One would think that when the Cold War ended and the United States began enjoying its new dominance as the world’s sole superpower, it would be able to keep global peace and control rogue states by continuing to fund the defense infrastructure of its allies and providing much of the West’s firepower. After all, it’s military is immense and at the time, its coffers were flush with the cash needed to support it indefinitely. In this light, the conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama wrote an entire book heralding the end of the Cold War as the end of history as we know it. But that’s not at all what happened. In fact, the United States is just as involved in war after war as it was before, maybe even more so if we also tally up all of today’s shadow conflicts. Why? Well, a thought-provoking opinion by political scientist Nuno Monteiro posits that the sole superpower status is really the problem and instead of subduing wars, it actually incites them by backing states into a corner…
… As Saddam’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz lamented after Iraq’s humiliating defeat in the Gulf War, “We don’t have a patron anymore. If we still had the Soviets as our patron, none of this would have happened.” [ … ] Now that the Soviet Union is gone, America’s enemies feel vulnerable even if they comply with Washington’s demands. They know that the United States has the wherewithal to take them down if it so decides, so they are unlikely to accept any U.S. demands (to abandon a nuclear program, for example) that would leave them in a position of even greater weakness. This is what explains U.S. involvement in so many “hot” wars since the Cold War ended.
Well, this sort of makes sense. If you’re a rogue state, especially one ran by an autocrat very unhappy with the events of the Arab Spring and feeling overwhelmed by the powers heading the Security Council, you’ll want to build a deterrent. Borrowing from MAD, you start working on a nuclear weapon, knowing that so far, there has never been a direct attack on a nuclear armed state by another military because these nukes raise the stakes immensely. But if you’re found out and backed into a corner by the enormous and extremely advanced armies and air forces of powerful states, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. May as well play a game of chicken and see how it turns out. Would they really mobilize to unseat you? Of course this doesn’t really give a good explanation for the Taliban’s defiance to give up its support of al Qaeda, but here, we’re dealing with very irrational actors who believe that their faith brought down the Soviet Union and will certainly destroy the other superpower, perhaps not even fully aware to which extent this superpower funded their handlers in Pakistani intelligence back in the days of the Afghan War. As we know, it’s very hard to reason with religious fanatics.
But here’s what bugs me about this explanation, which I think has merit even though it needs that irrationality clause which Monteiro dismisses. The implication here is that we need opposing superpowers to operate a small clutch of proxies and keep each other in line by intimidation. It’s a very old school, Cold War way to look at things, and considering that the Cold War was marked by serious clandestine human rights abuses on both sides, in secret and behind closed doors, as well as paranoia about an incoming apocalypse from new world wars at the slightest provocation, I don’t think we want to revert to that. Superpowers which thrive on the economic reciprocity of true globalism keeping their satellites well behaved because it’s in their interest not to involve their trading partners in a costly and politically messy conflict would seem at least somewhat better. It does raise the possibly very disturbing question of how a satellite state would be kept in check and one would hope that it would be only by significant monetary inducements, but it significantly reduces the specter of MAD looming over the horizon once again. Though considering how superpowers usually behave, it’s very unlikely to be all fun, games, and occasional joint military exercises if another superpower emerges.