Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
Sometime in the last two years, American hegemony died. The age of U.S. dominance was a brief, heady era, about three decades marked by two moments, each a breakdown of sorts. It was born amid the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. The end, or really the beginning of the end, was another collapse, that of Iraq in 2003, and the slow unraveling since. But was the death of the United States’ extraordinary status a result of external causes, or did Washington accelerate its own demise through bad habits and bad behavior? That is a question that will be debated by historians for years to come. But at this point, we have enough time and perspective to make some preliminary observations.
As with most deaths, many factors contributed to this one. There were deep structural forces in the international system that inexorably worked against any one nation that accumulated so much power. In the American case, however, one is struck by the ways in which Washington—from an unprecedented position—mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies. And now, under the Trump administration, the United States seems to have lost interest, indeed lost faith, in the ideas and purpose that animated its international presence for three-quarters of a century.
U.S. hegemony in the post–Cold War era was like nothing the world had seen since the Roman Empire. Writers are fond of dating the dawn of “the American century” to 1945, not long after the publisher Henry Luce coined the term. But the post–World War II era was quite different from the post-1989 one. Even after 1945, in large stretches of the globe, France and the United Kingdom still had formal empires and thus deep influence. Soon, the Soviet Union presented itself as a superpower rival, contesting Washington’s influence in every corner of the planet. Remember that the phrase “Third World” derived from the tripartite division of the globe, the First World being the United States and Western Europe, and the Second World, the communist countries. The Third World was everywhere else, where each country was choosing between U.S. and Soviet influence. For much of the world’s population, from Poland to China, the century hardly looked American.
The United States’ post–Cold War supremacy was initially hard to detect. As I pointed out in The New Yorker in 2002, most participants missed it. In 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued that the world was dividing into three political spheres, dominated by the dollar, the yen, and the deutsche mark. Henry Kissinger’s 1994 book, Diplomacy, predicted the dawn of a new multipolar age. Certainly in the United States, there was little triumphalism. The 1992 presidential campaign was marked by a sense of weakness and weariness. “The Cold War is over; Japan and Germany won,” the Democratic hopeful Paul Tsongas said again and again. Asia hands had already begun to speak of “the Pacific century.”
U.S. hegemony in the post–Cold War era was like nothing the world had seen since the Roman Empire.
There was one exception to this analysis, a prescient essay in the pages of this magazine by the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer: “The Unipolar Moment,” which was published in 1990. But even this triumphalist take was limited in its expansiveness, as its title suggests. “The unipolar moment will be brief,” Krauthammer admitted, predicting in a Washington Post column that within a very short time, Germany and Japan, the two emerging “regional superpowers,” would be pursuing foreign policies independent of the United States.
Policymakers welcomed the waning of unipolarity, which they assumed was imminent. In 1991, as the Balkan wars began, Jacques Poos, the president of the Council of the European Union, declared, “This is the hour of Europe.” He explained: “If one problem can be solved by Europeans, it is the Yugoslav problem. This is a European country, and it is not up to the Americans.” But it turned out that only the United States had the combined power and influence to intervene effectively and tackle the crisis.
Similarly, toward the end of the 1990s, when a series of economic panics sent East Asian economies into tailspins, only the United States could stabilize the global financial system. It organized a $120 billion international bailout for the worst-hit countries, resolving the crisis. Time magazine put three Americans, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, and Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, on its cover with the headline “The Committee to Save the World.”
Just as American hegemony grew in the early 1990s while no one was noticing, so in the late 1990s did the forces that would undermine it, even as people had begun to speak of the United States as “the indispensable nation” and “the world’s sole superpower.” First and foremost, there was the rise of China. It is easy to see in retrospect that Beijing would become the only serious rival to Washington, but it was not as apparent a quarter century ago. Although China had grown speedily since the 1980s, it had done so from a very low base. Few countries had been able to continue that process for more than a couple of decades. China’s strange mixture of capitalism and Leninism seemed fragile, as the Tiananmen Square uprising had revealed.
But China’s rise persisted, and the country became the new great power on the block, one with the might and the ambition to match the United States. Russia, for its part, went from being both weak and quiescent in the early 1990s to being a revanchist power, a spoiler with enough capability and cunning to be disruptive. With two major global players outside the U.S.-constructed international system, the world had entered a post-American phase. Today, the United States is still the most powerful country on the planet, but it exists in a world of global and regional powers that can—and frequently do—push back.
The 9/11 attacks and the rise of Islamic terrorism played a dual role in the decline of U.S. hegemony. At first, the attacks seemed to galvanize Washington and mobilize its power. In 2001, the United States, still larger economically than the next five countries put together, chose to ramp up its annual defense spending by an amount—almost $50 billion—that was larger than the United Kingdom’s entire yearly defense budget. When Washington intervened in Afghanistan, it was able to get overwhelming support for the campaign, including from Russia. Two years later, despite many objections, it was still able to put together a large international coalition for an invasion of Iraq. The early years of this century marked the high point of the American imperium, as Washington tried to remake wholly alien nations—Afghanistan and Iraq—thousands of miles away, despite the rest of the world’s reluctant acquiescence or active opposition.
Iraq in particular marked a turning point. The United States embarked on a war of choice despite misgivings expressed in the rest of world. It tried to get the UN to rubber-stamp its mission, and when that proved arduous, it dispensed with the organization altogether. It ignored the Powell Doctrine—the idea, promulgated by General Colin Powell while he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, that a war was worth entering only if vital national interests were at stake and overwhelming victory assured. The Bush administration insisted that the vast challenge of occupying Iraq could be undertaken with a small number of troops and a light touch. Iraq, it was said, would pay for itself. And once in Baghdad, Washington decided to destroy the Iraqi state, disbanding the army and purging the bureaucracy, which produced chaos and helped fuel an insurgency. Any one of these mistakes might have been overcome. But together they ensured that Iraq became a costly fiasco.
After 9/11, Washington made major, consequential decisions that continue to haunt it, but it made all of them hastily and in fear. It saw itself as in mortal danger, needing to do whatever it took to defend itself—from invading Iraq to spending untold sums on homeland security to employing torture. The rest of the world saw a country that was experiencing a kind of terrorism that many had lived with for years and yet was thrashing around like a wounded lion, tearing down international alliances and norms. In its first two years, the George W. Bush administration walked away from more international agreements than any previous administration had. (Undoubtedly, that record has now been surpassed under President Donald Trump.) American behavior abroad during the Bush administration shattered the moral and political authority of the United States, as long-standing allies such as Canada and France found themselves at odds with it on the substance, morality, and style of its foreign policy.
So which was it that eroded American hegemony—the rise of new challengers or imperial overreach? As with any large and complex historical phenomenon, it was probably all of the above. China’s rise was one of those tectonic shifts in international life that would have eroded any hegemon’s unrivaled power, no matter how skillful its diplomacy. The return of Russia, however, was a more complex affair. It’s easy to forget now, but in the early 1990s, leaders in Moscow were determined to turn their country into a liberal democracy, a European nation, and an ally of sorts of the West. Eduard Shevardnadze, who was foreign minister during the final years of the Soviet Union, supported the United States’ 1990–91 war against Iraq. And after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was an even more ardent liberal, an internationalist, and a vigorous supporter of human rights.
The greatest error the United States committed during its unipolar moment was to simply stop paying attention.
Who lost Russia is a question for another article. But it is worth noting that although Washington gave Moscow some status and respect—expanding the G-7 into the G-8, for example—it never truly took Russia’s security concerns seriously. It enlarged NATO fast and furiously, a process that might have been necessary for countries such as Poland, historically insecure and threatened by Russia, but one that has continued on unthinkingly, with little concern for Russian sensitivities, and now even extends to Macedonia. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior makes every action taken against his country seem justified, but it’s worth asking, What forces produced the rise of Putin and his foreign policy in the first place? Undoubtedly, they were mostly internal to Russia, but to the extent that U.S. actions had an effect, they appear to have been damaging, helping stoke the forces of revenge and revanchism in Russia.
The greatest error the United States committed during its unipolar moment, with Russia and more generally, was to simply stop paying attention. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans wanted to go home, and they did. During the Cold War, the United States had stayed deeply interested in events in Central America, Southeast Asia, the Taiwan Strait, and even Angola and Namibia. By the mid-1990s, it had lost all interest in the world. Foreign-bureau broadcasts by NBC fell from 1,013 minutes in 1988 to 327 minutes in 1996. (Today, the three main networks combined devote roughly the same amount of time to foreign-bureau stories as each individual network did in 1988.) Both the White House and Congress during the George H. W. Bush administration had no appetite for an ambitious effort to transform Russia, no interest in rolling out a new version of the Marshall Plan or becoming deeply engaged in the country. Even amid the foreign economic crises that hit during the Clinton administration, U.S. policymakers had to scramble and improvise, knowing that Congress would appropriate no funds to rescue Mexico or Thailand or Indonesia. They offered advice, most of it designed to require little assistance from Washington, but their attitude was one of a distant well-wisher, not an engaged superpower.
Ever since the end of World War I, the United States has wanted to transform the world. In the 1990s, that seemed more possible than ever before. Countries across the planet were moving toward the American way. The Gulf War seemed to mark a new milestone for world order, in that it was prosecuted to uphold a norm, limited in its scope, endorsed by major powers and legitimized by international law. But right at the time of all these positive developments, the United States lost interest. U.S. policymakers still wanted to transform the world in the 1990s, but on the cheap. They did not have the political capital or resources to throw themselves into the effort. That was one reason Washington’s advice to foreign countries was always the same: economic shock therapy and instant democracy. Anything slower or more complex—anything, in other words, that resembled the manner in which the West itself had liberalized its economy and democratized its politics—was unacceptable. Before 9/11, when confronting challenges, the American tactic was mostly to attack from afar, hence the twin approaches of economic sanctions and precision air strikes. Both of these, as the political scientist Eliot Cohen wrote of airpower, had the characteristics of modern courtship: “gratification without commitment.”
Of course, these limits on the United States’ willingness to pay prices and bear burdens never changed its rhetoric, which is why, in an essay for The New York Times Magazine in 1998, I pointed out that U.S. foreign policy was defined by “the rhetoric of transformation but the reality of accommodation.” The result, I said, was “a hollow hegemony.” That hollowness has persisted ever since.
The Trump administration has hollowed out U.S. foreign policy even further. Trump’s instincts are Jacksonian, in that he is largely uninterested in the world except insofar as he believes that most countries are screwing the United States. He is a nationalist, a protectionist, and a populist, determined to put “America first.” But truthfully, more than anything else, he has abandoned the field. Under Trump, the United States has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and from engaging with Asia more generally. It is uncoupling itself from its 70-year partnership with Europe. It has dealt with Latin America through the prism of either keeping immigrants out or winning votes in Florida. It has even managed to alienate Canadians (no mean feat). And it has subcontracted Middle East policy to Israel and Saudi Arabia. With a few impulsive exceptions—such as the narcissistic desire to win a Nobel Prize by trying to make peace with North Korea—what is most notable about Trump’s foreign policy is its absence.
When the United Kingdom was the superpower of its day, its hegemony eroded because of many large structural forces—the rise of Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union. But it also lost control of its empire through overreach and hubris. In 1900, with a quarter of the world’s population under British rule, most of the United Kingdom’s major colonies were asking only for limited autonomy—“dominion status” or “home rule,” in the terms of the day. Had the country quickly granted that to all its colonies, who knows whether it would have been able to extend its imperial life for decades? But it didn’t, insisting on its narrow, selfish interests rather than accommodating itself to the interests of the broader empire.
There is an analogy here with the United States. Had the country acted more consistently in the pursuit of broader interests and ideas, it could have continued its influence for decades (albeit in a different form). The rule for extending liberal hegemony seems simple: be more liberal and less hegemonic. But too often and too obviously, Washington pursued its narrow self-interests, alienating its allies and emboldening its foes. Unlike the United Kingdom at the end of its reign, the United States is not bankrupt or imperially overextended. It remains the single most powerful country on the planet. It will continue to wield immense influence, more than any other nation. But it will no longer define and dominate the international system the way it did for almost three decades.
What remains, then, are American ideas. The United States has been a unique hegemon in that it expanded its influence to establish a new world order, one dreamed of by President Woodrow Wilson and most fully conceived of by President Franklin Roosevelt. It is the world that was half-created after 1945, sometimes called “the liberal international order,” from which the Soviet Union soon defected to build its own sphere. But the free world persisted through the Cold War, and after 1991, it expanded to encompass much of the globe. The ideas behind it have produced stability and prosperity over the last three-quarters of a century. The question now is whether, as American power wanes, the international system it sponsored—the rules, norms, and values—will survive. Or will America also watch the decline of its empire of ideas?