On 20th January 2009, George W Bush, barring his death, resignation or impeachment, will be succeeded by the 44th US president. Whether Republican or Democrat, the next president will not only inherit a number of crises, but will be in a considerably weaker position to deal with them.
Much of America’s weakness will be the result of self-inflicted wounds: the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, along with the Bush administration’s gratuitous insults to allies, its arrogant unilateralism and its hostility to international law. But as tempting as it may be to put all of the blame on the Bush administration, the truth is that most of the trends that will limit American power and influence in the next decade are long-term phenomena produced by economic, demographic and ideological developments beyond the power of the US or any government to influence. The rise of China, the shift in the centre of the world economy to Asia, the growth of neo-mercantilist petro-politics, the spread of Islamism in both militant and moderate forms -- these trends are reshaping the world order in ways that neither the US nor any of its allies can do much to control.
In retrospect, we can view the period in US and world history that has just ended as "the long 1990s." Those years began in euphoria with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and expired in frustration in late 2003, when the swift victory of the US and its allies over Iraq’s armed forces was succeeded by an insurgency that exposed the limits of US power. But even if 9/11 and the Iraq invasion had never occurred, the conventional wisdom of the long 1990s would have crumbled at some point after colliding with reality.
Take the central assumption that at the end of the cold war a bipolar world was replaced by a unipolar one. This was true only in the military dimension -- and even there American power was exaggerated. The US has no peers when the task is breaking the conventional armed forces of second and third-tier states like Iraq and Serbia. But when it comes to asymmetric warfare, in the form of campaigns against insurgents like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military, like all conventional militaries, finds itself in the position of a clumsy Goliath trying to quash a nimble and determined David. Stealth bombers and world-class fleets are no help in house-to-house fighting, and missile defences are no good against improvised explosive devices. As the wars in Vietnam and Iraq tragically demonstrate, the US military is not very good at "military operations other than war" -- and America’s enemies know it.
If dimensions of power other than military hardware are included, then it is clear that bipolarity gave way not to unipolarity but to multipolarity -- and did so as early as the 1970s, after Europe and Japan had recovered from the devastation of the second world war and China began its rise. In 1971, President Nixon famously announced the emergence of a world with five power centres: the US, the Soviet Union, Europe, Japan and China. The world was already multipolar a decade before the cold war ended, and the fact that the other great powers have been content to let the US battle various minor states from the Balkans to Afghanistan no more makes the world unipolar than Britain’s 19th-century naval hegemony made Britain the hegemon of Europe, rather than one of several European great powers.
Consider another piece of 1990s conventional wisdom -- the global human rights revolution. The winner of the ideological wars of the 20th century, we were told, was libertarian, capitalist democracy. The enthusiastic embrace of western European norms by former communist eastern European nations seemed to provide evidence for this. But even in eastern Europe, nationalism has been the most powerful movement -- witness the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia and the bloodless partition of Czechoslovakia, not to mention the disintegration of the Soviet Union along ethnonational lines.
The fact is that most of the people engaged in political violence today -- from the Basque country to the Philippines -- are not fighting for individual rights, nor for that matter are they fighting to establish an Islamist caliphate. Most are fighting for a national homeland for the ethnic nation to which they belong. For most human beings other than deracinated north Atlantic elites, the question of the unit of government is more important than the form of government, which can be settled later, after a stateless nation has obtained its own state. And as the hostility towards Israel of democratically elected governments in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon shows, democracy can express, even inflame, pre-existing national hatreds and rivalries; it is not a cure for them.
Then there is economics. The conventional wisdom of the long 1990s was correct that capitalism had defeated socialism, but mistaken to assume that the libertarian capitalism fashionable in the US in the late 20th century was the winner. The Japanese never adopted laissez-faire capitalism and China and Russia in recent years have devised their own mixes of state capitalism and free markets.
The growth of China and India, which was supposed to herald a global free market, may instead inaugurate a new age of mercantilism, as Asian industrial powers like China, unwilling to rely on free markets for energy sources and commodities, engage in negotiations with supplier countries. Already bilateral contracts are displacing free markets in oil and gas, and regional trade pacts are proliferating even as global trade talks are stalled. The competition between the rising industrial nations of Asia and the older industrial democracies enhances the leverage of authoritarian and nationalist states endowed with critical resources, particularly oil-producing countries like Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. These countries view China not only as a customer but also as a counterweight to the US.
In the US press, China is often portrayed as an aggressive, threatening power. China may indeed become a dangerous revisionist state in the future. In the past two decades, however, China has been a conservative, status quo power, seeking to defend the state-centred international system that many in the US and Europe have sought to transcend. It was the US that designed the state-based UN system in the 1940s, and in rejecting its norms, the US under both Clinton and Bush in the long 1990s repudiated its own earlier foreign policy tradition.
The conventional wisdom of the long 1990s, then, was mistaken in every respect. The world did not become unipolar in the 1990s; it has been effectively multipolar since the 1970s. Ethnic nationalism, not liberalism or democracy, is the most powerful force in the world today. And the competition of the industrial nations for sources of supply and markets is bolstering mercantilism and economic regionalism, incompatible with the laissez-faire utopia touted by panegyrists of globalisation in the long 1990s.
All of these trends would constrain US foreign policy, even if Al Gore had been inaugurated in 2001 rather than George W Bush. It will now be additionally constrained by the legacy of the eight-year Bush administration. When the next president is inaugurated, the US will almost certainly still be in Iraq. Rather than have the world witness the inglorious departure of US forces from a chaotic Iraq in the final years of his presidency, Bush is likely to cede the problem to his successor.
Like Nixon between 1969 and 1973, the next president may be forced to cut America’s losses in a failed war while trying to preserve as much of US military credibility as possible. The American right can be counted on to accuse even a Republican president of being weaker than Bush, whose record neoconservatives in the media will idealise in retrospect. So the need to ward off domestic political attack and to demonstrate US power to the world even after failure in Iraq, make it likely that the next president will only pull out of Iraq after a show of strength against enemies in Iraq itself or some other target.
The eventual withdrawal of most US forces from Iraq is not likely to be as complete as the abandonment of South Vietnam in 1975. The US probably will not occupy bases for decades, as it has done in South Korea. But it may well continue to provide military support in some form, either to an embattled Iraqi government or to favoured clients in an Iraqi civil war.
The middle east outside of Iraq may look much as it does today, barring unforeseen events like coups, revolutions or major wars. If Bush in his final years in office were to wage war against Iran to degrade its nuclear capability, all bets would be off. But it seems unlikely that he would choose to wage war on three fronts simultaneously, across an area from the Mediterranean to Pakistan, against three foes who have little in common -- Sunni nationalists in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Shia Iran. More likely than direct Iranian-American conflict would be a proxy war fought out in the shattered states of Iraq and Lebanon.
Assuming that the US does not attack Iran and that the Iranian theocracy does not give way to some other regime, the next president may be forced to deal with a nuclear Iran. Despite claims that Iran’s leaders are "insane," the fact that nuclear states as unstable as Mao’s China and Musharraf’s Pakistan have been deterred from using nuclear weapons suggests that Iran, too, could be deterred.
But if Iran breaks Israel’s monopoly of nuclear weapons in the middle east, one result might be further nuclear proliferation. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s son and likely successor Gamal has speculated that Egypt needs its own nuclear energy programme, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey and even post-Saddam Iraq, or its successor states, might follow suit. Fear of North Korea’s new nuclear status might, similarly, prompt Japan and even South Korea to develop a deterrent. And if several new nuclear states emerge south and east of Europe, it is possible that even Germany might be tempted to develop its own nuclear force de frappe.
In any event, the Atlantic is likely to grow even wider after Bush leaves office in 2009. Those who hope for a resumption of warm transatlantic ties will probably be disappointed. The old Atlanticist northeastern foreign policy establishment has gone the way of the dodo. Its place has been taken chiefly by career military officers, who are mainly moderate conservative nationalists from the American south, and by a bewildering variety of civilian ideological, ethnic and economic pressure groups that contribute political appointees to the executive branch. The political centre of gravity in the US will continue to shift south and west. Even if blue-state liberalism wins power, it will do so on the basis of largely foreign-born Latino immigrants in the sunbelt, who are not a likely constituency for a new Atlanticism.
Some hope that one result of the Iraq debacle will be a new US commitment to a lasting settlement of the Palestinian question. The opposite is more likely to be the case. As long as it is occupying an Arab country, the US must seek to appeal to Arab public opinion. Even Bush has offered rhetorical support for a Palestinian state. But if the US extricates itself from Iraq and Afghanistan and stays out of other Muslim countries, then the already feeble incentive for American politicians to try to balance support for Israel with appeals to Arab and Muslim public opinion will be even weaker. The abandonment of the US attempt to be the hegemon of the middle east, and US withdrawal from Iraq, might actually empower those in the US who make the simple claim that the US and Israel are allies in world war four (Norman Podhoretz’s term; he considers the cold war to be world war three) against the hydra-headed menace of "Islamofascism."
The strengthening of the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim right in the US following an inglorious retreat from Iraq would strain US-European ties even further. In the second decade of the 21st century, Europeans may be surprised to find themselves denounced by some liberal Democrats as well as by conservative Republicans as "Eurabian" appeasers.
In US domestic politics, the long-term beneficiaries of the Iraq war may be the Republicans who waged and lost it, rather than the Democrats who (mostly) opposed it. This is less paradoxical than it seems. Countries that win wars are relaxed about their security and more open to parties of the left -- think of Clinton’s two terms after the cold war and before 9/11, or Britain’s rejection of Churchill after the second world war. Defeated countries tend to seek strong men on the right, as France did after Algeria and the US did after Vietnam, which was followed by a series of Republican presidencies.
American history teaches that opposition even to failed or unpopular wars can be fatal to a political party. The Federalist party ceased to exist following the war of 1812, which most of its members had opposed, and the Whig party, which was highly critical of the Mexican war of 1846-48, collapsed following that war’s conclusion. The fact that both those parties, like today’s anti-war Democrats, were based in New England does not bode well for American liberals. Already the right is dusting off the "stab in the back" legend used after Vietnam in order to blame the failure in Iraq on liberals in the media and the Democratic minority in congress. This is absurd, of course, but the equally absurd effort to shift blame for the US failure in Vietnam to reporters and the anti-war movement was a political success in the 1970s and 1980s.
Retrospective glorification of the failed Iraq war, however, may be accompanied by a much more cautious military policy on the part of the next few presidents. There is likely to be a revival of the Powell doctrine: the US should send troops only as a last resort, only where military action is appropriate, and only with overwhelming amounts of force. Almost certainly, public rejection of further large-scale military adventures will produce an "Iraq syndrome."
The next president or two is likely to emulate Ronald Reagan in combining rhetorical toughness with operational caution. Reagan was decried as a warmonger for his rhetoric -- such as his description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." In practice, however, Reagan avoided costly military engagements. He pulled US troops out of Lebanon in 1983, following the Hizbullah attack on the US marine barracks, and his one conquest was the comic-opera invasion of tiny Grenada. The rest of the time Reagan preferred to rely on proxies armed, subsidised and trained by the US, like the Contras who fought Soviet proxies in Nicaragua and the mujahedin who battled the Soviets in Afghanistan. As those cases attest, reliance on proxies who may not share American values can cause moral and political dilemmas. Equally troubling, sometimes, are long-range bombing and missile attacks designed to spare the lives of US soldiers, like Clinton’s air war on Serbia and the use of missiles by the US and Israel in attempts to assassinate enemies at a distance. Nevertheless, it seems likely that if the alternative is a high American body count, Bush’s successors are likely to prefer sending CIA advisers or missiles to deploying the marines.
The collapse of the neoconservative strategy of US hegemony in the middle east and the world does not mean success for the major alternative. In the Democratic party’s complacent foreign policy establishment -- although not among its restive voters -- neoliberalism continues to be the preferred alternative to the strategy of the Bush administration. Neoliberals agree with neoconservatives about the goal of US foreign policy -- a global free market in a world policed by a benevolent, hegemonic US. Their differences are in the details. Although they are as opposed in practice to a multipolar world order as neoconservatives, neoliberals argue that the US should make its global hegemony more palatable to other countries by endorsing international law and working through international institutions like the UN and NATO. And while many neoliberals like Kenneth Pollack, Ivo Daalder and Peter Beinart joined with neoconservatives to endorse "regime change" by war in Iraq, neoliberals are more sympathetic to the idea of "humanitarian intervention" in countries like Kosovo and Sudan to end ethnic massacres.
Following Tony Blair’s election in 1997, Clinton and Blair promoted the neoliberal agenda in the name of the third way. At home, this meant embracing free markets while also relegitimising and modernising the welfare state. In foreign policy, neoliberals envisioned a Euro-American partnership that would send troops on missions of mercy around the world. Neoliberalism rested on a utopian vision of history as progress from the modern world of sovereign nation states to a postmodern world order, in which individual human rights replaced state sovereignty as the organising principle of global politics.
The idea of a Euro-American entente intervening in the name of human rights in former western colonies in Africa, the middle east and elsewhere always looked very much like colonialism by another name. In any event, the grandiose ambitions ofeoliberal "humanitarian hawks" and "liberal imperialists" never had a chance of being realised because of the unwillingness of western publics to support such a costly policy in the absence of other strategic concerns.
The Gulf war in 1991 and the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan involved classic threats to security, and even the Iraq war was justified on the grounds of the alleged nexus of weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi links to al Qaeda, not on humanitarian grounds. The only humanitarian war to date has been the NATO attack on Serbia in 1999. It was so unpopular in the US that Clinton waged it unconstitutionally without a declaration of war from the US congress, and without UN security council authorisation because of the opposition of China and Russia. It seems unlikely that the US and its European allies would have sent tens or hundreds of thousands of troops to Darfur, even without the Iraq war, whose costs now make it all but certain that no such large-scale western intervention will take place. If it did, then the US and perhaps some European allies like Britain would find themselves fighting and killing Muslims on three fronts -- Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan -- while being blamed for Israel’s actions in Palestine and Lebanon.
Even if there were political support in the US for an ambitious neoliberal policy of humanitarian intervention, the instruments for it simply do not exist. The US military has been strained to the point of shattering by the Iraq debacle, ruling out significant interventions in the name of nation-building, peace-making or peacekeeping elsewhere. To meet manpower goals, the military has been forced to cancel leave for many units, and to meet recruitment goals, the military has been forced to induct 40 year olds and to lower educational and IQ requirements. As was the case after Vietnam, it will take a decade or longer to rebuild the demoralised US military.
To make matters worse for would-be liberal imperialists in the Democratic party, the failure of the US military in Iraq, as in Vietnam, shows that US military culture remains deeply hostile to pacification and nation-building efforts of the kind that would dominate a foreign policy devised by humanitarian hawks. Policy wonks in Washington may fantasise about creating US "constabulary forces" to engage in small-scale interventions, but that idea will not be supported by congress, the public or the military itself after Iraq.
Bush’s economic policy, like his foreign policy, dooms any attempt by his successors to implement the foreign policy vision of Clinton-Blair neoliberalism. Some neoliberals call for a vast programme of investment in developing countries and the middle east in particular. Whether the problems of these countries can be ameliorated by a new Marshall plan is questionable. The original plan merely restarted factories and markets in West Germany and western Europe, which were already industrialised nation states, and did not attempt to modernise primitive territories contested by rival ethnic nations.
In any event, the experiment will never be put to the test, because the money is not there. Bush and the Republican congress have spent it on the Iraq war and tax cuts for the wealthy few, creating the biggest deficits since the Reagan years. In the second decade of the 21st century, reducing the federal budget deficit at a time when the retirement of the baby boomers is driving up government costs is likely to be the priority in Washington. US foreign aid is unlikely to increase, and may well be slashed, even as China and petropowers like Iran and Russia extend their influence by means of subsidies and arms sales.
Whatever happens, it is clear that the long 1990s are finally over, their utopian hopes beyond realisation. The neoconservative vision of one big global market policed by the hegemonic US in a unipolar world now looks quaint. So does the related neoliberal vision of an alliance of north Atlantic democracies repudiating post-1945 notions of state sovereignty in order to dispatch soldiers and democratic missionaries to end ethnic conflicts, enforce human rights and bring democracy and liberty to the middle east and Africa. The multipolar and mercantilist world coalescing around us looks very different from the unipolar free-market order described by Clinton, Blair and Bush, even though it would have seemed familiar to Richard Nixon and Charles de Gaulle.
The neoconservative fantasy of unilateral global hegemony has been discredited, and the neoliberal dream of a UN-led international order is an illusion as well. A concert of great powers, organised and led by the US, offers the best hope for reconciling international peace with liberal order, in a world in which the perfect remains the enemy of the good.