The Benefits of the Post-American Order
The most pivotal insight for the post-American world order is that the pursuit of economic self-interest and self-preservation go hand in hand, whether at the national, regional or global level.
- The US generally acted at the global stage more or less as a benevolent big brother. However, many Americans feel the nation can no longer carry the cost of maintaining global order.
- The widely held assumption is that, absent the US continuing to grease the wheels of the international order, chaos would break out. There are certainly ominous signs of such a turn to darkness.
- Thanks to the arrival of Donald Trump in office, we are all of a sudden seriously in the throes of what the arrival of a brave new, “post-American” world really means.
- The most pivotal insight for the post-American world order is that the pursuit of economic self-interest and self-preservation go hand in hand, whether at the national, regional or global level.
- What the world needs is a stronger sense of regional responsibility. That is where most problems need to be solved and accommodations need to be found.
It has been a decade since Fareed Zakaria published his book “The Post-American World” in 2008. But it is only now, thanks to the arrival of Donald Trump in office, that we are all of a sudden seriously in the throes of what the arrival of such a brave new, “post-American” world really means.
Donald Trump’s unvarnished display of nationalism has begun to focus the mind in ever more corners of the world. Whatever Trump’s downsides, his ruthless pursuit of (national) self-interest means that the American prop, with which many nations had become very comfortable in past decades, is falling by the wayside.
Despite quite a few imperial transgressions that ended in catastrophe, the United States generally tended to act at the global stage more or less as a rather benevolent big brother. It was ready to think big in a world where many preferred to think small. That way, the United States provided valuable adult supervision and/or glue for the global system.
The country could afford to do so because it was much richer than other nations – whether war-torn Europe after 1945 or the developing world after 1960.
Too high a cost
However, the United States incurred a definite cost in order to maintain global order – a cost that many Americans, not just Donald Trump, no longer feel the nation can muster.
Trump is entirely right, for example, criticizing the Germans for their insufficient defense spending. Insisting, as the Merkel government does, that it will take a long time before Germany can live up to the 2% of GDP commitment is downright ludicrous at a time when a shamefully large number of German tanks, submarines and fighter jets are basically inoperable.
True, Trump’s vision goes way beyond (healthy) insistence on true burden-sharing. The impulsive way in which he acts removes the safety margin which the U.S. government has long provided at the global level – at a time when the world as such isn’t ready yet for the transition.
Trump also isn’t wrong to argue that the U.S. side, as represented by an array of elite representatives ranging from the U.S. military, U.S. multinationals to Washington think tanks, has been status-obsessed far too long. As long as other nations recognized U.S. supremacy, the U.S. side was prepared to stay the course and invest disproportionately in global security.
The widely held assumption is that, absent the United States of America continuing to grease the wheels of the international order, chaos would break out.
There are certainly ominous signs of such a turn to darkness. But what will ultimately decide which way the world will turn is this question: What role does the pursuit of both economic self-interest and self-preservation play?
China and India
Beyond the example of the surprising developments on the Korean peninsula, just look at the charm offensive that India and China just performed at the Wuhan summit.
For at least a decade now, the world’s two most populous nations performed a strange dance in which they looked less at one another (and what they needed from each other) – and instead much more at the way in which their respective relationship with the United States determined their own bilateral relationship.
That is a diplomatic stance that is both immature and unhealthy. China and India must come to terms with one another without Washington as a prop.
Things are ultimately no different in Europe. The United States is often referred to as a validating arbiter for one’s own position in conflicts inside the EU. Trump’s take-no-prisoners attitude makes it hard, if not implausible, for EU members to maintain that position.
In practical terms, this means that they really have to sort things out without the guidance of validation of the United States acting as a benevolent big brother. That, too, is a healthy development for the EU – although it is certainly not going to reduce internal tensions.
The Middle East
What about the Middle East? It does seem destined for more implosions and yet more devastating conflicts. The principal reason for that is that key players – including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Israel – all embrace zero-sum thinking.
Keeping the United States as a pacifier in that equation will do little to convince those key regional players of the immaturity – and ultimately of the futility – of their overall policy stance. The sooner they come to the realization that the United States is moving to the sidelines, the better.
What the world needs is a stronger sense of regional responsibility. That is where most problems need to be solved and accommodations need to be found. And that is precisely why the rapprochement between North and South Korea provides such important encouragement.
The apparent mood change there underscores the most pivotal insight for the creation of the post-American world order: The pursuit of economic self-interest and self-preservation go hand in hand.