The G-20 summit ended with the Brisbane Action Plan that contains lofty promises, including increasing additional spending of 2 trillion dollars by 2018, which is unlikely to be implemented and followed up. In the summit, meant to lift the ailing global economy, Western leaders spent most of their time talking about security. It reflects the West’s obsession with global security in the teeth of eroding American global hegemony.
US President Barack Obama mentioned the Islamic State, the crisis in Ukraine and Ebola as the top three threats the world was facing. He did not mention the global economy in the global economic summit. Other Western leaders followed suit even though Europe and Japan have stagnated. The recovery in the United States and the United Kingdom is anemic. Inequality is rising in the West and elsewhere, which could prove explosive. Youth unemployment is high. Infrastructure is crumbling in the West. Even the vibrant developing economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) are cooling down.
Leaders focus more on security than on economics, because the sense of security encourages investment and and also because they get more kick out of security. And the global security situation is indeed worrisome.
Ukraine is facing civil war due to internal dissent and external interference. The Islamic State is wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria. Syria itself is imploding. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has erupted again. Violence is killing people from Congo to South Sudan and from Afghanistan to Haiti. Tension is ratcheting up between China and other countries over several chains of islands in the South China Sea. The American imposed international order after 1945 is being challenged everywhere
However, this is neither the best nor the worst time in global security. This is one of those rare times when the mantle of global hegemon is transiting from one player to another. In the past, major wars had made such transition swift and certain, as from the United Kingdom to the United States at the end of World War II. But this time the process is slow and uncertain, which makes leaders nervous. We know the United States is losing ground, but we do not yet know which country or set of countries is going to take its place.
The process, nonetheless, is in motion, partly owing to America’s mistakes and partly to the rise of other countries. The Iraq war, illegal under international law, was a mistake. So was the Western military intervention in Libya and destabilization of Syria. To let the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fester is a mistake. So is not investing in nation-building at home — renovating the crumbling infrastructure, improving education, reducing inequality, and promoting growth.
The biggest mistake of all is to keep the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alive and let the regional security mechanism die. NATO should have been disbanded when it lost its raison-etre, Warsaw Pact, was dissolved. It should not have been expanded eastward to dare the weakened Russia to fight back, which is at the root of the Ukraine crisis. The regional security arrangements, which proved irrelevant in the ideologically divided Cold War period, should have been revived as soon as the ideological division of the world had ended.
NATO is and has been detrimental to US interest for several reasons. First, NATO cannot protect its members effectively, but gives a false sense of security. For instance, NATO countries will not directly confront Russia militarily in Ukraine. Neither will they protect Poland, a NATO member, under Article 5 of its Charter if Russia were to attack it. Direct military confrontation with the country with the second largest nuclear arsenal is too great a risk to take. The alternative is to impose economic sanctions and support anti-establishment elements to topple the unfriendly government in Russia, which NATO, a collective, cannot do.
Second, NATO has generated anti-West sentiments. Its expansion eastward to contain and control Russia has triggered the current Ukraine crisis. NATO’s participation in military operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere, which were well outside its traditional sphere of action, have inflamed anti-West resentment in the Muslim world, prepared fertile grounds for Al-Qaida, Islamic Caliphate and other extremist groups to recruit new members and launch anti-West jihad around the world.
Third, NATO has made Western Europe complaisant about security. Hoping that the alliance will protect them, Western European countries have reduced their military budget significantly, neglected American exhortation to increase their defense budget, and left much of the burden of funding, equipment, personnel and logistics to the United States to carry, which is unfair for America. Most of the European countries are unable to defend themselves without American support. Britain and France could not launch their joint military operation against Colonel Gadhafi without American equipment and logistics. We have seen that time and again since World War I.
While the United States and its Western allies piled up on their mistakes, other countries — particularly Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) — forged ahead on the back of the open political and economic environment brought about by economic globalization and the end of the Cold War. Further, the Great Recession of 2008 significantly dented Western economies, while the emergent economies were only marginally affected. By 2010, the Chinese economy edged past the Japanese economy to become the second largest. This year, it has surpassed the US economy in purchasing power parity. Several other developing countries have also made notable strides while America has slowed down and Europe and Japan stagnated.
Although the gap between the West and BRICS in per capita income and military expenditure is still wide, it is narrowing faster than expected. BRICS have invested in growth and in military in an effort to catch up with the West. In spite of this, the United States can prolong its global hegemony if it disbands NATO and diverts the NATO’s resources to revive and strengthen regional security arrangements to defend its friends and allies against any external aggression and internal implosion.
Such mechanisms will be more nimble, effective and economical than the stogy NATO to counter and contain the enemy. Though proved inefficacious in security guided by ideology during the Cold Wars, they will be appropriate and effective in this era of interest based security. They will be quick to deploy troops and equipment from within the region. It took nearly two months for America to transport forces and equipment for the second Gulf war to remove Saddam Hussein from Iraq. America will not have two months, even two weeks, to defend its allies if a full-fledged war were to break out over Taiwan, Senkuku or Spratley Islands, or Ukraine.
These regional mechanisms will be effective, for the troops from the region will be conversant with local landscape, sentiments and cultural complexities and conduct accordingly. Not least, they can buy much better security at a fraction of the annual spending of NATO, which was $990 billion in 2013. For instance, if such a regional arrangement existed, its members from the region would have done the actual fighting against the Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria and American role would have been limited to supplying weapons and providing training. The countries of Eastern Europe, those that have joined NATO or are eager to join, could together confront Russia, without inviting the nuclear annihilation NATO’s and America’s direct involvement is likely to bring.
No doubt, American global hegemony will continue to erode, as other countries grow and strengthen their militaries, and eventually vanish, when another country and set of countries supersede America. In the 1980s, the US economy contributed more than 25% to the global economy. Now it only constitutes about 19% of the world GDP. It will decrease further in the future and with it, America’s ability to invest in its military. However, regional security arrangements will slow down the erosion and reduce America’s burden to protect its allies around the world.
As long as world leaders have significant security matters that they can use as a pretext to avoid seriously tackling difficult economic issues, they will continue doing so, as they did in Brisbane.