For the first time since it emerged as the world’s pre-eminent power, the United States is walking away from the global battlefields. This makes it vital for regional powers like India to hammer out new rules for the geostrategic order — and the tools to enforce them

Minerva and Apollo, the ancient gods of wisdom and knowledge, stand watch on the marble arch off al-Hara al-Kabir street in Tripoli, their two-wheeled chariot of war drawn by fabulous griffons and sphinxes. Built in 166CE, the arch celebrates the triumph of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus over the Parthians. The statue of Marcus Aurelius that once stood at the top of the arch, toppled over sometime during the last millennia. It lay buried under the sand until it was recovered by 19th century archaeologists.

Marcus Aurelius — celebrated as a warrior, philosopher and the last of the Five Good Emperors — might have considered this indignity with dispassion. “Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell,” he wrote in his masterwork, The Meditations, “and you can foresee the future too.”

For much of his reign, the emperor was at constant war, stamping out rebellions by barbarian tribes and rival powers in a perpetual struggle to secure trade and imperial order. His aim was modest: “Do not hope for Plato’s utopia, but be content to make a very small step forward and reflect that the result even of this is no trifle.”

The retreating empire

United States President Barack Obama’s recent decision not to commit combat troops or air power in Iraq will likely be remembered as a critical moment in an epoch-shaping imperial retreat. For five decades, hegemony in oil-rich West Asia was a keystone of U.S. foreign policy. Now, it has shown it is willing to live with defeat. Elsewhere, too, the U.S. is showing diminishing interest in enforcing the global order it built after the Second World War.

The reasons have something to do with the bruising long wars it fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more with the rapidly-transforming nature of its global interests. Put simply, the world’s greatest power no longer needs the world in quite the same way it used to.

For the rest of the world, the lessons Marcus Aurelius drew from his experience are relevant today as perhaps never before. The imperial retreat to its fortress, guarded by the great eastern and western oceans, will leave behind a seething mass of wars — and questions. Powers like China, Russia and India will have to hammer out new rules for the global game of thrones — and the means to enforce them.

Last year, Mr. Obama spelled out his vision for America’s strategic future. “For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home,” he told an audience at the National Defense University. “For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war,” he argued, “we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan ….”

Descent into chaos

Events have ruthlessly interrogated Mr. Obama’s arguments in the months since he gave his speech, giving plenty of reason to doubt that the global order can in fact be defended by funding development or even military proxies.

Full brigades of Iraq’s Army, which received $8.2 billion in U.S. aid last year, in addition to national spending of $17.1bn., were swept aside by small bands of Islamist insurgents last month. Pledges of $4bn. in aid didn’t persuade Mali’s soldiers to hold out against rebels in the country’s north-eastern Kidal region. Libya has degenerated into an anarchic battlefield, with warlords competing for power. Pakistan’s descent into the abyss continues.

The truth, though, is the U.S. has little interest in stemming this descent into chaos. The country’s shale oil and gas revolution will soon make it a net exporter of hydrocarbons — leaving it with no reason to expend lives and money on containing chaos in West Asia. The country’s military still has the power to reach across the globe, punishing those who would seek to deny it vital lines of communication or trade routes. Perhaps more important, its competitors have entrenched interests in the beams and pillars that hold up the global economy: they cannot hurt the U.S. without hurting themselves.

It costs the U.S. little, therefore, to countenance Russian assertion of power in Europe, despite the concerns of its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies. There is no real price to be paid, either, for the panic caused among the U.S.’ East Asian partners by its contracting navy.

For decades, idealists have argued that a multipolar world would be desirable, limiting imperial excess while at once creating a web of regional powers that would limit each other’s ambitions.

Now, this world is a real prospect; it is also becoming clear that this isn’t the only possible outcome. Faced with threatening regional hegemons, and with no great-power allies at hand, smaller states are likely to expand their arsenals. The first signs of this are already evident. Through the Pacific Rim, fears that the U.S. will no longer be willing to contain China have led states to grow their militaries at an alarming rate.

Experts even fear that the arms race in Asia could lead on to nuclear-weapons competition — with countries like Vietnam seeking to develop arsenals that will deter great powers they cannot compete with in conventional military might.

The prospect isn’t as remote as it seems. In 1969, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepared a secret paper saying “for the time being we will maintain the policy of not possessing nuclear weapons” but also “… keep the economic and technical potential for the production of nuclear weapons, while seeing to it that Japan will not be interfered with in this regard.” Even though it is an ardent advocate of nuclear weapons control, Japan retains large plutonium stockpiles — of little use other than in the construction of nuclear weapons.

Perpetual wars

In Hollywood movies, wars end with images like these: the bloodstained bayonet being sheathed; the flag flying victorious over the battlefield; the injured hero returning home to kiss his loving wife. The notion that the U.S. was a pacific power, slow to reach for the sword, is an entrenched part of its self-belief. George Kennan, the Cold War ideologue, likened the U.S. to a prehistoric beast “with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath — in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.”

The truth is a little different: as for all past great powers, and perhaps all future great powers, war was just as much the norm as peace. “There has not been a single American generation that did not take part in a war,” the historian Robert Divine has noted.

In the 18th century, America’s colonial experience ended with the war to evict France from North America and the Revolutionary War against Britain. The 19th century saw murderous conflicts break out every few decades, from the war of 1812 against Britain, to the 1898 decimation of Spain. The great World Wars of the 20th century were followed in quick time by Korea, Vietnam, Grenada and Panama and a dozen other wars-by-proxy. The end of the Cold War brought new wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama has learned the perils of overreach. “The best way to make ourselves feared by the Greeks in Sicily,” the chronicler Thucydides has Nicias saying in his History of the Peloponnesian Wars, “is not to go there at all; and the next best thing is to make a demonstration of power and then, after a short time, go away again. We all know that what is most admired is what is farthest off, and least liable to have its reputation put to the test.”

For the regional powers now left to secure their neighbourhoods and their vital interests retreat is not an option. No one knows what the new world order might look like, and what tools might be needed to uphold it. From Marcus Aurelius, though, leaders ought to learn that perpetual war is the inexorable consequence of the pursuit of peace. The reputation of the inheritors of America’s world order will, without doubt, be put to test — and to fail could lead on to catastrophe.

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

More In: Lead | Opinion