America under two very different presidents has sent the message that it has lost the appetite for flexing its military and trade muscle, writes David Rothkopf
We are witnessing the death throes of the US as the dominant power of the free world
Last week I exchanged emails with an old friend who works in a United States government agency. I noticed that his title referred to regions he covered and one of them was “the former Soviet Union”. I couldn’t help but ask: “How long does a country have to be defunct before we stop defining the nation that succeeded it in terms of a past reality?”
Of course, there are many examples of this. Another related example is our tendency to categorise all events that have taken place since 1991 as being part of the post-Cold War era, even though much of what has happened since then has little connection to that period of superpower rivalry.
Perhaps an even more striking example is the fact that we often still define everything to take place since 1945 as the post-war era. A closer examination suggests that term in particular is ready to be filed away as obsolete. We have recently, unquestionably, entered the post-post-war era.
The defining characteristics of the period following the Second World War were, in addition to the Cold War and the existence of the Soviet Union, both of which have passed into the pages of history, the following: the ascension of the US as the dominant power of the “free world” and the beginning of the Pax Americana, the importance given to the US and other victorious powers in building an international system of institutions and laws to avoid or mitigate future wars and calamities; the leadership within those institutions a handful of designated “great powers”; the building of a system of global alliances, led by the US, of which Nato was the most important; the foundation of the actions of the US, the United Nations and international institutions and the alliances to protect that system in agreed-upon values, such as those of the international declaration of human rights.
Even as you read through that list, I am sure you cannot help but agree, the news of recent days and weeks demonstrates that we have recently watched the last gasps of this era. Hold a mirror over its mouth. It’s dead.
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Nowhere is the end of the Pax Americana clearer than in the Middle East. The United State overreached during the Bush years and before. Now, in the wake of that overreach and the huge unpopularity of “risky overseas adventures” among Americans, the US under two very different presidents has sent the message that it has lost the appetite for flexing its muscle militarily as in the past. America is withdrawing not just its troops from the Middle East; it is withdrawing its influence.
Pulling out of the Iran deal is one example of that. But the retreat is clear in many other areas: the pull-out from the Paris climate accord, the pull-out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the potential pull-out from the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as looming trade wars are other prime examples.
Further, by abrogating agreements, America is also saying it can no longer be trusted, critical for the maintenance of a leadership role. Sabre-rattling or the launching of limited strikes or the deployment of a few special forces here do not diminish this point. Rather, they are the cover the US provides itself to suggest it is what it once was, even though the bulk of the evidence is to the contrary.
The US administration’s very hostile stance toward the UN and the international system is not just manifest in the withdrawal from multilateral deals. It is noted in the president’s express contempt for that system and deals of that sort as well as that of his national security adviser, John Bolton. Decisions to not pay the dues owed UN agencies is another sign of this.
The P5, made up of China, Russia, France, the UK and US, is clearly obsolete and might have been dealt a death blow with the US withdrawal from the Iran deal (as Iran now deals with the P4+1).
Britain and France have long since lost the position they once held among global powers. Frankly, with the exception of its military clout, so too has Russia. Japan, German, and India all have much better claims to such roles.
The Iran deal also dealt the latest in a series of blows to Nato and has led European leaders to assert they could no longer depend on the US, the founder of that alliance. Tensions are likely to grow worse as the US attempts to sanction those one-time closest allies, and the Europeans create measures to offset that pressure.
Finally, the US leadership has stopped championing the rule of law and key components like democracy and respect for human rights as it once did. US agencies have removed advancement of democracy from their key missions and stopped advocating for it or for human rights issues as they once did. The rampant corruption allegations afflicting the highest offices in the US also send a signal that the country's moral leadership has been brought into question.
While some of these developments could be reversed, those reversals would take place in a world in which technological and geopolitical trends demand new leaders, new perceptions of power, new institutions and even a debate about a host of new and unaddressed challenges associated with connectivity, big data, artificial intelligence, the changing nature of work and trade, the changing nature of money and finance.
All these developments will require much creativity and will reveal the new order the planet so urgently needs to fill the void created by the collapse of that which came before. But what they require first is the recognition that what is done is done and well and truly over. The page has turned. Time for new authors to step up and begin writing the story of our shared future.
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow