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.