The world equates American military power with the maintenance of the postwar global order of free commerce, communications and travel.
Sometimes American power leads to costly, indecisive interventions like those in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya that were not able to translate superiority on the battlefield into lasting peace.
But amid the frustrations of American foreign policy, it is forgotten that the United States also plays a critical but more silent role in ensuring the survival of small, at-risk nations. The majority of them are democratic and pro-Western. But they all share the misfortune of living in dangerous neighborhoods full of bullies.
These small nations are a far cry from rogue clients of China and Russia — theocratic Iran, autocratic North Korea and totalitarian Venezuela — that oppress their own people and threaten their regions.
In the Middle East, there are two places that consistently remain pro-American: the nation of Israel and the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Both show a spirit and tenacity that so far have ensured their survival against aggressive and far larger neighbors. Both have few friends other than the United States. And both are anomalies. Israel is surrounded by Islamic neighbors. The ethnic Kurds live in the heart of the Arab Middle East. Quite admirably, the U.S. continues to be a patron of both.
For some 500 years, the Ottoman Empire terrified the Christian Middle East and Mediterranean world. Almost every country in its swath was Islamicized. Two tiny unique places were conquered but not transformed: Armenia and Greece. Both suffered terribly at the hands of the Ottomans and their successors, the early-20th-century Turkish state.
Yet both Armenia and Greece remained Christian and kept their languages and cultures. Today, both are still quite vulnerable to renewed neo-Ottoman Turkish pressures.
America has been a friend to both Armenia and Greece, although their histories with the U.S. were often controversial. In turn, they have sent millions of talented and skilled immigrants to the U.S. The world is a far better place because there are 11 million Greeks who keep the legacy of Hellenism alive. Armenia still remains a Western outpost — the first country to formally adopt Christianity as a state religion, and a nation that has preserved its faith under centuries of cruel foreign persecutions.
Without the United States, there would never have emerged a free and independent Taiwan and South Korea. The former would have been absorbed by communist China in 1949. The latter would have been wiped out in 1950 by Chinese-sponsored North Korea. Today, Taiwan and South Korea are models of international citizenship, democracy and prosperity. They have given the world singular products and brands, from Foxconn and Quanta Computer to Samsung and Kia.
Given their relatively small areas, Taiwan and South Korea likely would not have survived Chinese bullying or, more recently, North Korean nuclear provocations without strong American support and protection.
Our relationships with all of these vulnerable nations are as much practical as principled. All follow international law. All have sent gifted citizens to the U.S. All are fiercely self-reliant and are reputed to be among the world’s best fighters.
To visit any of these countries is to experience islands of sanity and decency in neighborhoods of violence and madness. Will these unique but vulnerable nations survive?
In the Middle East, age-old enemies are on the move. There is the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism, the specter of a nuclear Iran, and a newly aggressive Turkey.
Greece is bankrupt and overrun by hundreds of thousands of immigrants, most of them young, male and Muslim. Turkey systematically violates Greek national waters and airspace.
South Korea and Taiwan are both threatened by North Korea’s nuclear-tipped missiles. China periodically warns them that they need to make the necessary subservient adjustments in their foreign policy to accommodate a rising China and a supposedly declining America.
America itself is $20 trillion in debt and divided. It has lost global credibility after years of issuing phony red lines and deadlines to various rivals and enemies.
The U.S. military is in sore need of repair and expansion. Much of the country is sick and tired of costly interventions that could not turn battlefield success into stability, much less into lasting strategic advantage.
Yet a country is not just defined by its economic and military strength, its global clout or its powerful allies. It is also judged on how it treats weaker but humane nations. As long as the U.S. remains good to these impressive but vulnerable states, it will remain great as well.
• Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.