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The decline of the US empire

Some realists maintain a balance-of-power system is more stable than one with a dominant state, although this theory is today discredited.

Jamari Mohtar
6 minute read
Photo: Pexels
Photo: Pexels

The world is on the cusp of a tectonic change that will propel a new world order with multipolarity at the core of its international relations, displacing the unipolar world led by the US since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In modern times, the world has never seen unipolarity until the demise of the Cold War when the Soviet Union, due to internal factors, was dismembered in 1991 and caught everyone by surprise.

If ever unipolarity existed, it was in ancient times where first the Persian (Achaemenid Empire) became a superpower followed consecutively by the Greek (Macedonian Empire), the Romans, and then the Muslims (Islamic Caliphate).  

In modern times, if we go as far back in history as the Ottoman Caliphate before reaching its zenith in the 16th century when much of Asia and Europe were under its control, the Ottomans had to contend with its two rivals in its backyard in the form of the Safavid Dynasty in Persia (present-day Iran) and the Mughal Empire in India. 

Even at the height of the colonial period in the 18th century when Europe reigned supreme, the power that was, i.e., the British Empire, was constrained and balanced by France, and the British and French in turn were constrained and balanced by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

By the early 20th century, the British Empire had to face off twice with another superpower, Germany, which led to two world wars – World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945).

Out of the ashes of World War II, Pax Americana was born – a term widely used after WWII when the US overcame Nazi forces, ushering in a period of relative peace in the Western world, which coincided with the military and economic dominance of the US. 

But this was not unipolarity, as US hegemony then was constrained and balanced by a new superpower, the Soviet Union, which later led to the Cold War engagement or détente, thus creating a bipolar world.

At the core of détente is a related concept of the balance of power, which suggests that states may secure their survival by preventing any one state from gaining enough military power to dominate all others.

If one state becomes much stronger, the theory predicts it will take advantage of its weaker neighbours, thereby driving them to unite in a defensive coalition.

Some realists maintain a balance-of-power system is more stable than one with a dominant state (unipolarity), as aggression is unprofitable when there seems to be equilibrium in the balance of power among rival coalitions. 

But today this theory is discredited. References to it, even by professional historians and international lawyers, commonly imply either that it was a system for war, which repeatedly failed, or that it was a system for making war, which often succeeded in its purpose.

However, the acid test for its usefulness lies in not so much whether it is a system of war or a system for making war; rather it should be evaluated in terms of its utility in preventing the occurrence of a world war, and not just any war.

It took an intervening 21 years for WWII to occur after WWI, but up until today, i.e., 78 years after WWII, there is no WWIII yet.

No doubt this has put us on a nerve as never before because the existence of nuclear weapons means the threat of WWIII with its concomitant horrific destruction and annihilation will always be there and seems imminent.

Surely, the principle of balance of power and détente must have played some part in preventing WWIII all this while.

Also, it is a misnomer to call the period after 1945 Pax (the Latin for peace) Americana. It is Pax Americana only in so far as the US and Europe are concerned where there was relative peace. 

In other parts of the world then, peace has become a rare commodity, beginning with the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, which is still ongoing and instigated by the Zionist movement, France and Britain via the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, and later with the complicity of the US and the Soviet Union.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a 1916 secret treaty between the UK and France, with assent from the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy, to define their mutually agreed spheres of influence and control in an eventual partition of the Ottoman Empire.

The Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British government in 1917 during WWI, announcing its support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, which was then an Ottoman region with a small minority of the Jewish population. 

This was later followed by:

- Korean War in 1950-53 instigated by both the US and China, 
- The overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 (instigated by the US),
- Vietnam War in 1955-75 (instigated by France and later the US and Soviet Union),
- Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-89 by the Soviet Union,
- Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88 (instigated by the US), and 
- First Gulf War in Iraq in 1990-91 (instigated by the US). 

One cannot be blamed for thinking that Pax Americana was a sort of gang-up between the US and Europe to transfer the core geopolitical problems of the European colonial period to Asia and the Middle East. 

What finally killed bipolarity then was not wars, détente or balance of power, but the failure of the Soviet Union to manage its centrally planned economy, as the empire has grown too big for its economy to be manageable, which in the past was the initial faux pas of the decline of all empires.

We already had an inkling of the emergence of unipolarity with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 when an American neo-con, Francis Fukuyama gleefully wrote that this marked the “end of history”.

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” said Fukuyama in his 1989 essay.

Oh, how off-the-mark Fukuyama was, as to this day, Western liberal democracy is still not the norm in many parts of the world. 

Herein lies the credo of the neo-con – the supremacy of Western liberal democracy, with its concomitant regime change via colour revolution, also known as meddling in the affairs of other sovereign countries.

And they are so fixated on it that there is no reverse gear whenever things went wrong after they had embarked on this journey of regime change.

It is as if these neo-cons are being conned (pun intended) by their own ideology that they become so impervious to all the painful lessons of their failed adventures of the past that have put the US and its empire into what it is now today – declining considerably.

Neo-conservatism (neo-con) is a political movement that began in the US during the 1960s among liberal hawks who became disenchanted with the increasing pacifist foreign policy of the Democratic Party and with the growing New Left and counterculture of the 1960s, particularly the Vietnam protests. 

They typically advocate the promotion of democracy and interventionism in international affairs including peace through strength, and espousing disdain for communism and political radicalism.  

They became politically influential during the Republican presidential administrations of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, peaking in influence during the administration of George W Bush when they played a major role in promoting and planning the 2002 invasion of Iraq.

While not identifying as neo-cons, senior officials like Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listened closely to neo-cons advisers regarding foreign policy, especially the defence of Israel and the promotion of American influence in the Middle East. 

From the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and the Arab Spring in the early 2010s (read: the mayhem in Syria and Libya), to the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014, and the recent escalation in Taiwan, the world has not seen protracted peace for far too long at the hands of US hegemony.

And in concert with adopting the economic liberalisation policies like privatisation, deregulation and globalisation, among others, the damage to the world economy that the neo-cons had wreaked is devastating. 

These economic policies in essence are something neutral but they are being harnessed effectively by the neo-cons in the corridors of power to serve their overarching credo of attaining the supremacy of Western liberal democracy, with regime change via colour revolution at its core.

And they have upped the ante in unravelling the usefulness of all these economic policies by “weaponising” the dollar via a shock and awe sanction on their enemies. 

We are seeing the reaction now in terms of the boomerang effect of the sanction, and most importantly, the move to a multipolar world with one aspect of multipolarity gaining traction – the de-dollarisation attempt of many countries.

This will surely erode the eminent position of the US dollar as the reserve currency of the world in the near future.

Jamari Mohtar is the Editor of 'Let’s Talk!', an e-newsletter on current affairs.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.