For anyone who is at all attached to the post-Cold War order, an age characterized by unprecedented prosperity and peace guaranteed by the world’s lone superpower, these are dark days. The specter of great-power conflict that once loomed at the forefront of every policy maker’s imagination is making a grim return. That terror that thrust school children under their desks and compelled homeowners to burrow into their backyards in the last century was all but banished when the Hammer and Sickle was furled. Those heady days are gone. No longer are aspiring challengers to American dominance cowed by its strength. No more are American allies secure in the knowledge that their interests are being seen to by Washington. For anyone who knows what to look for, the signs are clear. With no change in the present trajectory of events, the age of American supremacy is ending.
On Thursday, another suffocating canary in the fetid geopolitical coalmine dropped dead; this time, in the Pacific. Bodies are piling up at the feet of new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte while he prosecutes his war against drug pusher and abusers alike, but the Filipino social contract isn’t the only compact he is set on rewriting. During a state visit to Beijing this week, Duterte declared his intention to seek a military and economic “separation” from his nation’s traditional ally, the United States.
“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” Duterte told Chinese business leaders on Thursday. “And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way.”
Duterte is an agent of instability. He has made it a personal mission to upset the existing order on virtually every front, and it would not be out of character for him to pursue new regional alliances. This development cannot, however, be dismissed as the product of a professional rabble rouser’s wily eccentricities.
The Philippines was once a key bulwark against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and is, thus, uniquely threatened by Beijing. It was a power dedicated to balancing against the aspiring regional hegemon, and its alliance with China’s opposing hegemon (the United States) was not only traditional but natural. Those same pressures are so irresistible that they have created an enduring military and political alliance between the United States and communist Vietnam.
The will to resist the neighborhood bully is a fragile thing, though, and it is dependent upon alliance structures. When a satellite power’s resolve is tested to the breaking point, alliances collapse. Balancing powers will thus tend to mitigate the immediate threat posed by their hostile neighbors by bandwagoning along with them, or so the theory goes. The Philippines may be turning on the United States and joining with its old adversary on the mainland.
Even if you are apt to dismiss Stephen Walt’s theory of alliance structures, it is impossible to ignore how the globe’s once timid revisionist powers are testing America’s mettle.
The continent of Europe is again at war. For the first time since the Second World War, sovereign territory has been invaded, carved off, and formally annexed into a hostile neighboring power. Russia tested the Budapest Memorandum, guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity, to which the U.S. was a signatory. America did nothing.
Moscow had already learned that Washington’s willingness to aggressively defend its interests was exhausted when President Barack Obama revoked his pledge to punish Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians. Cravenly, the president turned to Moscow to provide him with an exit ramp from which he could seek a face-saving way out of making good on his threats. Moscow took ownership of the conflict in Syria and has only ratcheted up its involvement in that nation’s civil war since—striking United Nations aid convoys, facilitating a starvation campaign in Aleppo, and destroying CIA assets in the process.
Meanwhile, Russia seeks to supplant the United States as the ally of choice in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even in Iraq. China, too, has found itself more globally integrated as the American hegemony breaks down despite making no effort to liberalize its domestic economy or its political affairs. Around the globe, a competing theory of social organization, which rejects liberal democratic norms in favor of enlightened despotism, racial consciousness, and revanchism, is on the rise. The ascension of these illiberal sentiments is a welcome development in Zhongnanhai and the Kremlin. As the tide of democracy that crested in 1989 wanes, these anti-egalitarian governments view themselves as the rightful inheritors of a post-American future. It is a future in which the West and its ideals of liberal democracy are in retreat.
A popular kind of nihilistic cynicism presupposes that a world in which American power no longer restrains revisionist nations from aggressively seeking their aggrandizement has made much of this feasible. America is not a hyper-power in retreat. It lacks only the self-assuredness to defend its interests—with force if need be—and a leader who does not believe the indefensible power is a nation that deserves to be cut down to size. Regrettably, that self-confidence will only continue to fade because that leader is nowhere in sight.