In retrospect, we can see that the post-Cold War world ended in 2008, as a result of two events: Russia’s unpunished invasion of Georgia and the financial crisis triggered by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, Wall Street’s fourth-largest investment bank.
The first marked the end of NATO expansion and the West’s unquestioned dominance: Georgia had recently been backed by the United States for membership; Germany and France had effectively vetoed it. Soon afterward, Russia acted to demonstrate that Georgia, far from joining the West, was still very much in the Russian sphere of influence. The West acquiesced, France with enthusiasm, the rest of Western Europe with relief, the U.S. with reluctance, Central and Eastern Europe under protest.
The financial crisis, almost willfully misinterpreted as resulting purely from the absence of regulation, led to a collapse of confidence. Financial institutions, supranational structures, political leaderships, market theories, Western civilization itself and, of course, bankers all fell victim to popular alarmism, skepticism, even hatred. These self-destructive passions were further magnified by the Euro crisis, which proved even more damaging and intractable than the subprime mortgage crisis. But the U.S., as “hegemon” of the post-Cold War international structure, suffered the greatest loss in power and reputation, if not wealth.
In the United States itself, that loss translated into a desire to retreat from the arena of failure. This is usually interpreted as “isolationism,” which it never is. More than a decade ago, in The National Interest magazine, Walter Russell Mead described the four factions into which Americans fall on foreign policy: Jeffersonians for an idealistic peace policy of non-intervention; Hamiltonians for building international institutions that protect commerce; Wilsonians for liberal interventionism, recently “democracy-building”; and Jacksonians for a tough policy of national self-interest.
Jacksonians are the “swing vote” on foreign policy: When they favour intervention abroad, they make it the broad consensus; when they oppose it, its days are numbered. They favour intervention when attacked; they oppose it for misty idealistic or non-American purposes; they especially oppose seemingly endless or “unwinnable” wars. Hence, they gradually swung against the Iraq and Afghan interventions, which they had originally supported.
Their change solidified a general national mood that produced Barack Obama’s election, the “humbler” foreign policy promised by George W. Bush before 9/11, the rise of Republican doves such as Rand Paul, the “reset button” rapprochement with Russia, the winding down of the Afghan and Iraq interventions, Mr. Obama’s Cairo speech wooing Islam in order to isolate Islamism, Washington’s enthusiasm for the Arab Spring, and much else.
The problem is that this leaves the world with no “hegemon” to broker and impose settlements. The United Nations cannot do this; it is designed to be an instrument of great power diplomacy rather than a substitute. In 30 years, the world has gone from a duocracy to a monocracy to a nullocracy.
The result is that states and non-state actors with unsatisfied grievances and ambitions – some of them, I’m sorry to say, “bad guys” – feel freer to pursue them without taking Washington’s likely response into account. Hence Iran’s pursuit of its nuclear ambitions, Russia’s and China’s flouting of the U.S. request for the extradition of Edward Snowden, Venezuela’s support for narco-terrorists next door, the Syrian civil war, the unpunished murder of a U.S. ambassador in a country, Libya, that the U.S. had just helped to liberate from tyranny.
A humble foreign policy is baffled by such problems, because it has no clear interests or fast friends. In Egypt, it has gone from wooing Islam in vague terms that encouraged Islamists; to edging out autocratic ally Hosni Mubarak without giving him an escape hatch; to naively embracing the Arab Spring; to overinvesting in Mohammed Morsi as he betrayed the Arab Spring; to dithering in the face of the coup; to the current policy of throwing up its hands in horror.
Even if the U.S. had a clear idea of what to do in such cases, its reputation and thus power to intervene are greatly diminished. Washington’s power to help is no longer assisted by its perceived power to harm.
Eventually, unrestrained global and regional disorders will seriously damage U.S. interests and people. Jacksonians, outraged, will join alarmed Hamiltonians in favouring a forward U.S. policy. Indeed, at present, the main bright spot in U.S. policy is the Hamiltonian idea of crafting an Atlantic Union – potentially the world’s largest free-trade area with more than half of global GDP – that would stimulate the West’s economies and strengthen Western and U.S. diplomacy worldwide. Ambitiously conceived, it could also solve a great many other European problems from Turkey’s EU application through saving the euro. But that is for another article.
We are currently living through a period similar to what Jock Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, called “the fatal hiatus” – the years 1945 to 1948, between Yalta and the Truman Declaration, when America demobilized and partied, Western Europe froze, starved and trembled, and Joseph Stalin gradually absorbed Eastern Europe. That period came to an end when America ceased retreating, returned to Europe economically with the Marshall Plan and established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance to enable Europe to recover and develop behind America’s military presence.
That happened not by accident but because Truman Democrats, leading Republicans and realistic Europeans, notably Labour’s Ernest Bevin, had a certain idea of the West and united to revive it. The same vision is needed now, mainly in Washington, but in Berlin, Paris and London too – because it won’t happen by accident.
John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of the National Review and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.