What if the U.S. Disappeared?

By Dr. Saqib Qureshi

Of course that’s not happening, unless somebody knows how to use the Force in ways which George Lucas hasn’t envisioned, but let’s just imagine a world in which the US government completely withdraws from the rest of the world. Let us just imagine. This is not a bizarre idea. After all, hundreds of millions of people world over accuse the US of failing to mind its own business, of interfering and poking its nose where it’s not wanted. And there is also the non-interventionist tradition within American foreign policy, a position that ironically enough emanates from Robert Walpole, Britain’s prime minister from 1721 to 1742, and was later shaped by presidents Jefferson and Monroe.

So what will happen? What will a disengaged world look like? Well, for a start, there’d be a big economic problem…. and I am not referring to the elimination of the US$50bn in foreign aid which DC doles out every year through the State and Defense Departments, as well as via multi-lateral organizations. Mind you, some countries would be the up the wall … Afghanistan and Israel each receive from the US about hundred times the aid per capita which Bangladesh and South Africa receive. It’s fair to say that Afghanistan would be ‘game over’, that is assuming it wasn’t already, while Israel would need to reduce its military spending and seek a fair peace with the Palestinians.

The real big economic problem is that US federal government needs loans (largely from China via bonds) for funding. An America that cuts itself off from the rest of the world will rapidly realize that it can’t function. It won’t be able to pay civil service salaries, infrastructure development and all the other things that the government currently covers. To cut to the chase, the US would go through a massive recession… since not only would the government have to rapidly reduce its spending, but exports would take a hit too. After all, with the US in recession, there’s a good chance that the world will enter a recession. Where is everything ‘Made in China’ going to go? For that matter, where is everything ‘Made in America’ or ‘Designed in California’ going to go?

World politics would also be affected, maybe not … but maybe as badly as world economics. NATO countries, Japan, Israel, the Gulf countries, South Korea and Taiwan would feel the loss of America’s shield. Since they and their neighbours will struggle to raise military spending in a recession, resolving regional tensions would take on a greater sense of urgency. NATO and Russia would listen more carefully to each other, as would America’s Asian allies to China, the GCC to Iran and Israel to the Palestinians and Arabs. There is though a real risk that economic frustrations are politically channeled through war, even if most of these countries have nuclear deterrents. This credible counter-scenario to my proposed scenario is nuclear war… and that partly comes down to domestic politics and society.

With a sharp economic recession and the collapse of various UN agencies which get their funding from the (withdrawn) US and other countries which can’t afford the to keep up their dues, countries will have tougher societal issues to deal with than in a world with an engaged US. Poverty rates would explode. Law and order, as well as political stability could be up for grabs. Full term parliaments would become rarer than they already are. Institutions of civil society would be starved … fewer people would donate to charities and non-profits, or even to pay for the news. Hospitals and other societal infrastructure would be severely strained. And the nastier end of the human spectrum, the xenophobes and racists, would get a wonderful kick in the arm much like Hitler got in the early 1930s. That would have an interesting impact on inter-state politics.

So, what do I conclude as we ponder the meaning of 4th of July? I’m fasting – it’s Ramadan but I can still somewhat think. Yes, there’s a fair chunk that the US does which it should be ashamed of and needs to fix (do I need to mention Guantanamo, black church-burnings, poverty levels, Islamophobia etc?) …. but we are probably ALL better off with an engaged US than an isolated one.

About Dr. Saqib Qureshi:
Dr. Saqib Qureshi is a divergent strategist who looks at things a little differently. He writes intellectual and thought provoking articles on Reconstructing Strategy and received his PhD from the London School of Economics. Dr. Q has lived in Europe, Asia and North America and has worked for McKinsey & Co., HSBC Investment Bank and several governments. He was the first person to appear on British television to raise concerns about Muslim extremists in the West and the failure of western culture to properly understand the Muslim community. His new book, “Reconstructing Strategy: Dancing with the God of Objectivity” is available now.