Max Boot, Los Angeles, column: America in decline? Not in today's world
By Max Boot LOS ANGELES -- Much nonsense has been written in recent years about the prospects of American decline and the inevitable rise of China. But it was not a declining power that I saw in recent weeks as I jetted from the Middle East to th...
By Max Boot
LOS ANGELES -- Much nonsense has been written in recent years about the prospects of American decline and the inevitable rise of China. But it was not a declining power that I saw in recent weeks as I jetted from the Middle East to the Far East through two of America's pivotal geographic commands -- Central Command and Pacific Command.
The very fact that the entire world is divided into American military commands is significant. There is no French, Indian or Brazilian equivalent -- not yet even a Chinese counterpart.
It is simply assumed without much comment that American soldiers will be central players in the affairs of the entire world. It is also taken for granted that a vast network of U.S. bases will stretch from Germany to Japan -- more than 700 in all, depending on how you count. They constitute a virtual American empire of Wal-Mart-style PXs, fast-food restaurants, golf courses and gyms.
There is an especially large American presence in the Middle East, one of the world's most crisis-prone regions. For all the anti-Americanism in the Arab world, almost all the states bordering what they call the Arabian Gulf support substantial American bases. These governments are worried about the looming Iranian threat and know that only the United States can offer them protection.
They are happy to deal with China, but it would never occur to a single sultan or sheik that the People's Liberation Army will protect them from Iranian intimidation.
In the Far East, a similar dynamic prevails. All of China's neighbors happily trade with it, but all are wary of the Middle Kingdom's pretensions to regional hegemony. Even Vietnam, a country that handed America its worst military defeat ever, is eager to establish close ties with Washington as a counter to Beijing.
What of America's two most important allies in Northeast Asia -- South Korea and Japan? Not long ago, relations with Seoul were frosty because it was pursuing a "sunshine policy" of outreach to North Korea that the George W. Bush administration (rightly) viewed as one of the world's most dangerous rogue states. More recently, relations with Japan became strained after the election of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2009 on a platform of cozying up to China, rethinking the 50-year-old alliance between the U.S. and Japan, and moving U.S. bases out of Okinawa.
Then, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had to undertake an embarrassing U-turn by agreeing to an earlier plan that would move a U.S. Marine Corps air base from one part of Okinawa to another, but keep it on the island.
Likewise, South Korea knows only the U.S. offers the deterrence needed to keep a nuclear-armed North Korea in check. That is why the South Koreans, who have one of the world's largest militaries (655,000 activity-duty personnel), are eager to host 28,000 U.S. troops in perpetuity and even to hand over their military forces in wartime to the command of an American four-star general.
This isn't to deny the prevalence of anti-Americanism even in the Age of Obama. Nor is it to wish away the real threats to American power -- from external challenges (Iran, China, Islamist terrorists) to, more worrying, internal weaknesses (rising debt levels, decreasing military spending as a percentage of the federal budget, a shrinking Navy).
But if my cross-global jaunt taught me anything, it is that those countries that dismiss the prospects for continuing American leadership do so at their peril. The U.S. still possesses unprecedented power projection capabilities, and just as important, it is armed with the good will of countless countries that know the U.S. offers protection from local bullies.
They may resent us, but they fear their neighbors, and that's the ultimate buttress of our status as the world's superpower.
Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote this column for the Los Angeles Times.