MH17 and the End of the Pax Americana

America withdraws and the global order falls apart.

The ludicrous international "debate" surrounding the horrific end of Malaysian Airline System's Flight 17 over the rebellious eastern provinces of Ukraine serves as a frightening object lesson illustrating how modern political propaganda and posturing attempt to obscure what is patently obvious to all: trigger-happy Russian-backed rebels shot down the unarmed, uninvolved civilian airliner more or less by mistake.

No, Putin didn't order this action; he doesn't mind steamrollering over the lives of innocents, but he's no psychopathic Stalin who killed millions of people just for kicks.

No, the rebels didn't do it on purpose either; they showed reckless disregard for human life in playing with their new toy, but there's no reason to think they knowingly murdered nearly 300 people that had nothing to do with their conflict.  They probably had a panic reaction when they realized what they'd done, but it doesn't seem like there's been any particularly organized conspiracy to cover their tracks.

We won't even mention the lunatics who say that Israel did it, or the Ukrainian government.  If the Israelis were that bloodthirsty they would have simply killed off all the Palestinans by now, which at least would benefit them.  If the Ukrainians were organized enough to execute a conpiracy of that degree, that same level of competence would have been apparent somewhere else in the last year of total shambles as their country has fallen apart, which it hasn't.

Alas, the obvious explanation is virtually certainly the true one.  Which is actually the most disturbing explanation of all, because it tells us we can expect more such disasters.

The World's Cop Finally Retires

When Barack Obama assumed the presidency, he promised that he would "fundamentally change America."  The jury's still out on whether or to what extent he'll acheive this goal, but regarding our stance in the world, Mr. Obama has kept his promise in spades.

The best possible illustration of this is to compare Mr. Obama's reaction to news of MH17's downing to Ronald Reagan's response when the Soviet Union shot down KAL007 on September 1, 1983 with similar loss of life.  Reagan denounced the crime in radio addresses and a special televised Address to the Nation.

Mr. Obama?  He gave MH17 forty seconds and then segued right into his now-standard stump speech blaming Republicans for everything from hangnails to the Black Plague.

But why would MH17 be worth more than 40 seconds of time for a mere President of the United States, when it happened on the other side of the world in a country that is not a full formal ally, and no Americans appear to have been killed or involved in any way?  It's sad, and we express our sympathy for the loss, but it really isn't any of our business.

For the Leader of the Free World, though - yes, it is his business.  Mr. Reagan saw that as his job; Mr. Obama does not.  This gets more clear every day as we withdraw from everywhere dangerous and costly, and basically let every part of the world know that it is welcome to go to hell in its own way.

Long-Term Decisions and Roosting Chickens

This isn't necessarily improper of Mr. Obama.  He can certainly claim an electoral mandate to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan regardless of the local consequences, and there's a large minority of the American people as well as a clear majority of the Democratic party that say we need to withdraw from everywhere.

We really ought to think through the implications of an isolationist America, though.  One of the major global advantages of the Pax Americana, and the Pax Brittanica before it, has been that international trade can be carried on relatively free of fears of violent interference.  It's been nearly two hundred years since anyone needed to be seriously worried about pirates, because the Royal and then the American Navies hunted them down no matter where they were hiding; in more recent years that policy was extended to land-pirates like terrorists and other disturbers of the peace.

Even today, there are only a few specific spots where pirates are much of a concern - off the lawless coast of Somalia, and around the Straits of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia.  That's a manageable risk.

The fate of MH17 shows a far broader-ranging problem: Now that terrorists and irregulars have their hands on first-world anti-aircraft equipment and the great powers have demonstrated their unwillingness or inability to stop them, how are the hundreds of aircraft that travel between the rich world of Europe and the getting-rich-quick world of Asia supposed to get there?  For lo these many years, everyone has assumed that an airplane five miles in the air is immune to whatever unpleasantness might be taking place on the ground below; MH17 dramatically ended this naivety.

Geography dictates that intercontinental flights have to travel over some pretty dicey places.  You can take your pick of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Horn of Africa, and obviously now everyone will add Ukraine to the list.  Even the places adjacent aren't so very safe and are getting less so fast - Egypt, Iran, Yemen, the ongoing fighting in the Palestinian territories, and who knows where the next revolution will hit?

You can go around, at vast expense and inconvenience.  You can fly across Russia and cut south over Mt. Everest.  You're very unlikely to get shot down, true, but there are mountains that reach into the cruise flight levels, and few if any airports suitable for an emergency landing.

Our world, for better or for worse, has been structured for maximum efficiency, with all our modes of transportation leveraged for the mathematically shortest distance between two points.  If that shortest distance suddenly ceases to be available, the economic consequences will be mammoth, affecting the prices and lead times of literally everything - at a time when people, American voters even, are already struggling to afford ever-higher prices while their wages stagnate.

But then, it doesn't seem like a stagnant economy is much of a concern to Mr. Obama either.  After all, the more people become dependent on the government for money, the more likely they are to vote for Democratic spending programs.

What does motivate the man these days?  With Mr. Reagan, everybody knew what he believed in and what he was willing to fight for - which makes it no surprise a recent poll rated Reagan as the best modern president and Mr. Obama as the worst.  The passengers on MH17 were unavailable for comment - but then, in the Obama era they're somebody else's problem.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Letting every part of the world know "that it is welcome to go to hell" is okay with me **IF AND ONLY IF** American is focusing those extra resources on stuff that matters here at home.

If, for instance, we were building the best missile defense shield imaginable, with real tests that worked, and pumping money into local energy and manufacturing, then YES - by all means give the middle finger to everyone else.

They barely want us there when times are good, and we're the obvious scapegoat when times are bad. Cut off China, make imports expensive, whatever - but for the love of God make sure you're doing the right stuff here at home to make up for that.

The problem with Obama is that he's doing neither. He's stepping on allies, hurting international trade, laughing at legitimate security threats AND ignoring a bad economy which is hopelessly dependent on the rest of the world.

We're doomed, folks, and nobody under 40 appears to understand or care.

July 22, 2014 9:42 AM

I would have agree with Petrarch that the world cop has retired. obama has hastened that at a faster clip than I would have ever imagined. Still I see little sense in trying to bring democracy to the rest of the world, take a look at what democracy is doing to us now. The moocher's vote is the same as the producer that is taxed into oblivion by the taxes that our rock stars impose on us in order to get re-elected by the moochers. If we can no longer be the world's cop then I suggest this, that if any American is harmed in any way while traveling with a valid passport to another country then the US will respond quickly and severely to the thugs. I am not concerned one iota about sovereign airspace and would fly whatever plane or drone that I chose to accomplish our goal of immediate retaliation. No, I would not seek the UN's approval and would laugh at their disapproval. The one thing that most people understand is force. I for one couldn't care less about what the world thinks of us. We have the big stick, let's flaunt it and if we have to, use it.

July 22, 2014 11:41 PM
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