Back in my high-school debating days, policy debate teams frequently concluded their arguments with an extreme and somewhat absurd parade of horribles. This was a testament to their intelligence and creativity, plus being dead wrong carried few consequences. Through convoluted chains of logic, they argued that some small change in environmental or trade policy would lead to nuclear war or America’s domination by the “global south.”
Even then, this all struck me as ridiculous. How could the Third World, with its periodic famines and coups, ever threaten the United States? Back then we were fully dominant over the entire world after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
A lot has changed.
The Birth of the Nonaligned Movement
During the Cold War, the various nations on the periphery acted, in some ways, as judges of the two competing systems. While the United States and Soviet Union were accused of manipulating the Third World for selfish reasons, the manipulation went both ways. Being coy, Third World leaders often managed to squeeze real benefits, like infrastructure projects, discounted military equipment, and other forms of aid by siding with one side or the other.
During the Cold War, the nations of the Third World were wary of being compelled to take sides, risking conflicts orthogonal to their own interests and sacrificing their sovereignty through excessive dependence on a patron. This is why the nonaligned movement gained power, with India in particular at the forefront, where it was joined by interested Middle Eastern, African, and Latin American nations.
These nations, which had gained sovereignty only very recently from their colonial masters, were understandably touchy about their independence. They did not want to exchange a formal colonial structure for an informal one.
When the Cold War ended, the United States remained the sole superpower for some time, but, rather than achieving worldwide assent, this instead fueled envy, fear, and resentment. No longer able to chart their own path, every nation became subordinate on some level to American power.
Aggressive Idealism Fuels Anti-Americanism
At the height of its military power, starting during the Clinton presidency, American leaders began to embrace an aggressive “idealism” that set out to change the character, values, and customs of other countries. Purely “humanitarian” interventions like Kosovo and Somalia became common.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, this idealism meant feminism and democracy. In Eastern Europe, it meant the promotion of gay rights and secularism, alienating the conservative and religious people who once idealized the United States. In Latin America, idealism demanded capitalism and loosened trade restrictions.
The invocation of “Freedom” and “Democracy,” while it sounds noble and idealistic to our ears, began to sound like a threat to nations who were out of step with the West’s ruling classes. Unilateral American military intervention in such diverse places as Panama, Iraq, Serbia, Syria, and Libya made nations on the sidelines wary that they could be next.
Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa—the so-called BRICS—do not have much in common. They have diverse economic and political systems, distinct languages, very different histories, and members appeared on both sides of Cold War alliances. But they share a common orientation to American power: our aspirations to maintain “sole superpower” status threatens their national power and independence. Perceiving this as a zero-sum game, they seek to pivot world attention, prosperity, and power away from the United States and its Western European allies.
Among these American competitors, China and Russia stand out most of all. Through their de facto alliance, they now dominate the Eurasian landmass. Their industrial capacity has revealed significant advantages in a war of attrition. And, finally, with their history as former American enemies, they have a habitual and strong resistance to American interference with their destinies.
While Russia and China’s conduct is easily understood, the growing and diverse anti-American coalition, along with these other nations’ willingness to accept Russian and Chinese leadership, needs explanation. The heart of the matter is sovereignty. American demands and desires currently constrain each of the BRICS nations and the many smaller nations of the Third World, whether it is in energy, central banking, sanctions, trade, or even domestic policies on issues like feminism and gay rights.
The proposed “multipolar world” has a lot of momentum because it does not require submission to a particular Chinese or Russian model for internal governance. Russia and China are mostly agnostic about internal affairs, unlike the “idealistic” United States. Rather, the alternative promotes a more organic (and potentially chaotic) distribution of power from the current system.
Finally, neither Russia nor China could displace the United States. Thus, at most, they can usher in a world of “multipolarity,” where all countries will be less constrained, and larger countries like them have, at most, regional strength.
Ukraine War Now Existential for the American Empire
The current war in Ukraine is bringing a lot of things to a head. The United States and Europe imagined the rest of the world would view the conflict as a morality play: a big, powerful bully dominating its innocent and unassuming neighbor. This, indeed, is how most leaders and many people in the West perceive events.
But this has been a tough sell in the Third World, which is the chief reason sanctions have faced resistance. While Russia is bigger than Ukraine, Ukraine is big relative to its separatist eastern provinces, with whom it has had a conflict since 2014. Since most developing nations began as anti-colonial movements for national liberation, Ukraine’s attempts to forcibly reintegrate the East does not look so different from the types of struggles Brazil and India had during their independence movements.
Moreover, with Ukraine aligned so closely with the West—using NATO tanks, NATO mercenaries, and NATO money to prosecute its defense—much of the world does not perceive a bully pushing around its stalwart neighbor, but rather an American bully using its Ukrainian lackey for realpolitik designs against Russia. This is a particularly popular view in China, of course. But, judging from editorials and open source comments, it is also widely held in places like Africa and India, where many people view Russia in a positive light because of its opposition to the United States.
Until now, American power rested on actual American superiority in economics, military power, and cultural influence. The United States soundly defeated Iraq in the first Gulf War, emerged from the Cold War intact and wealthy, and soon proceeded to project power with great skill in the early days of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. But since that time, we have departed Afghanistan and Iraq without a victory. In parallel, we spread chaos in Libya and Syria, failing to conclude regime change operations in the latter.
American military prowess is no longer undisputed or inevitable, undermining the broader claim of America as the “sole superpower.” This was all avoidable, but having overextended itself, the visible evidence of American decline is now confirmed. This is what happens when a nation is ruled by disloyal, short-sighted, and foolish people.
To state the obvious, losing wars is never good for an empire. The Ottoman and Russian empires dissolved under the stresses of the First World War. While part of the victorious allies, World War II cemented the subordinate status of France and the United Kingdom, and their empires fell apart after the war. Finally, and most recently, the Soviet Union broke apart after its costly and controversial campaign in Afghanistan.
Russia’s attempts to assert power in its near-abroad fueled America’s interest in the current Ukraine War. The theory was that we would pursue our interests on the cheap, prevent challenges to American hegemony, with the added benefit that Ukrainians would be doing the dying. Because of our military and economic superiority, supporters claimed the war would kill Russians, weaken their military, and destabilize Putin’s hold on power.
Proponents of the war did not really consider what would happen in the reverse case. What if not Russia, but the United States found itself strained economically, losing critical and hard-to-replace weapons in a war of attrition, visibly demonstrating its impotence and weakness on the world stage? Wouldn’t the same dire consequences intended for Russia now happen to us?
Indeed, they would. Luckily, actual American security does not depend on the continuation of America’s dominance of the globe, nor does American prosperity. Indeed, our prosperity has declined as the requirements of the military industrial complex and the behemoth welfare state devalue our currency and impoverish taxpayers. Further, our aspirations to maintain sole superpower status has endangered us by fueling anti-Americanism, while encouraging significant moral compromise at home.
Although losing a war and taking a blow to prestige can be a painful process, the American people’s interests require the dismantling of the American empire. Our current course risks manifesting the dire and once-implausible scenarios popular on the high school debate circuit. It is time to change course.