We got this film from Netflix on a misunderstanding. A book with the same title imagined Earth’s future if humans disappeared. But the film is a documentary exploring the consequences if America retreated from the world.
The film introduces fictional presidential candidate “William Turner” with an unabashedly isolationist platform. He’s no kook, but a slick candidate earnestly spouting familiar tropes: America has spent too many lives and dollars overseas, sticking our nose where it doesn’t belong, being a bully, and all we’ve achieved is enmity and hatred; we should instead focus on our own needs here at home, like job creation. It’s made to sound highly seductive; yet the film goes on to show how misguided this really is.
We begin in Europe, as populous and rich as us, asking why it couldn’t shoulder a bigger role in security matters. But Europe is not a nation and doesn’t act like one; it’s a squabbling family, with no appetite for biting bullets. So in the 1990s ex-Yugoslav wars in its backyard, Europe dithered for years while atrocities mounted, until finally America cried “Enough!” and bombed the Serbs into accepting the Dayton peace deal we brokered. When trouble recrudesced in Kosovo in 1999, America, having learned the lesson, moved quickly this time, again bombing the Serbs into submission. We had no U.N. authorization.
In the film, historian Niall Ferguson says that when America acted unilaterally in Kosovo, he and many like him were aghast (“agassed” in the subtitles). But Ferguson candidly admits he was wrong — that America’s action was right, probably saved many lives, and made the world better.
“William Turner” types make “intervening in other countries’ internal affairs” sound nasty and illegitimate. That’s what we did in Kosovo. It’s what we didn’t do in Rwanda (800,000 dead), Darfur (200,000 dead), and Cambodia (1.7 million dead; Vietnam eventually intervened there to end the carnage).
Next, the Middle East. Too bad the Yugoslav lesson was forgotten (if Obama ever knew it) when it came to Syria (140,000 dead and counting; 9 million refugees).
The 2008 film predated Syria’s civil war, but argued that the Mid East is a volatile area liable to explode without America’s deep engagement; which Syria proves true.
But why should we care? Why not just let others sort out their own problems? Apart from the simple humanitarian concern, today’s world doesn’t consist of disconnected self-contained ghettoes. In a globalized world, there’s really no such thing as a “local” problem, everything being connected to everything else. And regarding the Middle East in particular, there’s oil to be concerned about.
The film presents some interviews with typical “no war for oil” platitudes. A European favors solar and wind power, not violence; “Use your head,” he smugly concludes. Then the film shows how silly this is. How vital oil is for the entire world’s economy, and thus, to the well-being of people everywhere, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, who tend to be hit hardest by any economic dislocation. And it’s actually not America that depends most on Mid East oil; it’s Europe and Asia, who are the chief beneficiaries of America’s global engagement. Not only have we kept oil flowing — America’s navy also plays a critical role in keeping open the sea lanes by which that oil flows to Europe and Asia, and by which much other world trade travels.
When people cynically say the Iraq war was “all about oil,” that may be partly true, but they seem to imagine we simply grabbed the oil — the behavior of conquerors throughout history — including WWII Japan (now getting its oil thanks to America’s global role). But we don’t grab oil, we pay for every drop. Had the Iraq war been “all about oil,” surely we could have simply made a deal with Saddam to buy it, saving ourselves the trillion or so the war cost.
Japan, as the film shows, with its restrictive pacifist constitution, is a particular beneficiary of the U.S. security umbrella. And one might ask why Japan shouldn’t just pay for its own defense. Well, here’s something to think about. Absent America’s role, Japan, neighbor of nuclear-armed China and North Korea, would be forced to go nuclear itself. An increasingly jingoistic China deeply mistrusts Japan, and would be apoplectic if Japan got nukes. This would not be good.
South Korea too is under the umbrella. It’s more populous, and vastly richer, than North Korea. Why does the South need us? Well, North Korea is the most militarized society on earth, with an army of 1.5 million. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is right near the border. The North tried to seize the South once before, and nearly succeeded till America stepped in. Our defense of South Korea is the only thing deterring repeat aggression.
Then there’s Taiwan. The Chinese insist it’s part of China, and upon their right to take it by force some day. Taiwan is a prosperous democratic free market country playing an important role in the world economy, which we have pledged to defend. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would have untold disruptive consequences. But China wouldn’t dare try it as long as we stand behind Taiwan. Cutting Taiwan loose just isn’t an option.
And so it goes, all over the world. America plays an indispensable role in global security and stability, and lubricating international commerce. On our recent Dubai trip, a Pakistani cab driver volunteered the understanding that small countries like Dubai are effectively protected by America. No other nation can fulfill this role. Without it, the world would be a much worse place — worse for everyone, including us.
We already see the consequences of even a little bit of American disengagement, of “leading from behind.” Failure to engage early in Syria produced a metastasizing horror. And if we’d been more decisive about Syria, would Russia have been emboldened to invade Crimea? And if Russia gets away with that, with barely a slap on the wrist, what’s next? China is in dispute with various nations, most prominently Japan, over Pacific territorial claims. Will China now feel free to settle them by force?
At film’s end, President Turner runs for re-election touting fulfillment of his promises. Our troops have all come home. Nothing is said about how the world fares.
Maybe too soon for the shit to have hit the fan.