During the last seventy years, our world has often been influenced for the better by American commitment to freedom and liberal values. The USA has long been the leading power among the free nations recognizing the highest aspirations of all humans embodied in liberalism is to be free and have their rights recognized leading to peace and stability among major countries.
But it must be recognized humanity never has had, and likely will never have, a common culture. Therefore there will be differences which will have to be recognized and if possible accommodated.
As Machiavelli already noted “that the question how people should live – which human goals should be exalted – will never result in a universally satisfying answer.”
In finding answers to these questions we are well advised to realise there are limits of the possible in moral reasoning. Friedrich von Hayek idea of fatal conceit was that the dangerous belief that we can know, and can control, more than we actually can.
Today is a world in which international relationships are based on laws. The relationship between EU, Russia and U.S., for instance, was influenced by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the post-Cold War settlement and the 1990 Paris Carter for a New Europe. Our global, rules-based economic based on a system of norms, institutions and international partnerships have brought security, stability and prosperity to Europe.
In the 1980’s Russia and our world order was greatly changed by Mikael Gorbachev (1985- 1991) attempts to reduce Cold War tensions and to reform Russia with his policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) with aspirations of democratic governance, freely organised civil society and rule of law.
This presented the U.S. with the dilemma as to what extent should Russia be helped economically, which politically and militarily strengthening of Russia was deemed not to be in the strategic interests of the U.S. since it remains necessary to have a strategy of Russia’s subordination.
From George Kennan to Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brett Scowcroft until today American strategy is based on the balance of the powers theorized by Metternich and George Kennan’s containment doctrine.
In the years of great changes (1989-2001) both H.W. Bush and Mikael Gorbachev played a pivotal role by working together in the spirit of cooperation ending the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, significantly cutting both countries arsenals as laid down in the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
Influenced by the events surrounding the German reunification in 1990 the EU embarked on a path of fundamental change and there have been attempts to build a safe and prosperous Europe which would include Russia. Envisioned was the expansion of the international system by essential legal rules.
But the idea that Russia should become “just another European state” or be viewed as a regional power was and is adverse to the core beliefs about Russia’s exceptionalism, status and position in the world it claims.
There were unprecedented chances for a new alignment in the world, with a new security arrangement in Europe, but both Russia and the West to their own detriment failed to use the opportunities. Today we can conclude the costs of the exclusion of Russia have been high for the West and has created a self-fulfilling prophecy in the Russian mindset.
A case can be made that the post-Cold war settlement was conceivably unbalanced and the NATO eastwards expansion violated assurances given by Hans-Dietrich Genscher to Eduard Shevardnadze during the negotiations over German unification and helped plant the seeds for the present discontent.
For the U.S. the expansion of the European Union presented the opportunity to increase American influence through the admission of new Central European members with a more pro-American inclination in the European councils than the traditional EU countries.
In fact the CEE expansion weakened the European integration process and the creation of a more integrated European Union was side-lined, a European Union which would have been able to challenge the United States on geopolitical matters of high importance particularly in the Middle East given the diverging views on Israel and a whole range of issues from Kyoto, Iran, Iraq to the International Criminal Court.
At the time the consequences of the rapid development were not overseen, the question of how far eastward should the European Union extend has until today not been answered and the old tired ideas in the U.S. of armed dominance were kept alive with the fast and furious expansion of NATO and intrusion in Russia’s spheres of influence.
This is in line with US strategy of sustained primacy in the world, which shaping global affairs is viewed as central to the prosperity and security of the United States and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski notes in his book ‘The Grand Chessboard – American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives’ how America “manages” Eurasia, the geopolitical axis of the world is vital to the US strategic interests, as the power that dominates Eurasia controls two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions.
Potentially Eurasia is able to challenge American primacy in the world as its cumulatively power vastly overshadows that of the US.
Part of the equation is the European Union, about which the US since the Kennedy administration has professed support for the cause of a United Europe. The standard US expression has always been the EU-US relationship is based on a “equal partnership” which should not be taken too seriously as the EU has always been more like a “junior partner,” with the US listening politely what the EU says and then does what it had already decided.
In general there is the solid foundation of common values (commitment to the rule of law, the democratic process, free enterprise, respect for human rights, and alleviating poverty) between the U.S. and EU which have endured for decades .
But the case can be made, for Europe to continue to depend on the foreign protection of the U.S., instead of ensuring Europe’s own defence has been a most dubious decision, also in the light of the unstable internal situation in the U.S.
Weak kneed spineless European politicians, without much vision and fearful for the German unification such as Margaret Thatcher did not recognize this was the moment in time which offered the possibility to strengthen the constitutional basis of the EU, achieve strategic autonomy for Europe thereby ignoring the obvious truth that accepting a foreign protection is a serious limiting factor which has been effecting European sovereignty for years.
A gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from European soil during a period 10-20 years, with perhaps a token U.S. force, would have been in Europe’s interest. On the medium to long term this would have enabled Europe to find its own balance of power, stability and strategic autonomy.
These U.S. hegemonic objectives and methods are further evidenced by 800 military bases around the world, one-third of the world is covered as a U.S. protectorate, a defence budget which is half of its discretionary budget and equals that of the next seven largest nations together and has enabled the futile wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, severely increasing the national debt.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has justly been considered the world’s only real superpower, unmatched in the four key dimensions of power (military, economic, technological, and cultural) that cumulatively produce decisive global political world power
This belief and thinking was confirmed by President Bill Clinton when he declared in his Second inaugural address in 1997 “America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation” and made this the hallmark of his administration. This is based on the premise of the Pentagon, the U.S. is to maintain overwhelming military superiority.
President G.W. Bush confirmed the same in 2003 during his speech at West Point how U.S. domination of international society is a natural historic conclusion, “America is the only surviving model for human progress,” and senior officials of the Bush administration, declared “The United Nations is not a preferred organization; the new system in the world today is rested on American Primacy.”
In September 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed a “new American Moment” that would “lay the foundations for lasting American leadership for decades to come.”
A year and a half later, President Obama declared in his State of the Union speech: “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline . . . doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
With President Obama, the global structure and balance of power shifted with the more complicated multipolar international system, occasionally based on an triangular architecture, with China and Russia creating a regionally unfavorable balance of power.
History will likely view Barack Obama as an erudite status quo President who sought to maintain continuity with the U.S. grand strategy and alliance partnerships, a balance of power strategy that in theory is well suited to a multipolar global system.
But with his emphasize on increasing drone killing operations based on “imminent threats” thereby making numerous innocent civilian victims and increasing sanctions as a foreign policy instrument, a weak leader on foreign policy and national security who failed to end and close Guantanamo.
The conclusion is merited President Obama, like his predecessor President G.W. Bush did not display great geostrategic skills and laid the basis for the grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an “antihegemonic” coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.
During his term in office American primacy wanned as he emphasized the limits of U.S. power and the intractability of global challenges, along with his seeming aversion to the large-scale use of force. With President Obama the U.S. turned away from Europe and U.S, prestige after President G.W. Bush diminished further and created a vacuum for revisionist powers to fill.
Before leaving office as Vice President Joe Biden assured the United States would continue to lead the“liberal international order” and “fulfil our historic responsibility as the indispensable nation.”
But the years with the former guy have not been kind and some restoration is in order and may be expected. As Candidate Joe Biden wrote about the former guy “He has launched ill-advised trade wars, against the United States’ friends and foes alike, that are hurting the American middle class. He has abdicated American leadership in mobilizing collective action to meet new threats, especially those unique to this century.”
But our world has greatly changed and as a result of regime change and sanctions different antagonists have increased the costs and dangers of dominance and today American primacy comes at an unaffordable price. The reality is there are also internal priorities which need to be addressed.
The U.S. institutions are crumbling made possible by a dysfunctional Congress; inequality needs to be addressed on many levels; gun control, law enforcement and the prisons need to be reformed; there are educational issues with 14% of U.S. adults (approximately 30 million people) being functionally illiterate, overcrowded classes, lack of teachers; health care costs are out of control and patient care is crumbling; investments are required in different area such as infra-structure and the environment.
These internal priorities contradict with the burdens of U.S. primacy around the world and with the high level of national debt and a national debt / GDP ratio of 130,01 % indicative for the present situation.
The history of relative and industrial decline of the major empires during the last 500 years in the world shows, all these empires grappled with the problem of military overextension, as Paul Kennedy pointed out in his excellent book “The rise and fall of the great powers”