Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union we have been living in the era of American primacy. Primacy, of course, is just a euphemism for empire. The early 1990s ostensibly inaugurated a “new American Century,” with the United States bestriding the planet like a colossus. On both the left and right, policy elites fretted that absent American leadership the world would devolve into a Yeatsian “Second Coming” of anarchy, chaos, bloodshed and destruction.
If Americans took on the mantle of global leadership, many convinced themselves, all would be well. Underlying these expectations was the conviction that the exercise of global leadership by the United States is by definition enlightened, altruistic and effective. To charge Washington with traditional imperialism is a mistake. What the self-proclaimed “indispensable nation” offers is not the blood and iron of the nineteenth century but the noble and selfless stewardship of the global commons of the twentieth century by its leading citizen, the first among equals.
Some observers called the result Pax Americana . But the phrase doesn’t quite fit because, despite our unprecedented power and strident (if inconsistent) commitment to lofty ideals like democracy and human rights, the world has been anything but peaceful. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been almost constantly at war (always undeclared). During the forty-four years of the Cold War, U.S. forces fought at a rate of about once every seven years; since the end of the Cold War, war at more than double this rate has become the new normal, with global disorder stemming in considerable part from precisely our hyperpuissance.
We invaded Panama on the eve of the end of the Cold War in 1989, fought a short but sharp (and justified) war against Saddam Hussein in Kuwait scarcely a year later; with the best of humanitarian intentions, we soon after put our hand into the hornet’s nest of the Somali civil war; and despite getting stung badly at the Battle of the Bakaara marketplace in Mogadishu, we sent troops to Haiti to restore civilian rule to the island. In the latter half of the 1990s, the United States intervened in two civil wars kindled by the breakup of Yugoslavia, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo, to prevent what we feared would become genocides on the fringes of post-Holocaust Europe. Throughout that decade, U.S. forces skirmished with Saddam and engaged in preliminary hostilities with Osama bin Laden.
The turn of the new century brought the debacle of 9/11. The United States responded with an appropriate but mismanaged, invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan followed by a wildly inappropriate and even more grotesquely bungled intervention in Iraq. Not having learned our lesson from either of these strategic blunders, we led (albeit from behind) a NATO coalition to overthrow a cowed Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, reducing that country to anarchy. Inter alia, U.S. forces bombed or raided Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and part of Pakistan, creating yet more chaos in an already volatile region of the world and creating another safe-haven for Al Qaeda’s unworthy successor, the Islamic State (ISIS). While the Cold War was hardly an era of harmony and good fellowship, the post-Cold War era of American primacy actually deserves the sobriquet of Bella Americana .
You might think that a period of such sustained and mostly counterproductive war would spark some deep soul-searching among the policy elite and perhaps even a serious debate about whether the game of American global leadership continues to be worth the candle. But for this to happen, two sets of changes would have to occur. Internationally, a new great power would have to emerge to counter American hegemony. Domestically, the post–Cold War foreign-policy consensus—American über alles—that has a stranglehold on both parties would have to fray. While both of these changes may happen, it is not a sure thing that they will. And if they do, change will come slowly.
The most direct antidote to our situation would be the emergence of a new great power to counterbalance us, puncturing Washington’s delusions about continuing our unchallenged reign as king of the global hill. It may seem perverse to see any virtue in the emergence of a new peer competitor yet such a development just might restore a sense of proportion and common sense to American statecraft. As the British historian Lord Acton famously put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—an adage amply affirmed by the course of U.S. policy since America became the world’s sole superpower.
However, other great powers, friendly or not, are currently in short supply. A unified Europe, for example, might have provided America with the opportunity for a friendly passing of the baton of global leadership, in a way reversing the soft transition at the turn of the last century from Pax Britannica to the American Century.