On the afternoon of Friday, February 21, 1947, the British ambassador to Washington, Lord Inverchapel, showed up at the State Department and informed under-secretary of state Dean Acheson that his country could no longer continue providing financial and military support to Greece and Italy. The British “are abdicating from the Middle East”, secretary of state George Marshall told president Harry Truman.
Indeed, with defense accounting for 40% of the British budget in 1947 and the Americans pressing London to repay the huge loans it owned them, Britain adjusted to the new geopolitical realities by ending its prized mandate of Palestine in May 1948, less than a year after giving up the Jewel in the Crown, India.
The transition from Rule Britannia to Pax Americana was completed after the 1956 Suez Crisis, when the United States threatened to withhold financing that Britain desperately needed unless its forces withdrew from the Suez Canal, and later on when Britain completed its withdrawal from its last imperial outposts.
Like Great Britain in 1947, the United States is finding it more and more difficult to maintain its military and geo-strategic status in the Middle East and elsewhere. Its defense expenditures constitute close to a third of its overall budget, at a time when the burden of its fiscal debt is becoming unsustainable.
And in the aftermath of the military fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan and after the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession, the American people have made it clear that they would not support using US military and economic resources to advance new “regime change” and “nation building” experiments around the world.
Which is why they sent to the White House a president committed to an “America First” agenda.
In the aftermath of the military fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan and after the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession, the American people have made it clear that they would not support using US military and economic resources to advance new “regime change” and “nation building” experiments around the world.
So if in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War many Western policymakers and analysts were celebrating America’s Unilateral Moment and using the term “empire” to describe its global status, much of the intellectual zeitgeist is now being dominated by talk about the decline and fall of the American hegemon.
In fact, against the backdrop of the twin nuclear crises with North Korea and Iran, Washington is finding itself facing the kind of a geo-strategic quandary that demonstrates the constraints that operate on its global power.
Forget all the current diplomatic maneuvers by Washington and the bombastic threats made by President Donald Trump, and put it in simple terms: The American people are not ready today to go to war against the North Koreans and the Iranians in order to deny these two regimes that challenge the interests of the US and its regional allies the ability to acquire (in the case of Tehran) or to maintain (in the case of Pyongyang) nuclear military capacity.
Indeed, one does not have to be a military expert to figure out that the decisions by North Korea and Iran to challenge the US over the nuclear issue reflected their conclusion that the US Army and Marines are not ready to fight in a ground war and do regime change à la Iraq in other parts of the world.
But using the historical analogy of the declining British Empire, to explain the geo-strategic challenges facing the US today is probably misleading. First, unlike Great Britain in 1947, the US cannot pass the Middle East torch to a friendly global power willing to assume its responsibilities.
The European Union lacks either the military capability or the political will to play that role. America’s presumptive rival, China, its largest creditor nation with huge foreign-exchange reserves, mostly in US dollars, could use its economic power to exert pressure on the United States. But then there are no signs that the Chinese are interested in getting stuck in the quicksand of the Middle East, preferring to allow the Americans to continue wasting their military and economic resources there.
Moreover, the US has the largest and most advanced economy, and the largest and most powerful military. Even those who are doing a lot of cheerleading for China these days agree that that country will not become the world’s largest economy before 2050, and even that proposition is very “iffy”.
And no one expects any of the US potential global rivals (the European Union, Russia, China and India) to overspend the United States on defense and overtake it in the military sphere any time soon. It just ain’t gonna happen.
And notwithstanding the advances that the Chinese, Indians and Europeans are making in science and technology, the United States’ open and dynamic free-market economy, as well as its impressive elite universities and research institutions, help it to maintain its status as the world’s center of scientific and technological creativity.
The notion that Pax Americana is over makes sense only if you assume that the geo-strategic and geo-economic position that the US had enjoyed between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, serving as a global cop by responding around the clock to emergency international calls, ousting “rogue regimes”, fighting wars in several areas of conflict and deploying hundreds of thousands of troops to conduct counterinsurgency and do “nation building” had become the normal of the contemporary international system.
But then that era proved to be an exception and not the rule, especially when one recalls the US global status in the bipolar system of the Cold War, as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union, not as that of a global hegemon.
The reality is that while some members of the Washington foreign-policy establishment still cling to the memories of the Unipolar Moment – after all, who really wants to be a member of an elite in charge of a declining power? – the American people are no longer ready to provide their government with the money and the manpower it needs to secure a global hegemonic position.
Both President Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, have recognized that, which explains why when it came to the nuclear challenges posed by North Korea and Iran, not to mention the civil war in Syria and relations with Moscow and Beijing, both presidents’ policies proved to be accommodative.
What the two American presidents have failed to achieve is to integrate their policies into a wider concept of the new US geo-strategy, under which the US will cease to be Number One, but will still be the next best thing, in the form of first among equals (or primus inter pares).
From that perspective the US cannot continue to occupy the driver’s seat and ask the Europeans, Russians or Chinese to help in navigating from points A to B and to check the tires and to change the oil.
These powers are going to demand to have more of a say on where points A and B are, and perhaps even insist on occupying the driver’s seat when it comes to their spheres of influence: China in East Asia, Russia in its “near abroad”, and the EU in the Middle East. That could replace the notion of American monopoly in the international system with the concept of an oligopoly of the great powers maintaining stability in the East Asia and the Middle East.
If the US wants other global powers to share in the burden of policing those regions of the world, including the containment anti-status-quo players like North Korea and Iran, it would need to share the process of decision-making with them, while at the same time continuing to play a leadership role.
But here is the punchline: If and when these and other aggressors are not contained, the US will be in a position to play the role of the global balancer of the last resort, applying its enormous military and economic power as it did during the two World Wars and the Cold War in the 20th century. But when it comes to North Korea and Iran, we are not there yet.