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25 June 2015updated 29 Jun 2015 10:09am

Farewell to the American century

As US influence wanes, a new world is emerging.

By Mark Leonard

What do an Iraqi jihadist, the Afghan president, a Chinese entrepreneur, a Russian special forces officer and a Filipino fisherman have in common? They are just some of the figures who appear in a remarkable crop of books on the big foreign policy stories of today. British debates about global affairs usually still start and end with the US but in the future it could be the absence of America, rather than its overbearing presence, that shapes global politics.

The US has withdrawn from Afghanistan while China has stepped up its talks with the Taliban about a new political settlement. An Islamist state is being carved out of Iraq and Syria under America’s nose. The “ugly Chinaman” has replaced the “ugly American” as the face of capitalist expansionism in Africa. And while Russian special forces destabilise Ukraine, Angela Merkel and François Hollande negotiate with Vladimir Putin, with Barack Obama nowhere to be seen. Even in the Asia-Pacific region – towards which the US is pivoting – China is changing the balance of power. A new world is emerging, in which a multitude of powers are competing with each other through hybrid wars, economic sanctions and naval manoeuvring. It is a world in which economic globalisation is powered by Chinese as much as western capital.

America’s most visible retreat came when it pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011. Patrick Cockburn’s bracing book The Rise of the Islamic State tells the story of what ­happened next. Over the course of 100 days in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS, also known as Isis) transformed the politics of the Middle East, shattering the western-led order that had been established after the Gulf war. On 10 June that year, about 1,300 Isis fighters took the Iraqi city of Mosul from the army, which had a nominal force of 60,000. The IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, signalled the end of Westphalian order when he declared: “Syria is not for the Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s.”

The US created all of the conditions for the rise of a monster that it has no way of bringing under control. Today, even as America is forced back into Iraq to fight Isis, it is less central to the future of the region’s politics than Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are engaged in a titanic struggle for regional primacy. Ironically, the US-led “war on terror” has ended up allowing al-Qaeda-like groups to spring up and capture territory hundreds of times the size of Osama Bin Laden’s camps. Last year, Islamic State was founded; it is financed by captured oil and gas fields and defended with tanks and artillery that it stole from the Iraqi army.

“Isis is the child of war,” Cockburn declares. “Its members seek to reshape the world around them by acts of violence.” In a chapter entitled “If it bleeds, it leads”, he describes how Isis has become expert in spreading fear, using videos and social media to mobilise its supporters to join the jihad in Syria, Yemen and Iraq and to demoralise the Shia soldiers resisting its advance.

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One of the reasons why the west has struggled in its response is that it is still in denial. For Cockburn, Washington has been fighting the wrong targets – going to war against Iraq and Afghanistan while building alliances with the real problem countries, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It romanticised the Arab spring, overestimating its liberalising potential for the region, and was seduced by the propaganda of media-savvy protesters who wanted to portray their uprisings as “velvet revolutions”, akin to those in eastern Europe after 1989.

Above all, westerners wrongly assume that the actions of their governments are among “the prime movers of events” in this complex region. Cockburn points to the growing gulf between President Obama’s bombastic language about “degrading and destroying” Isis and the reality on the ground. “Isis has many enemies,” he concludes, “but their disunity and differing agendas mean that the Islamic State is fast becoming an established geographic and political fact on the map.”

Western policymakers hope that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be as disastrous as its escape from Iraq. Some experts in Washington have even hoped that China might go some way in filling America’s shoes as a stabiliser for Afghan politics. When the US decided to move towards Asia, China responded with a “march to the west”. Andrew Small’s fascinating book The China-Pakistan Axis shows that Beijing is not exactly trying to replace Washington in Afghanistan but that it is stepping up by offering to play a role in brokering political reconciliation between the Taliban and other Afghan factions, bringing Afghanistan into its regional security grouping, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and launching a series of trilateral conclaves on the future of the country with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

China, as so often, is driven as much by domestic needs as by external ambition. Its president, Xi Jinping, is attempting to “rebalance” his economy by finding markets for its overcapacity and stimulating a catch-up of China’s inland and western promises. He also has to win a war on terror at home. China’s march to the west is enshrined in the idea of launching a new Silk Road – one in which Pakistan plays a central role.

When Xi travelled to Islamabad in April, he announced more than $40bn of investment. He has plans to build a network of ports, pipelines, roads and railways connecting the oil and gas fields of the Middle East to the mega-cities of east Asia. He is also building a deep-water port at Gwadar in the south-west that he hopes will allow China to become a maritime power with reach into the Indian Ocean. In return for the Chinese investments, the Pakistani government has promised to create a 12,000-strong army solely to protect China’s interests, including those in the lawless tribal areas that border Afghanistan.

China’s relationship with Pakistan is its only very close alliance. Islamabad acted as a bridge between Nixon and Mao in the cold war and now it has become a central platform for China’s progression from regional to global power, capable of projecting force well beyond its borders. Small’s book is gripping because he has travelled back and forth to both countries and built up links with spies, diplomats and soldiers to uncover a secretive and poorly understood relationship that is marked by terrorism, nuclear weapons and geopolitical posturing.

One of the places where China has already emerged as a dominant power is Africa – a continent that America and Europe have neglected since the end of the cold war. Howard W French claims that Africa has already become “China’s second continent” in his vivid account of how more than a million new Chinese colonisers are remaking sub-Saharan Africa (the transformation is so complete that the Kenyan pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year was almost entirely composed of Chinese artists – before protests led to its cancellation).

Criss-crossing countries – from Guinea and Sierra Leone to Mali and Ghana – French tells stories about a remarkable cast of characters including Hao Shengli, an entrepreneur who is buying up agricultural land in Mozambique. A chancer who plays fast and loose with the law, he has married three women in succession to circumvent China’s one-child policy. He has now brought his children to Africa to encourage them to settle with Mozambican women, hoping to get around restrictions on foreign ownership of land “through a kind of sexual colonisation”. French captures brilliantly the ubiquity, drive and casual racism of these new colonists looking for a frontier spirit that is hard to find in the crowded, corrupt and repressive China.

Underlying the individual stories is an account of a new period of globalisation – one powered not by western capital but by China’s ferocious rise. To French, Africa is a “testing ground” for Chinese banks, construction companies and other enterprises looking for business, markets or raw materials. He describes the emergence of “a kind of modern-day barter system”, in which developing countries swap access to raw materials for new railroads, highways and airports. Much of this infrastructure is paid for with Chinese capital that is often tied to the use of Chinese companies, Chinese materials and Chinese workers. He claims: “China is increasingly writing its own rules, and reinventing globalisation in its own image, gradually jettisoning many of the norms and conventions used by the United States and Europe throughout their long and hitherto largely unchallenged tutelage of the Third World.”

America’s neglect of a peripheral region such as Africa is less surprising than its absence from Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea. The contrast with the Balkans in the 1990s – where US bombs and brokerage drove the peace in Bosnia at the talks in Dayton, Ohio – and the liberation of Kosovo could not be more complete. Richard Sakwa’s book Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands is an attempt to explain the upheaval in the European neighbourhood through the prism of western overreach.

The turmoil in Crimea has its roots in the elision of two separate Ukraine crises – the linking of the latest chapter in Ukraine’s interminable identity crisis with a broader crisis of European order that opposes two different visions of Europe. The west conceived an ever-growing “Wider Europe”, with Nato and the EU at its heart. But since Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia has yearned for a “Greater Europe”, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which has multiple centres including Brussels, Moscow and Ankara, each enjoying a sphere of influence.

Ukraine found itself on the dividing line between these visions and the failure of the west was in forcing it to choose. “Like most other Ukrainian leaders,” Sakwa writes, “[Viktor] Yanukovych had long been playing Moscow off against Brussels, in an attempt to get the best of both worlds . . . In the event, things blew up in his face.”

The Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 was, Sakwa writes, the first of the “wars to stop Nato enlargement”. The Ukraine crisis of 2014 was the second. “It is not clear,” he muses portentously, “whether humanity would survive a third.” The war in Crimea marks the end of the post-cold-war order that the west was building around itself: “In the end, Nato’s existence became justified by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement,” he remarks wryly. However, having announced its desire to embrace Asia, the US is keen to avoid getting sucked back into the European security business and has resorted to sanctions to punish Russia for trying to upset its system – a move that might accidentally precipitate the unravelling of the western-led global economic order.

By looking at structural questions, Sakwa offers a much-needed attempt to understand how the world looks from Moscow, but his book grates because it is too uncritical of Putin and his distorted accounts of history. And he is so focused on what he considers the historical mistakes inherent in the “asymmetric end of the cold war” that he fails to spot the profound implications of the shift of primary responsibility for European security from Washington to Berlin.

The one region where Washington has sought to increase, rather than decrease, its role is Asia. Robert D Kaplan’s book Asia’s Cauldron argues that the central geopolitical struggle of the next century will be over control of the South China Sea – a contest that pits China against Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan in their claims over obscure islands and rock formations. Looming behind their disputes is a deeper competition between China and the US over control not just of the Pacific but also the terms of economic globalisation.

Globalisation has not ended the competition between countries. Indeed, in the South China Sea, everything that supports it (such as trade routes and energy deposits) has become fraught with competition. Ninety per cent of all commercial goods that travel from one continent to another do so by sea; and no sea has more traffic than the South China Sea, a space currently policed by the US navy. The US has bet its future as a global power on its ability to maintain its primacy in the Asia-Pacific region and is withdrawing from other theatres to increase its presence there. In recent weeks, China has hit the headlines with its efforts to build settlements on obscure rocks, while the US has retaliated by insisting on flying its planes and sailing its ships in the areas over which China claims sovereignty.

Beijing feels increasingly caged by America’s Asian security order and has been investing in submarines and ships with the intention of denying Washington access to its littoral waters (making it difficult for the US to defend the security of its allies). There are just too many claimants to the waters in the South China Sea, Kaplan argues: an overall solution does not appear to be in sight. He fears that, eventually, the US will not be able to fight China’s ambitions, as China can just wait it out. It will grow economically stronger and the US weaker; and it has the advantage of the area being in its backyard. The consequences of a power shift will go beyond a change in the bilateral relationship between China and America: “Without the US navy and air force, globalisation as we know it would be impossible.”

So how are Americans processing this change in their global role? As we look forward to the presidential primary season, we can expect a gaggle of Republican candidates to accuse Barack Obama of precipitating US decline. However, Joseph S Nye, Jr claims that the US foreign policy debate is based on the wrong premises. His elegant book Is the American Century Over? takes issue with many of the “declinists” (he starts the clock for the century with Henry Luce’s first use of the phrase in 1941).

America is not yet finished, Nye argues: it still outranks any other country in the world in terms of economic, military and “soft” power and has a unique resilience that allows it periodically to reinvent itself. American power is based on alliances rather than colonies. Moreover, no one else is willing or able to take on the role that the US has played in recent decades.

Although Nye’s arguments are persuasive, his book’s central claim is less convincing. The US economy may be back but the order built around it is fraying. Washington is not abandoning its global role but it cannot commit enough to any theatre to keep all the local players in check. In Europe and the Middle East, the US is increasingly ceding responsibility to local actors. It is neither an economic nor political force in Africa. And in Asia, the relative power of the US is being challenged by others, even if its allies are collectively much more powerful than China.

Nye is too honest and subtle a thinker to ignore these bigger trends, arguing in his conclusion that though the American century is not over, it will not look like it did in the 20th century because: “The rise of other countries – as well as the increased role of non-state actors – will make it more difficult for anyone to wield influence and organise action.” Consequently, the US is likely to be the world’s most powerful nation but, far from living through the second half of an American century, we will be inhabiting a post-American world.

Mark Leonard is the co-founder and the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations

The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution
Patrick Cockburn
Verso, 192pp, £9.99

The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics
Andrew Small
C Hurst & Co, 288pp, £30

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa
Howard W French
Alfred A Knopf, 320pp, £22.50

Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands
Richard Sakwa
I B Tauris, 220pp, £18.99

Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific
Robert D Kaplan
Ballantine Books, 256pp, £12.99

Is the American Century Over?
Joseph S Nye, Jr
Polity, 152pp, £35

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