Washington’s role in the world is diminishing. What comes next?
Has American dominance across global foreign policy, finance, and military affairs been a source of stability or conflict? Some believe Washington’s status as the last great power has been a force for good. Others disagree.
Maintaining its hegemony has demanded that Washington divide the world into marginalised adversaries and dependent allies. NATO’s supremacy in Europe was seen by many of the West’s leading lights as having created a lasting peace on the continent. At the same time though, it has also been the main source of conflict as the bloc expanded towards Russian borders.
We are now living in an age when that American dominance is coming to an end, and its security guarantees are losing their credibility. If a unipolar world order reduced the prospect of conflict, will previously dormant forces be unleashed as vulnerable states are overwhelmed by their aggressors? Alternatively, though, will stalemates and ceasefires be longer lasting as nations previously emboldened by US backing are forced to find lasting solutions with their adversaries, rather than languishing behind Washington’s protection?
When American promises don’t matter any more
The US was, understandably, hesitant to admit defeat and leave Afghanistan as it would cause a “credibility crisis.” Its allies would no longer be able to base their foreign policy on the assumption of its protection and collective hegemony, and they would have to pursue an independent foreign policy and compromise with their adversaries. American power would decline, due to a diminishing ability to exert influence over its dependent allies, and to marginalise its adversaries.
If Ukraine and Taiwan did not have full faith that the US would offer them protection, then their positions as Washington’s frontlines against Russia and China would not be tenable and they would have to seek peace with their adversaries. Without steadfast US support, Ukraine would have to abide by the Minsk Peace Agreement, and Taiwan would need to halt its push for secession from China.
The failed US pursuit of regime change in Syria has resulted in both the Arabs and Turkey moving gradually towards reconciliation and a workable peace with Damascus. American efforts to reach an agreement with Iran, and the failure to decide the outcome of the conflict in Yemen, has similarly incentivised Saudi Arabia to re-establish diplomatic ties with Tehran, and paved the way for negotiations on improving bilateral relations and ending the war in Yemen.
The EU is also coming to terms with the consequences of US decline. In May 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that “The times when we could fully rely on others have passed us by a little bit, that’s what I’ve experienced in recent days… I can only say: We Europeans really have to take our fates in our own hands.”
The EU’s principal approach is now one of “strategic autonomy,” which could be expressed more honestly as “autonomy from the US.” Without the support of Washington, Brussels is not able to construct a Europe without, and thus inevitably against, Russia. There is growing pressure to do a deal and reach a much-delayed post-Cold War settlement with Moscow that lays the foundation for pan-European security.
Europe’s security collapse
Towards the end of the Cold War, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev warned his American counterpart that hawks in both Washington and Moscow would resist peace as it would undermine the dominant position of both the US and the USSR. Conflict, they believed, was good – the intense military rivalry had created security dependence, which ensured that their allies remained obedient.
Indeed, the hawks in Washington warned against Gorbachev’s “peace offensive” as demilitarising and improving relations would reduce security dependence and divide the Western alliance. The dilemma of US hegemony versus security resolved itself with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the Americans no longer had to demilitarise Europe to secure peace – they could do whatever they wanted with little opposition. And so, the collective defence against the Soviets was replaced with collective hegemony for states who were prepared to bandwagon behind the US.
After the Cold War, the West initially signed up for several pan-European security agreements. The Charter of Paris for a New Europe in 1990, the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 and the Istanbul Document in 1999 all committed to the principle of “indivisible security,” which meant “They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States.”
All of these pan-European security agreements were subsequently violated by the pursuit of a hegemonic peace, with the West insisting that NATO should monopolise security. The language shifted from “indivisible security” to the “freedom” to expand the bloc. The US also began to dismantle other pan-European security agreements such as the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, and other agreements that could constrain the Americans. Even international law in accordance with the UN Charter is marginalised by seeking alternative legitimacy under the Orwellian concept of the “rules-based international order.”
Europe is now in a precarious situation as the pan-European security agreements have been dismantled and there is no hegemony to ensure stability and order. The first instinct has been consistent with the hegemonic order – use threats and ultimatums to make Russia accept the dictates of NATO. However, in the absence of hegemony, the Europeans are only isolating themselves. Russia is deploying increasingly advanced weaponry and rapidly reducing its economic, technological, and financial reliance on the West by enhancing its economic connectivity with the East. The efforts by the US, Ukraine, and Poland to sabotage Nord Stream 2 will similarly result in European industries becoming less competitive, as cheap Russian gas goes to Asia instead.
The West could previously dismiss or ignore Moscow when it suggested it could join NATO, proposing a new European security architecture in 2008, and a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok in 2010. However, this time it is different. Russia faces an existential threat with NATO expansion into Ukraine, and Russia has the economic and military means to balance Western unilateralism.
Western capitals are grudgingly coming to terms with the end of hegemony and unilateralism, and the subsequent need to restore agreement on pan-European security. Moscow has now demanded an end to the era of NATO hegemony and a return to the principle of indivisible security. The Kremlin appears to be planning for an age where America matters less. How long will it be before the rest of the world starts to do the same?
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