Victory in the Cold War left the United States as the sole remaining superpower.  The Western-led open world economy spread into much of the rest of the world.  Western countries claimed their peace dividend by reducing defense spending.  Yet not all were happy with the outcome.  Expanded international economic integration disrupted established industries in Western countries, even as they raised hundreds of millions of people elsewhere out of abject poverty.  Social division strained democratic politics, especially in the United States.  China, Russia, and Islamic radicals declined to be chained to the chariot of American-led “progress.”  They and others sought to increase their own power. 

Until recently, in these efforts they mostly had to contend with the rhetorical disdain of the West.  The leader of the pack, the United States, began to play a less influential role.  In large measure, this change in role can be blamed on the disastrous invasion of Iraq.  The decision to proceed with a “coalition of the willing,” rather than paying attention to what important international partners said by their refusal to participate; the gruesome civil war that the American invasion made possible; and the repercussions throughout the Middle East of the flunked war both diverted American attention from real issues and left the American people disgusted with international relations.  President Donald Trump’s then well-founded disdain for the Continental European allies, his hostility to Iranian adventurism, and his determination to coerce China alarmed both America’s foreign policy elite and many foreign leaders.  From both these adventures, the United States ended up in a very different place than had been the case at the end of the Cold War. 

            Now many in the West are truly alarmed.  In the absence of reliable American leadership, some of the traditional allies are “tightening their relations with the U.S., increasing their defense spending, and intensifying efforts to strengthen the network of alliances that underpin the world order.”[1]  What they are doing, really, is waiting to see if the Americans are going to shake it off and come back to the center of the ring for the next round. 

            What if the Americans don’t shake it off?  What if other countries value the American-created and American-led world order more highly than do the Americans themselves?  In that case, many countries will find themselves confronting a loose and temporary, but momentarily potent, coalition of predators.[2]  What then?  The Serpent Prince of Saudi Arabia seems to think that the question already has been answered.  President Joe Biden has failed to come up with any suitable response to Iran, so Saudi Arabia has been open to Xi Jinping mediating a truce for the moment in the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict, while also exerting pressure on the world oil market.[3]  He’s an early adopter of the post-American world.  Lots of people are not yet ready to make that jump, and don’t want that jump to become necessary.  Nevertheless, they are watching to see how it shakes out. 

            At the heart of this dilemma is a more fundamental question.  Is American weakness on the international scene only perceived or is it real?  Only Americans can answer that question. 

[1] Walter Russell Mead, “America Shrugs, and the World Makes Plans,” WSJ, 28 March 2023.

[2] For a historian, there are inescapable questions about parallels to the period between the two World Wars.  Analogical thinking can be dangerous.  You have to pick the right analogy, not just the one at hand. 

[3] Which doesn’t do any good for any democratic politician in any country. 


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