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.