IN 1902 the Boston Brahmin and historian Brooks Adams published an influential book titled The New Kingdom. He came at a time when America was becoming a great power as imperial aspirations supplanted the restraint of the old republic. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, America annexed Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and much of the Caribbean. The Panama Canal was nearing completion and Washington was making inroads into China. Adams concluded,
Supposing that the movement of the next 50 years equals that of the last, instead of undergoing a prodigious acceleration, the United States will prevail over a single empire, if not over all the empires put together. The whole world will pay homage to him. Trade will flow to her from both east and west, and the order that has existed since the dawn of time will be overturned.
Adams’ remarkably accurate prophecy, as sociologist Daniel Bell has noted, offers a helpful reminder that the belief that America should strive for global supremacy predates World Wars I and II. Original Mandarins who envisioned a Pax Americana included Elihu Root, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge Hay, and John Hay. Their apostolic followers, like Henry Stimson, saw themselves as America’s Platonic guardians. In his recent book Tomorrow the worldStephen Wertheim argues that this foreign policy elite made a conscious choice to champion internationalism in the form of armed supremacy after 1945. Yet during the Cold War America’s ambitions were limited by its rivalry with the Soviet Union, when the spheres of influence, along the lines of the famous sentence of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 cuius regio, eius religio (whose kingdom, whose religion), obtained.
THE APPARENT stability of the Cold War meant that as the conflict wore on, some on the liberal left came to reject the idea that it was ever necessary to confront the Kremlin as being so hooey. From the 1960s, a small academic industry grew up around the idea that it was all a big mistake, the fault of the merchants of death or greedy politicians. In his 1982 novel Dean’s month of Decemberwhich took place in Bucharest and Chicago, Saul Bellow captured this illusion:
…liberalism had never accepted the Leninist premise that it was a time of wars and revolutions. Where the Communists saw class war, civil war, images of catastrophe, we only saw passing aberrations. Capitalist democracies could never be comfortable with catastrophic prospects. We are accustomed to peace and abundance, we are for all that is pleasant and against cruelty, wickedness, cunning, monstrosity. Worshipers of progress, its dependents, we do not want to reckon with wickedness and misanthropy, we reject the horrible– the same as saying that we are anti-philosophical.
But an American right-wing cadre, first led by William F. Buckley, Jr., then joined by the neoconservatives who vilified presidential candidate George McGovern and fled the Democratic Party in the early 1970s, has only too well accepted this Leninist premise, espousing an aggressive – no, revolutionary – policy of retreat from communism. Nixon-Kissinger’s policy of détente was scorned as tantamount to appeasement of the Kremlin, a policy which was sure to lead to the demoralization and defeat of the West.
This was not the case. Indeed, one of the most defining moments of the Cold War came to an end when Soviet official and scholar Georgy Arbatov told a Washington audience, “We are going to do a terrible thing to you. We will deprive you of an enemy. Even Arbatov could not have known how prescient his remark would become in the following decades. As soon as the Cold War ended, American hawks began to search for a new adversary. Instead of following cautious realist principles, they embraced the idea of the universal applicability of the American model abroad – that liberalism could be equated with progress in history.
A taste of what was to come appeared in a defense planning policy document overseen by Paul Wolfowitz that caused a stir when it was released in 1992. The document called for huge increases in the defense budget. defense and called on America to remain the world’s sole superpower. while rejecting the notion of multilateralism. George HW Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft rejected it. Bush’s son didn’t. Moderation was over, bragging was in order. Bush the Younger invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, calling in his second inaugural speech for an end to tyranny in the world. The costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone amounted to more than four trillion dollars. His successor, Barack Obama, had vowed to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, but ended up leading a NATO coalition that bombed Libya. This campaign has contributed to destabilizing Syria, leading to an exodus of refugees to Europe.
At the same time, after the Cold War ended on American terms, Washington embarked on NATO expansion by incorporating East Germany after German reunification. In 1990, Secretary of State James Baker told Soviet leaders – in a statement that became the basis for Russian aggression – that NATO would not move “one inch” east if the Kremlin accepted reunification. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, two new rounds of NATO expansion followed, extending the so-called Article V guarantee – “an armed attack on one or more of them. .. will be considered an attack on them all” – to cover a billion people. Washington was in no mood to allay Russian apprehensions. “To hell with that,” President George HW Bush said when asked if he would compromise with Moscow. President Bill Clinton thought he could be “redeemed”. But as historian ME Sarotte observes in her important new book, not an inchthis approach, which the diplomat and scholar George F. Kennan fiercely opposed at the time, turned out to be short-sighted:
Along the way, a promising alternative mode of enlargement, in the form of a partnership that would have avoided drawing a new line across Europe, came up against radical opposition. This tougher attitude worked, but it obscured the options that might have supported cooperation, reduced the chances of a US-Russian conflict recurring, and better served Washington’s longer-term interests.
TODAY, AS President Joe Biden struggles with geopolitical shifts and the pandemic crisis, the impression is growing abroad that a new era has begun in the West in which America is not more first among equals but a superpower in terminal decline, relegated, to use the title of a provocative book by Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon, to an exit from hegemony. Indeed, with polarization, political correctness, book bans, and alternative facts gaining new virulence, the belief that the United States itself might descend into civil war has become increasingly widespread. As the 1619 Project indicates, America cannot even agree on the most basic facts about its founding. Myths about the American Revolution as an exercise in white supremacy are spreading. At a minimum, the much-vaunted American model looks battered and bruised at home and abroad.
In this issue, Nikolas K. Gvosdev points out that nothing less than a thirty-year cycle has come to an abrupt end. Where this cycle began with “a series of events that heralded the triumph of the US-led liberal-democratic system – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the almost bloodless victory of the US-led coalition United States in the Gulf War and the lowering of the red hammer and sickle banner over the Grand Kremlin Palace for the last time on December 25, 1991 – the terminus of this post-Cold War era and the throes of the birth of a new and yet nameless era could not be more different.
A sign of a new era is the increasingly rigged relationship between China and the United States. The West’s dogged optimism that the introduction of capitalism into China would inevitably lead to political reform has been dashed, as Beijing’s rulers have cracked down internally and asserted sweeping claims to the South China Sea, alarming its immediate neighbours. President Donald Trump has oscillated between denouncing China for its unfair trade practices and praising its leader, President Xi Jinping, in a tweet, for his handling of the pandemic as “strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counter-war.” attack on the coronavirus”. Biden himself did not lift many of the tariffs Trump initially imposed on China. Indeed, its objective has been to pivot away from Europe and the Middle East towards Asia. But while China may be an adversary of America, it is not clear that a competition with it should constitute Cold War II. But US pressure on Russia and China is pushing them to cooperate much more closely. The two powers regularly conduct joint military exercises. China is Russia’s biggest trading partner and the two tend to support each other in their foreign policy efforts. The more Washington relies on Moscow, the faster it seeks to strengthen its ties with Beijing.
Where does that leave Washington? As Paul Heer, a fellow at the Center for the National Interest, notes in this issue, much of America’s vulnerability to China stems from its own internal weaknesses. Some in Washington have succumbed to the temptation to attribute America’s own weaknesses to Chinese perfidy rather than confront and rectify them. According to Heer,