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War’s Paradoxes II: From the Peloponnesian War to ‘Leading From Behind’

We were never consistent in adjudicating which rogue crackpot warranted lectures, bombs, or an invasion, but there was enough consistency to bring on the world of Amazon, Apple, BP, Facebook, Google, Mercedes, Michelin, Samsung, Starbucks, and Toyota, and steady evolution to consensual government from South Korea to Brazil. Such shared prosperity was the result of American-inspired and recognized rules, the absence of another World War II type conflagration, and the deterrence offered by a militarily potent U.S.

We may be changing: note the failure of Russian reset, the schizophrenic policy of lecturing, borrowing from (and profiting in) China, the Arab Winter, the lead from behind strategy in Libya and Mali, the loud sermons and nonexistent follow-up in Syria, the leftward tilt in Latin America, the failure to reassure Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan that their security interests are guaranteed by the U.S. and they need not make accommodations with or challenge alone a rising China, and the general worry that the next Saddam Hussein or Taliban will have free rein.

Perhaps finance is the problem. We are broke and depressed, and so like our forefathers in 1939 do not want to borrow money for abroad better spent at home, as the lamentations over Iraq and Afghanistan resemble the earlier depression over the outcome of the “Great War” that likewise seemed to have solved nothing.

Or perhaps Barack Obama does not see the same picture outlined above, but rather a more shameful postwar record of neocolonialism, imperialism, and mercantilism waged by white Western peoples against the former Third World. Or perhaps Obama sees a new cartel of concerned hegemons -- Europe, Japan, China, Russia, India, and the U.S. -- each equal to the other, and all working under UN auspices to implement a just and fair global strategy in a way that a parochial and unilateral America never quite did. Who is to say that America has had an exceptional record abroad and a Russia, India, or China has not?

The reasons do not matter as much as the fact that there is a growing perception abroad that America cannot or will not deter any potential rogue nation or alliance of nations. The old warm spots -- the Sea of Japan, the former Soviet Republics, the Aegean, Cyprus, the Middle East, the horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf, the Falklands, the 38th Parallel, the Balkans -- may get hot again, given the impression that regional hegemons might believe (whether rightly or wrongly is immaterial) that the U.S. will debate rather than deter their opportunism.