This is the cover story from this week’s New Statesman, The eclipse of the West. Subscribe here.
In May 2015 Russia held its Victory Day parade in Red Square, Moscow, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. The ceremony was boycotted by the country’s former Western allies in protest at Moscow’s interference in eastern Ukraine, though the military procession featured contingents from China and India. Addressing the crowd, President Vladimir Putin complained, “In the past decades, we have seen attempts to create a unipolar world” – by the United States, in cahoots with its allies. By the end of December 2016, with Russia claiming its version of success in the Syrian War and beginning to play kingmaker in Libya, Putin declared in an interview on Russian national television that Western efforts had failed. “We are already living in different times,” he said. “The global balance is gradually restoring.”
From Moscow to Beijing, there is no shortage of those ready to declare the “end of the American century”. Yet what is striking is how much traction this notion has gained in the West. In European capitals, the long-held habit of griping about America’s leadership in international affairs has been replaced by a growing concern about a world in which Washington’s commitment to internationalism is diminished. In the US, meanwhile, there was a time when creeping pessimism about the nation’s ability to shape the world would have seemed sacrilegious. Yet the post-mortems on the “age of unipolarity” – an era in which one power enjoyed a predominance of cultural, economic and military power in the international system – are coming thick and fast. There are trends at work that cannot be explained merely by the election of Donald Trump as president, though he is in part a beneficiary from them.
In Making the Unipolar Moment, Hal Brands describes what is happening as the natural passing of a phase in international affairs, brought about by the convergence of several historical forces, not least the implosion of the Soviet Union – America’s greatest rival – in 1989. Another interpretation, by Michael Mandelbaum in Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, is that the diminution of US power is in part the consequence of overstretch and blowback from its misguided zeal to reshape the world in its image. In this version of events, nothing did more damage than the attempt to bring liberal democracy to Iraq in 2003, with all the blood and treasure that was spent in pursuing the cause.
The new vogue for self-examination should not be confused with any abandonment of Washington’s aspirations to “primacy”. Despite the undeniable creep of world-weariness, it is no easy task to wean the US off its habit of “leading from the front”. In Trump’s formulation, it is time for America to start “winning again”. This does not imply a continuation of the humble retreat that began under Barack Obama. Yet there is no denying that a new narrative has taken hold. The rising power of China, the blunting of US power abroad and the stunting of growth at home have led to a realisation that “pre-eminence” cannot be taken for granted. It is for this reason that America’s international commitments – from Nato to the UN – are about to undergo an audit. Those of us who have got used to operating in this orbit must be prepared to move faster on our feet.
Since the First World War, the question of “what America does next” has been more important to the security and health of the West than anything else. The truth, however, is that America has always been uncertain about the costs of the global leadership envisaged by President Woodrow Wilson and encapsulated in his “Fourteen Points”, outlined in January 1918. For much of the past century, to borrow Henry Kissinger’s formulation, it has been an “ambivalent superpower”. On both left and right, there has been incessant grumbling against elites who were thought to be preoccupied with America’s standing on the international stage to the detriment of the health of the republic at home.
The voices of the dissenters grew louder after the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, but they have been ever present in the debate. It is a mistake to see Donald Trump’s victory as a wild aberration from the American national story; rather, it was the forthright expression of sentiments that have bubbled under the surface for more than a century.
Trump’s plea to put “America first” has a long lineage, and so does the unvarnished assertion of commercial aggrandisement as the guiding light of foreign policy. The America First Committee, a vehicle for isolationist sentiments that opposed intervention in the Second World War, was dissolved in December 1941, four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet the sentiments that it expressed did not disappear. By the end of the war, as the US worked closely with the UK to create a new international system – fastened down through the Bretton Woods system, the creation of the United Nations and the building of Nato – there were many objections raised to the course of US foreign policy.
One was that Americans were picking up the bill for European security in a way that freed up the funds for a British experiment in socialism under the Labour prime minister Clement Attlee. Another, shared by many senior diplomats in the early stages of the Cold War, was that the British were taking advantage of the growing divide between the Soviet Union and the West to continue to pursue their imperial “great game” with the Russians in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean.
It was only after the triumph of foresighted American statecraft under the postwar secretary of state George Marshall that the US learned to take the long view and to come to terms with its superpower status. With leadership of the free world came a growing sense of the mission’s gravity. For some, it was a gift bestowed by providence; for others, it was something of a cross to bear. Either way, generations of American elites were trained to assume these global responsibilities.
The people who hold these views have not disappeared in the space of one presidential campaign. Before Donald Trump’s election, Washington was dominated by those who believed that America was the “indispensable nation”. Among this cohort were many liberal internationalists who were concerned about a growing perception of American retreat under Barack Obama. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, they would now be in the ascendancy.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider this alternate reality. Clinton believed that, under Obama, the United States had been too reticent in asserting itself and too complacent in letting the US-led order decay in the Middle East, eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. “Don’t do stupid shit” – Obama’s mantra – was, in Clinton’s view, an inadequate organising philosophy for a nation of this status and historical calling. That she served only one term as secretary of state gave her a chance to distance herself from aspects of Obama’s foreign policy on Syria and Ukraine. Likely Clinton appointees, such as Michèle Flournoy, who was odds-on to be her secretary of defence, also stayed aloof during Obama’s second term. This was partly because they were confident that they would be granted the opportunity to do it better.
Those who hung on in the hope that a more activist foreign policy would emerge (such as the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power) looked increasingly forlorn. There was something pathetic, in the true sense of the word, about the sight of Power, who rose to prominence as an anti-genocide campaigner, chiding Russia at the UN for its actions in Syria while the nation that she represented opted to stay on the sidelines.
During last year’s presidential election campaign, many of Hillary Clinton’s critics warned that she was a “liberal hawk” and more likely to engage the US in conflict overseas than Trump. The American left was not galvanised by the prospect of a return to the business of policing international order under Clinton. Bernie Sanders raised the alarm at Secretary Clinton’s interest in Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order (published in 2014), and at the way that she called Kissinger her friend.
On the right, the cost of US hegemony also became a live issue during the primaries. The many Republican foreign policy experts who placed a premium on the continuation of US leadership on the world stage were alarmed by the prospect of a Trump presidency. Their concerns manifested themselves in the “Never Trump” letter, which was signed by some of the most influential figures in the Republican national security establishment. In both the Democratic and the Republican Parties, therefore, the champions of a US-led world order have found themselves locked out in ever-growing numbers.
This trend did not start with Trump, even if he has given it the fullest exposition. The Obama world-view – sprinkled with moral philosophy and the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr – appealed to many sophisticated minds in the West. However, it turned out to be much more pessimistic, restrained, introspective and centred on America than it appeared in those heady days in 2009 when he won a Nobel Peace Prize. The anti-Bush he may have been; yet a world healer he was not, nor did he pretend to be one.
At first glance, Obama and Trump could not be more different, but they share at least two core convictions. The first is that the US has been too intoxicated by the old way of thinking about its power: an obsession with maintaining “credibility” and acting as the guarantor of global peace and security. The second is that the US is paying too high a price for the privilege. Thus Obama was willing to break away from the “Washington playbook” when he resisted pressure to take military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, after his “red lines” on the use of chemical and biological weapons were crossed. Those who despair that Trump respects no playbook must acknowledge that the one in the Oval Office was looking pretty dog-eared.
Of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements to date, what has caused most panic in Western capitals is his suggestion that Nato, in its current form, is “obsolete”. Once again, however, we could do more to distinguish between the message and the messenger. America’s exasperation at the failure of its Nato allies to pull their weight on defence spending has been growing for years. It was Obama who announced what he called the “anti-free-rider campaign”, referring to the European nations that had grown lazy under the protection of the US security umbrella. Symptomatic of this, he hinted, was the poor performance of Britain and France in Libya following an intervention that they had pushed for in 2011.
As for the sanctity of Nato, there have been several senior European statesmen willing to play fast and loose with it long before Trump. Last year the French president, François Hollande, said: “Nato has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be . . . For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat. Russia is a partner.” In Britain, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has stated that British troops stationed in Estonia are a provocation to Moscow and that Nato should have been wound up in 1990 along with the Warsaw Pact.
Those who speak of the imminent decline of the West often view it through the lens of the growing power of Asia, or in terms of the US’s declining competitiveness against new superpowers such as China and India. Yet the more immediate challenge is its internal fragmentation in the face of these pressures.
For Brexit Britain, access to new markets and centres of innovation in Asia is highly prized. Part of the rationale behind Brexit is that the EU lacks the requisite dynamism to wrap up quick deals. Even outside the EU, however, it is not so easy to escape entangling commitments. Under David Cameron, Britain was prepared to risk the wrath of the US in signing up to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Given the importance of agreeing to a trade deal with the US, Theresa May’s government will now have to think twice before attempting such a trick.
Such realpolitik calculations give our foreign policy a 19th-century feel. On the one hand, this may be a natural turning of the historical wheel. On the other hand, since the end of the Cold War, the West has lost a narrative about itself and a vision of how the world is supposed to work. This, in part, is an intellectual problem. The post-1945 international system was built on certain assumptions that reflected the views of the Allies who triumphed in the Second World War. Chief among these was a version of historical development that held that economic and social progress would create the foundations for peace.
Many of these assumptions have been challenged in Western states by populations which reject the world-view that they imply. And they are fraying under the pressure of what the writer Pankaj Mishra, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche, calls the politics of ressentiment. Until a successor vision emerges for the management of global affairs, one that has a broad domestic consensus behind it, it will be our fate to deal with the moving parts – the changing alliances, porous borders and emerging threats – as they collide and splinter.
Much has been said about the internal crises draining the legitimacy of the Western elites, the ripping up of consensus and the quasi-revolutionary mood that is sweeping across nations. And yet, to an extent that has not been fully grasped, the crisis of the West has been tied to repeated failures in foreign policy.
Since the start of this century, the limits of Western power have been illustrated time and again – nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Compounding this, there has been a loss of appetite for lengthy and complicated foreign entanglements – in diplomacy as much as in war – and of the patience needed to see them through.
The Western way of war has become discredited in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The fashion for counterinsurgency that characterised the past two decades partly grew out of a desire to evolve towards a more sophisticated, humane and more politically palatable use of force. In extremis, there was talk of campaigns being won – such as when British troops were sent to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2006 to wrest control from the Taliban – without a shot being fired. Even in the rare cases of success, such as the US-led “surge” in Iraq, the political and financial costs of such lengthy campaigns are unsustainable. Not before time, rusty old concepts such as “deterrence” are being given a hearing again.
Blessed with decades of relative security, we have lost the custom of thinking strategically. Having enjoyed a preponderance of force and wealth, we have failed to grasp the changing nature of power in international affairs. Since 1989, from a position of strength, the West has evangelised about its capacity for “soft power”, even attempting to quantify it as some sort of saleable commodity. Russia – a country with scandalously low life expectancy, haemorrhaging population levels and a sclerotic economy – has made a mockery of this. Moscow has not only deployed conventional “hard” power in Syria and Ukraine, but crafted its own version of “soft”, or cultural, influence using instruments such as the media groups Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today).
Underpinning all of this is a loss of confidence in the merits of “Western civilisation” that would have seemed odd to our forebears in 1945. It is too easily forgotten that the vision of liberal internationalism was Western in inception, and it was based on a belief in the legitimacy and superiority of the Western way of government. Although imperfections were admitted, the organising philosophy was to apply these goods – such as the rule of law and the principle of self-determination – on an international scale.
By the same token, the linkage of our domestic political contracts to the ways in which our nations behave in their relationships with others is deeper than is sometimes understood. The foundation stone of the post-1945 world order was the Atlantic Charter of 1941-42. As Elizabeth Borgwardt explains in her wonderful book, A New Deal for the World, it can be understood as a globalised version of Franklin D Roosevelt’s domestic New Deal politics and the broader conception of liberty contained therein.
It was in the same spirit that William Beveridge began his white paper of 1942 with the statement that a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. In a series of newspaper articles, Beveridge interspersed his advocacy for its implementation on the home front with articles in support of what later became the UN. For the generation that fought the war, the two causes – domestic political renewal and the construction of a parliament of nations – were indivisible.
As last year’s presidential election got under way, the Princeton foreign policy expert G John Ikenberry argued that Roosevelt had bequeathed the US a “centrist tradition of American world leadership”, marked by a “strong bipartisan internationalist tradition”. A radical conservative critique, he warned, was challenging “the progressive foundations of Pax Americana” by disparaging the New Deal foundations on which American internationalism was based.
There are those who would have us neatly separate the domestic and foreign into separate spheres. Yet there is a reason why a desiccated version of foreign policy realism or naked rationalism – the type of cultish obsession with the “national interest” that often emerges on the right in times of international flux – has never been pre-eminent among the West’s leading states. For the past century at least, the practice of Western foreign policy has been tied to an organising philosophy, a larger vision of how the world should work, bolstered by myth.
This required both theologising and evangelicalism in the name of universal goals. An element of “sacred drama”, as Conor Cruise O’Brien explained in his 1968 book on the United Nations, served a higher purpose. The risk has always been that sacred dramas are pushed too far – that the champions of international peace built their castles in the air, placing their faith in vapid utopianism that evaporates at the first sign of stress. And even though the post-1945 world order has lasted for more than 70 years, many of the myths around it have run their course.
The “rules” we often talk about are conceptual and moral as much as they are legally binding. In truth, the fate of Syria shows that, when it comes to maintaining certain international standards, it is the combination of political will and power that matters. Too often, the lawyerly emphasis on rules has ignored that they are unenforceable without order. It is a lesson that many liberal internationalists have found hard to stomach, to the detriment of their project.
As with the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, watershed moments in international history can creep up on us without much warning. Since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, it has become fashionable to invest 2016 with a sense of great historical significance – as a year that future historians will look back on with sorrow and furrowed brows. This is before time.
A true historical sensibility should warn us against such fatalism. The Western world faces many challenges – none more pressing than its declining share of global wealth and population compared to Asia’s leading states. Yet looking to the future with trepidation should not take the form of giving in to despair. To do so is to court a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Some of the most tumultuous years in history have been spurs to acts of great forward thinking and imagination. It was in 1933 – which began with Adolf Hitler becoming the chancellor of Germany – that H G Wells published The Shape of Things to Come. Part novel and part “history” of the future, it tells an alternative story of humanity up to the year 2106. The world that the book depicts is one in which Franklin D Roosevelt fails to implement the New Deal and an economic crisis lasts for 30 years, punctuated by a second world war. (Wells predicts that it would begin in January 1940, sparked by a clash between Germany and Poland over Danzig.) There is no victor; the leading powers emerge exhausted, unable to prevent a plague that emerges in 1956 – spread by a group of baboons that escape from London Zoo – and wipes out much of the world population.
Here Wells envisages a benevolent “dictatorship of the air”, which takes shape at an international conference convened in Basra in 1965. The dictatorship goes on to attempt to eradicate the world’s leading religions, but eventually melts away a century later, making way for a peaceful humanitarian utopia in which the struggle for material existence has ended, and a society that could therefore be governed by reason. The last recorded event in the book takes place on New Year’s Day 2106, when there is a levelling of the remaining skeletons of the skyscrapers of New York.
As idiosyncratic as this may have been, it was the work of visionaries such as Wells that spurred the statesmen of the West to take hold of historical developments and to try to build a version of this world state. As much as anything, it was about ensuring the survival and adaptation of a beleaguered and near-bankrupt Western civilisation.
The first paragraph of The Shape of Things to Come describes a world experiencing a “confluence of racial, social and political destinies”. With that, “a vision of previously unsuspected possibilities opens to the human imagination”, which entails “an immense readjustment of ideas”. Civilisation, as Wells puts it in words we could heed today, is “in a race between education and catastrophe”.
Where today are the leaders or intellectuals in the West capable of offering a vision of the shape of things to come, around which their allies or populations might rally? In the short term, we have seen few front-line politicians since Tony Blair who have provided us with a view of the world around them (however disputed their vision might have been) and the nation’s place within it. The great foreign policy speech seems to be a relic of the recent past.
If there is anyone looking to Donald Trump’s White House for a vision of a “new world order”, they will be disappointed. In his inauguration speech, there was no softening of his line and he wasted no time in reiterating that his priority was to put “America first”. In the past 70 years, there have been few such unambiguous exhortations of this creed.
In the absence of an international vision, however, the burning question is whether Trump’s foreign policy will follow a method; or, failing that, a pattern. An optimistic view of this has been ventured by the historian Niall Ferguson, who has suggested that Henry Kissinger, who is 93, has provided a script for the global rebalancing that may begin under Trump. The US president has sought Kissinger’s counsel since his election, as did Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the vote. There are rumours that Kissinger may be used in an attempt to reset relations for Russia. It was notable, too, that he was being feted in Beijing just as Trump was tweeting against China for its behaviour in relation to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Will Trump’s foreign policy follow Kissingerian grooves, in the form of some sort of triangulation of great-power diplomacy between Moscow and Beijing? Is there a strategic rationale behind the bombast, or could one emerge?
This is a possibility but nothing more. The first few days of the new presidency do not suggest that Trump the campaigner is about to give way to a statesman with foresight. Nonetheless, it is likely that US foreign policy will settle into a recognisable rhythm over the course of the year.
President Trump’s propensity for slaying sacred cows is not shared by his nominees for secretary of state (Rex Tillerson, a former chief executive of the ExxonMobil oil company) or secretary of defence (General James Mattis). Both have stressed the importance of America’s alliance network and their belief in the importance of Nato. The same applies to Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina and former Trump critic, who has been chosen as ambassador to the United Nations. The US state department and the Pentagon have grown used to acting in certain ways that suggest that a revolution on American foreign policy will not occur overnight.
The most important variable in second-guessing Trump’s foreign policy is the extent to which he will seek to control it from the White House, continuing a trend of recent years, or leave his appointees to their work. If the Oval Office becomes the locus of action, the role of General Mike Flynn, Trump’s controversial national security adviser, is likely to be of growing importance.
For the past hundred years – but particularly since 1945 – Britain has carved out a privileged place for itself by operating in the slipstream of US foreign policy. In that time, the UK’s greatest strategic nightmare has been the prospect of an American retreat from its global responsibilities. There have been periods, as during the interwar years, in which the US preferred to mind its own business rather than engage in the business of world government. It is no coincidence that these were some of the most perilous years in British history.
Despite the hand-wringing that greeted Donald Trump’s victory, these habits are deeply ingrained in our diplomatic and national security establishments and cannot easily be changed. Those arguing that it is time to break from the US and seize the opportunity for a new relationship with Europe, in which Britain plays the role of security provider, are both regurgitating an old argument and presenting a false dichotomy. Likewise, the idea that the leadership of the free world has passed to Angela Merkel’s Germany is absurd.
The saga of the bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office – beloved by George W Bush, removed by Obama and brought back by Trump – has become a rather tired metaphor for the state of Anglo-American relations. In truth, the British delegation in Washington has engaged in catch-up since Trump’s surprise victory but there are signs that the nettle has been grasped. As 2016 drew to a close, the British ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, held his nose to deliver a speech at a US conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Speaking the language of “burden-sharing”, he announced that one of the UK’s two new super-carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is scheduled to sail through the South China Sea on her maiden deployment in 2020, a restatement of the shared Anglo-American commitment to free navigation of the seas.
The Prime Minister has already managed to bump herself up the queue and is the first foreign leader to make the pilgrimage to the Trump White House. According to the Sunday Times, Bernie Sanders has expressed the hope that the UK might perform the function of a “moral conscience” in relation to the Trump administration’s foreign policy. There will be developments in US foreign policy that will be hard to stomach, on matters from the Iran nuclear deal to climate change. Equally, the stakes are now so high – on trade and security – that Britain will have to pick carefully those issues on which it dissents.
In this new world, the choice facing Britain might seem stark. On further reflection, however, it is no choice at all. A rebalancing of the international system is about to begin, involving the world’s major powers. The cosy “universalist” language to which we have grown used (and of which we are the foremost purveyors) may belong to another era. Britain can gripe from the sidelines and negotiate ourselves into irrelevance as the curator of the old order, or do its utmost to be present at the creation of the new.
A sprinkling of H G Wells might enliven our sense that there is a future to be grasped and an opportunity to contribute to a larger vision of how the world should work. Yet there has to come a time when we draw a line under the fin de siècle angst and get on with it.
John Bew is a professor of history at King’s College London, the author of “Citizen Clem: a Biography of Attlee” (Riverrun) and a New Statesman contributing writer
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West