Will Americans want to be the "essential nation" to the world?

Long gone were the days when the United States military budget was larger than the combined budgets of the rest of the world. However, the problem is not only money but also people. A new progressive generation of young people is coming for whom fighting for American interests or battling to defend the homeland is no longer as attractive as it was for their predecessors.

There are many indications that with the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas, modern history has reached a point where there is no return to the previous state.

Poland reached what politicians called a "turning point" about two years ago when it was inevitable that Russia would attack Ukraine. It was the belief that there was no way to wait for a better time or a change of fortune that made our authorities transfer vast amounts of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine so quickly and efficiently. Our ambassador never left Kyiv, and our politicians were the first to go there to show solidarity with the fighting people. What the Ukrainians did with it later is irrelevant from this point of view. Poland has shown that our situation is entirely new and primarily has demonstrated it through action. Perhaps it’s a pity that it was our unnamed "turning point".

Zeitenwende without details

The Germans claim that their turning point came a few days after the Russian invasion, and unlike the inexperienced and emotional Poles, they made sure to give it an appropriate name, which was later widely used to show that the German attitude had radically changed: Zeitenwende.

For many months after Olaf Scholz's famous speech in the Bundestag, when someone wanted to specifically investigate what the German state was doing in terms of helping struggling Ukraine and why it was doing so little, they received a simple answer: the Zeitenwende had happened, and please don't nitpick about the details.

I could never shake off the impression that the Zeitenwende was intended to replace a real change by putting up a classic smokescreen, as evidenced by the fact that almost two years later, the German budget still does not allocate 2% of GDP to defence. Recently, Scholz again refused to donate long-range missiles to Kyiv, but such an assessment would be too simple. The Germans were too attached to creating a technological and raw material combo with Russia, and breaking away from this idea was difficult for them. But somehow, it's moving in the right direction.

The War No. 2 and the change

For the United States, the attack on Ukraine was not a reason to introduce any particular changes in American thinking about the world. From the beginning, they played out this conflict in such a way as to weaken Russia as much as possible and, at the same time, carefully ensured that the regional war did not turn into a larger-scale conflict, especially of a nuclear nature. Hence, the careful scaling of assistance, from anti-tank hand-held launchers at the beginning to medium-range missiles, modern tanks and planes today. It is also worth remembering that from the point of view of the American budget, military aid for Ukraine is not particularly painful, and if it is ever stopped, it would be for political rather than financial reasons.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE What might be the real issue for American decision-makers is the increasing rapprochement between Russia and China, i.e. Moscow's turn towards Asia, forced by the war and sanctions. Still, as long as only one war was going on and one that seemed to be under control, Washington had little reason to worry.
Terrible things are happening in the Gaza Strip, but the Palestinians are able to use these dramatic events to gain sympathy from the world. Photo MOHAMMED SALEM / Reuters / Forum
The Hamas attack and Israel's decisive response - followed by a similar and powerful reaction from much of the Muslim world - have upended this apparent balance. First of all, Israel is determined to deal with Hamas militarily, and such an operation cannot do without civilian casualties. Information about the victims will strengthen the anti-Israel front.

In addition, Hamas skillfully manipulates information, and Western media are unable to oppose it. Accustomed for decades to showing sympathy for Palestinians and treating better-organized and wealthier Israelis as aggressors, they accept as truth any information about civilian losses provided by the Gaza Health Ministry, which is a de facto Hamas agency. That was the case with Israel's alleged shelling of a hospital where 500 patients were said to have died. It took a week to find the truth, but by that time, new information had already emerged about civilians being killed by the IDF. This disinformation is an operation on a massive scale.

Of course, it is evident that civilians die. Still, Hamas can skillfully build the narrative and gain the support of Muslim communities around the world, including Western countries and America, using exaggerated and made-up information immediately picked up by the global media. This campaign creates an excellent social base for the escalation of the war, which Iran may decide to take advantage of through its protégés. And when they attack, Israel may resort to retaliation against the protector, as it has already been announced.

Could it be nuclear retaliation? This possibility is undoubtedly a nightmare for all of Israel's allies, especially the Americans. Such an attack might break the nuclear taboo and send a clear signal to other atomic weapons holders, such as the Russians and North Koreans, that they would not be the first to be accused by the world of using these terrible weapons and now could take this into account when planning military operations. The world would then descend into nuclear madness, and no one would be safe.

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Perhaps this fear is behind the United States' decisive military and political response to the Hamas attack. Strong support has a chance to deter possible aggressors. Two aircraft carrier battle groups directed to the Israeli region, rapid military deliveries, additional F-16 aircraft force, strengthening the regional air defence with the THAAD system, which is used to destroy medium-range ballistic missiles, i.e. those that Iran and Russia could launch. President Biden's visit, Anthony Blinken's almost constant presence in the region, and regular contacts between the Secretary of Defence and his counterpart in Tel Aviv.

American Turning Point

Finally - the president's speech, in which he used the term "turning point of history". He stated that Americans are the "essential nation", which means they are important, indispensable and fundamental; this describes all the features of America, which have been evident to Poles for decades.

The explanation for the drama of Biden's speech is simple: in addition to one regional war - which is under control and American soldiers are not dying in it - there is another regional one, which has the potential to spread widely across the land and in which Americans may begin to die because there are several thousand of them stationed there, and if they were successfully attacked, the president would have no choice but to send many more of them.

In addition, all this is being watched with satisfaction by President Xi Jinping, who met with the president of Russia while Biden was travelling to Israel and speaking to the nation and the world. The fact that Russia is satisfied with the progress of events is more than obvious but relatively unimportant. However, China's satisfaction is truly dangerous.

A few days ago, the Chinese newspaper intended for the outside world, Global Times, published a commentary with a telling title: "U.S. inability to reconcile Israel-Palestine conflict highlights stuckness of existing global order". The Chinese use the word "stuckness" here to refer to being stuck in a traffic jam or another situation involving the inability to move. The authors of the commentary, written in a dispassionate style but at times revealing satisfaction, began by citing a report from a bipartisan committee appointed by the U.S. Congress, which stated that "the U.S. must be ready to deter and defeat China and Russia simultaneously. Currently, the U.S. is «ill-prepared» for the potentially existential challenges of 2027-2035 and beyond.” "History has reached a turning point in the transformation of the post-World War II order - Chinese commentators continue – and this period will be marked by turbulence. Old conflicts will resurface in different ways. Zheng Yongnian, a Chinese political scientist, has described the «old order» as disintegrating".

A new partition of the world?

After this outline of the map of the modern world, in which the word "turbulence" is understood as a typically Chinese term for war, comes something that sounds like a recommendation for the West: "Strenuously upholding the existing order through traditional strategic means is one option. But adjusting the current order with a more open mindset to facilitate communication and cooperation between major global and regional powers, between southern and northern nations, as well as between emerging powers and the old great powers in building a new order is another option."

The following paragraph asks whether the West is ready for such a "power transition".

Of course, the language in which this text is written is Aesopian and makes it very difficult to grasp the specific meaning of the words. For me, however, there is no doubt that its translation into a language understandable to ordinary people should read as follows: "Dear Americans (and you Europeans as well), you may of course defend the current world order and your domination - and this could lead us to a war that you would not be able to win, because you are too weak, as you say yourself - but we might as well sit down at the table and share power over the world. What do you choose?".
Exercises of officers of the Chinese formation, the equivalent of the National Guard. Photo CFOTO / ddp images / Forum
Accepting such a proposal means that Taiwan would come under Chinese jurisdiction, and the South China Sea could become China's internal sea; Russia would get its own zone of influence, which would probably not be limited only to Ukraine and Belarus, although it is not likely to reach Poland and the Baltic countries. However, the near future of Moldova, Georgia and Armenia would be subject to tough negotiations; Iran could gain a dominant position in the Middle East, and Israel would be forced to withdraw permanently from the disputed territories. Africa and South America would probably be an area of less restricted play of power until the next deal, which - no doubt about it - would come rather sooner than later.

Weakened US Army

Is America strong enough to oppose the implementation of such an alternative? In other words, can it take military action to block the ambitious plan of the Sino-Russian-Iranian axis?

In Poland and Europe, we are accustomed to treating American military power as something beyond question. The effective images - showing nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, stealth aircraft, fighters, missiles, helicopters, tanks and the undeniable aura of competence and professionalism surrounding everything related to the U.S. Army - made us confident that America could cope with any military task. We think it's evident that they can handle it.

However, it is not so obvious to the Americans themselves. In mid-October, the conservative Heritage Foundation published an annual report on the status of the U.S. military called the Index of U.S. Military Strength. A group of specialists in many fields prepares the several hundred-page publication; its complete analysis is impossible here. Moreover, even American public opinion usually limits itself to assimilating the most important results and remembers the most critical element of the methodology. Namely, the criterion for assessing army readiness has remained unchanged for years: the ability to effectively fight in two wars, i.e. in two extensive regional conflicts.
The readiness assessment scale is five-level: from very poor - when such a task can be completed at most in 37%; poor - when the readiness allows 38-74% of the task to be completed; medium ("marginal") - when the readiness is increased to about 75-82 %; high level (81-91%) and very high (92-100%). Last year, the overall readiness index for all U.S. military forces fell into 'poor' for the first time in history, and this level has been maintained this year. Interestingly, the air forces were rated the worst, earning only the description of "very poor", and the naval forces were rated as "poor". The best "strong" score was given to the Marine Corps and nuclear forces.

The authors of the report conclude that all this is happening in conditions of increasing U.S. budget deficit and inflation, which limit investment opportunities, while at the same time, China and Russia are seriously increasing their military spending. "As currently postured, the U.S. military is at growing risk of not being able to meet the demands of defending America's vital national interests" is the concluding sentence of the last paragraph in the Executive Summary of the 2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength.

Indeed, China will most likely triple its nuclear arsenal over the next decade, and its military spending is already estimated by American intelligence to be close to the Pentagon's budget, reaching approximately $700 billion. This is more than the official expenditure, but in communist countries, it is usually the case that military expense is hidden in many of the most unexpected budget items. If we consider that in the American budget we are dealing with the opposite situation - due to the difficulties in pushing various expenditures through Congress - expenses would be glued to the military budget, place of the best chance to have it accepted, the official 800 billion dollars should be reduced by approximately 100 billion. In this case, both countries spend a similar amount of money on defence.

Long gone were the days when the United States military budget was larger than the combined budgets of the rest of the world. In this respect, we are also dealing with a turning point.

Turning inwards

However, the problem is not only money but also people. On average, in recent years, the army has been recruiting around 20,000 fewer people than planned. This is partly due to the lower physical capacity of subsequent generations and partly to the decreasing attractiveness of serving in the army. A new progressive generation of young people is coming for whom fighting for American interests or battling to defend the homeland is no longer as attractive as it was for their predecessors. Sociological research shows that most of the young generation believes that America should focus on solving its internal problems, not on world affairs.

The percentage of those who think America is the best country in the world is also the lowest among young people. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2021, only 10% of adults aged 18-29 believed so, and as many as 42% thought that other countries were better than the USA.

Of course, two years have passed since this study, and a lot could have changed, but social trends raise the question of whether Americans would still like to be this "essential nation" that Joe Biden talked about. Would they still wish to be the "light on the hill" for the world? And will they be willing to pay for it?

During Reagan's presidency, U.S. defence spending reached approximately 6% of GDP. Now it is about 3%. America spends vast amounts of money on developing green technologies, producing electric cars and social programs. All of that consumes such massive cost that the budget deficit will probably reach $2 trillion (U.S. trillion) at the end of this year, and servicing this deficit may take over 15% of the budget.

In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal wrote wryly that now is the time to choose "guns over butter" if the country wants to maintain its global position.

However, it may turn out that great words about America's global responsibility will not encourage its society to make personal sacrifices in the name of its greatness and position. Or maybe they will this time - in the 2024 vote – but what about the next elections? Those who do not consider the United States' global role as valuable could have their say. What would happen to us then?

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: American soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery during Memorial Day, a holiday celebrated to commemorate all those who died while serving in the military. Photo KEVIN LAMARQUE / Reuters / Forum
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