Owning the Power

But the world’s most powerful countries have rarely used force to . . . set up client states in their region.

David Leonhardt, Why Ukraine Is Different, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2022).

Yes, I know that David Leonhardt is only talking about the past 80 years. But he’s still laughably, embarrassingly, pathetically, naively wrong.

Does he not realize that the government that we set up in Afghanistan was a client government? (And if we set up a client state in a place, does it not become “our region”?)

Sure, the Ghani government fell when we left last summer, but, you know, that wasn’t on purpose! We were planning to have the Ghani government—or an equally pliable replacement—as a client for a long, long time to come.

It just didn’t work out as planned, which is why that evacuation was so last-minute.

And that’s just the most obvious recent example.

Because we also invaded Iraq twenty years ago . . . and Iraq is now a client state!

Does Leonhardt really think that a government that we put into power and which we have since used military intervention to save repeatedly from falling to the Islamic State is in any position to say “no” to a serious request from us?

And what about Kuwait, which owes its existence to a bit of set-piece military fun called the First Gulf War? If President Biden—nay, an obscure undersecretary of state—picks up the phone and calls Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah to ask for something is he going to get a “no”?

Oh, and then there’s Vietnam. Let’s date American military involvement to 1961 to 1975, comfortably within Leonhardt’s 80-year time frame.

Does anyone think that South Vietnam during this period was not one of our client states, and that if we’d won the war that relationship would not have continued for a very long time?

But 80 years takes us all the way back to 1942!

Which means we also need to come to terms with the fact that we created lots and lots of client states when we won the Second World War.

We can debate whether they’re still clients today, whether they have so prospered under the sun of our love, so come to accept our global dominance, that the relationship looks more like friendship than control.

But certainly in the decades after the war they were clients.

There’s Germany, which fought against us in two world wars but has been awfully friendly (the eastern part during the Cold War aside) ever since we conquered the western bit, and within the borders of which we continue to maintain a large troop presence to this day.

And there’s Japan, which used to hate us but changed its tone after we defeated it and set up a friendly government there. We still station a ton of soldiers in Japanese territory, as well.

And then of course there is South Korea. We didn’t want that territory to fall into enemy hands, so we conquered it back from that enemy in the early 1950s and set up a friendly government there and continue to station a ton of troops there, as well. If South Korea isn’t a client now, it certainly was in, say, 1965.

I’m not saying that World War Two or the Korean War weren’t good fights (indeed, we went to war with Germany and Japan only after they declared war on us). And I’m not saying that there aren’t lots of Koreans and Japanese and Germans who are happy about their countries’ relationship with the United States.

But let’s get real.

None of these countries posed an imminent threat of invasion to the United States. (Hawaii was not a state at the time of Pearl Harbor and anyway the Japanese aim at Pearl Harbor was to destroy a fleet that it believed would be used to interfere with its conquest of Asia, not to occupy the Hawaiian Islands.)

But we conquered them because we (quite reasonably, in my view) didn’t like what they (or in the case of Korea, China) were doing in their own backyards and realized that if they got away with it our own ability to project influence into those backyards, some of which were also our backyards, would wane.

And after we conquered these countries we set up friendly governments.

And you can make the case that they are all still dependent on us, not least for security, which is the root of all power.

The United States is a great power.

Great powers are great powers because they can make other people in other countries do what they say, by military force if necessary.

We can feel good about being a great power because we think what we tell others to do is better than what other powers would tell them to do.

Or because we are better or more humane at running the world than others would be.

But, please, don’t tell me that we somehow manage to be a great power without exercising power!

What makes Ukraine different is not that it’s the first time in 80 years that one country is trying to make a client state out of another. We do that all the time. It’s that for the first time in 25 years a great power not called the United States is trying to make a client state by military force.

Ukraine is significant only because it reminds us that the brief period during which the United States was the world’s sole great power is probably over.