America: the perils of being No 1
THE end of World War II was distinguished by a carefully choreographed scenario that was finalized by the Allies at the Yalta Conference held in February 1945.
During this process, Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt, with Britain and France as little more than spectators, reformatted the borders of the nations of Central Europe.
These borders survive as designed to this day, albeit for one reason that is hardly ever mentioned: ethnic cleansing.
The previous centuries had witnessed a slow but steady drift east of populations of Germanic culture. Most of these welcomed Adolf Hitler with open arms, but when the tide turned against him practically all, numbering some 12 million, moved back to Germany with the retreating German armies, leaving behind what had become mono-ethnic countries.
The emergence in Central Europe of mono-ethnic nation-states was paralleled by the Cold War. With a potential direct confrontation between the two superpowers coming under the acronym of MAD – mutually assured destruction – the relations between the two became an exercise that was in essence predictable.
In practice, this meant that each superpower acknowledged that its opponent had a core sphere of interest in which its authority would not be interfered with. Thus Washington could deal as it wished with the likes of Chile, Grenada, Panama or Nicaragua if they showed any sign of straying from under America’s umbrella.
Likewise, when the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1966 revolted against their Soviet occupier, Washington abstained from providing them with any support.
Events took another turn when one of the two superpowers tried to encroach on its opponent’s turf. When in 1962 the Soviet Union placed some of its missiles in Cuba, the world came close to war until Moscow backtracked and repatriated its missiles.
Conversely, when one superpower would encroach on a borderline state, that is, one that was not fully in the sphere of influence of the other superpower, there would be a response, albeit somewhat muted. Thus when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Washington intervened by arming the Afghan resistance but abstained from deploying its own troops in the country.
For this global equilibrium to function, two requirements had to be met. First, the two superpowers had to be approximately matched militarily. Second, neither of the two superpowers would encroach on the core interests of the other.
What emerged from this world order can be summarized as “strategic predictability.” Granted, there were some occasional hiccups, but these were contained and did not threaten the global balance between the two superpowers.
The collapse of the Soviet Union saw Russia lose what amounted to its empire, namely its Soviet “Republics” on one hand, and on the other its Central European client states such as Poland, Hungary and the like.
Ultimately, Russia reverted to what it had been in the last days of the Czarist regime, namely Europe’s least developed nation ruled for centuries by a succession of autocrats with one foot still in the Middle Ages.
As for the borders of the new Russia, these had in essence been inherited from the Soviet Union. As such, they often bore little relevance to historical factors or population origin and had the potential of becoming flashpoints where a crisis could erupt.
Conversely, the United States emerged as the only remaining superpower: its military unchallenged, its consumer model unmatched and its economic archetype unquestioned.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was an event of such momentous proportions that it would have justified the calling of a new Congress of Vienna. Such an assembly would not only have had to address the question of the borders of Russia and the former Soviet Republics but also issues such as population distribution as well as the security concerns of a potentially resurgent Russian state.
The only nation at the time that could have initiated such a process was the United States. But there was no American Talleyrand. There was only a succession of administrations, from Reagan to Bush to Obama, that mindlessly proceeded on a trajectory inherited from the Cold War – a trajectory that sought to consolidate the position of the United States as the undisputed No 1 potentate of the planet.
The first test came in Europe.
As Yugoslavia came apart, Europe dithered, and it took Washington’s armed intervention, using the tool of NATO, to bring a semblance of peace to the Balkans. America’s Balkan foray carried two lessons.
The first was that 45 years of Cold War had not sufficed to weld Western Europe into the semblance of a shared political vision that they could implement, on their turf, by force if needed.
The second was that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which had been conceived initially as a counterweight to the now-defunct Warsaw Pact, had morphed into an instrument of American foreign policy. It was a conjuncture that was not to be lost on Russia’s future leadership.
In the meantime, and off Washington’s radar screen, another contender was slowly emerging: militant Islam. Its guiding force was the Koran and its adepts were the heralds of a radical Islam that rejected the Western archetype in favor of a faith-based social and political order.
The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, had a shattering effect on the United States. The attack, tragic as it may be, was statistically inconsequential. What was not was its psychological impact on a society that had been sheltered from foreign wars; an impact if anything amplified by an administration for which retribution had become a substitute for policy.
The pre-9/11 balance of power that prevailed in the Middle East ensured that the main contenders would mutually neutralize each other. Iraq was in a state of semi-war with Iran, ensuring that both would focus on the danger represented by the other. Syria, conversely, was at odds with Iraq, and thus sought an alliance with Iran as a counterweight.
It was an alliance of convenience, as the Iraqi and Syrian regimes represented two competing wings of the Baath party that were secular, which put them on a collision course with militant Islam. Thus while both regimes were ferociously opposed to Israel, which put them in conflict with the United States, they were also vehemently opposed to militant Islam, which made them, in objective terms, American allies.
Within this global archetype, Afghanistan was irrelevant and, except for the Taliban having sheltered al-Qaeda, a minor sideshow.
The American invasion of Iraq, which not only brought down Saddam Hussein but saw his regime replaced by a fragile Shia coalition, shattered this equilibrium, with the main winner being Iran, now bordered by a friendly Iraq and enjoying an open land bridge to Syria and its Hezbollah ally.
Washington’s subsequent attempt to bring down the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad through its Gulf proxies floundered, but not before the conflict had generated some 7 million refugees, of whom more than a million moved illegally to Europe.
A somewhat similar pattern developed in North Africa, where Washington orchestrated the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime. With no alternative power available the country sank into anarchy, thus opening the floodgates for illegal emigration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe.
The crisis in Yugoslavia illustrated the lack of a coordinated European foreign and defense policy. Having for all practical purposes delegated their defense to Washington, the Europeans found themselves in the same quandary when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Currently, Russia has a population of 143 million inhabitants as opposed to the total population of Germany, France, Poland and the UK, which numbers 254 million, not counting 43.7 million Ukrainians. As for per capita GDP, it is in the fifty thousand for the Europeans as opposed to the thirty thousand for Russia.
Thus in terms of both demographic density and industrial production, the Europeans did not need the United States in a potential confrontation with Russia. However, when it appeared that the Europeans were indeed united in their opposition to the Russian invasion, it also emerged that they were incapable of giving practical substance to their common concern.
The end result was to make the war in the Ukraine a double conflict: within the Russian ecosystem a civil war between Russians of Russian identity and Russians of Ukrainian identity and, in parallel, a proxy war between the United States and Russia, with the Europeans on the sidelines.
In addition to its global economic impact, the Russia-US confrontation in Ukraine has generated a number of parallel sub-conflicts, some overt and some inherent. Thus it falls within reason that a beleaguered Russia would seek to thwart Washington’s designs over Syria or procure cruise missiles from Iran; just like Iran, short of confronting the United States overtly, would do so through its Houthi, Hamas or Hezbollah proxies.
Some 25 years after the demise of the USSR, the war in Ukraine and its global repercussions stand as the most glaring illustration of the catastrophic mismanagement of the post-Soviet era.
And while appropriating blame can be a subjective endeavor, clearly Washington, as the only surviving superpower, did not live up to a level of responsibility that could hopefully, if not somewhat naively, have been expected.
Finally it took American hubris and Vladimir Putin’s warped sense of history to bring the world to its present predicament – a predicament that inescapably hinges on the United States.
That a nation of some 330 million inhabitants, equivalent to barely 4.16% of the world population, is not only the world’s premier economy with a global cultural footprint but also its premier military power, is a reality that does not beg a simple answer or an answer at all.
End of an era
For such a nation, initially, the issue should have been how to manage the transition from having been one of two superpowers to being the only remaining one. Having failed on the first account, the challenge for Washington today is how to manage an imperial dominance that is increasingly being contested.
For the 20-some years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States enjoyed a level of world dominance unique in history. That era is now ending. And while no single state is liable in the near future to match America’s economic and military superiority, that superiority is now increasingly being questioned both by state actors and by non-state entities.
Currently the United States is involved in three major confrontations with global implications: a war in the Ukraine against Russia, a war against militant Islam, and a politico/economic endeavor to “contain” China.
While these confrontations each have their own distinctive genetic makeup, they have generated a convergence of interests among those who are pitted against Washington. Thus while both China and Russia are at odds with militant Islam, this does not deter Iran, the embodiment of revolutionary Islam, from selling drones to Russia that Putin uses to confront America’s Ukrainian ally.
By the same token, one can wonder whether America’s long-term interests would not be better served by a reasonable combination of a strong Russia, a truncated but stable Ukraine, a Europe whose defense policy within NATO is not held hostage to the United States, and a China left to its own devices, rather than by the present chaos.
An American general once commented that the United States is good at blowing things up but at not much else. The coming decades will show whether the United States can focus on the “else,” were it only because power does not necessarily bring results.
In the meantime, the international community will have to contend with an America whose power exceeds its wisdom in an environment where chaos is the name of the game. Until the hope is, confrontation will have made room for some degree of partnership, however painful the compromises it will entail.