The disintegration of the Western Alliance was a predictable response to the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of a threat to the security of the entire democratic world. For most of the 20th century, first an imperialist and then a rabidly nationalist and racist Germany, and then Soviet Russia and international Communism, threatened the West, led by the Americans, British, and French, as the premier democracies. The United States provided the margin of victory at the end of World War I and furnished emergency assistance to Great Britain to keep it in the war in 1940–41. Roosevelt compared unlimited assistance to Britain and Canada to lending your garden hose to a neighbor fighting a fire, as he extended U.S. territorial waters from three to 1,800 miles and ordered the U.S. Navy to attack any German vessel on detection. (He declared most of the North Atlantic “a neutrality zone,” but it was an odd definition of neutrality.) The only time a U.S. president sought a third term, our civilization depended on his receiving it.
Germany, allied to the USSR, Italy, and Japan, had overrun France and crushed half of the shield, composed of the French army and the British navy, that had been America’s front line of defense for most of the previous century. The U.S. provided most of the war supplies of the Allies, and most Western military capacity in World War II, although the Russians serendipitously absorbed more than 90 percent of the casualties and physical damage incurred subduing Germany, after their shameful alliance with the Nazis blew up. And the U.S. was the overwhelmingly preeminent leader of the Western Alliance that contained the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
When Stalin unleashed the Cold War, he committed the third-greatest strategic error of the century, after Wilhelm II’s recourse to indiscriminate submarine war against neutral American shipping in 1917 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. President Truman and his chief advisers led the reconstruction of Europe with the Marshall Plan and the protection of the West with the purely defensive North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in which an attack upon one was an attack upon all. The Free World was deemed to include Franco, Salazar, Syngman Rhee, the Shah, Saudi Arabia, and the over-bemedalled Ruritanian juntas of Latin America, but almost all of those countries became democracies in the course of the Cold War. There were errors, most conspicuously Vietnam, but it must be said that American strategic direction was masterly, from Roosevelt’s Quarantine Speech in Chicago in 1937 to the fall of the Berlin Wall (officially the “Anti-Fascist Defense Barrier”) in 1989, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union like a soufflé.
There followed the brief shining moment when America, the omnipotent superstate, bestrode the world as an unassuming, unaspiring colossus. It had no strategy to execute such a role, and was under no particular pressure to devise one. There has been no mortal threat. Of course the terrorists and militant Islam generally are a terrible and often tragic nuisance, but try as demographers might to conjure up the proliferation of swaddled terrorists as an existential threat, the Islamic countries do not remotely possess the ability to endanger the entire West and other more or less civilized areas such as India and China, as Nazism and Soviet Communism did. The post–Cold War United States made a few purposeful noises, such as George H. W. Bush’s “new world order” (reviving a phrase of Hitler’s from the Thirties, which Roosevelt dismissed with the comment that it “is not new and it is not order”).
Unthreatened, though not unprovoked, like an athlete that goes out of training and affronts the mayor of New York City’s dietary restrictions, the United States quickly built up an $800 billion current-account deficit, which in the last five years it has topped up with $1.5 trillion annual federal budget deficits, and an explosion of debt that has all the characteristics of deferred, vastly inflationary money-supply increases. It accounts for 46 percent of world military spending, but practically all of its conventional ground-forces military capacity was tied up for a whole decade in the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, which do not now look like they accomplished anything even slightly worthy of the 6,000 American dead and the nearly $2 trillion that have been lost there.