Is America a destabilizing force in the world?

Does America’s foreign policy make us, to some extent, a destabilizing force in the world?

Giving us one perspective on this — looking at one facet of America’s policy and its results in the subcontinent — is Arundhati Roy in “9 Is Not 11 (And November Isn’t September)“, Outlook India, 22 December 2008 — Hat tip to Tom Engelhardt’s TomDispatch.   I strongly recommend reading this powerful essay in full, a valuable perspective on our world. 

This is a third excerpt from Roy’s essay, the first being 4GW in India – more people who want to watch the world burn (19 January 2009) and India looks at the monster in the mirror (21 January 2009).

Thanks largely to the part it was forced to play as America’s ally, first in its war in supportof the Afghan Islamists and then in its war against them, Pakistan, whose territory is reeling under these contradictions, is careening towards civil war.

As recruiting agents for America’s jehad against the Soviet Union, it was the job of the Pakistan army and the ISI to nurture and channel funds to Islamic fundamentalist organisations.

Having wired up these Frankenstein’s monsters and released them into the world, the US expected it could rein them in like pet mastiffs whenever it wanted to. Certainly it did not expect them to come calling in the heart of the Homeland on September 11. So once again, Afghanistan had to be violently re-made.

Now the debris of a re-ravaged Afghanistan has washed up on Pakistan’s borders. Nobody, least of all the Pakistan government, denies that it is presiding over a country that is threatening to implode.

The terrorist training camps, the fire-breathing mullahs and the maniacs who believe that Islam will, or should, rule the world is mostly the detritus of two Afghan wars. Their ire rains down on the Pakistan government and Pakistani civilians as much, if not more, than it does on India. If at this point India decides to go to war, perhaps the descent of the whole region into chaos will be complete. The debris of a bankrupt, destroyed Pakistan will wash up on India’s shores, endangering us as never before.

If Pakistan collapses, we can look forward to having millions of ‘non-state actors’ with an arsenal of nuclear weapons at their disposal as neighbours. It’s hard to understand why those who steer India’s ship are so keen to replicate Pakistan’s mistakes and call damnation upon this country by inviting the United States to further meddle clumsily and dangerously in our extremely complicated affairs. A superpower never has allies. It only has agents.

On the plus side, the advantage of going to war is that it’s the best way for India to avoid facing up to the serious trouble building on our home front.

At least he ends this on a positive note.

Afterword

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Posts on the FM site about national security:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  4. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  5. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  6. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008
  7. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I , 19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008
  8. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II , 14 June 2008
  9. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  10. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  11. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  12. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  13. Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW , 8 July 2008 – chapter 5
  14. Geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering , 9 July 2008 — chapter 7
  15. The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture) , (10 July 2008 — chapter 8
  16. No coins, no COIN, 6 October 2008
  17. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  18. “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008

19 thoughts on “Is America a destabilizing force in the world?

  1. I think it’s clear in hindsight that our foreign policy makes us a destablizing force in the world. The world is never as simple as policy wonks make it out to be, our actions never as contained as politicians would wish and ‘blowback’ is always a risk.

    The threat of war between India and Pakistan is perhaps the worst possible scenario (in the near term) in the global WOT. When/if Pakistan ceases to be a nation-state, who controls their nuclear weapons? What’s to say they haven’t used them on India? If things get rough quickly, it’s not out of the question that Pakistan can let some of their radioactive material ‘fall off the truck’ and wind up in a dirty bomb in any one of the major Indian metropolises.

    What say ye FM?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: People love to imagine conventional State to State wars. Nice and familiar, like watching teh move “Frankenstein”.

    Bizarre thinking IMO, as the leaders of neither State are suicidal (“It’s nice to be king” is one of the great rules of geopolitics).

    More likely is someone like Bin Laden taking over Pakistan. That would make things interesting, as his risk tolerance is probably higher than ours or India’s.

  2. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his 1997 book “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives”, identifies the greatest threat to global U.S. hegemony being dynamic Eurasian states.

    “…the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.

    “… That puts a premium on maneuver and manipulation in order to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that could eventually seek to challenge America’s primacy…

    “The most immediate task is to make certain that no state or combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive arbitration role.”

    The Palestinian-Israeli situation certainly contributes to this goal. Having China over-build production and then curtail demand contributes to this goal. The Afghanistan-Pakistan-India situation certainly contributes to this goal. Without a doubt the U.S. is a destabilizing force in Eurasia. The real question concerns how much of this has been engineered.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I disagree. See America’s Most Dangerous Enemy (1 March 2006) for an alternative view.

  3. The US is not the source of Pakistan’s instability. It is inherently unstable and more so because of the frontier provinces. Would Pakistan not be better off if all the Pashtuns were in A.? Where would the harm be? The decision to arm the Islamic opposition to the Soviets in A. was a hugely stupid act. By the 80s it was well understood that the S.U. was dying. Fighting them in A. probably propped them up because it aroused Russian patriotism. What was our interest in opposing the Russians? Were we worried about their having a warm water port? Were we trying to calm her ally, India who had no interest in seeing the Russians so close. Casey just wanted to be famous and remembered, like Donovan and the Dulles. He was a terrible person to have in charge of anything. We created chaos and did not punish the Saudis who used us for cover to advance their jihadi agenda which continues. We drove the Vietnamese into the arms of their enemies the Chinese for no discernable good reason in 1965 and fatally weakened ourselves. We have not recovered from Vietnam to this day. Why do we persist in wasting so much talent and bravery which is going to be needed? We cannot be simply stupid, can we? We are not war mongers but we do a lot of nasty stuff for no good reason. Meanwhile we are willing to work with some of the nastiest humans on the planet– jihadi paymasters.

  4. FM: Upon review of your article, “America’s Most Dangerous Enemy,” your conclusions are hard to argue. External threats are often not as threatening to our interests and those of others as our reaction to them – the hubris and paranoia you describe.

    Our involvement in Pakistani affairs is hard to fathom. It started during the Cold War when we moved to allign ourselves with them when the PRC and India made common cause. However, we share little in common with Pakistan culturally, and very few Americans possess the knowledge of that nation and its people to make sound decisions about US policy there. Recently, I read that the father of the Islamic atomic bomb, Dr. AQ Khan, funded some of his R&D work with diverted US aid dollars. Talk about blowback! Our campaign, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” to fund the Afghan uprising against the Soviets, eventually blew up in our faces also.

    The message for all of us ought to be to exercise some humility and reign in our pride, as we contemplate action in any foreign nation, be it Vietnam, Iraq, Afgahnistan or elsewhere. We ought to go to war in foreign lands only for very compelling reasons, certainly not to “spread democracy” whatever that means (freedom to vote for sharia, perhaps?). Small, elective wars are by definition, dirty, difficult things which we ought to avoid whenever possible. Should we interacting with other nations? Of course not, but we’d be better served bu using our resources to build reliable human intel networks, and developing the linguistic and cultural assets of the kind we so lack now for many nations.

    4GW theory teaches us that actions destablizing of international order are to be avoided, even at the cost of keeping dysfunctional states intact. Order is preferable to disorder, less entropy to more.

    If it is an either-or choice between securing a deteriorating border with Mexico or propping up Iraq, bring the troops home, at least the NG component. We still may have an interest in keeping US forces near to Pakistan, just in case the central government there fails and nukes are loose to fall into the wrong hands (though it may be too late to prevent that from happening already).

    Overall, our interests are served by having interfering as little in the affairs of others as possible, and expecting the same of those with whom we trade and interact. Our tendency to meddle in the affairs of others is what should be curbed. Not only does rash action pose a moral quandry, it is no longer feasible from a fiscal or manpower standpoint. Unless we want a return to the draft, more deficit spending and possibly higher (much higher) taxes.

    As far as foreign crises are concerned, let NATO and the UN sort it out… it is their turn anyway!

  5. Fabius, I totally agree with your points as presented in “America’s Most Dangerous Enemy.” Rather than a alternative view, it seems to me to be complementary. I do not understand with what you disagree. Perhaps I should have asked, “By whom has it been engineered?”

    Under a fascist system the distinction between business and government becomes mute, yet the distinction serves to divide those who still hold to narrow ideas and do not see their unity nor that which unifies them. Same with the narrow distinction between Republican and Democrat when all are funded by Wall Street and all canidates face manditory vetting by AIPAC. Same with so-called distinction between Neo-con and Neo-lib when both are well represented in positions of power in the same administration working together towards common objectives.

    Paranoia and hubris are social constructions well understood since at least the classical Greeks who perhaps were only the first to write it down. I only question who they serve. It seems to me they are levers to divide and keep conquered. I seek to understand who they benefit. Nationalism along with the conflicts thereby engendered profits someone, follow the money.

    A great deal of effort, blood and resources goes in to keeping Eurasia destabilized. I suggest it serves someone, the same someones as implicated above.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: One view sees the danger as external; one as internal (“I have seen the enemy and he is us.”)

  6. There are at least two categories of how the US exports instability, off hand.

    1) Foreign policy driven by hyphenated American constituencies. Our attachment, for example, to Armenia is hardly logical given its attachment to Moscow–and our apparent decision to demonize Moscow, which also may be driven by hyphenated Americans, like say, Brzezinski. This creates a tremendous amount of distortions in our foreign policy which have little to do with our objective national interest. For the record I love Armenia, but how is it plausibly the case that of all our interests internationally, they would receive the second-most in foreign aid per capita. (WWII is a very good example of policy being set despite the sympathies of the majority of Americans, who after all descended from Italy, Germany, and Ireland … no friend to England.)

    2) Domestic law which ignores ultimate causes, and favors domestic business interests. A good example of this is our drug policy, which focuses on distributors and basically comes close to ignoring consumption. Of course, this pushes the center of distribution into foreign lands, and ensures that consumption continues apace. Mexico, Columbia, perhaps Afghanistan suffer the most in terms of exported instability. Perhaps the drug prohibitions would be best rescinded. Unlikely, however, because of domestic constituencies. Another might be our economic policy of the last 7 years.

    Critically, on a productivity basis, there is little reason to expend time learning foreign languages, cultures or history in the United States because so much power and money concentrated here. It is on the margin, unlike most commercial republics historically. For most it makes no sense, in terms of earning one’s bread, to learn about the rest of the world, and the great moat surrounding us contributes to this lack of concern.

    Anyway, it’s nearly impossible to discuss because so many people are protecting their angles and either don’t care, or are unaware, of the precarious position we might be putting ourselves in at any given time.

  7. Arundhati Roy is a she.

    The Pakistan implosion proves particularly worrisome because, unlike Iraq, Pakistan boasts nuclear weapons. If Pakistan collapses into civil war and the jihadists win, they gain control over a state with nuclear weapons. If that happens, the next 9/11 may announce itself in the form of a mushroom cloud.

  8. FM: That’s what I tried to say. Pardon me for being vague. I don’t see Pakistan-India waging anything more than an intensified version of the border war they’ve been engaged in for decades. But that, coupled with the internal strife, causes serious issues for their government. If a Bin Laden type (or even worse, someone who simply wishes to see the world burn) gains any real power in Pakistan, the possibilities become much scarier much quicker.

  9. Bush, and Clinton, Bush, & Reagan before, have been lousy to terrible about supporting true capitalistic and significant economic reform in Pakistan, and especially economic property rights and contract enforcement.

    Roy ends her article as you quoted earlier, not above: The only way to contain (it would be naive to say end) terrorism is to look at the monster in the mirror. We’re standing at a fork in the road. One sign says ‘Justice’, the other ‘Civil War’. There’s no third sign and there’s no going back. Choose.

    Unfortunately she fails to discuss that ‘Justice’ in most conflicts is claimed by both sides. And it is the conflict of incompatible ideas & dreams of ‘Justice’ which leads to feelings that justify war & violence.

    I’d guess that the US DoD needs to have, and does have, some planned options for securing the Pakistani nukes. Some of which include supporting a military coup, which would be terrible for all, altho not as bad as a nuke being set off in Mumbai.

    Where America is not active, like the Congo or Sudan, don’t seem particularly stable to me. So ‘destabilizing’ as compared to who? I think China & Russia are both more destabilizing, and even the UN, insofar as they have rules they choose not to enforce. Such hypocrisy leads to somewhat justifiable feelings of injustice.

  10. Since 1945 America has been pushing toward some kind of global empire. The Cold War was not a fight about ideas, but about territory, access to resources, etc. The WOT is more of the same, only less about gobbling up former European colonies than containing the natural resistance of groups and nations who oppose our imperial rule.

    The ideology that supports this imperial agenda is that America is a “chosen nation”, uniquely endowed and capable of bestowing democracy on the rest of the world (a sub-theme of this view is that democracy is the best conceivable form of government, and that democracy only flourishes in a free-market capitalist economy.)

    People who share these views naturally consider that instability comes from outside of us, from people who are misled, or uncivilized enough, to doubt our civilizing mission. Those who see that mission as merely a facade for old-fashioned aggression understand that the imperial agenda itself is the source of instability.

    I’m not entirely condemning the agenda — it seems natural and unavoidable that a people would try to expand its wealth as far as it can. But recognizing when the game is over, and why, seems smart too.

  11. I have decided it is the wrong question to ask or better, it is question that does not have an answer with any value in which we can have confidence. The better question to ask is does our intervention(s) bring stability to the United States? does it increase our net security? From this perspective do not see a defense for any of our interventions around the world. The response to this is as always,well, IF we did not do X “they” would do Y. Remember the domino theory? Can anyone who got out of the third grade even imagine adults saying shit like that, never mind it being advanced as strategic thinking? Now, it is true that those who wish us ill, which includes those who hate us and our allies, often the same, might have acted very differently if we had not been irrational and dangerous — I think we have been irrational and dangerous and wealthy enough to get away with it. Hopefully, this fiscal meltdown will put an end to this. But I fail to see us evil, sorry. Not defending Bush, torture, rendition. I am not morally repelled, but much of what is done is silly. Those in custody who performed acts of terror should have been wrung out and then shot. The rest sent home to their mothers.
    We do not have a credible foreign policy related to our interests which remain to be defined beyond defending and extending freedom –Tibet? Where is that? –and a defense and national security force designed to sustain and support it. The Pentagon is out of control, the Democrats in Congress let it build everything. They cannot even build a Presidential Helicopter. There is not a sign that s shred of intelligence has been cast on any of this for decades and I see no evidence this is going to change now. This means we remain in deep doodoo. Since we are exceptionally puissant, this means trouble for everyone, foremost ourselves.

  12. The US and Israel – co-dependently mutual proxies for each other – are without doubt highly destabilising forces in the Middle East part of Eurasia and therefore worldwide. If Islamofascism is a threat (highly questionable), it is almost certainly the offspring of our polity in the region. Hence the US interest in Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Kuwait, India and so on ad infinitum.

    One could argue, as a poster does above, that there are two sides to justice, but generally speaking those that are oppressed, colonised, invaded, marginalised and so on have a more visceral and urgent perception of the issue. And since generally we are on the side of those doing the above, our relation to justice outside our borders is extremely one-sided to the point of being terminally myopic.

  13. USA, a destabilizing force? Some people are only now figuring this out? Come on. Sadam was stable. He had other issues, but he was stable. The USA didn’t like him for various reasons, so in came the wave of chaos to Iraq. The recent history is not that subtle or difficult to read.

    Seems to me, we’ve had a pretty consistent policy of going after marginal governments in the Muslim world, and leaving the way open for non-state actors to increase in influence. Iraq is the most blatant example.

  14. ” Where America is not active -like the Congo or Sudan – ”
    Not active , Huh ?

    By the way what would happen to Israel’s assumed nukes if one day , they seriously do ‘ lose ‘ ?

  15. There’s a lot of post hoc ergo prompter hoc in the essay quoted, as well as a lot of “the area is unstable, it has a U.S. connection, therefore the U.S. must be a destabilizing force” in the comments. As well as a fair amount of baseless diatribe.

    Is the U.S. a destabilizing force in the world? Well, the world as a whole is becoming more stable (by the standard of fewer wars, fewer deaths related to conflict) so it’s not an obvious yes.

    The U.S. supported the Afghans against the Soviet invasion. Was that wrong? It contributed to the destabilization of the Soviet Union so I guess within the narrow frame of the essay, yes, it was.

    The U.S. did so by arming Islamic fanatics. Given that they were the only ones to arm, it’s a bit of a false question. Since we weren’t going ot be doing the fighting ourselves, who else were we to work with but the Afghans doing the fighting?

    Roy’s essay asserts that the U.S. destabilized Pakistan by making it take inconsistent positions regarding Afghanistan. Firstly, if that was enough to destabilize Pakistan, then Pakistan was not so stable to begin with. Secondly, the premise is arbitrarily worded to serve the argument rather than to advance any objective facts. I can just as easily and just as accurately word it to serve my argument: Pakistan cooperated with the U.S. policy to eject the Soviets and then cooperated with the U.S. policy to eject the Taliban. There was no inconsistentcy because, both times, we were aiding the Afghan people.

    There, same events, different words, opposite conclusion. Just as accurate, or, more accurately, just as simplistic.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: All valid points. This is a provocative essay, but not an academic (as in tight logic, deep supporting evidence) one.

  16. On the whole, America’s record seems mixed since 1945. The U.S. played a destabilizing role in Guatamala and Iran, but provided a highly stabilizing force in Japan (MacArthur’s occupation) and South Korea. America greatly destabilized Viet Nam and Cambodia, but our support of the ihadis in Afghanistan ultimately stabilized that region — for a while, until we invaded again and destabilized it again. Obviously our invasion of Iraq proved highly destabilizing but our intervention in Panama seems ultimately stabilizing. Our intervention in Columbia proved highly destablizing, as has our “aid” to Mexico recently, but our moral support for Solidarity in Poland in the 80s and our intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s was highly stabilizing.

    There’s a trope among the far left that America is Satan’s finger on earth and destroys every country it touches. I don’t see the evidence for that. America has wrecked a number of countries by meddling with them or invading them, but it seems to have stabilized and helped out a great many more countries. It’s well to remember that ethnic cleansing proceeded unimpeded until America stepped in to stop it, and no one seems to have wanted to do much about Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait until the U.S. launched Desert Storm.

  17. It might be useful to think about America as less of a monolith, regarding stablization and destablization of the larger world. Why? Because some parts of our society act as stablizers, while others do not. An example of the former might be a humanitarian medical aid mission, such as those some Catholic charities do in Latin America. The Bush Administration’s AIDS initiatives in Africa might be another example. As far as destablizing forces are concerned, most of you can name one or more of those.

    The point is to think as Boyd would; how do we increase those networks or forces which promote stability and civlization while weakening those which do not?

    The federal government is, of course, adept at pursuing one policy goal at one hand, and the exact opposite one on the other, i.e. (domestic example) funding tobacco subsidies while also funding anti-smoking campaigns in the media. No doubt, there are plenty of examples in the foreign affairs realm along these same lines.

  18. Since when has the world been “stable”? I’d love to hear a definition of “stability” that didn’t involve a crushing dictatorship. Free will and stability are inherently antipodal. We don’t have to destabilize much of anything. it was fundamentally chaotic far before 1693 or 1776.

  19. Obama’s Arc of Instability – Destabilizing the World One Region at a Time“, Nick Turse, TomDispatch, 18 September 2011 — Opening:

    It’s a story that should take your breath away: the destabilization of what, in the Bush years, used to be called “the arc of instability.” It involves at least 97 countries, across the bulk of the global south, much of it coinciding with the oil heartlands of the planet. A startling number of these nations are now in turmoil, and in every single one of them — from Afghanistan and Algeria to Yemen and Zambia — Washington is militarily involved, overtly or covertly, in outright war or what passes for peace.

    Garrisoning the planet is just part of it. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence services are also running covert special forces and spy operations, launching drone attacks, building bases and secret prisons, training, arming, and funding local security forces, and engaging in a host of other militarized activities right up to full-scale war. But while you consider this, keep one fact in mind: the odds are that there is no longer a single nation in the arc of instability in which the United States is in no way militarily involved.

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