Last year I was in Washington, D.C. giving an off-the-record briefing to senior members of the Department of Defense. After having mentioned three times the “U.S.-led world order,” I stopped myself in the middle of my briefing, looked at the audience of senior military personnel, and realized how absurd I sounded. I stood there like an idiot for what seemed to be an eternity—with everyone awkwardly staring at me. I am convinced now that my reaction was entirely justified and sane, given the circumstances.
After all, we were discussing the ongoing Russo-Ukraine War and the possibility of having to defend against or, rather, respond to a Russian nuclear attack. “World order?!” I thought incredulously as I attempted to regain my composure. In that moment, I felt as though I were staring down a deep, black abyss and having that Nietzschean moment where the abyss (in this case multiple three and four-star generals as well as two former Trump Administration National Security Council members) stared back at me.
Look around, Washingtonians, there is no world order! Whatever it once was, whatever glories it once gave us, that order is long gone.
What we’ve gotten ourselves into instead is a world in total disorder with ordinary Americans left holding the proverbial bag, in terms of cost and blood—and an indolent political class totally unwilling to concede that they’ve gotten most everything wrong (because, except in rare cases, their kids aren’t the ones paying for those mistakes).
What’s more, the very thing high-ranking members of the so-called “deep state,” are accustomed to doing—acting boldly and loudly whenever we are in doubt—is the one thing most certain to worsen the situation, particularly for the one country that the post-Cold War liberal order is supposed to benefit: the United States.
Everywhere we turn, there are wars and rumors of war. Russia in Ukraine. China in Taiwan. North Korea invading its southern neighbor. Iran letting loose unholy terror upon its Sunni Arab and Israeli neighbors. And let’s not even talk about the chaos at our southwestern border. (Seriously, few in Washington want to even know about this problem!)
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the blessedly bloodless American victory in the Cold War was supposed to give us a new age of human development, peace, and prosperity. The unipolar world order was heralded by Democrats and Republicans alike. It would be based on the timeless American values of justice, liberty, equality, and prosperity. International free trade, promotion of democracy, liberal human rights, and norms enforced by purportedly unbiased international organizations and backed up by U.S. military power, these were the ideals that would undergird a post-Cold War peace that was supposed to last us for at least the duration of the first half of the 21st century.
We ought to have known better. In fact, the brilliant international relations scholar, Robert Gilpin, wrote about the inherent stability of unipolar systems. We would have done well to take that seriously.
One could argue that the relative stability of the 1990s proved that Gilpin was onto something in his assessment. But, something happened then wherein Washington, rather than taking a step back and letting the systems it had crafted to manage a complex world take the lead, started imposing itself everywhere. With each imposition, the value of the U.S.-led world order in the post-Cold War era became less appealing to other countries, such as China and Russia. Alternative power centers not only began arising to challenge the unipolar world order, but those systems were soon coalescing into explicitly anti-American alliances that, over time, threatened the national security of the United States itself. (Does anyone really believe that China and Russia are natural allies, in the way that America and Britain are?)
I Miss the 1990s
It is hard to believe that just 30 years ago, the Russians fantasized about becoming members of the Western trading system and NATO after having spent the previous 40 years resisting these things. In the 1990s, as well, the Communist Chinese—who were never democrats-in-waiting as the neoliberal elite in Washington believed—were making so much money from the American-created world order that they did not initially feel compelled to translate that wealth into the military power required to challenge the United States.
What we are experiencing today, however, is a world order undone mostly by bad American policies. Of course, nations like Russia or China that were home to very different cultures than that of the United States, were unlikely ever to become as compliant to Washington as the Europeans are. Yet, their resistance quotient to the U.S.-led world order would be much lower today if Washington had just tried to act with a bit more restraint in certain areas.
For example, former President Bill Clinton used American capitalism as a blunt force instrument to bash open the markets of developing economies—including Russia—and effectively immiserated those struggling nations when they were at their weakest. Then, President George W. Bush proclaimed his intention to topple all dictators globally and replace their regimes with democratic and capitalistic ones. After prematurely winning a Nobel Peace Prize, President Barack Obama spent his eight years in office bombing weddings and funerals throughout the greater Middle East, hoping to occasionally kill an actual terrorist, with a fleet of drones. Today, Joe Biden courts nuclear war with Russia.
Far too many American policymakers conflated America’s hegemonic position in the world system as a responsibility to use inherently limited American troops and capital to attempt to extinguish nearly every brush fire that erupted globally. In so doing, we often fanned the flames of crisis and resentment and, in many cases, would have been better off not acting at all (see Edward Luttwak’s infamous essay “Give War a Chance” for more on that).
Far too few U.S. leaders in Washington since the end of the Cold War have ever dared to ask themselves, what are these problems to us? And, as a corollary, why must U.S. military power or capital always be expended to address these problems?
Whose Order is It, Anyway?
What sort of “order” courts a multi-sided conflict with two nuclear powers, such as Russia and China, and two nuclear rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea? What kind of “order” are we living in where not only nuclear world war appears to be the desire of our elites, but those same elites utterly refuse to invest in even the most modest form of defense against such ghastly weapons, such as space-based missile defense? In what way are any of these outcomes favorable to the United States?
Our current predicament was certainly not what President Ronald Reagan envisioned when he told a befuddled Dr. Robert Wood of the Naval War College at a White House briefing in 1982 his belief that the USSR was a “real Mickey Mouse operation” and that the Soviets were destined to lose the Cold War by the end of his second term.
Nor is the world we are living in presently the vision of Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, who took to the airwaves in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse to declare that the new post-Cold War order would not be governed by “the law of the jungle” but by the very American principles of the “rule of law.”
It is incumbent upon all members of the American political establishment to recognize how precarious is the position their actions (and the actions of their predecessors) have put our once-mighty nation in since the end of the Cold War. And in realizing this unfortunate truth, our leaders in Washington must chart a new way forward in foreign policy.
That pathway forward cannot be isolationism and retreat. It also cannot mean viewing every situation as a crisis needing resolution via the vast expenditure of what are today limited national resources and military might. Some variation of John J. Mearsheimer’s “offshore balancer” approach—or “offensive realism”—would be preferable.
Such a new paradigm would not only recognize but also embrace the limits of U.S. power while simultaneously guarding our real national interests, which are: first, the protection of the American homeland; second, the expansion of prosperity through fair trade deals; third, the embrace of willing strategic partners globally, and giving those powers the tools they need to survive and thrive; fourth, the acceptance that other cultures exist and that nations of those different cultures will not always be willing lapdogs of Washington’s preferences; and fifth, that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all—unless the American homeland or its core interests are directly threatened.
It’s time that Americans everywhere realize how lucky we were to have avoided the Cold War becoming a nuclear world war—and how blessed we are by geography. We must also now understand how foolish we were in letting that historic victory evaporate, to be replaced by the very real prospects of a nuclear world war today.