The American-led liberal world order, at least until the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, has felt itself secure in its universal values. But that does not automatically make it post–imperial. For in the minds of its practitioners, imperialism has often been an uplifting, civilizing mission. However racist and hypocritical that mission may have been in the past, especially in the case of European colonialists, it was also “alluring and evocative,” given to a “sense of duty and sacrifice,” something imperialists essentially shared with American and Soviet Cold Warriors, notes Harvard Professor Odd Arne Westad. Indeed, the Cold War featured a struggle of two empires, though they referred to themselves by other names. The American order, moreover, precisely because it spans oceans, requires vast military expenditures. And that, according to many historians, tempts imperial decline. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the special forces operations in Syria, have had all the hallmarks of imperial expeditions—since to invade a territory means to govern it. Of course, America must defend its values in far-flung places, but do so in a way that does not burden the home front with expense and body bags. This is harder than it sounds, since wars of choice may appear at first as wars of necessity.
In the United States, President Trump has de-emphasized imperial-like wars in the Middle East, preferring to defeat ISIS without seeking to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as elements of the Washington foreign-policy establishment had demanded. Nevertheless, he has also, with his calls for protectionism and a narrowly defined American self-interest, voided American foreign policy of any real, uplifting purpose—another sure sign of decline. Moreover, his worship of the military coupled with his decimation of the diplomatic corps recalls the fate of all military empires, bringing to mind the British historian Arnold Toynbee’s description of ancient Assyria: a “corpse in armor.”
The United States is at a crossroads. As British geographer Halford Mackinder pointed out over a hundred years ago, the temperate zone of North America is the greatest of the island-satellites of Afro-Eurasia: able to influence the Old World while geographically still protected from it at the same time. Thus, if America can get its own variation of quasi-imperialism right, it is still destined to lead. Yet, for the first time in three-quarters-of-a-century, America seems without a big idea to motivate the world. This, more than anything else, puts the United States in danger. A post–imperial world is one in which leadership is based on big ideas but does not lead to geographical conquest or subjugation.
We should not assume that liberal democracy is the last word in human-political development. The system that triumphs will be the one that offers more dignity to its citizens internally and more hope for its subjects and allies externally. Indeed, we live in an authoritarian moment less because of Russia than because of China, whose economic success and well-orchestrated grand strategy—so reminiscent of empire—does not rely on universal suffrage. But the deeper question lies within ourselves. America was an inspiring democracy in the print-and-typewriter age. Is Trump’s authoritarian style an aberration—or the product of a new and vulgar, digital-video age whose emphasis on differing narratives encourages division and circumvents objective truth? If it is the latter, then China’s model of severely restraining its own people may prove a more obvious successor to empire. Yet, with all of its allure, that is a trap that would herald both an illiberal age and the decline not only of America, but of the West generally. So we should take enlightened authoritarianism as a challenge; not as a fate.
Robert D. Kaplan is the author of The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior adviser at Eurasia Group.
Image: A National Heritage Trust historical re-enactor wearing a poppy on his cap looks towards the Union Jack flag while taking part in a re-enactment of British infantry life in the trenches on the Western Front during World War One at the Fort Rinella coastal battery in Kalkara, outside Valletta, November 8, 2014. The event was organised as part of the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of World War One.
REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi