A friend recently gifted me a subscription to The Economist. That was a very nice thing to do. I think. The upside is that I can learn from that publication’s always-excellent, in-depth analysis of the way the economic engines that turn the world run — or don’t. The downside is that, right now, such analysis is a good way to get what journalist and commentator Matt Taibbi calls “DEFCON‑1 depressed” about the state of civilization.
The Economist’s analysis of an international food crisis that was already looming as fertilizer costs soared and supply bottlenecks grew increasingly tangled — and has now been profoundly exacerbated by the war in Ukraine — is downright chilling. Most of us here won’t miss meals (though we’ll pay more for food) but Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are going to be hard hit. And that means more instability in a world already afflicted with serious speed-wobbles.
“The war in Ukraine is already a tragedy. As it ravages the world’s breadbasket, a calamity looms.”
America is not leading the world through and out of this crisis, especially not with an administration that looked at the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years and said, “Hold my beer.” Thing is, though, we can’t just blame Joe Biden. This is on us. For decades now, we’ve tolerated — encouraged — a level of political discourse in America that is on a par with professional wrestling. Which color trunks are we rooting for, red or blue? It’s all about personalities — ”good guys” and “villains” of our own manufacture — and policy and the actual serious business of governing be damned.
So, here we land, in the post-American world. That’s what Fareed Zakaria calls it, and he’s not wrong. He published a book titled The Post-American World, and an essay positing that the Ukraine war is a defining moment in the turn to that world on March 12.
One of the defining features of the new era is that it is post-American. By that I mean that the Pax Americana of the past three decades is over. You can see signs of this everywhere. Consider the fact that the leaders of the UAE and Saudi Arabia — two countries that have depended on Washington for their security for decades — refused to even take phone calls from the U.S. president, according to the Wall Street Journal. Consider as well that Israel (initially) and India have refused to describe Putin’s actions as an invasion, and that all four countries have made it clear they will continue to do business with Russia.
At first glance, it might seem that this is a new global order that is stacked against America. But that’s not necessarily so. The United States remains the world’s leading power, still stronger than all the rest by far. It also benefits from some of the features of this new age. The United States is the world’s leading producer of hydrocarbons. High energy prices, while terrible for countries such as China and Germany, actually stimulate growth in large parts of the United States. Geopolitically, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put Washington’s chief competitor, China, in an awkward position, forcing Beijing to defend Russia’s actions and putting it at odds with the European Union, with which it has tried hard to have close ties.
The greatest strategic opportunity lies with Europe, which could use this challenge to stop being the passive international actor it has been for decades. We now see signs that the Europeans are ready to end the era of free security by raising defense spending and securing NATO’s eastern border. Germany’s remarkable turnaround is a start. If Europe becomes a strategic player on the world stage, that could be the biggest geopolitical shift to emerge from this war. A United States joined by a focused and unified Europe would be a super-alliance in support of liberal values.
But for the West to become newly united and powerful, there is one essential condition: It must succeed in Ukraine. That is why the urgent necessity of the moment is to do what it takes — bearing costs and risks — to ensure that Putin does not prevail.
I have been a skeptic of American Empire, mostly because imperial values and republican values are not compatible — a truth that James Madison understood, even as his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, succumbed to fever dreams of an Empire of Liberty. I have been a critic of imperial hubris and overreach, at some cost when such doings were popular. But for all that, I recognize that the relative decline of America poses grave dangers. For all our manifest faults and failings, America has, at our best, truly been a beacon of hope and opportunity in the world, mighty in both war and peace. Losing that status and stature isn’t going to be pleasant for us, and it will be dangerous for the rest of the world.
It might turn out like Zakaria believes (hopes?), where America can be a partner with a resurgent Europe as a promoter of liberal values. Given the current state of play, I see a more likely scenario in which anti-western, illiberal values find fertile ground in destabilized societies where grievances are nurtured and America is seen to be a blind, blundering giant lurching about with no vision and diminished capacity.
I struggle to see the potential silver lining that Zakaria offers, but maybe I’m just in a fog of that DEFCON‑1 depression.