Five hundred years ago, Hernán Cortés began the European annihilation of the Mayan, Aztec, and other indigenous civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. Six months later, in August 1519, Magellan [Fernão de Magalhães] launched his circumnavigation of the globe. For five centuries thereafter, a series of Western powers — Portugal, Spain, Holland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and, finally, the United States — overturned preexisting regional orders as they imposed their own on the world. That era has now come to an end.
In the final phases of the age of Western dominance, we Americans made and enforced the rules. We were empowered to do so in two phases. First, around 1880, the United States became the world’s largest economy. Then, in 1945, having liberated Western Europe from Germany and overthrown Japanese hegemony in East Asia, Americans achieved primacy in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Almost immediately, the Soviet Union and its then-apparently-faithful Asian companion, Communist China, challenged our new sphere of influence. In response, we placed our defeated enemies (Germany, Italy, Japan), our wartime allies, and most countries previously occupied by our enemies under American protection. With our help, these countries — which we called “allies” — soon returned to wealth and power but remained our protectorates. Now other countries, like China and India, are rising to challenge our global supremacy.
Trump receives Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in Oval Office, January 2019 (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour via Flickr )
President Donald Trump has raised the very pertinent question: Should states with the formidable capabilities longstanding American “allies” now have still be partial wards of the U.S. taxpayer? In terms of our own security, are they assets or liabilities? Another way of putting this is to ask: Do our Cold War allies and their neighbors now face credible threats that they cannot handle by themselves?
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