action on the humanitarian crises in Syria and Libya have demonstrated a new tact from the White House. Not only in America, interventionism has gone out of fashion. As Hillary Clinton called it, the ‘historic’ UK House of Commons vote against military intervention in Syria was largely motivated by a lack of public will for such action. Similar trends have appeared in the US, with even a small majority of traditionally pro-intervention Republican voters agreeing that American action overseas had been too extensive in recent years.

Whether distinctive lessons have been learned from the Iraq invasion is unclear, but it certainly appears to have dampened public and political appetites for any kind of similar action in the foreseeable future. While Obama had always claimed his presidency would focus energy more towards domestic issues, it is likely these other developments have influenced the relative silence of the US on foreign policy issues such as Ukraine, Gaza, Syria and Iraq. Very recent airstrikes on IS (formerly ISIS) strongholds show that the US are still a formidable force, but this force is utilised more sparsely. These events beg the question: Whether or not American interventionism was ‘well-meaning’, was the world of global conflict a better, more uncomplicated  arena when the US played God over these affairs?

The latter part of the question is quite easy to answer: Yes, it was more straightforward. Just as the notion of a God suits human nature so well, so the concept of a definitive, all-powerful force in international relations suited the West. Just as a child needs reassurance, so it was reassuring to know that the ‘bad guy’ would get their just dessert at the hands of the US military. Now, the world is a more complicated place. The militant Islam of Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and IS; Regressive Russian foreign policy; Chemical and guerrilla warfare in Libya and Syria; Carnage in Gaza.

America’s role on the global stage has changed, with the domestic agenda dwarfing ‘neo-con’ support for foreign intervention. There is now no dominant military or political force in the world. If ever there was an appropriate time for a unifying force capable of rectifying, or at least subduing, global conflict, it is now. The world is not that simple, though. Whether intervention ever works is debatable, depending on what success is defined as. Extraordinary events, such as those in Iraq, can change the global landscape so severely that US foreign policy may be changed dramatically. For now, however, the prospect of 2003-scale intervention seems distinctly improbable. Hollywood has worked hard to remind us that Western democracies are the good guys, yet Good and Evil remain subjective concepts, and there is no superhero looking over us.