The project of unilateral US global hegemony, widely believed in – and not just by Americans - after the fall of the Soviet Union, has failed.
Such a megalomaniac vision was bound to do so sooner or later. The fact that US hegemony has faltered after barely one generation is due to a combination of developments, many of them beyond US control: the steep rise of China, which is remaking the economic map of much of Asia; the partial recovery of Russia, which has thwarted US plans in the territory of the former USSR; and the sheer intractability of the local conflicts and problems of the Middle East. America’s own mistakes have also played a part: the criminal invasion of Iraq, which in many ways initiated the whole subsequent catastrophe in the Middle East; and the disastrous intervention in Libya; the complete failure to discipline Israel and bring about peace with the Palestinians; and the neglect of the USA’s back yard in Mexico and Central America, where the growth of militarised criminal drug gangs is beginning to threaten the very fabric of local states and societies.
Then there is the growing dysfunction of the US political system and domestic economy, which is increasingly undermining US soft power and the prestige of American democracy in the world. And finally, there is the hard fact that in the end, all real geopolitical and military power is not absolute but local and relative. That is to say that it is the power that a state is willing to bring to bear in a certain place or with regard to a certain issue relative to the power that another state is willing to bring to bear. America is still by a very long way the greatest military power on earth, but that has not helped it much in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or the South China Sea.
Underlying this failure is the fact that at heart, the US population is simply not willing to make the sacrifices and run the risks that the grandiose plans of the Washington policy elites demand. Thus if President Obama backed off from US intervention against the Syrian state, and was forced to concede a leading role for Russia and Iran, this was not because of “weakness” as his enemies allege, nor even because of his instinctive caution and pragmatism. It is also because every opinion poll has shown a large majority of Americans – including a majority of Republican supporters – opposed to such an intervention. That after all was why at the last moment the Republicans in Congress also backed off from an attack on Damascus, and why none of the Republican presidential candidates is talking about future ground wars in Asia- which Bush’s and Obama’s Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, described as a crazy idea.
If the USA is no longer strong enough, or willing enough, to maintain world order on its own, is there any chance that the major powers of the world might co-operate in doing so, with the USA perhaps as “first among equals” but leading through consensus? Heaven knows, the need for them to do is obvious: to combat the Islamic State and other extremist groups; the regulate the world economy; to solve local disputes between them; and above all, to deal with the threat of climate change, which could well bring all modern civilisation down in ruins. US rhetoric towards China used to suggest such a partnership between them, until it became obvious that most US leaders (including Hillary Clinton) intended a partnership almost completely on US terms. The Australian international expert Professor Hugh White, in his book The China Choice
has suggested an East Asian concert of powers with the USA and China as first among equals, but his ideas were generally condemned in the USA.
The historical image of such concerts comes from 19th century Europe, and the periods 1815-1848 and (to a lesser extent) 1871 to 1894. These systems were by no means perfect. The one put in place by the victorious allies after the defeat of Napoleon has been especially criticised as a bulwark of absolutist reaction and futile opposition to the rise of nationalism. Nonetheless, these systems helped to preserve peace in Europe for the greater part of the 19th Century – a peace in which Europe achieved its greatest era of economic, cultural and technological progress. At the very least, on can say that this concert was vastly better than what came before and after. In the war of 1914-18, that era of European greatness was wrecked, to be finished off in the Second World War – a consequence of the First – that followed twenty years later.
Despite much silly media talk over the crises in Syria and Ukraine, there is no threat today of a major war between the USA and Russia, if only because the USA has now twice made it abundantly clear that it will not fight Russia on behalf of so-called US “allies” in the former USSR, and Russia too has not pushed its military and subversive actions in Ukraine nearly as far as it might have done.
With regard to Chinese-US relations, and echoing Dr White’s concerns, I am not so sure. Despite the recent slowdown in its economic growth, China remains a steeply rising power relative to the USA, and one absolutely determined to restore its historical dominance in its own region. To do so, it does not have to challenge the USA on the world stage. It only has to achieve relative superiority in its own littoral seas. The USA for its part has the great advantage of a string of local allies including Japan and India; but the need for such allies has forced the USA in effect to support them in their territorial rivalry with China over the various disputed islands of the region – precisely the sort of issue which in the past has led to war. On the other hand, China has so far shown no desire at all to challenge the USA geopolitically outside its own region – if only because, as a Chinese diplomat told me with regard to the Middle East, China has seen what a terrible mess the USA has got into there, and has no solutions of its own to offer. As long as oil keeps flowing freely from the Gulf, China has no incentive to plunge into the Middle Eastern shambles.
Looking back at Europe in the spring of 1914, what has struck most observers ever since is how very little the different European powers, and especially their monarchies and aristocratic elites, had to gain from a general war, compared with what they all could – and did – lose as a result. With the exception of the USA, even the “victors” emerged from the First World War permanently weakened. The losers were destroyed.
One hundred years from now, it seems overwhelmingly likely that historians will look back on the great powers of the present world with the same bewilderment. It is not even that climate change is a threat which in the long run is likely to render every present geopolitical dispute utterly insignificant; even the immediate though vastly lesser threat of Islamist terrorism should be enough to bring all the major civilised powers of the world together. The possibility is there, if our leaders and societies have the vision to seize it.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a visiting professor at King’s College London.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.