Senator William Turner wants to make his vision of the American Dream a reality. The costs of his program are high. He pledges to pay for them by completely withdrawing the U.S. military from foreign soil.
"If we slashed our military budget in half we'd have funds for fuel-cell plants, homeland defense, and universal healthcare," Turner tells reporters while announcing he's running for president. "Germany, Japan, South Korea -- three of the wealthiest nations on earth. Why is our military defending them?"
Turner, a lightly fictionalized combination of Ron Paul and Barack Obama, then wins and implements his plan. This serves as a vehicle for documentary director Mitch Anderson to explore the question: Just what would the world look like if America withdrew?
To find out, Anderson seeks out the opinions of scholars and journalists from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Here's a rundown of what he finds out, as related by his new docudrama The World Without Us:
Europe: Since World War II, Europe has let the line go slack on security. During the Cold War it was understood that America would deter and if necessary defend against Soviet aggression.
Today, as the European Union boasts the largest economy in the world, America is still defending Europe. The European community, in its various incarnations, has always seen itself as an economic arrangement, not a military one.
So when the Balkans exploded in the 1990s, European national parliaments vainly debated taking action. When France and the Netherlands actually did send troops, they weren't allowed to initiate firefights or defend civilians, thus defeating their role as "peacekeepers." Says Martin Hutterbrink, a German journalist: "Without America, the killing would have gone on."
The Middle East: Critics like Senator Turner say that America's special relationship with Saudi Arabia undermines every word of U.S. diplomats' "democratization" talk. Further, they point out, Kuwait -- the nation America saved in the first Gulf War -- offers universal free education and land to its citizens, all paid for from oil revenues, even as Americans face skyrocketing tuition and high prices at the pump.
America's Middle East policy is certainly flawed, the film admits. The repressive Saudis tarnish America's commitment to democratization in the region. Europe and Asia rely far more heavily upon Middle Eastern oil, yet those commerce lanes are kept open by U.S. naval installations. But September 11 showed that our two-ocean buffer is no fortress. And as bad as things are now, allowing the Iranians carte blanche in the Middle East would be utterly disastrous.
Asia: America's allies in Asia are wealthy and technologically advanced, but threatened by geography.
South Korea, the twelfth richest nation on earth, has twice as many people as its neighbor to the north, and twenty times the money. But with Seoul a mere 40 miles to the North Korean border, the ancient capital city is especially vulnerable to a massive Northern attack. Thirty thousand American troops man the demilitarized zone between the two nations. If they left the peninsula would be up for grabs -- and the North would be determined to win.
Japan is a pacifist nation with a militarist past, a nation whose neighbors haven't forgotten its past atrocities. Having felt the wrath of nuclear weapons, Japan refuses to procure them, either, leaving its defense largely to America. Japan is like a tiger that's been de-fanged, and given its behavior in the 20th century, the world can sleep easier for it.
THE WORLD WITHOUT US ends with Japan being savaged by a nuclear attack from one of its neighbors. Three survivors remain, seeking out others braving the Nuclear Winter. Back in America, President Turner, campaigning for re-election, crows about how America's withdrawal from the world made his country safer and more prosperous.
Juxtaposed against the destruction in Japan, Turner's rhetoric seems triumphal and even heartless. But the real issue, one which Anderson's film does not address, is that foreign critics want it both ways. When America intervenes, it's "interfering." When America doesn't intervene, it is "letting people die," as critics accused after the Tsunami of 2005.
Anderson's film is thought-provoking and well timed. But whether you'll ever get to see it is another matter. Documentaries and docudramas aren't usually commercially viable. Name the last five documentaries you saw that weren't from Michael Moore or about cute penguins.
"They know they'll never see their money back," Anderson said at the premiere screening when asked about courting investors. So he's shifted his focus to television networks. Having spent half his life savings making the film, he wants to reach the largest audience possible.
Ironically, Anderson has found audiences easier to reach internationally than in America. Satellites have broadcast his film all over the Middle East. Two networks in Israel have shown it, and even one in Poland. Save for its premiere at the 2008 GI Film Festival, no one in America has yet had that opportunity.