March 3, 2021

When Joe Biden announced to the Munich Security Conference last week that “America was back” at the centre of the Atlantic alliance, his European virtual audience responded with a collective shrug. For all their protestations of fealty, Europe’s leaders, defiantly pushing ahead with trade and energy deals with America’s rivals, are not interested in any great ideological crusade on the hegemon’s behalf.

As Nathalie Tocci, chief advisor to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles, notes in a recent paper, “the European project developed under… an order made up of international organisations, laws, norms, regimes and practices premised on US power”. Yet today, “that world is fast fading”. While the US remains the only state able to project power globally, it “no longer represents the undisputed hegemon of the international system”. Indeed, as Tocci observes, China’s rise “suggests that we can no longer claim with confidence that economic prosperity and political freedoms can only go hand in hand”. Moreover, our dramatically different experiences of Covid “suggests that the jury is out on which governance system is perceived as best addressing the pandemic crisis, prompting questions about the management of other global challenges too”.

To his credit, Biden squarely addressed these pressing questions. Summoning up the ghosts of past confrontations, he declared that “we’re at an inflection point” between those who believe that “autocracy is the best way forward… and those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting those challenges”. For the President, “Democracy will and must prevail… We have to prove that our model isn’t a relic of our history.”

Yet this justificatory emphasis on democracy as the foundation of empire is a relic of a very specific moment in world history. As the historian Stephen Wertheim observes in his book Tomorrow the World, following the fall of France in 1940, American foreign policy elites feared that a Nazi victory would see the United States hemmed into the Western Hemisphere. But the British victory in the Battle of Britain opened up a new prospect, hitherto undreamed of by American politicians: first of an Anglo-American imperial condominium, dividing up the post-war world between them; and then, as Britain’s relative decline became apparent, a vision of total global hegemony.

“Americans ever since, from experts to ordinary citizens, have considered world dominance to be their nation’s natural role,” Wertheim notes. It is an ideology which “holds that the superior coercive power of the United States is required to underwrite a decent world order” — one which “assumes that in order to prevent the international realm from descending into chaos or despotism, a benign hegemon must act as the world’s ordering agent,” with that onerous burden falling upon themselves.

To turn its wary populace into eager participants in this imperial project, American intellectual and foreign policy elites framed global expansion as the establishment of a universal liberal-democratic order, guided and protected rather than ruled by Washington. As Wertheim notes in a passage that is as true of American liberal commentators today as those of the 1940s, “anything less [than global supremacy] would be an abdication, tantamount to inactivity, absence, and head-in-the-sand disregard for the fate of the world.” America’s pursuit of global hegemony was not a sordid, self-aggrandising imperial project like that of the fading European powers; instead, it was a moral duty, a noble sacrifice undertaken for the benefit of the rest of the world. In such a way, Wertheim writes, “the country jumped from ‘isolationism’ to ‘imperialism’, acquiring a taste for unilateral intervention everywhere in order to remake the world in the image of the United States”. In doing so, they constructed the global order whose waning days we now inhabit.

Yet by making the Second World War the founding myth of the American-led order, certain pathologies were built into the system which now threaten its survival. As a useful myth became liberal dogma, the neurotic belief that the end of American hegemony would mean the return of dark forces has become so entrenched that it constrains America’s ability to negotiate reality. In the same way US political radicals appear doomed to endlessly replay the ideological battles of 1930s Germany in the streets of America’s cities, it is always 1933 in the world of the D.C. liberal hawk: American hegemony is all that stands between the free world and the rise of new Hitlers, destined to crop up from the blood-soaked soil of the Old World without regular American pruning.

The increasing salience since the 1990s of a Hollywood-esque understanding of the Second World War exemplifies this distortion of reality in the pursuit of a grand, moralising origin myth. It is a worldview shorn of moral compromises, such as the necessary alliance with Stalin’s murderous regime, in which every challenger to US hegemony magically becomes a new Hitler. Complex and intractable ethnic, tribal and sectarian conflicts — literally inexplicable in such a moral framework — are either reduced to the evil deeds of individual dictators, whose removal will lead automatically to the flourishing of liberal democracy, or ignored as too difficult to comprehend.

The results are plain to see. As Tocci notes, more in sorrow than censure, “the last war which the US led and unequivocally won both militarily and politically was over Kosovo 22 years ago.” In the ever-expanding wars since then, the US has “won militarily, but (abysmally) lost politically.” The result, as she observes, is that “the outcomes of the many wars that have been fought in China’s absence during the decades of its economic rise have been, in one way or another, to China’s strategic advantage.”

The danger for America, then, is that its leaders have become high on their own ideological supply, overlaying their fantasy map on the real world. It seems, at times, that by fusing the Realist desire for hegemony with an idealistic mission to remake the world, America’s elites believe they have secured the mandate of heaven for their project. Challengers, from Putin to Gaddafi to Assad, are not merely opponents; they are rebels against the arc of history, individual reincarnations of the 1930s whose very existence, let alone survival, is morally unbearable.

Indeed, there are worrying intimations that America’s leaders believe the victory of liberal democracy is predestined, purely through its own perceived moral virtue: as if the victories of the Second World War and the Cold War were won by holding the correct ideology, and not through the possession of stronger industrial bases and amoral political alliances. The rise of China, concomitant with America’s decline, is largely the unintended product of such a dangerously idealistic worldview.

Yet like the American millennials role-playing Weimar, their elders continue to re-enact the sacred myth on the global sphere, invoking the litanies of another time, on another continent, for their magical power. By intoning the sacred word democracy over and over again at the Munich conference — including three times in his concluding sentence — Biden echoed the themes of his first domestic foreign policy speech: that he will “host the summit of democracies early in my administration to rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally” and that “there’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy”. The riot at the Capitol and the future confrontation in east Asia are now part of the same Manichean struggle, a worldview we could term the true D.C. cinematic universe.

Of course, Biden’s framing is not true in a literal sense: the same speech contained a pledge to defend Saudi Arabia — which is not noted for its liberal governance — even as he announced the welcome end of American military support for the Saudi kingdom’s bloody and disastrous war in Yemen. Likewise to confront China, the US will need to enhance alliances with authoritarian or dubiously democratic South East Asian states, with even India’s commitment to “liberal democracy” in the American sense increasingly debatable. Even in Europe, Poland, the most eager cheerleader for America’s continued military dominance on our continent, displays a far more equivocal approach to both liberalism and democracy than Biden’s framing suggests. As in the first Cold War, America can either promote global democracy or preserve its imperial reach, but not both.

Nevertheless, the democratic ideal retains immense rhetorical power for defenders of the American-led global order. Thus the openly imperialist writer Robert Kagan argued recently that Americans must “accept the role that fate and their own power have thrust upon them”, because “the only hope for preserving liberalism at home and abroad is the maintenance of a world order conducive to liberalism, and the only power capable of upholding such an order is the United States”.

In starker terms than Biden, Kagan argues that the empire is necessary to preserve democracy at home: an America that retreats from global hegemony would no longer be America. But as the Realist professors of International Relations David Blagden and Patrick Porter observe in a recent paper arguing for a strategic withdrawal from the Middle East, the precise opposite case can be made. The pursuit of global hegemony since the end of the Cold War has seen the United States overstretch itself, taken on unsustainable levels of debt to fund its military expansion, eroded the country’s image abroad, militarised policing at home, enabled the rise of China and fostered disillusionment and political radicalism in America. The Trump era, they note, was not so much a threat to America’s global mission as its product, a marker of growing popular dissent to imperial overreach now observable on both the Left and Right of the American political system.

As they observe, America’s “position as ‘global leader’ is premised on a set of impermanent and atypical conditions from an earlier post-war era”, but “the days of incontestable unipolarity are over, and cannot be wished back”. The result is that “overextension abroad, exhaustion and fiscal strain at home, and political disorder feed off one another in a downward spiral, cumulatively threatening the survival of the republic”.

The US empire is, then, at an impasse. Its moral and political justification of overseeing a global order of universal liberal democracy — the closest real-world equivalent to the Kantian perpetual peace that has both motivated and eluded liberal idealists for the past two centuries — is now beyond its capabilities to maintain. Yet to return to its core imperial concerns of the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Northeast Asia, as Blagden & Porter counsel, would tarnish the imperial crown. Without the idealistic universalism that has justified America’s global mission since the Second World War, the US empire would be an empire like any other: self-interested, amoral, and hostage to the cycle of rise and fall that has seen every other empire pass into history. Kagan is in this sense correct: without the justifying myth to organise the empire around, the moral logic of the entire enterprise falls apart.

Even within the heart of the Nato alliance, European strategic autonomy therefore represents a dilemma for America, which, as Blagden & Porter note, has always “displayed a longstanding preference for preventing even its major allies in Europe and Asia from exercising true strategic autonomy”. A more autonomous Europe lessens the strategic burden on the United States, allowing America to refocus its forces on confronting China; yet a more autonomous Europe will also be less constrained by American pressure, and more inclined to pursue its own interests.

How does this end for America? Biden and the presidents after him will be forced to make a hard choice: whether to retrench to a smaller and more manageable empire, or to risk a far greater and more dramatic collapse in defence of global hegemony. In the meantime, perhaps our European allies are correct in discerning a greater opportunity to rebalance the Atlantic alliance in our favour for the first time in decades. A more modest American commitment to a limited democratic order, rather than an unsustainable global one, can only enhance European influence, including ours, especially as the bloody distractions of the Middle East, America’s self-defeating imperial burden, fade from prominence. American leaders will soon be forced to choose between realism and idealism; the same is also true of us.