The World’s New Outlaws

by Victor Davis Hanson
With America’s presence in the world receding, regional hegemons flex their muscles.

The American custodianship of the postwar world for the last 70 years is receding. Give it its due: The American super-presence ensured the destruction of Axis fascism, led to the eventual defeat of Soviet-led global Communism, and spearheaded the effort to thwart the ability of radical Islam to disrupt global commerce in general and Western life in particular.

American military power and bipartisan proactive diplomacy also brought back Japan and Germany into the family of nations and allowed their dynamism to be expressed through economic rather than military power. It protected the territorial integrity of smaller and weaker nations. It guaranteed open seas, free commerce, and reliable and safe global transportation. Without a free-market U.S. economy, NATO, and American military power there would have been no globalization.

In contrast, the world that Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Stalin and his successors, and bin Laden and the Islamists envisioned was quite a bit different. Regional enclaves would have their own laws and protocols overseen by local hegemons immune from global scrutiny. Tragically, we are reentering just such an age, not through the defeat of the United States but through its abdication of power.

In the Middle East, Iran in the next decade will become the de facto hegemon, coupling wild threats with private assurances that it not only has nuclear weapons, but also is more likely than others to use them. In response, the Gulf states will either buy their own nuclear weapons from fellow Sunni Pakistan, or form some sort of de facto alliance with nuclear Israel. At some point when Iran’s serial junk talk promising the end of the “Zionists” is supercharged with nukes, it will earn a response.

Alternatively, a terrified Arab world may come to some sort of understanding with the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah/Hamas axis. NATO’s Mediterranean role for a while longer will be increasingly confined to protecting the southern European coastline, as European leaders assume anything else is outside NATO’s protective orbit. That Iran is demographically in crisis, that its economy is in shambles, and that its shrinking contingent of young people despise the mullacracy are long-term worries for Tehran. In the short term, its single-minded effort to obtain nukes and to assume for Shiites the mantle of Islamic resistance to the West is about all that matters. Iran’s oil and gas revenues can make up for a lot of fraud, waste, corruption, and inefficiency for a lot of years.

Eastern Europe is falling under the shadow of an ailing Russia. Small nations near the former Soviet Union probably will never again enter into an anti-ballistic-missile partnership with the U.S. or join an American coalition of the willing. The former Soviet republics now accept that Russia not only is the local hegemon, but also is more likely to use its hard power than a distant U.S. or an impotent EU. Russia’s European hegemony will even reach the Mediterranean. Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, and to a lesser extent Israel believe they can count more on an active though militarily weak Russia than on a still militarily strong but inactive United States.

The Syrian debacle reminded them of that fact. That Russia’s demography is as ossified as Iran’s, that its economy is as inefficient, and that its politics are as corrupt bode ill for it in the late 21st century. But in the here and now, as for Iran, lots of gas and oil can make up for lots of pathologies.

A third hegemony is emerging in East Asia — analogous to the rise of Westernized Japanese power in the 1930s amid the impotence of European colonial empires and a U.S. mired in depression. The old idea that the free-market democracies of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — add in as well Australia and the Philippines — were immune from Communist Chinese bullying is vanishing, despite the Obama administration’s much-heralded Asian pivot. The latter is mostly a linguistic artifact, not a muscular reality. Our pivot is something like the vaunted French army of the 1930s, the shipwreck of so many vulnerable democracies’ dreams.

For all the old talk of guaranteeing the sovereignty of these Pacific allies, more likely the Obama administration would come to some sort of agreement with China, as it did with Putin over Syria and Iran over its nuclear development, one widely praised in the West for its idealism, while privately scorned in the region as only empowering aggressors.

In the not-too-distant future, our allies in the Pacific will either cut a deal with China or themselves become nuclear powers. Of course, China, like Iran and Russia, is facing enormous internal pressures. It still cannot square the circle of state-sponsored free-market capitalism with a Communist dictatorship. Its demography is malignant. Its economy is more injurious to the environment than was that of the 19th-century West, and its imbalance in domestic wealth is akin to that of its own pre-revolutionary dynasties. Again, no matter: In the short term, a billion Chinese with a roaring export industry are making quite enough cash to mask intrinsic contradictions.

We sometimes forget that the rise of German and Japanese power in the 1930s was built on shaky economic assumptions, with both regimes’ perceived early military power often more bluster than fact. The Soviets flexed a lot of muscles into the Eighties without many Westerners’ realizing that Communism was imploding. Bin Laden did a lot of damage despite a Middle East that was on the brink of disaster. Aggressive regional hegemons historically are not necessarily fueled by economic power, vibrant demography, or long-term stability. Often the reverse is true.

What brought on the growing abdication of U.S. power? The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and our unwillingness or inability to guarantee stable postwar governments — turned the American public off the idea of preemptive intervention to thwart future terrorist attacks, let alone the notion that the worst sponsors of terrorism could be replaced by pro-American partners of the Maliki/Karzai sort.

Then there is our $17 trillion in national debt. Somehow also foreign policy has merged with domestic politics in a new symbiosis. It is hard to emulate the protocols of the EU without becoming the EU, and the insidious growth of a huge dependent class — half the American population not paying federal income tax, half on some sort of state help — has created a cultural climate in which every dollar spent on a jet interceptor is seen as a dollar taken out of the mouths of widows, orphans, and the deserving poor.

Thus millions of new recipients of federal help see American retrenchment not as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. When President Obama flipped and flopped in Syria, he sensed rightly that the public did not care very much about hurting the Iranian axis, or helping moderate insurgents, or dealing with the humanitarian crisis of 100,000 dead; what it cared about far more was how much money such a commitment would cost, and whether it would come at the expense of social programs at home. Ensuring Sandra Fluke’s state-subsidized supply of birth-control pills becomes a far better collective investment than training a U.S. Marine for foreign deployment.

Critics of Obama’s inept foreign policy — the failed response to the Arab Spring, the failed reset with Russia, the failure to reassure allies and to deter enemies — mostly do not grasp that for half the country Obama’s weakness is seen as either a wise diversion of resources, or a proper distancing from the foreign version of our own undeserving 1 percent. In this regard, the old alliance with Israel will be especially subject to review. All that is left of it is an assumption that the U.S. will keep selling and resupplying military hardware to Tel Aviv. For the next three years, we should not necessarily count on that 50-year-old fact, should Israel preempt in Iran or find itself in another Lebanese war.

In addition to debt and neo-isolationism, Obama brought a third critical element to the new retrenchment: his own belief that little in American history or in America’s current protocols justified its exceptional world role — at least no more so than would a Greek or British version. Barack Obama does not look at an increasingly prosperous world and see the guiding hand of the United States. He instead senses a whole congeries of -isms and -ologies and purported injustices caused by the U.S. policies. American chauvinism, sloppy vocabulary, chest-thumping, and paranoia pushed Islamists over the edge. The pro-American Mubarak caused Egyptian poverty and lack of freedom. The American intervention set back Iraq. Iran is unduly ostracized by American neo-cons. The Arab Spring was caused largely by U.S. client dictatorships. Israel spoiled our relations with the Islamic world. The remedy is to talk abstractly about social justice and fairness abroad in endless versions of the mythic Cairo speech — and then stay home and be content that we are no longer part of the problem.

What are the consequences of the new hegemonies?

Regional wars are now more likely. Iran’s nuclear trajectory, coupled with apocalyptic gobbledy-gook talk, will probably soon ensure an Israeli response to it, or a new Israeli regional war with Iran’s appendages in Syria, the West Bank, and Lebanon. Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union are less likely to become Western, with assured freedom of national determination. We will see lots more territorial tensions between China and the neighboring democracies, as it tries to play one off against another in the vacuum left by the diminution of U.S. power.

Even Western Europe is a mystery. For seven decades U.S. stewardship covered up Europe’s postwar anomalies: The EU eventually possessed the world’s largest economy and population within its collective borders and one of the world’s least impressive militaries. Germany, the strongest economic power, enjoyed no nuclear power and not much in the way of conventional armed forces. The Mediterranean seemed a tranquil European pond, and European leaders displayed little curiosity about how exactly the growing chaos of the Middle East, Asia Minor, and North Africa could be kept from spilling over into their territory. The historical nationalist tensions within Europe were mostly resolved not by the weak and structurally unsound EU but by an American-led NATO; there is no reason to believe that Europeans have evolved to a higher moral and spiritual level than they occupied in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The world as we once knew it is insidiously vanishing amid utopian blather about a new Russia, a new Iran, and a new China. In its place is emerging something like the wild world of 1803–1815 or 1936–1945. If the U.S. is either spiritually or fiscally incapable of exercising its old leadership, others will step into the vacuum. The result will not be an agreed-upon international order, but one of regional hegemons. When the tired federal marshal is three days’ ride away, the owners of the local big spreads will decide what is and is not the law — and the vulnerable homesteaders will have to make the necessary adjustments.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.