Twenty-five years ago – December 1991 – communism died, the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union disappeared. It was the largest breakup of an empire in modern history and not a shot was fired.
That dawn marked the ultimate triumph of the liberal democratic idea. It promised an era of Western dominance led by America, the world’s last superpower.
So it was for a decade as democracy expanded, first into Eastern Europe and former Soviet colonies. The U.S. was so dominant that when, on Dec. 31, 1999, it gave up one of the most prized geostrategic assets – the Panama Canal – no one noticed.
That era is over. The autocracies are back and rising; democracy is on the defensive; the U.S. is in retreat. Look no further than Aleppo. A Western-backed resistance to a local tyrant – who is backed by a resurgent Russia, an expanding Iran and an array of proxy Shiite militias – is on the brink of annihilation. Russia drops bombs; America issues statements.
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The West is turning inward, leaving the field to rising authoritarians – Russia, China and Iran. In France, the conservative party’s newly nominated presidential contender is populist and soft on Vladimir Putin. As are several newer Eastern Europe democracies showing authoritarian tendencies.
As Europe tires of sanctions imposed on Russia for its rape of Ukraine, President Obama’s much touted “isolation” of Russia has dissolved, as our secretary of state repeatedly begs Russia for mercy in Syria.
The European Union, the largest democratic club on earth, could soon break up as Brexit-like movements spread through the continent. At the same time, its members dash to reopen economic ties with a tyrannical, aggressive Iran.
As for China, the administration’s “pivot” has turned into a failure. The Philippines openly defected to the Chinese side. Malaysia then followed. The rest of our Asian allies are beginning to hedge their bets. When the president of China addressed Pacific Rim countries in Peru last month, he suggested China was prepared to pick up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, abandoned by both U.S. political parties.
The West’s retreat began with Obama, who reacted to perceived post-9/11 overreach by abandoning Iraq, offering appeasement (“reset”) to Russia and accommodating Iran.
Donald Trump wants to continue the pull back for different reasons. Obama ordered retreat because he’s always felt the U.S. was too flawed to have earned the moral right to be the world hegemon. Trump would follow suit, disdaining allies and avoiding conflict, because the world is not good enough for us – undeserving, ungrateful, parasitic foreigners living safely under our protection and off our sacrifices.
Trump’s is not a new argument. As the Cold War was ending in 1990, Jeane Kirkpatrick, the quintessential neoconservative, argued it was time we gave up the 20th-century burden of maintaining world order and of making superhuman exertions on behalf of universal values.
At the time, I argued we had earned it, but a cruel history would not let us enjoy it. Repose presupposes a fantasy world in which stability is self-sustaining without the United States. It is not.
A quarter-century later, we face the same temptation, but this time under more challenging circumstances. Worldwide jihadism has been added to the fight, and we enjoy nothing like the dominance we exercised over conventional adversaries during our 1990s holiday from history.
We may choose repose, but we won’t get it.