Ron Paul doesn’t just think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a mistake. He’s an isolationist: he thinks America shouldn’t be the world’s policeman. He thinks America shouldn’t have troops abroad and shouldn’t use its military except in cases of self-defence.Here’s the problem: this would wreck the US economy, and the world economy.
And isolationists in general, and Ron Paul in particular, don’t seem to grasp that.
Here’s the thing: when isolationists talk about America being the “world’s policeman,” they think about foreign wars like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. That’s what mobilizes people’s imagination for very obvious reasons: it’s where people die. But foreign wars are by far the least important part of America’s duty as the world’s policeman.
What matters about America being the world’s policeman, and America’s troops being abroad, is all the troops that don’t do any fighting.
From bases in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the US military protects the world’s shipping lanes, making sure the clockwork of the global economy runs smoothly and goods and oil can be shipped to and back. This is the part of the global American military footprint that actually matters, not the wars.
These wars may be very bad ideas, but Ron Paul and his ilk don’t just want to end those wars. They want to end America’s global military hegemony.
And it should be obvious by now that this would be like taking a wrecking ball to the American economy.
Everyone takes it as a granted that you can load a ship full of oil in Saudi Arabia and take it to China and not have anyone steal it. And that you can load a ship full of toys and iPhones in China and take it to the US and not have anyone steal it. And so on.
[credit provider=”Wikimedia Commons” url=”http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Pericles_Pio-Clementino_Inv269.jpg”]
But even a cursory look at world history shows that this is exceptional in the history of the world. The reason why this happens is because there is a benign, global military hegemon which ensures the security of the world’s shipping lanes, on which the globalized world economy, and therefore the U.S. economy, depends. Every era of successful globalization, from Pericles to Queen Victoria, has involved a naval hegemon to ensure the security of shipping, and therefore commerce. The hegemon provides this public good that lets other, smaller actors free-ride, not because it’s in the thrall of neocons, but because it directly benefits from strong, safe international trade.
And it’s everything libertarians abbhor: basically everyone except the U.S. is getting a free lunch. Saudi kings and Greek shipping magnates don’t pay for the security that the US provides. And the U.S. is paying for everyone else’s security. But actually, the U.S. gets a lot more out of it than it spends, because it gets to be at the centre of safe, global free trade.
There’s no way around it: without this trade subsidy that the U.S. provides the world, which costs $700 billion per year in military budget but probably brings back trillions in value to the U.S. economy, and trillions more to the world, the cost of everything would automatically rise, especially the cost of oil and the cost of anything that’s on store shelves. It’s not hard to see the effect this would have on the global, and U.S. economy. It would make the Smoot-Hawley Act look like the Doha Round. It would have exactly the effect of something libertarians claim to detest: a giant global tarriff.
Now, Ron Paul fans sometimes answer with something like, well, once everyone else stops getting a free lunch, they’ll take charge of their own security.
Except that’s not plausible. Who else could do it? No one, that’s who.
[credit provider=”Twitpic” url=”http://twitpic.com/5i3i01″]
Europe would be the likeliest candidate, except that its defence capabilities have shrunk to an extent where it’s impossible. The United States has eleven carrier groups, and “Europe” (because “Europe” is a geographical construct, not a political one) has four. Europe’s carriers are all much smaller than the smallest U.S. carrier. Europe has only one nuclear carrier, meaning a carrier that can stay at sea for a long period of time. Europe doesn’t have military and naval bases across all the global shipping lanes, mostly just in its former colonies in Africa. Even if Europe a) got a unified political executive and b) took up its defence spending to the level of the U.S., it would take decades for it to actually build the ships and the infrastructure it would take. And meanwhile the world economy burns. (Not to mention that given its current fiscal position, it would have to do it at the price of terrible austerity, which would also wreck the global economy.)China is an even more risible alternative. For all the talk of China’s rising clout, it doesn’t have anything near a “blue-water” navy that can project power globally. Its first and only aircraft carrier, recently launched with much hype and fretting, is a 20-year-old Soviet diesel-powered hand-me-down. So even leaving aside the obvious problems with just handing over responsibility for the global economy to a Communist dictatorship, it’s just not possible.
The same applies to India: for all their sheer size, which makes them important political and economic actors, they remain very poor countries that just don’t have the technological and economic capacities to build a military with global-reach.
Well, maybe no one country can replace the United States, but maybe everyone could chip in: Europe and the U.S. would ensure the security of the Atlantic, India of South Asia, China that of East Asia (which will certainly go down well in Taiwan and Japan) and so forth. Except that history teaches us that these “multipolar” zones of influences lead to one thing: war. In the 17th century, Britain, France and Spain fought endlessly for naval superiority. Only when Britain became most powerful did peace arrive and global trade begin in earnest. Same thing with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. And so on.
But let’s imagine an ideal libertarian scenario. Let’s imagine that instead of a specific country, or even set of countries, global security is provided by private actors through some combination of mercenaries and insurance. By definition this would still raise the cost of global trade dramatically. Those mercenaries and insurance providers would still have to be paid, and those costs would still be reflected in the price of shipping. So it would still amount to a huge global tariff.
All but the most hardcore libertarians realise that government has a role in providing for the public good, things that benefit everyone but that it doesn’t make sense for any individual actor to pay for. Like it or not, global American military hegemony is a public good. The fact that the U.S. military is so much more powerful than anyone else (indeed, everyone else combined) means that global trade is safer, and thereby cheaper, than it’s ever been before, which benefits the global economy and the U.S. directly and tremendously.
[credit provider=”IMDb” url=”http://www.imdb.com/media/rm701202432/tt0458339″]
When libertarians and isolationists talk about the U.S. being “the world’s policeman”, they talk in terms of a) politics and b) foreign wars. But the parts that matter are about a) economics and b) preventing wars. What matters in policing a city isn’t the SWAT team, it’s the cops who walk the beat and take care of the riff-raff so that the SWAT team only has to come out once in a while. And when the SWAT team raids the wrong house, that’s terrible and we should do something about that, but it doesn’t mean we need to disband the police force. We’re all for blasting illegal, unwinnable, endless foreign wars of choice. We’re all for smashing the national security state that treats grandma like a terrorist if she wants to board a flight. We’re all for howling at the insidious and wasteful military-industrial complex, and cutting the unsustainable Pentagon budget.
That’s what gets Ron Paul attention, but that’s not what he wants. What he and other isolationists want is to end American global military hegemony. And facts are stubborn: like it or not, doing that would wreck the global and U.S. economy.
Ron Paul and his fans should come to terms with that.