A power vacuum looms in the international arena. America appears to have resigned its role as the guarantor of the liberal order, and no one else has stepped forward – yet. Instead we see countries retreating into narrowly defined national interests, and leaders as in Poland, Hungary and elswhere using this Covid-19 crisis to strengthen their hold on power.
Democracy is in retreat. In truth, liberal democracies have not been common in history. If they are not contrary to human nature, perhaps they are also not favoured by it. Liberal democracy or more generally the liberal order has survived in our time because the leading power – read USA – provided a zone of security within which it could be protected.
Since the end of the Cold War, and with marked acceleration under the Obama and Trump presidencies, the US has slowly been withdrawing from its role of leader of the free world and all the responsibilities this entails. There is little that unites the left and the right in the U.S today. But a consensus has emerged across the political spectrum, from Trump supporters to those of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden: all are united in believing that the last quarter of a century of American foreign policy was a disaster for American interests. They advocate a complete change. America is no longer to shape the world in its image, but instead is to retrench and act with restraint.
This is what the broad public wishes, and in democracies leaders tend to give people what they wish for. But this may prove to be a costly mistake. Power abhors a vacuum, and soon some other State – likely one that has radically different notions of democracy and human rights – may wish to assert its hegemony. We will all be much the worse for it.
A little bit of historical background may help frame the issue. The U.S role since WWII had rested, give or take, on four key pillars: global leadership; defence and promotion of the liberal international order; freedom, democracy and human rights; and preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Europe and Asia. This it did, not out of the kindness of its heart, but because it saw American interests aligned with these goals. It had learned a great lesson from the two world wars of the last century. If it retreated into its isolationist corner (a tendency always present in both political parties) and allowed the world to get on with its own business, it might find itself sucked into another world conflict.
Hence it set out to establish the liberal international order based on: respect for international borders, respect for international law, global rules and norms and what it saw as universal values, strong alliances between liberal democratic nations, and free trade. After all, the US was the only country with both the capacity and the willingness to establish such an order.
Not only was this to prevent a repetition of deadly wars but to avoid the widespread economic disruption and deprivation of the first half of the 20th century – a period that included WWI, the Great Depression, the rise of communism and fascism, the Ukranian famine, WWII and the Holocaust. Great Empires were to be dismantled and countries given free rein to decide their destinies. Democracy was to be encouraged. After all, democratic states, so the theory stated, were less likely to wage war on one another.
Of course, this policy came with tremendous costs. US defence spending was kept high. Often American soldiers had to intervene in distant corners of the world and American lives were lost in upholding such an order that all other democracies also benefited far. Perhaps this was the biggest public good ever in history.
In truth, the Pax-Americana was not always at the service of a liberal world order. Serving US interests sometimes called for other less enlightened policies. Arab autocracies and some South American and African dictatorships were supported, as was apartheid in South Africa. The US at times appeared to have become a quasi-imperialist power, captured by its military-industrial complex and Big Oil interests. Issues are so rarely black and white in real life. But the point remains: the US was not only the architect but the guarantor of our liberal world order. The alternative may be much, much worse.
The first decade of the 2000’s delivered a series of powerful blows to the liberal order and to the United States. In truth, the US inflicted some on itself… The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in which more Americans were killed on American soil than at any time since Pearl Harbour, concealed for a while a growing desire to gradually withdraw from world affairs. The US under Bush Jr. invaded Afghanistan to remove al Qaeda bases and the Taliban regime that provided it a safe haven. It invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, whom it saw as a problematic leader edging to extend his hegemony in the Middle East. Weapons of Mass Destruction aside, Saddam had become a problem of world order management, and hence a risk to the United States and to the region.
The debacle following the invasion of Iraq, the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis led to the widespread conviction that the role the United States had been playing in the world for the last seven decades was no longer necessary and, more importantly, no longer served American interests. With no Soviet Union to fight but only a liberal world order to protect, Americans increasingly did not see the point of footing the bill or the responsibility. The threats didn’t seem worth the price.
Obama came to office with a mandate to reposition the US in a more modest role appropriate to a new era of global convergence. In calling for “nation-building here at home”, he suggested that an active foreign policy detracted from Americans’ domestic well-being. He sought accommodation with old adversaries in Moscow, Tehran and Havana, while seeking to lessen the burden of America’s responsibility to allies. He carried out his campaign promise to withdraw all American forces from Iraq. When Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula, he limited his response to economic sanctions and remained committed to avoid being sucked into the Syrian conflict. The vacuum was soon filled by Russia who became the new power broker in Syria. It’s ironic how Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize where by and large his foreign policy, with the exception of the Iran nuclear deal, was that of being a largely absent power.
Trump’s “America First” world view has taken this a step further. The very fact that Americans would elect a president with no government or foreign policy experience, showed how little they cared about America’s role in the world. Since his election in 2016, Trump has shown a more sceptical view of the value of alliances, has been less critical of illiberal governments, has shown a reduced willingness to work through international or multilateral institutions and agreements and has voluntarily abdicated America’s role of global leadership.
In practice this has meant the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade agreement, the multilateral Paris climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear agreement. It lead to the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria in October 2019 whilst the world watched aghast. The list could go on and on.
So why is this a problem? For one, old habits die hard. The BRICS once lauded for their remarkable rise, are back to business as usual. Brazil has become Brazil; Russia has returned to being Russia and her geopolitical ambitions have come back with a vengeance; China has an emperor once more and South Africa has become mired in corruption and political turmoil.
In “post-historical” Europe, the past is not forgotten. It doesn’t take much for the Greeks to start calling the German’s Nazis, for Poland to once again feel insecure in its neighbourhood, and for the British to finally give vent to their traditional policy of keeping the continent at arm’s length.
The rest of the world doesn’t make much of a pretty picture. Daesh is alive and well, ready to set up base in Mozambique, and Europe faces an avalanche of refugees fleeing war torn zones in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Poll data show that the inpouring of millions of refugees from Syria and Libya contributed more than any other factor to the rising popularity of nationalist, ultranationalist or even overtly Fascist parties across Europe
The liberal order, led and guaranteed by the United States, has given the world seven decades of peace. The problem is not so much that geopolitical competition has returned and that Russia and China have begun to pursue old ambitions that had been kept at bay. The problem is that the liberal world may no longer be healthy and strong enough to continue containing and discouraging such ambitions. Without a strong and resolute American leadership, the world order will fall in upon itself. China will seek to become the new “global leader” as well as provide an alternative to the liberal democratic model. Russia is likely to make a bid for its sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe and regain global power status. If America is not resolute in standing up to these challenges, it may just be a question of time
Secondly today, more than ever, we face common problems that require common solutions. Climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, technological disruptions, refugees, pandemics, huge disparities in economic development between countries – no country can resolve these on its own. To view nationalism, or the love for one’s nation and compatriots, as the antithesis of globalisation is short sighted. If we are all to survive and thrive, we need to cooperate with other nations.
Blood-and-soil nationalism is not the answer to keep our nations and compatriots safe. If, for example, the French are the first to invent a vaccine, will the Americans’ reject it because it is a “foreign” vaccine? This would be nonsense.
Common problems require common solutions. If we are to survive and thrive in the 21st century we must abandon geopolitical rivalry. This requires leadership. Would-be disrupters of the liberal order have been deterred thus far. But if the United States appears no longer determined or able to uphold the order, it will be each for himself, and chaos will ensue.
Lovers of freedom the world over desperately need the US to return to its global leadership role as the guarantor of the liberal world order. Without it we may return to a world where might-is-right, where the strong impose their will over the weak. The election of Trump and his foreign policy actions to date have harmed the world, not just the United States.
To sustain a foreign policy of enlightened self-interest requires enlightenment, far-sightedness, a degree of generosity, a belief in the universality of rights, and a measure of cosmopolitanism that Americans have not lately been displaying. It is costly to shoulder the responsibilities of a superpower. But to ignore them in an attempt to set up a fortress America will, in time, prove to be more costly. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril.