IN 1935, the anti-Nazi writer and Austrian-Jewish intellectual Joseph Roth published a story, “The Bust of the Emperor,” about an elderly count at the chaotic fringe of the former Habsburg Empire who refused to think of himself as a Pole or an Italian, even though his ancestry encompassed both. In his mind, the only mark of “true nobility” was to be “a man above nationality,” in the Habsburg tradition. “My old home, the Monarchy, alone,” the count says, “was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men.” Indeed, the horrors of twentieth-century Europe, Roth wrote presciently, had as their backdrop the collapse of empires and the rise of uniethnic states, with Fascist and Communist leaders replacing the power of traditional monarchs.
Empire had its evils, as Roth himself details in another great work, The Radetzky March , but one cannot deny empire’s historical function—to provide stability and order to vast tracts of land occupied by different peoples, particularly in Europe. If not empire, what then? In fact, as Michael Lind has intuited, the underpinnings of the global order today attempt to replace the functions of empire—from the rules-based international system to the raft of supranational and multinational groupings, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, the International Court of Justice and the World Economic Forum. Silently undergirding this process since World War II has been the undeniable fact of American power—military, diplomatic and economic—protecting sea lanes, maritime choke points, access to hydrocarbons and, in general, providing some measure of security to the world. These tasks are amoral to the extent that they do not involve lofty principles, but without them there is no possibility for moral action anywhere. This is not traditional imperialism, which is no longer an option, but it is a far more humane replacement for it.
While the United States still remains the single strongest power on earth, it is less and less an overwhelming one. The diffusion of central authority in new democracies everywhere, the spread of chaos in the Middle East and North Africa, and the rise of Russia, China and Iran as regional hegemons—all work to constrain the projection of American power. This is part of a process that has been going on for a century. At the end of World War I, multiethnic empires in Europe—those of the Habsburgs and Ottomans—crumbled. At the end of World War II, the overseas empires of the British and French began to do the same. The end of the Cold War heralded the collapse of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe and parts of Eurasia. The early twenty-first century saw the toppling or erosion of strongmen in postimperial, artificial states like Iraq, Syria and Libya. The American empire-of-sorts—that is, the last power standing whose troops and diplomats have found themselves in a vaguely empire-like situation—is now giving way, too.
This partial retreat of American power has international and domestic causes. On the international front, vast urbanization, population growth and natural-resource scarcities have eroded the power of central authority everywhere. The rise of individual consciousness thanks to the communications revolution has only accelerated the trend. The United States just cannot influence other states’ decisions the way it used to. Meanwhile, the maturation of both violent millenarian movements and regional hegemons are direct threats to U.S. power projection. On the domestic front, the Obama administration, wishing to transform American society, has avoided major entanglements overseas and has sought to ameliorate relations with adversaries, principally Iran. This is a sign of imperial fatigue—a good thing, arguably, but something that nevertheless works to constrain, rather than project, U.S. power. The United States, in other words, is signaling that it will less and less be providing world order. This is not the work of one president. It is the beginning of a new phase in American foreign policy, following the hyperactivity of World War II and the Cold War—and their long aftershocks in the Balkans and the Middle East. Social and economic turmoil at home and intractable complexity and upheaval abroad are driving Washington toward retrenchment.
WORLD DISORDER will only grow. The weakening and dissolution of small- and medium-size states in Africa and the Middle East will advance to quasi-anarchy in larger states on which the geographic organization of Eurasia hinges: Russia and China. For the external aggression of these new regional hegemons is, in part, motivated by internal weakness. They’re using nationalism to assuage the unraveling domestic economies upon which their societies’ stability rests. Then there is the European Union, which is enfeebled, if not crumbling. Rather than a unified and coherent superstate, Europe will increasingly be a less-than-coherent confection of states and regions, dissolving into the fluid geography of Eurasia, the Levant and North Africa. This is demonstrated by Russian revanchism and the demographic assault of Muslim refugees. Of course, on a longer time horizon there is technology itself. As the strategist T.X. Hammes points out , the convergence of cheap drones, cyber warfare, 3D printing and so on will encourage the diffusion of power among many states and nonstate actors, rather than the concentration of it into a few imperial-like hands.