Less than a quarter-century ago, there were no competitors to the presence of American power on the world stage. The country had, unprecedentedly, won two of the greatest wars in world history and had prevailed over the Soviet Union, a land-based tyranny with over 40,000 nuclear weapons. According to Francis Fukuyama, history had “ended,” and according to Charles Krauthammer, the “unipolar moment” in world politics had arrived.
Fast forward twenty-five years. On June 22, 2017, Defense Secretary Mattis told a Senate committee that, after sixteen years, the U.S. was “not winning” in Afghanistan. Sixteen years! That’s four times the length of the Civil War, four times the length of the U.S. in World War II, and thirty-two times the length of American combat in World War I.
What happened to superpower? Since the end of the Cold War, it is fair to say that the United States has failed to devise new strategies and directions to meet the challenges of any “new world order.” Nor do we seem to have the slightest interest in what exactly that concept may contain. Superpower has collapsed, replaced by an endless series of domestic struggles, scandals, celebrity, and vitriol between the various parts of the body politic. The result has been strategic isolation and domestic chaos.
In 1989, the focus of American interest was the Berlin Wall; ten years later it was Monica Lewinski. Now it is Donald Trump, Jr. Each image reflects the transition from a leader of the global order to an inward-looking public culture dominated by an aggressive coalition of racial, gender, media, and other identity sub-cultures. But this is not irreversible.
The American imbroglio in the quagmires of the Middle East is not necessarily fatal for a superpower. In 1781, Britain lost the American colonies, but continued to grow as the supreme colonial and naval power on earth. In 1975, the U.S. retreated from its twenty-five year tragedy in Vietnam. A few years later, the Soviet Union was gone with the U.S. left as the “sole remaining superpower.”
In politics, it has been said, “two hours can be a lifetime” (attributed, Harold Wilson, British PM).
Such a moment took place right after Pearl Harbor, and the ensuing war provided probably the closest Americans have come to appreciate true unity. The near half-century of Cold War itself saw a general sense of purpose, but all that seems as ancient history today.
Without a powerful, existential threat, purpose and commitment are quickly lost in the American worldview. Soon after the Cold War, the Governor of Arkansas could ride to the White House on the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” It’s been downhill since, with any hope of exporting liberal democracy buried deeply under the ruins of places known as Iraq and Syria. Even post-Soviet Russia, once a powerful challenge for world order, has been now reduced to a computer hack allegedly changing votes in places like Michigan and Ohio. Without the release of evidence, this new threat depends on email leaks and the minutes of confidential meetings. Russia, as well, has certainly gone downhill.
Americans have never been comfortable with long and protracted excursions, just as they have equally condemned the centuries of European colonialism. Today, we are living through global experiments that contradict the kind of liberty inherent in America’s original purpose. Democracy is not a product to be exported like machinery. The present decades-long efforts to re-arrange centuries of cultural tribalism overseas have challenged the very fiber of the American political culture and have subverted the symbolism embedded in the same worldview.
Superpowers can be paralyzed by their own strength without clear and direct leadership. The problem is, in the final analysis, one of strategic culture. Neither willpower, manpower, nor material resources are sufficient if there is a deficit in mental agility, imagination, and vision. Like most problems, thus, the issue is an intellectual one, over and above any defense budget or weapons system.
Can the Trump Administration overcome its quasi-isolationism and nationalistic impulses to rise above tweets and forge a genuine world order? Woodrow Wilson was a nationalist too and operated within an isolationist tradition. Wilson also created the first real comprehensive plan to “make the world safe for democracy.” The League of Nations failed, but those same ideals resonate deeply within the American political soul. Harry Truman had some Trump-like qualities (to a degree): irascibility, uncultured in manners and diplomacy, a crude and often rude exterior, ignorance of foreign policy matters. Yet Truman had his own “two hours” in history, ended World War II, and produced a global order that is still largely intact.
Can Trump’s time arrive as well? Hard as it is to believe, the present regime remains, for the moment, the sole remaining hope for the maintenance and ascendance of liberal democracy. Still, “hope springs eternal.”