When the Brookings Institute acknowledges it, you know it’s official: the ‘great’ American Century is over. However, there are attenuating circumstances, which are explained in an article titled Trump and the Crumbling of the US-led World Order. According to a discussion among Robert Kagan and other Neo-conservatives, the successful international order created by the US after World War II was vulnerable on two fronts: internal complacency and external pressure from authoritarian regimes. Most recently, Trump supporters brought that pressure home.
The postwar task of the US was to “maintain general peace through multi-polar competition”. Brookings’ use of that term is surprising, given that the US is currently pushing back with everything it has against Russia over its implementation of a multi-polar world — but more about that later. Apparently, here’s where the US went wrong: “Having US forces keep the peace by occupying Japan/Germany was too narrow a view of our interests, and when [the first Gulf War] undermined the international order, we realized we had to expand NATO to keep the peace.”
However contradictory this reasoning may sound to foreign ears, its goals were to be implemented through a political process known as ‘convergence’, which would lead to a world of ‘responsible stakeholders, after the chaotic nineties’. (The Cold War theory of convergence was that capitalism and communism would ‘converge’ into a social democracy acceptable to both sides, and this still has not happened.)
In his book All Measures Short of War”, (a reference to F.D.R.’s pledge to use ‘all measures short of war’ to defeat fascism), one of the participants in the Brookings discussion, Thomas J. Wright, tells us that the new convergence is achieved through the elimination of something called ‘balancing’:
Balancing describes how a major power will push back against another country that it sees as especially powerful or threatening and can involve arming your rival’s enemies, building up your own military, building an alliance to contain your rival or setting down red lines over which you will go to war.”
Failing to note that the US uses all of these methods to pushes back against Russia and its ‘authoritarian threat’, Wright explains that: “Putin and Xi fear that liberal democracy could win out over authoritarian rule.” Although NATO has 14,000 troops lined up on Russia’s eastern border, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Wright claims that: “The military threat to Russia has declined massively. What it fears are a free press and a market economy, which are existential threats to authoritarian regimes”.
Wright’s contribution to political science is to have identified a ‘constant struggle between competing elements of human nature’. Humans are tempted to choose protection and security over freedom, thus democracy is not a natural state, and the enlightened few must constantly struggle to impose it!
In the name of that struggle, the US has the honor of steering things toward “a liberal world order, in which free trade all but guarantees that nations will not go to war” (a theory that also goes back to the days of FDR). Only neo-liberalism (one man, one vote combined with freedom to act) is democratic, even if it results in most benefits going to the 1%. Authoritarians, most of whom in the current age make sure their people are taken care of, are to be condemned for limiting the 1%’s ability to rig the system.
By accusing Trump of preferring authoritarianism to ‘the liberal world order’ (implying that authoritarianism rejects free enterprise, which it does not), the Neo-cons represented by Brookings are ready to use all available methods short of war to contain Russia. Claiming that countries were no longer inclined to cooperate, as they had been by creating the UN after World War II, ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union gave the US and the West an unprecedented opportunity (sic)’ to lead the world into a new era in which “the major powers would work with each other to tackle shared challenges. States would compete with each other, but over economic investment and trade opportunities, not to enhance their own security at the expense of others, or to claim more territory”.
Having snidely critiqued Russia for allowing the Russian majority in Crimea to vote to return to Russia (while failing to note that Crimea had been part of Ukraine only since 1954), Wright does admit that “the US emerged from the Cold War as an unrivaled super-power that sought to maintain and extend its military primacy so that the gap with potential rivals was so large that it would be futile to challenge it”. This policy was enshrined under President Clinton in what came to be known as the Wolfowitz Doctrine, after the name of its author, Paul Wolfowitz, and by removing its bellicose language in December, 2017, Donald Trump set the deep state resolutely against him.
In the Neo-conservative playbook, the US was forced to be the world cop ‘because if we don’t lead, no one else will’, in the words of Clinton’s bellicose Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. (This claim gave rise to the now ubiquitous phrase ‘stepping up to the plate’, a reference to the batter’s position in the all-American sport of baseball..) In a new take on the benevolent hegemon:
The absence of balancing opened the door for a new era of globalization, as the US spread the gospel of markets, deregulation, capital flows, foreign direct investment and trade. Countries competed for a share of the ever-increasing pie, and they transformed their own economies and systems of government to be more competitive.
Nor was there anything wrong with this program: “Its architects believed that eventually it would create a global order that could survive the decline of the United States. Non-Western powers would need its rules and institutions to grow economically, to reassure other countries about their power, and to tackle common problems.”
In case the reader is not convinced: “The survival of the U.S.-led order would eventually become decoupled from American primacy because once non-Western powers had converged with it, they would not go back. A democratic Russia and China would carry forward the neoliberal mantle inherited from the US.”
Russia and China having already initiated the construction of a multi-polar world through the creation in 2009 of the BRICS, Vice President Joseph Biden tried to play catch by declaring in Ukraine that, “We are trying to build a multi-polar world, in which like-minded nations make common cause of our common challenges—the stronger our partners, the more effective our partnerships.”
However, if it’s someone else’s multi-polar world, we’re having none of it:
Putin hoped to secure more freedom to maneuver in his neighborhood in exchange for supporting the United States in Afghanistan and in the war on terrorism. However, the United States had no intention of facilitating a Russian or Chinese sphere of influence because it saw no need to concede any ground. Moreover, the countries that would be in such a sphere of influence have their own agency and would strongly resist, thereby potentially destabilizing U.S. alliances and strategic partnerships. After the Cold War, U.S. policymakers believed that playing a role in the U.S.-led order was in the interests of Russia and China, and those in either country seeking a return of power politics were anachronistic and counter-productive. From the perspective of the United States, potential challengers like Russia and China as well as emerging powers like Brazil and India could play an increasing role in the international order only to the degree that they accepted the basic legitimacy of the existing arrangement.
Putin and Xi’s multi-polar world embodied in the BRICS is derogatorily referred to in Washington as ‘revisionism’, a return to the era of spheres of influence that preceded and followed World War II, and which easily slides into revanchism, a country’s determination to recover lost territory. Thus Washington accuses Vladimir Putin of seek-ing to recreate the Russian Empire, starting with the Baltic countries, which NATO therefore must protect, while condemning Xi for ‘claiming’ that the South China Sea is to his country what the Caribbean is to the US. The Washington consensus as expressed by Brookings is that:
Beijing and Moscow cannot understand why the United States has an un-limited sphere of influence while they are not allowed (sic) to expand their influence in East Asia and Eastern Europe, respectively. They dismiss the notion of consent and invitation that is the key feature of U.S. alliances, one that distinguishes these alliances from normal hegemonic or imperial arrangements.” (Never mind that it is the US that invades other countries, while Russia goes only where it is invited, as in Syria.)
In a bid to outdo Pinocchio (or the need to throw everything it’s got at a problem) the Brookings analysts claim that “It was the threat of democracy and color revolutions that really lay behind Putin’s alarm about NATO and EU expansion,” thus admitting that the West was indeed, as Putin claims, behind the various color revolutions that have shaken the world in the new century, while playing down the West’s military threat that Trump claims is too expensive.
Wright claims that “Even if the West wished to reassure Moscow and Beijing on this score, doing so would be impossible, because the threat represented by democracy emanated from the success of the order in other countries—in Eastern Europe in particular—and not from bilateral diplomacy with Russia and China.” This is a bit confusing, but we can put it down to sloppy editing. Wright seems to be saying that the economic success that democracy brought to other countries under US tutelage is such that it would do no good for Washington to reassure Russia and China that it has no intention of favoring them with ‘regime change’. Hence, bi-lateral diplomacy such as the Helsinki Summit is a waste of time.
Confessing to its real motives for bringing NATO troops right up to Russia’s eastern borders with Europe, Brookings’ experts claim:
The United States also hoped to enlarge the security order to include new countries and envisioned that this expanded order would have purposes other than fighting terrorism. According to this scenario, the seven-country enlargement of NATO in 2004 and the eastward move-ment of the European Union would create a Europe ‘whole and free’ (a Cold War term). The deepening of U.S. alliances in Asia and the engagement of non-allied countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar would strengthen the U.S.-led regional order. Existing alliances would ‘also’ be deepened where possible to consolidate the U.S. presence in key regions.
(That is., around Russia and China….) Brookings admits that after 9/11, the Bush administration ‘prioritized the war on terrorism above all else, and Russia mistakenly believed that if it provided basing rights in Central Asia and generally cooperated in the war, the US might stop supporting Ukraine or give Russia more leeway in its neighborhood.’ In reality, the United States never envisaged ‘sacrificing’ its core strategic goals in Europe in exchange for cooperation in the war on terrorism. Indeed, it probably never occurred to U.S. policymakers that such a deal would ever be on the table:
What angered Putin most was the U.S. missile defense project in Eastern Europe. Although Russia had more than enough missiles to breach these defenses, the project signaled that this part of Russia’s neighborhood was no longer to be considered a sphere of influence. By the mid-2000s, Putin was eroding democracy at home and criticizing U.S. policy in Russia’s neighborhood.
Never mind that in May 2006, Dick Cheney speaking in Lithuania, accused Russian opponents of reform of “seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade,” as if it was up to the US to decide what was good for Russia, or that it continues to accuse Vladimir Putin of ‘threateninig’ the Baltic states. As Brookings points out, Putin did indeed break publicly with the West in February 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of senior officials and experts from either side of the Atlantic. He accused the United States of trying to create “a unipolar world with one center of authority, one center of force, one center of decision-making, a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.” Under this new system, Putin warned, “we are witnessing the almost unbridled hyper use of force—military force—in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.”
Instead of admitting the justice of Putin’s remarks, Wright accuses the Russian President of “turning away from cooperation and toward competition, showing that when liberal democracy is not deeply rooted, governance failures can open the door to authoritarianism that enjoys widespread support, despite the erosion of individual liberties and the rule of law.”
Having found a way to explain Vladimir Putin’s high level of domestic support while simultaneously finding an excuse for US decline, Brookings rests its case: the conflict is no longer between capitalism and socialism, but between neo-liberalism, which guarantees democracy, and those who refuse to be saved.
Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years, exlusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.