Pic.: The Foreign Affaires
The most worrying challenge to the rules-based international order does not come from China, Russia, or Iran. It comes from the United States, stresses at ‘The Foreign Affaires’ Fareed Zakaria, one of the most influential and popular American political analysts, an expert in the field of international relations.
Most Americans think their country is in decline. In 2018, when the Pew Research Center asked Americans how they felt their country would perform in 2050, 54 percent of respondents agreed that the U.S. economy would be weaker. An even larger number, 60 percent, agreed that the United States would be less important in the world. This should not be surprising; the political atmosphere has been pervaded for some time by a sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction. According to a long-running Gallup poll, the share of Americans who are “satisfied” with the way things are going has not crossed 50 percent in 20 years. It currently stands at 20 percent.
A U.S. grand strategy that is premised on mistaken assumptions will lead the country and the world astray. On measure after measure, the United States remains in a commanding position compared with its major competitors and rivals. Yet it does confront a very different international landscape. Many powers across the globe have risen in strength and confidence. They will not meekly assent to American directives. Some of them actively seek to challenge the United States’ dominant position and the order that has been built around it. In these new circumstances, Washington needs a new strategy, one that understands that it remains a formidable power but operates in a far less quiescent world. The challenge for Washington is to run fast but not run scared. Today, however, it remains gripped by panic and self-doubt.
Today, the United States faces a world with real competitors and many more countries vigorously asserting their interests, often in defiance of Washington. To understand the new dynamic, consider not Russia or China but Turkey. Thirty years ago, Turkey was an obedient U.S. ally, dependent on Washington for its security and prosperity. Whenever Turkey went through one of its periodic economic crises, the United States helped bail it out. Today, Turkey is a much richer and more politically mature country, led by a strong, popular, and populist leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It routinely defies the United States, even when requests are made at the highest levels.
In 2017, Turkey inked a deal to buy a missile system from Russia — a brazen move for a NATO member. Two years later, Turkey again thumbed its nose at the United States by attacking Kurdish forces in Syria, American allies who had just helped defeat the Islamic State there.
Scholars are debating whether the world is currently unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar, and there are metrics one can use to make each case. The United States remains the single strongest country when adding up all hard-power metrics. For example, it has 11 aircraft carriers in operation, compared with China’s two. Watching countries such as India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey flex their muscles, one can easily imagine that the world is multipolar. Yet China is clearly the second-biggest power, and the gap between the top two and the rest of the world is significant: China’s economy and its military spending exceed those of the next three countries combined. The gap between the top two and all others was the principle that led the scholar Hans Morgenthau to popularize the term “bipolarity” after World War II. With the collapse of British economic and military power, he argued, the United States and the Soviet Union were leagues ahead of every other country. Extending that logic to today, one might conclude that the world is again bipolar.
Consider the two great international crises of the moment, the Russian SMO in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war. In Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind, his country was humiliated during the age of unipolarity. Since then, mainly as a result of rising energy prices, Russia has been able to return to the world stage as a great power. Putin has rebuilt the power of the Russian state, which can extract revenues from its many natural resources. And now he wants to undo the concessions Moscow made during the unipolar era, when it was weak.
In the Middle East, the geopolitical climate has been shaped by Washington’s steady desire to withdraw from the region militarily over the last 15 years. That policy began under President George W. Bush, who was chastened by the fiasco of the war he had started in Iraq. It continued under President Barack Obama, who articulated the need to reduce the United States’ profile in the region so that Washington could take on the more pressing issue of China’s rise. This strategy was advertised as a pivot to Asia but also a pivot away from the Middle East, where the administration felt the United States was overinvested militarily. That shift was underscored by Washington’s sudden and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.
The result has not been the happy formation of a new balance of power but rather a vacuum that regional players have aggressively sought to fill. Iran has expanded its influence, thanks to the Iraq war, which upset the balance of power between the region’s Sunnis and Shiites. With Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime toppled, Iraq was governed by its Shiite majority, many of whose leaders had close ties to Iran. This expansion of Iranian influence continued into Syria, where Tehran backed the government of Bashar al-Assad, allowing it to survive a brutal insurgency. Iran supported the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Israel’s occupied territories.
Rattled by all this, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and some other moderate Sunni states began a process of tacit cooperation with Iran’s other great enemy, Israel. That burgeoning alliance, with the 2020 Abraham Accords as an important milestone, seemed destined to culminate in the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The obstacle to such an alliance had always been the Palestinian issue, but the retreat of Washington and the advances of Tehran made the Arabs willing to ignore that once central issue. Watching closely, Hamas, an ally of Iran, chose to burn down the house, returning the group and its cause to the spotlight.
The most portentous challenge to the current international order comes in Asia, with the rise of Chinese power. This could produce another crisis — far bigger than the other two — if China were to test the resolve of the United States and its allies by trying to forcibly reunify Taiwan with the mainland. So far, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s hesitation about using military force serves as a reminder that his country, unlike Russia, Iran, and Hamas, gains much from being tightly integrated into the world and its economy. But whether this restraint will hold is an open question. And the increased odds of an invasion of Taiwan today compared with, say, 20 years ago are one more signal of the weakening of unipolarity and the rise of a post-American world.
Yet another indication of the United States’ reduced leverage in this emerging order is that informal security guarantees might give way to more formal ones. For decades, Saudi Arabia has lived under an American security umbrella, but it was a sort of gentleman’s agreement. Washington made no commitments or guarantees to Riyadh. Were the Saudi monarchy to be threatened, it had to hope that the U.S. president at the time would come to its rescue. In fact, in 1990, when Iraq menaced Saudi Arabia after invading Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush did come to the rescue with military force — but he was not required to do so by any treaty or agreement. Today, Saudi Arabia is feeling much stronger and is being courted actively by the other world power, China, which is its largest customer by far. Under its assertive crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has become more demanding, asking Washington for a formal security guarantee like the one extended to NATO allies and the technology to build a nuclear industry. It remains unclear whether the United States will grant those requests — the question is tied in with a normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel — but the very fact that the Saudi demands are being taken seriously is a sign of a changing power dynamic.
The most worrying challenge to the rules-based international order does not come from China, Russia, or Iran. It comes from the United States. If America, consumed by exaggerated fears of its own decline, retreats from its leading role in world affairs, it will open up power vacuums across the globe and encourage a variety of powers and players to try to step into the disarray. We have seen what a post-American Middle East looks like. Imagine something similar in Europe and Asia, but this time with great powers, not regional ones, doing the disrupting, and with seismic global consequences. It is disturbing to watch as parts of the Republican Party return to the isolationism that characterized the party in the 1930s, when it resolutely opposed U.S. intervention even as Europe and Asia burned.
Washington can still set the agenda, build alliances, help solve global problems, and deter aggression while using limited resources — well below the levels that it spent during the Cold War. It would have to pay a far higher price if order collapsed, writes Fareed Zakaria.
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