Scott Sumner  

Just how influential is the USA?

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Noam Chomsky and the neocons don't agree on much, but they do agree on one thing. The US is a very influential superpower. Of course the neocons think it is mostly a force for good, whereas Chomsky tends to see the dark side. I am skeptical of both views. (Chomsky has a new book entitled "Who Rules the World?" I haven't read it yet, but I am pretty sure that I already know his answer.)

I don't doubt that the US is a superpower, and that it's been fairly influential at times, but I do not share the confidence of many other people that we know how the US has shaped the world. On questions of counterfactuals, I'm a radical agnostic.

Let's start with the neocons. They might point to the way the US saved Western Europe in the two world wars, or our service to small countries such as South Korea, Panama, Bosnia, Kuwait, etc., in the period since WWII.

That's all very plausible, but what are the counterfactuals? What if we had let the North easily conquer South Korea in 1950? The Korean War was quite destructive, and it's not implausible that the death toll would have been at least a million lower in a quick war. Of course the counterargument is that North Korea, arguably the world's worst government, would now rule over 75 million unfortunate souls, not 25 million. That's a very strong argument, but I think we overestimate our ability to visualize the nature of a communist government in a united Korea that was not always on a war footing. Maybe just as bad, but perhaps it would have ended up more like China. We simply don't know.

And suppose the US had not saved Western Europe in WWI---what then? Perhaps Germany would have won the war, or more likely it would have ended in stalemate. In that case does Hitler take power in 1933, or does Europe recoil from a long, horrific and pointless war by creating the EU in the 1920s? (By the way, there was a push to create an EU in the 1920s, even in the poisonous atmosphere of post-Versailles Europe.)

I have two problems with Chomskyian analysis. First, Chomsky's always talking about how this or that right wing thug took power with US support. Let's assume that's true, and that the US is morally culpable. It still doesn't tell us whether the US actually caused the right wing thug to take power. I am skeptical for two reasons. First, there are lots of leaders that the US clearly didn't like, which we were unable to remove. If the CIA could just snap its fingers and get rid of Saddam or Castro or Kim, then why didn't it? I suppose there are good arguments that we have less influence in some countries than others, but I see an even bigger problem with the Chomskyian view--it seems quite plausible that people like Pinochet would have taken power even if the US had been neutral. The Chilean military certainly had the ability to do so if they wished. And they clearly seemed to have wished to do so. So was the US actually all that influential? Maybe, but I'm not convinced.

My other problem with the Chomskyian view is that the counterfactuals always seem quite murky. Suppose the Truman administration had intervened in China during the late 1940s, and kept Chiang Kai Shek in power. And suppose that over the next few decades Chiang had killed a million Chinese in various anti-communist crackdowns. In other words, something like what happened in Indonesia in 1965. Wouldn't Chomsky have claimed that the US had blood on its hands, just as he made that claim about the 1965 anti-communist atrocities in Indonesia? And yet we now know that the counterfactual in China was far, far worse. Does Truman have blood on his hands for (mostly) staying neutral, as Chomsky would have recommended?

My general views are as follows:

1. The developing world is a place full of human rights violations on a massive scale. The US intervenes heavily in the developing world. Where we fail, the government will commit lots of human rights violations. Where we succeed the government will commit lots of human rights violations. Net effect? Who knows. The Middle East is a perfect example. Where we intervene (Iraq, Afghanistan) things are bad. Where we mostly stay out (Syria, Yemen) things are bad. Things were bad in Libya before we intervened, and things have been bad ever since we intervened.

2. The neocons are biased in favor of American power, and hence I don't trust their claims about the beneficial effects of a muscular foreign policy. Chomsky is biased against the US, which often leads him to be an apologist for some pretty awful anti-American regimes. So I don't trust him either. Ideally you'd want a wise, dispassionate observer to evaluate the effect of US policy, a Tyler Cowen or a Scott Alexander. They'd be much better than the neocons or Chomsky, but in the end I wouldn't even trust them. I just think the world's too complex; the counterfactuals are too hard to predict. (In fairness, they may have the same view, I don't know.)

3. One thing is clear---US intervention is very costly in terms of American lives and money. Thus my agnosticism about the effects of US policy pushes me in the non-interventionist direction.

4. But I'm not an isolationist ideologue. Unlike other libertarians, I don't view intervention as necessarily an anti-libertarian policy. Thus it seems to me that defense agreements among like-minded free countries (NATO, plus Japan, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) have been quite successful since WWII. I don't even think they are costly for the US. We choose to spend a lot on the military, but NATO does not force us to do so. NATO would be strong enough to deter attack even if the US spent only 2% of GDP on the military. So why don't we? If NATO is the neocon's strongest argument, then Chomsky's is probably those cases were we provided tacit support to someone like Pol Pot or Saddam, out of spite toward countries that had humiliated the US. Are there any presidential candidates who have a reputation for being highly vindictive? (I'll say this; Gary Johnson is not the worst on that score.)

5. I suspect both the neocons and Chomsky are right in at least some of their claims. But I also think they each know far less about the world than they think they know. Don't let mood affiliation influence how you see cause and effect. The world is not a simple story with good guys and bad guys, just lots of shades of gray, and lots of unpredictable side effects.

PS. I just finished a very good travel book called "Indonesia, etc." which I highly recommend to people interested in social science. The book gave me the impression that the US has less influence in places like Indonesia than we might assume.

PPS. Of course the US has a big influence in ways that are far removed from foreign policy, such as improvements in seed technology, medical advances, Hollywood films, music, etc.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (24 to date)
mbka writes:

Completely agree with you Scott. As with all 'meta' cognition arguments though, this analysis is not a great policy guide. You still got to act even though you'll never see the counterfactuals.

One more thing. The US (or say, presidents within the US) may have far less power than assumed over most of history where large scale trends are concerned. In dynamical systems language, the US won't always be able to stem tidal waves where equilibria are strong, or forming strongly. But they may have power in isolated instances where an unstable equilibrium could tilt either one way or the other into a basin of attraction. In this way, wholesale democratization campaigns say, in the middle East, are foolish. But pinpoint interventions where opportunity exists to tilt unstable situations can be very effective. Come to think of it, like it or not, and I usually don't, Putin's Russia seems to act with this strategy.

BH writes:

Where we intervene (Iraq, Afghanistan) things are bad. Where we mostly stay out (Syria, Yemen) things are bad. Things were bad in Libya before we intervened, and things have been bad ever since we intervened.

Not sure Syria is a good example. It is a spillover from the chaos in Iraq, which the U.S. started with the Iraq War.

The real case against U.S. involvement is that outside interference often just plain causes chaos, which is usually worse than a regular old oppressive government. Even when there is already a civil war, outside interference can often prolong the chaos.

But that isn't really the kind of ideological argument that Chomsky wants to make.

Richard writes:
Where we intervene (Iraq, Afghanistan) things are bad. Where we mostly stay out (Syria, Yemen) things are bad.
We only "mostly stayed out" of Syria by the standards of what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the beginning, the US facilitated the arming of the opposition, put sanctions on the regime and demanded that the president step down, and threatened to bomb the government if it was too vigorous in its attempts to put down the rebellion. If China had done that, we wouldn't say that they "mostly stayed out" of Syria.
BH writes:

There is a case to be made that Communist governments have a particularly awful human rights record, so interfering to prevent Communist governments from coming to power may be worth it. But we don't live in a world where Communism is a live threat, so we don't have any good reason for intervention anymore.

Tiago writes:

Chomsky wrote a book on who runs the world? I thought Beyonce had settled that...

More seriously, I don't know if you have read Bryan Caplan's common sense defense of pacifism, he wrote it before you arrived. It is very short, but compelling.

Greg G writes:

Nice post Scott. Chomsky never seems to find a war he thinks we didn't cause.

The neocons never seem to find one they don't think they can give a happy ending. Of course, they rarely think we should expect government to succeed at anything else other than foreign military adventures trying to fix centuries old cultural pathologies in places we know little about.

Michael writes:

You understate one point greatly.

The US probably did stay out of the Chilean coup, at least as far as doing anything goes. There is no doubt that Nixon and Kissinger and many others in DC wanted a coup. They tried to organize one in 1970 or 1971, but the top Chilean general, Rene Schneider, wouldn't go along.

It is likely the CIA then killed Schneider. I am not making a point about American innocence.

When the coup did happen, in 1973, the CIA was in full self-protective mode. It's earlier covert operations were being investigated, as was the President. No one was likely to take an illegal order from Nixon, and no one was likely to take initiative. And as far as what has been declassified so far indicates, no one did. The Chilean army did it on their own

Scott Sumner writes:

mbka, You said:

"But pinpoint interventions where opportunity exists to tilt unstable situations can be very effective."

I think you are right, but I don't have great confidence that I could spot the right cases (say Panama and Bosnia, rather than Iraq and Vietnam). Maybe it's my own stupidity, I've made wrong predictions both ways (failures and successes)

BH, You said:

"It is a spillover from the chaos in Iraq, which the U.S. started with the Iraq War."

I don't agree, I think it's a spillover from the "Arab Spring" that swept the Middle East about 5 years ago, and which caught the US off guard. And by the way, Iraq was an unmitigated disaster even before we invaded (not to deny that the invasion made things even worse in some respects.) Iraq was single handedly responsible for a high proportion of the entire world's invasions of the past 50 years that were aimed at territorial conquest, not to mention the gassing of Kurds and oppressing Shiites.

Afghanistan was also a disaster before we invaded.

Richard, I don't see much evidence that those actions impacted Syria in any significant way. It's mostly a home brewed disaster.

Everyone, Lots of good points.

Gordon writes:


I agree with you that the Syrian civil war is a spill over from the Arab Spring. But I do wonder about one thing. Both the Libyan and Syrian civil wars began the same way. There were peaceful protests which then led the regime in each country killing some of the protesters and killing some of the mourners attending the funerals of the protesters. In the case of Libya, the US and NATO provided tactical military support to the rebels. And I wonder if the Syrian rebels were hoping for the same support. On the one hand, they may have backed down in the face of Assad's brutal response if not for what they had seen happen in Libya. But on the other hand, Assad's crack down was so brutal with things such as the murder of medical students and Assad's soldiers sexually assaulting young girls that the Syrian rebels might have decided to fight even if they believed no support was forthcoming.

bill writes:

Nice post.
The only attack I'm glad we made in the last 40 years was Afghanistan, but I would have kept it to just a month or two.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

NATO and ANZUS good, interventions doubtful.

So, you prefer rules over discretion :)

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

On the matter of problematic counterfactuals, the "open borders to migrants" folk rely on claims about their knowledge of consequences which way exceed the existing level of actual knowledge about long term social dynamics.

When we have a theory of economic growth robust enough to capture the actual patterns we see, they may have something to push. (Of course, such an empirically robust theory might not actually support their case.)

And the "rights-talk" version is just "I am going to wave around moral claims to hide the lack of sufficient knowledge of social dynamics".

Shane L writes:

Good post. I'd add that there seems to be a general notion that someone is in charge. Journalists may accuse politicians of failing when politicians are the ones "running the country". The idea that nobody is in charge of dynamic overlapping systems with governments having limited power over billions of lives seems unpopular.

In general I'd also suggest that the US and the "West" in general have experienced drastic relative decline since the 1940s thanks to the economic rise of Asian, Latin American and now African countries. (Since I'm happy to see declines of poverty, this relative decline is mostly a good news story.) I suspect demographics also matter; in 1960 France had a larger population than Nigeria while today Nigeria is more than double France.

Debates about American foreign policy in the 2000s seemed to be often moral, suggesting that the US could easily force its will onto Iraq, but should it? I suggest this greatly overestimated the strength of the American government. Meanwhile the World Bank puts military expenditure as a percentage of GDP highest in:

Oman - 13.4%
Saudi Arabia - 10.7%
South Sudan - 9.8%
Libya - 8%
Israel - 5.9%
United Arab Emirates - 5.7%
Algeria - 5.6%
Angola - 5.4%
Congo, Rep. - 5%
Lebanon - 5%

The days when European imperial powers could carve up the Middle East seem gone, as the Arab states invest heavily in the military. Outside the US, NATO states mostly spend less than 2%.

Michael Rulle writes:

Counterfactuals? I am drawn to them like I am to the butterfly effect----which means not at all. They are good for story telling but useless in decision making. Counterfactuals only exist as fantasies at best. The opposite of an ideologue neocon or Chomskyite is not a counterfactualist, which just leads to infinite regress thinking. Benthamites and 19th century physicists used to think if we just had enough data we could forecast the effects of any action. We are stuck with our values, including for some, the ghoulish utilitarianism so popular with many libertarians. And with our values comes the use of logic to try our best to do what is right. But there are so many different values, one result we can almost guarantee is that conflict will always exist.

So I for one will never worry whether Lincoln, against all public opinion, should have caused the death of 600000 people, based on the Counterfactual that slavery was already 10 years away from collapsing on its own obvious unsustainability.

ButYouDisagree writes:

These arguments remind me of Michael Huemer's In Praise of Passivity.

Huemer argues that

Voters, activists, and political leaders of the present day are in the position of medieval doctors. They hold simple, prescientific theories about the workings of society and the causes of social problems... Society is a complex mechanism whose repair, if possible at all, would require a precise and detailed understanding of a kind that no one today possesses.

The upshot:

Now, one might think that, if we were completely ignorant, or policies would be as likely to increase as to reduce the problem; but as long as a have some relevant knowledge and understanding, and we are aiming at a reduction in the problem, we should be at least slightly more likely to alleviate the problem than to exacerbate it... This is wrong... Any government policy that imposed requirements or prohibitions on citizens automatically has certain costs... There is a kind of moral presumption against coercive interventions... Most possible interventions in society disrupt that mechanism and thus are socially harmful.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

"The curious task of foreign intervention is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

Scott Sumner writes:

Gordon, Almost any scenario is possible. I'd point out that there were earlier revolts against Assad, put down in an extremely bloody fashion. It's just a part of life in Syria, or Algeria, or Libya, or Lebanon, or Yemen, or Afghanistan, or Iraq.

Lorenzo and Shane, Good points.

Michael, OK, but probably considerably more than 10 years.

ButYouDisagree, and Mr. E, Good points.

Robert Schadler writes:

Not often included: we do know that before the United States existed, there were evil men and even evil rulers in the world. Whether they were caused or created by domestic or foreign causes, the United States could not have been involved. One might even think that, were the United States never to have existed, or would cease to exist, evil rulers would still obtain. Doesn't mean the U.S. has done nothing to bring to power or prop up some of the current ones, but should give pause to thin the U.S. is the only source of evil or good in the world.

Khodge writes:

I think that a different question has to be addressed: Where the US has chosen to intervene, is it acceptable to pull out without examining the consequences?

From my reading, the Tet offensive finished North Vietnam and a peace was easily attainable at that point had the press not decided that we lost the War. Going into Vietnam was a bad decision but pulling out when we did seemed even worse.

Much of the bad that has come from the Middle East seems to be a result of a hasty withdrawal.

We need only look at the consequences of post- WWI and WWII to see a valid argument for not abandoning a questionable intervention.

jseliger writes:

That's a very strong argument, but I think we overestimate our ability to visualize the nature of a communist government in a united Korea

The counterfactual thinking here is useful, but one important point about Korea as a specific example: As B.R. Myers describes in North Korea's Juche Myth, the country has never really been Communist and instead has been ruled according to a race-based system somewhat akin to Pre-WWII Japanese fascism. Communism was (and is) only a veneer.

ChrisA writes:

I lived in Indonesia for many years and I agree with the comment on the US having little influence there. People in Indonesia think very locally, Java for instance is really a place with about 20 different countries in it with their own histories, languages and cultures. To take one example, Sudanese, who live near Jakarta, are as different from the Javanese (who live in central Java) as say the French from the English, and there are many sub-cultures within the Sudanese. So they really have enough to worry about in their local politics and the US might as well be on Mars for all the impact it has on their thinking.

I think this view of the US as having undue influence is really a form of narcissism. When I see US media agonising about some foreign policy approach the US might take, I think of the old Skibbereen Eagle quote on Hitler. No, everything really isn't about you.

Kurt Schuler writes:

You hypothesize that a united Korea might have ended up like China, implying that would be a good thing, but then three paragraphs later you allude to the tens of millions of deaths in China under Mao. So either way, your examples actually support intervention in Korea.

Brian writes:


I think you overstate the uncertainty in the outcome of the Korean War. This is not a difficult counterfactual to figure out. The difference in per capita GDP between the North and South is more than a factor of 10. There's a very high likelihood that a united Korea under a Northern victory would be not much different from what the North is today. That's in fact what happened with Vietnam, whose per capita GDP is not much above North Korea. So a victory by the North would have condemned ten-millions of Koreans to devastating poverty, not to mention political brutality. Given the difference in per capita GDP, we could have killed millions more and, perhaps, lost ten-thousands more Americans and still come out ahead. That is, even with a greater body count, Korea, the U.S., and the world are likely all better off thanks to the Korean War.

I would add that, given the Korean-War experience, the decision to go into Vietnam makes a lot more sense and carried great potential for improving Vietnam and the world. That the war didn't work out points to how uncertain such things are, but it doesn't negate the reasons for considering such action.

Brandon writes:

Great post, Dr Sumner!

On the question of "how," I'd recommend American anthropologist John D Kelly's short book The American Game: Capitalism, Decolonization, World Domination, and Baseball for some really interesting insights.

By the way, Michelangelo Landgrave, a PhD candidate in Political Science at UC Riverside, is developing an interesting quiz on foreign policy that you might be interested in checking out, too...

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