Even while American dominance may have come to an end, American pre-eminence is likely to endure for some time yet.
The end of the Cold War had a triple significance for world affairs: the defeat of one power by another, the triumph of one political ideology over another, and the discrediting of one economic model in favour of another. All three have now been attenuated.
The Cold War was a global and transcendental struggle centred on and led by the Soviet Union and the United States. They were able to structure the pattern of international relations because of the qualitative discrepancy between their power, capacity and influence, on the one hand, and that of everyone else, on the other. The struggle for power and influence between them was global, leaving no corner of the world untouched or uncontested. And it was transcendental because of competing ideologies that could not tolerate each other’s existence but were committed to the eventual destruction of the other.
Between 1989-91, the Soviet Union imploded and collapsed as a major power, leaving the United States as the only remaining superpower. The commanding position of the U.S. as a power was quite astonishing and heady and indeed it went to the head of the neocons. They proclaimed quite openly, unencumbered by any inhibition or embarrassment, their desire to keep the U.S. not only as the No. 1 power, but as one that would not permit any potential opponent to acquire the means to be the dominant power in its own region or even to defend itself against U.S. attack. Iraq was meant to demonstrate both unlimited American power and limitless American willpower to enforce U.S. military superiority. Not just Saddam Hussein, but the world was to be shocked and awed into unquestioning submission to U.S. will.
Instead, Iraq ended up demonstrating the limits to American power and influence, with a rag tag cadre of insurgents thwarting every effort to convert battlefield victory into lasting military victory or political influence. Russia’s invasion of U.S. ally Georgia earlier this year might well mark the bookend of post-Cold War U.S. military dominance. The response of the neocons to having their grandiose ambitions frustrated in Iraq was interesting, and is best captured in the French phrase “fuite en avant,” which roughly translated means that when a venture goes wrong, instead of retreating and regrouping, we advance still farther in the initial direction: forge ahead or “Foreward, Ho.” So, if Afghanistan is not succeeding, let’s attack targets inside Pakistan without observing the niceties of Pakistani sovereignty and seeking its government’s consent. The insurgency is still alive and kicking in Iraq? Well then, let’s attack Iran, and all our problems will be solved. The imperial mindset of the neocons posited the U.S. as the indispensable, virtuous and exceptional nation. To their minds, only the unpatriotic could possibly question policies based in these delusional self-beliefs.
Triumph of liberal democracy
The second dimension of the U.S. victory in the Cold War was the triumph of the ideology of liberal democracy and political pluralism over communism. Intoxicated by this success, the neocons not only declared history to be at an end (although Francis Fukuyama later recanted on Iraq), they decided also to export democracy riding tank turrets and helicopter gunships. Iraq marks the graveyard of this democratic enterprise as well. When lectured by President George W. Bush at the St. Petersburg G8 summit, Vladimir Putin commented caustically that Russia could do without Iraq-style democracy, thank you very much.
The push for democracy was undermined also in two other respects. Contrary to his repeated rhetoric, Bush continued the decades old U.S. policy of ignoring the democratic shortcomings of allies (Saudi Arabia, Central Asian stans, Pakistan), coddling tyrants and dictators who kowtowed to Washington, and rejecting the outcomes of democratic elections that were not to U.S. liking, as with Hamas in Palestine.
Even more disastrously, for the Bush administration “exporting democracy” in practice translated into exporting it out of America. This too took several forms. First, Bush became president against the preference of most Americans, courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court rather than citizens’ votes. Second, the administration systematically and substantially subverted the carefully constructed and painstakingly nurtured separation of powers that had limited executive power as a way of protecting U.S. democracy and safeguarding its citizens’ liberties. Third, the administration did indeed substantially curtail many liberties and freedoms that were the bedrock of the U.S. version of liberal democracy, tilting the balance hugely towards the government and away from people. Fourth, it resorted to torture, the ultimate sacrifice of democracy on the altar of state security. Not victory in Iraq or in the war on terror, but the memories of Guantanamo Bay and the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison — the pornography of torture — will be the defining icons of this administration’s legacy.
Militarily contained in Iraq and increasingly checkmated also in Afghanistan, politically discredited by abusive practices at home and rank double standards abroad, morally compromised in Guantanamo and soiled in Iraq, the U.S. still chugged along on the back of its powerful economy. Yet the historian Paul Kennedy’s decades old thesis, about empires falling as they become militarily overstretched to protect the economic and political spoils of empire, was waiting for the right opportunity to be validated. The Nobel Laureate Jospeh Stiglitz has calculated the true cost of the Iraq War to exceed three trillion dollars. The U.S. was courting bankruptcy, and its courtship has been rewarded.
Where at the end of the Second World War the U.S. accounted for more than half the world’s economic output, today it accounts for a quarter of it; and yet it accounts for half the world’s military expenditure. Overseas military adventurism has been made possible by a reckless combination of domestic deficit financing and overseas borrowing. That has come to a crashing halt with the humungous crisis on Wall Street. The third aspect of the Cold War victory, the triumph of market capitalism over the command economy, must also now be severely qualified. The crisis vindicates Winston Churchill’s pithy assessment that if socialism suffers from the vice of an equal sharing of misery, then capitalism is afflicted with the vice of an unequal sharing of affluence. Where the Asian financial crisis of 1997 proved the perils of crony capitalism, the 2008 crisis on Wall Street shows the pitfalls of unbridled capitalism. Governments may be fallible, but markets too are imperfect. Both the Asian crisis of a decade ago and the current U.S. market collapse demonstrate the need for efficient, effective and transparent regulatory and surveillance instruments and institutions. Unchecked greed is not good. The state has an essential role to play. Those countries where the state has not abandoned the market to its own supposedly self-regulating devices are the better placed to weather the current crisis of confidence in capitalism.
The threefold decline of U.S. power, prestige and influence was in clear evidence during the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly session. Yet rumours of the death of American supremacy may be much exaggerated. Even while American dominance may have come to an end, American pre-eminence is likely to endure for some time yet. The fundamentals, to paraphrase Senator John McCain, are indeed strong. The U.S. military remains unchallengeable for the foreseeable future in its core tasks of asserting itself on the battlefield, particularly in the defence of genuinely vital U.S. interests. The U.S. economy is still the world’s biggest by far and the best balanced, most productive and most innovative in the world. And, if Senator Barack Obama should become president, as seems likely on current opinion polls, much of America’s lost international lustre would see a rapid recovery and the city on the hill would once again shine a beacon to the rest of the world. It will need to work harder than ever before to regain its former reputation as a benign and benevolent rather than a self-aggrandising hegemon. Still, America has proven many critics wrong before who saw in temporary setbacks, no matter how severe, the signs of a terminal decline. No one has yet lost money overestimating U.S. capacity to bounce back.