THE UNITED STATES , Russia and China are all losing, or have lost, their ideological and spiritual purpose. This is clear in the case of the Russian and Chinese regimes, which no longer possess their communist ethos and whose legitimacy is based on ethnocentrism and anxious economic pacts with their own people. But even the United States has less of a moral purpose. It is questionable whether Americans are willing to continue to provide upkeep for a liberal order in Europe and Asia, as they did for over seventy years. While American democracy thrived and was a shining example to the world in the print-and-typewriter age, it is uncertain whether that will continue in the digital-and-video era. Indeed, of late, American democracy has been less an inspiration than a tawdry spectacle. Congress has seen a degree of partisan dysfunction unknown since nineteenth-century frontier days. The president, by any account, simply lacks the decorum of all former modern presidents. The monied classes essentially run Washington, a process that has been maturing and abundantly commented upon for decades. Despite the quiet dedication of an often-maligned, policy-driven bureaucratic elite, America is less and less the “city upon a hill.” In all of this, keep in mind that it is less important how Americans see themselves than how others see them.
Comparison is the beginning of all serious scholarship, and it is obvious that the differences between the United States, Russia and China are less ideologically and philosophically stark than during the Cold War. We are certainly not becoming alike. That there is still a vast difference between the legal constraints on presidential power in the United States and the unbridled thuggery of the Russian regime (or the way the Chinese regime treats its dissidents) almost goes without saying. But none of the three major powers are as motivated by great and clashing ideals as they once were. The gulf is no longer existential. This is demonstrated by the peculiar sympathy for the Russian regime among certain elements of the political class in America, the United Kingdom and Europe.
All three states are, step by step, being ground down to their civilizational basics. Their nationalisms are merely an expression of their cultural strengths and weaknesses, little more. China’s enlightened authoritarianism depends in part upon the respect for order and hierarchy inherent in the serenity of its Confucian ethos. Westerners may actually wait in vain for the Chinese people to demand democracy. Throughout history, Russia’s cold climate, incomparable vastness and lack of defensible borders have made both autocracy and incipient chaos more natural to it than liberal democracy—so that through Russian eyes, as Joseph Conrad wrote , freedom itself can look like “a form of debauch.” Boris Yeltsin’s rule in the 1990s was as much an experiment in quasi-anarchy as in democracy. As for the United States, it has rediscovered the Jacksonian frontier bedrock buried for decades beneath the Wilsonian urges of its urban elites. Americans will fight and kill if they feel themselves directly threatened or insulted, but preserving democratic orders across oceans might eventually become too much of an abstract and costly enterprise for them.
Presidents come and go. Had an exceedingly small number of votes been redistributed differently among three states, Donald Trump would not be president. Yet it is clear that after fifteen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s quasi-imperial project, built on high-minded goals, has ended. This became apparent years before the November 2016 election, when President Barack Obama, a cosmopolitan idealist by some measure, nevertheless refused to intervene in Syria and intervened only from the air in Libya. Syria in 2011 ended a post–Cold War interventionist streak that began with Panama in 1989 and ran through the Middle East and the Balkans. So while Trump is certainly unique, he is also part of a continuum.
No longer the city upon a hill to the extent that they used to be, nor even perhaps the free world’s 911 force, Americans have become increasingly themselves, in a parallel fashion to the Russians and Chinese. American idealism, one should admit, was originally a gift of geographic space, which because of technology is now an increasingly shrinking resource. The late British military historian John Keegan wrote that Great Britain and America could champion freedom only because, as effectively island nations, the seas protected them “from the landbound enemies of liberty.” But the smaller the world gets, the more dangerous it becomes, and thus the more ruthlessly pragmatic the American public becomes, too. Of course, the twenty-first-century world of video and social media is also a more intimate world, so that a humanitarian outrage abroad can ignite an impulsive military reaction in a way it didn’t before. But henceforth, major interventions may only occur when naked national interest can be communicated in a television sound bite. This is why the human-rights community and its friends in the media will always fondly remember the American-led interventions in the former Yugoslavia, which were quite significant in scale yet relatively untainted by what in their eyes were the cynical interests of state—for they know that such a thing may never happen again.