East Asia: the smaller countries which want U.S. help and protection from what they perceive as an ever-stronger China won’t get it; this will make them very nervous indeed. Since I believe China doesn’t have aggressive geopolitical intentions, that situation won’t deteriorate too much in military terms. Yet in economic terms the U.S. government is ceding a great deal to China. Much or most of Asia may become a Chinese economic zone, and that will be costly to Americans since potential markets for American goods will in some cases go to China instead, further reducing opportunities for the U.S. economy. Leaders of other countries will scramble to get in the good graces with the new regional superpower, as they perceive the United States no longer matters very much. And we all better hope that North Korea doesn’t get too confident — hopefully Beijing will restrain the wacko dictatorship — and attack the South.
Western Europe: honk if you love Obama. Since European leadership is still obsessed with the EU project and seeks to varnish over rather than deal with their deep economic and social structural problems, they will have no big problems with Obama. He doesn’t attack them, just feeds their addictions.
We are familiar with the European stereotype of Americans as ignorant, irresponsible cowboys (applied to George W. Bush), but there is far less talk about the European stereotype of Americans as naive, blundering, would-be do-gooders who make a giant mess (Barack Obama). Yet there are elements of American decline that many Europeans and European leaders like. The day may come when they think otherwise. As I once remarked to a European ambassador, who agreed: they spent eight years trying to hold Bush back and now are spending four years trying to pull Obama forward.
Central/Eastern Europe: here is a potential big problem. Russian leader Vladimir Putin thinks he can do whatever he wants. He will continue to turn as much as possible of the ex-Soviet, now-independent states into a Russian zone of influence. If he ever decided he wanted to take over Belarus or Ukraine or to attack Georgia again, he knows this can be done without any problem from America. Similarly, the regional states know they cannot depend on American support. Have no doubt that people in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic think about this every day.
So we see in Latin America, Asia, and Central Europe that American allies have no reliable protector anymore. They are left potentially helpless to possibly voracious local powers that are more radical than themselves. And of course they are all hurt by the ongoing poor state of the American economy. Lesson: don’t make the bad guys angry if possible; move away, if possible, from relying on the United States.
Some, however, will benefit from policies that ensure the export of American jobs. But the Chinese — who seem on the surface to be the main beneficiaries — are horrified to find themselves holding so much American debt as a U.S. government inflates the dollar and goes ever deeper into debt. It is a very bad investment indeed.
The thing to watch for is if there’s a crisis: how well would the United States respond to wars, coups, invasions, revolutions, economic collapses? What kind of leadership would be shown in cases paralleling, say, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait? What would Washington do if massive repression breaks out in Egypt with the massacre of Christians? Or how would Obama respond if Putin were to grab some neighbor’s territory in part or in full? You can come up with a great many scenarios that could happen, and in each case the local leaders and a lot of people both think and worry about such scenarios becoming real. At a minimum, knowing they cannot depend on the U.S. makes moderates and democrats more reluctant to fight, more willing to concede or surrender, and certain to despair.
In short, this current (voluntary, not inevitable) decline of the United States places a lot of people at risk. The question is whether there will be crises in which bad and weak American performance makes things worse.