In his United Nations General Assembly speech last week, President Donald Trump loudly stated his intention to effectively dismantle the world order that the United States painstakingly built over the past century. Trump lauded nationalism before the assembled delegates at the same global institution that the U.S. helped create: “I will always put America first just like you, the leaders of your countries, should put your countries first,” he thundered. “There can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, independent nations.”
Trump’s speech was a remarkable departure from decades of U.S. policy aimed at creating an integrated post-nationalist world under its own leadership. At the end of the Second World War, the U.S. emerged for the first time in its history as a true superpower: a country able to reach out beyond its borders and reshape the nature of global politics. Most people alive today were born into a world whose institutions, economic systems, legal rules, and political boundaries have all been shaped to some degree by American influence. While the U.S. has never been comfortable with embracing its identity — preferring to refer to itself with such euphemisms as “the indispensable nation” — a sober accounting of America’s influence on world affairs can only arrive at the designation of an “empire.”
Through a network of nearly 800 military bases located in 70 countries around the globe, in addition to an array of trade deals and alliances, the U.S. has cemented its influence for decades across both Europe and Asia. American leaders helped impose a set of rules and norms that promoted free trade, democratic governance — in theory, if not always in practice — and a prohibition on changing borders militarily, using a mixture of force and suasion to sustain the systems that keep its hegemony intact. Meanwhile, although the U.S. generally eschewed direct colonialism, its promotion of global free trade helped “open a door through which America’s preponderant economic strength would enter and dominate all the underdeveloped areas of the world,” wrote the revisionist historian William Appleman Williams in his more-than-half-century-old classic, “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy”.
That strategy of “non-colonial imperial expansion,” as Williams called it, became the basis for U.S. foreign policy over the past century. For American elites, such a policy has provided remarkable benefits, even if the resulting largesse has not always trickled down to the rest of the country. Thanks to its status as the world’s only superpower, the U.S. today enjoys the “exorbitant privilege” of having its dollar serve as the world’s reserve currency, while U.S. leaders dominate the agenda of international institutions promoting governance and trade. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the successful creation of a global military alliance to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that same year, America’s imperial confidence reached a zenith; President George H.W. Bush publicly declared the start of a “new world order” under American leadership.
Looking back on Bush’s speech a few decades later, however, that prediction of a stable U.S.-led order seems to have been wildly optimistic. The world today faces a range of interwoven crises related to migration, inequality, war, and climate change, yet the structures and leadership needed to meaningfully respond to them seem woefully inadequate. Instead of the U.S. embracing the role of global leadership and filling the vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union, Americans have seen their country consumed by domestic crises and have responded with a mixture of ineptitude and paranoia towards international ones.
Meanwhile, the global system of free trade deals and military deployments built by U.S. leaders over the past 75 years — the hard infrastructure supporting America’s hegemony — has come to be viewed by many Americans as a costly burden rather than a benefit. Even before Trump rode to victory on a wave of promises to knock over the pillars of the post-World War II international order, the possibility that the U.S. would continue to enjoy clear primacy seemed questionable even with competent governance. With Trump now in power and doing his utmost to tank America’s global standing, what kind of new world order is actually coming into existence?
Although there is a long history of “declinist” writing about U.S. power, the election of a president hostile to the U.S.-created order marks the start of a genuinely unprecedented era. Imminent preparations are now being made for a post-American global future. Two recent books — “All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power,” by Thomas J. Wright, a fellow at the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, and “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power,” by Alfred McCoy, a legendary investigative journalist and a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison — offer a glimpse into what such a world may look like.
Although both books deal with the subject of America’s imperial decline, their approach differs in both scope and definition. Whereas McCoy explicitly discusses the rise and fall of America as an “empire,” a word that he intends not as an epithet but as an honest descriptor of the U.S. global footprint, Wright speaks about the possible collapse of the American-led “liberal international order” — the system of rules, norms and institutions that have governed global affairs in America’s favor since the end of World War II.
Wright sees the system under threat from a combination of newly emerging powers and recent American missteps. McCoy, for his part, sees the unraveling of the U.S. empire as analogous to the series of events that led to the decline of the British and French empires before it. The first step is the loss of support from local elites in territories under imperial influence, a process that McCoy says is clearly underway for the U.S. in many critical regions of the world. In recent years, America has seen its ties strained with military partners such as Turkey, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, while major U.S. allies like Germany and South Korea have increasingly come to question America’s capacity to continue leading the imperial system that it created.
It is the Arab Spring uprisings against mostly pro-U.S. dictators, however, that McCoy says marked the slow beginning of the end of American imperium. While the revolts are widely judged to have failed in bringing about liberal democracy, they did succeed in unseating longtime American allies in Tunisia and Egypt, while straining U.S. ties with Gulf Arab countries and even Iraq. As McCoy writes, “All modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control.” He adds, “For most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and assert their own agendas was also the moment when you knew that imperial collapse was in the cards.” The British empire famously became a “self-liquidating concern” when local elites across the empire began demanding self-rule, as did France’s far-flung rule when it was forced to wage a grinding war of attrition to keep control over Algeria. The Arab Spring and the forces it unleashed, which have reduced U.S. influence while exhausting its resources to deal with terrorism and migration, “may well contribute, in the fullness of time, to the eclipse of American global power.”
Compounding these pressures is the threat to American hegemony posed by a rising China, a country which reasonably expects to be given an opportunity to reshape the U.S.-created global order in proportion to its size, influence, and self-perception as a nation denied its rightful role in world affairs over the past century. While the U.S. possesses a conventional military advantage over China that is not likely to evaporate overnight, China has begun taking steps to challenge American preeminence in new realms of warfare. And the Chinese advances are directed at areas likely to be most important in the 21st century: cyberspace and outer-space. A growing educational gap between Chinese and American students in key STEM research fields means that a divergence in talent may place the U.S. at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, as the U.S. has been dealing with the turmoil wrought by its most recent election, China has been moving ahead with plans to connect the Eurasian continent through Chinese infrastructure and transit links, an ambitious endeavor named “One Belt, One Road” (also known as the Silk Road Initiative), an economic and political strategy that would reorient large swaths of the developing world around a Chinese metropole.
While McCoy prefaces his argument by acknowledging the inherent difficulties of prognosticating world events, the case he makes for a precipitous decline in U.S. power over the next decade is compelling. If trends continue, by 2030 the American Century — proclaimed with such confidence not long ago — could be “all over except the finger-pointing.”
The argument taken by Wright’s book is less dramatic, though in practice his conclusions are not vastly different. In the aftermath of a bruising decade-and-a-half of failed wars, financial crises, and political dysfunction, the U.S. seems to have lost both the will and ability to hold off threats to the international system it created. For their part, the American people have also lost faith in the ability of their elected officials to govern international affairs competently or deliver on any of the grand promises that have accompanied past wars and interventions.
Partly as a consequence of so many self-inflicted losses, China, Russia, and Iran have all mounted growing challenges to American hegemony in recent years, contesting the tenets of the U.S.-enforced order in the South China Sea, eastern Europe and the Middle East, respectively. Russia has successfully annexed territory and asserted its influence along its periphery, in places like Ukraine, while China has moved ahead with plans to put the economically-vital South China Sea region under its control. Instead of a world in which a hegemonic U.S. enforces the political and economic rules of engagement in these regions, its now possible to see a future in which the world is carved up into a “spheres of influence” system that gives regional powers wide latitude to set the agenda in their immediate neighborhood.
Such a development should give principled opponents of U.S. foreign policy pause. Although the crimes and follies of American imperialism over the past several decades are clear, it’s not obvious that a world divided between several regional hegemons would be more peaceful or stable. In the absence of the U.S. hegemonic presence, the world would likely see numerous sub-imperial states emerge, each seeking to impose their own vision of political order onto their region and being unconstrained by the threat of an outside power intervening to stop them. What’s worse, none of the powers seeking to replace the U.S. is even notionally committed to liberal principles like international human rights, meaning the likely retreat of such concepts along with U.S. influence. The damage that the U.S. did to its own professed values through direct abuses as well as the politicization of humanitarian discourse in recent years did little to help their survival. Like the British and French empires before it, the use of torture helped undermine the America’s reputation and its ability to use cultural persuasion instead of force as a means of building popular support. In the absence of the U.S., though, it remains unlikely that a reconstituted system of Russian, Chinese, or Iranian local imperialisms would take meaningful steps to uphold liberal values that the U.S., at least on occasion, made gestures toward promoting.
According to Wright, the strength of America’s global governance has always lain in the fact that the ideals that it promoted were genuinely popular, even if they were applied with inconsistency. Principles like free trade and the promotion of human rights standards boasted significant popular support around the world, while small states benefitted from the American commitment to curb the predatory behavior of their larger neighbors. Even in a world where the U.S. has been cut down to size and reduced to the status of a former global hegemon, it’s still possible for it to remain a leader among the countries in its own neighborhood. Barring a continued hard turn toward nativism, the U.S. would have an important role to play as the anchor state of the Western Hemisphere, serving as an economic and political fulcrum for the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
As the American global empire begins its long and fitful decline — a process initiated by the calamitous 2003 invasion of Iraq that has now given rise to the presidency of Donald Trump — the most worrisome prospect may be how this affects the U.S. itself. Writing in 2010 the late intellectual Tony Judt reflected on the world of emerging instability and uncertainty being wrought by the financial crises and wars that had opened the new century. Less than a decade later, his words seem remarkably prescient in anticipating America’s imperial twilight and the rise of its new demagogic politics:
[We] feel more comfortable describing and combating the risks we think we understand: terrorists, immigrants, job loss or crime. But the true sources of insecurity in decades to come will be those that most of us cannot define: dramatic climate change and its social and environmental effects; imperial decline and its attendant “small wars”; collective political impotence in the face of distant upheavals with disruptive local impact. These are the threats that chauvinist politicians will be best placed to exploit, precisely because they lead so readily to anger and humiliation.
The United States will leave behind a complex legacy as its global footprint recedes. Despite well-documented crimes during wars of choice in Vietnam, Iraq, and other peripheral regions of its global empire, much of the world also experienced advancements in human rights and economic prosperity during the period of America’s post-World War II hegemony. The late British empire left behind a similarly complicated legacy: one that included massacres and disastrous geographic partitions, but also left many parliamentary democracies in the lands of its former colonies. Likewise, the final judgment on the U.S. empire might be more nuanced than a rigid ideological position can accommodate. As it continues its descent from superpower status, those of us born into the world shaped by the United States can only hope that its collapsing imperial system experiences a soft landing – and that American leaders can learn to make peace with a world in which their country is but one power among many.