The “unipolar moment,” “gratification without commitment” and the end of an “empire of ideas.”

A few weeks ago, Fareed Zakaria, writing in Foreign Affairs, said “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 … [he asks, rhetorically] … 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,” Mr Zakariah says, adding that “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,” he says, “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.

Mr Zakaria explains that the unipolar moment, a phrase coined, in Foreign Affairs, by the late Charles Krauthammer, was hard to detect in the 1990s and not everyone agreed that the USA was, in fact, the new Rome. But by the early 2000s most observers agreed it was there and many, Fareed Zakaria being one of the exceptions, failed to notice that it was going be a very transient “moment.”

Just as American hegemony grew in the early 1990s while no one was noticing,‘ Mr Zakaria says, “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, he says] … 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.

That’s the world we live in now. America’s “unipolar moment” came and went, at almost lightning speed.

Fareed Zakaria says that “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 5f79e424b28ed4c24f281efa5ae15328invading 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.” The wounded lion analogy is a good one and, in my opinion, it accurately describes the Bush (43), Obama and Trump administrations and it does so because that is exactly how an overwhelming majority of Americans, of all political stripes, seem to feel. Americans know they are like a mighty lion, respected and feared by all the world, but enemies and competitors and even friends and allies are perceived ~ sometimes correctly but, more of than not, unfairly ~ to have taken advantage of America’s good and generous nature and some are attacking America, both overtly and covertly.

So,” he asks, “which was it that eroded American hegemony—the rise of new challengers or imperial overreach?” He answers that: “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.” But he says, and I agree, that “The greatest error the United States committed during its unipolar moment, with Russia and more generally, was to simply stop paying attention … [he explains that] … 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 … [but] … By the mid-1990s, it had lost all interest in the world … [and, although] … U.S. policymakers still wanted to transform the world in the 1990s … [they only wanted to do so] … 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” … [and] … 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 YorkTimes 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.

Mr Zakariah gets to the core of his argument, and to the crux of my problem with 21st century America when he says that “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.” That, I believe, is the issue in a nutshell: President Trump’s America has no discernible foreign policy because President Trump, himself, is uninterested in and uninformed about the world. He understands the angst that many Americans feel about the impact of globalization … he shares it, despite being a bigger”trust-fund kid” than is Justin Trudeau. But being angry about logical business decisions is hardly a policy, is it?

After reminding readers about the decline and fall of the British Empire, Fareed Zakariah concludes: “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 [to expand] its influence for decades (albeit in a different form).” Then he gets to his central point: “The rule for extending liberal hegemony seems simple:” he says, “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 … [and] … 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.” (A quibble: I think that, like too many commentators, he gives insufficient credit to Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower who, combined, were, in my view, more important than FDR.) “It is the world that was half-created after 1945,” he says “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?

Canada has benefitted greatly from the “liberal international order,” as well we should have: Canadians fought valiantly (and made disproportionate sacrifices) in two World Wars in the 20th century  to enable the “liberal international order,” and Canadians were instrumental, playing important, even leading roles, in creating it in the 1940s and ’50s. Now we might have to sit back and watch as Donald Trump enables and even encourages Xi Jinping’s and Vladimir Putin’s assaults on it … mainly because Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland are too focused on silly, immature “virtue signalling” to their political base and seem intellectually unable to focus on Canada’s vital “self-interests,” as many experts think is necessary. We need a grand strategy for Canada that begins with repairing relations, as best anyone can, with the USA ~ that may require reaching out beyond the White House, beyond even Washington, to “interest” groups and leaders in business and industry, and in the governments of states and justin_trudeau-size-custom-crop-1086x0cities. We need to, also, restore at least “correct” relations with China ~ that is likely to take years. In the interim, we must make amends for Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy fumbles with, inter alia, Australia, India and Japan, and with many other countries who have good reason to believe that Canada is, as the saying goes, “all hat, no cattle.” Canada should be a nation of substance … a trading nation, a nation that does its fair share of making and keeping the peace in the world ~ and the latter tasks involve a huge amount more than just sending a few women in baby-blue berets to Africa as tokens. Canada needs to begin by making common-cause, where we can, with like-minded small and medium powers (think CANZUK++) to help fill some of the holes that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have blasted in the “liberal international order” … holes that Donald Trump seems to want to leave unrepaired.


Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

6 thoughts on “The “unipolar moment,” “gratification without commitment” and the end of an “empire of ideas.”

  1. Once again your article starts off erudite, well-informed and articulate. Then you seem unable to stop yourself from descending into the partisan political. Freeland ‘silly’ and ‘immature’?? Are you kidding me? The most effective minister in the portfolio for many years and that is your description of her work? Really Mr. Campbell, your articles would be so much more worthy, if you stopped your ‘silly and immature’ attacks.

    1. Sorry, Mr Parker, but I think Ms Freeland, despite being a well educated, accomplished person, is a twit, to be charitable, and a bloody poor excuse for a foreign minister. I agree she’s better than most in the Trudeau cabinet, but that’s a terribly low threshold … the lowest in Canadian history I would think.

      1. Can you sir, think of a single one of your Conservatives who could’ve done a better job re-negotiating NAFTA? Even Ms. Freeland’s American and Mexican colleagues lauded and commented on her highly professional work. I think like most Cons, your dislike of Trudeau is so intense, it absolutely colours everything you think about current federal Liberal party achievements. Your Scheer will not be one wit better than the current PM and I don’t even care for Trudeau a great deal.

      2. I have said, more than once that dealing with President Trump is difficult but, yes, I do think a better team, with a better PM, even a better Liberal PM, would and could have done better from the get-go. I blame Ms Freeland for the TPP sign-not sign-sign fiasco and for not stopping the India trip train-wreck. I know that PMs are, very often, their own foreign ministers but a real foreign minister steps up, steps in and prevents such disasters. If Ms Freeland didn’t know the India trip (and the problems with “diaspora politics” in Canada that led to Prime Minister Modi’s dislike of PMJT) was flawed at the outset then she is incompetent; if she did know and accepted the PMO plan then she is too blindly partisan. I suspect it’s both. I think that a Liberal team of, say, Marc Garneau (PM) and Stéphane Dion (FM) would have done better with Trump/NAFTA, with the TPP and with India. Trudeau and Freeland are a team and they are a weak team that fails again and again … Canada has never been so weak and so alone in the wold since 1867.

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