The Erosion of Pax-Americana and the Rise of Great Power Geopolitics

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the unification of Germany in 1990 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 epitomized the end of ideological geopolitics. Since the early 1990s till the end of the first decade of the twenty first century, analysts observed the rise of a new geopolitical understanding being defined by many as a new world order. New world order geopolitics suggested that there was only one super power all over the world and all other states would gain influence in international politics in relation to the status of their relationship with the global hegemon. That sole superpower happened to be the United States. There was a huge power gap between the United States and all other countries and it was nearly impossible for any country, acting alone or in cooperation with others, to counterbalance the American hegemony. Hence, bandwagoning appears to have replaced balancing in the age American primacy in global politics.

Since the early 1990s until 2008, the United States, in partnership with its European allies within NATO and the European Union, dictated international politics. This period was the heyday of the ‘liberal international order’. Not only did it gradually expand to include former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, but also the immense material power capabilities of the United States allowed her to pursue primacist strategies all around the world. The occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the United States’ military involvement in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks epitomized the excessive self-confidence of American decision makers in promoting liberal democratic norms and values.

Until 2008, the rise of China was not central to American strategic considerations and the European Union was at the apex of its power. The security concepts of Americans and Europeans alike demonstrated optimism and self-confidence in western capitals. Neither the national security strategies adopted by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations in the US nor the first-ever security strategy document of the EU adopted in 2003 mentioned great power competition and ideological polarization as potential threats to liberal international world order. Many circles in the West took comfort in Fukuyama’s thesis that the history came to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and with the growing appeal of liberal-capitalist democracy as the only game in town. Fukuyama was basically saying that from the dissolution of the Soviet Union onwards the erstwhile non-capitalist societies would gradually become part of the US-led liberal capitalist world order because the end of the Cold War left them only with this option. The Cold War was decisively won by the liberal capitalist camp and the years ahead would not witness any ideology-driven geopolitical competition among great powers.

Looking from this perspective, the enlargement of the European Union and NATO towards former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe would accord with the flow of history by transforming almost every country in Europe in the image of liberal democracy and open market capitalism. The liberal international order would also enlarge beyond Europe with the incorporation of many non-western countries into the World Trade Organization and other multilateral platforms as responsible stakeholders. For example, China’s membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001 was heralded with fanfare suggesting that from this time onwards China would gradually evolve into a liberal democratic polity adopting capitalist toolkit in economy.

Looking to emerging security structure in this era the United States would remain as the main security provider across the globe and many US-led security organizations established during the long Cold War era would maintain their relevance. For example, rather than NATO being thrown in the dustbin of history, it would further enlarge to former enemies of the Warsaw Pact.

The extreme self-confidence on the part of the American statesmen led them to argue that the United States was the indispensable nation and there was no need to help bring into existence new regional or global security organizations that would potentially replace NATO. It was in accordance with such thinking that whenever the Russian leadership offered the idea that a new pan-European security organization should be founded replacing western-dominated ones, the Americans simply ignored them.            

A cardinal characteristic of this era was that the possibility of any great power war would be almost zero because it was assumed that all great powers would pay an utmost care to get along with the United States well. Just because none of the great powers was in a position to challenge the American preeminence and lay claim to hegemony in its own region, the best thing to do on their side would be bandwagoning with the sole superpower.

Looking from this perspective, armed conflicts would rather take place within states. Intrastate wars, viz. civil wars, would replace interstate wars. The wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus during the 1990s demonstrated that major threats to regional and global security would stem from internal conflicts rather than interstate power competitions. During this time period many states across the globe, saving the United States, decreased their military spending in proportion to their Cold War era spending and armies went through a transformation process thereby their peacekeeping and peacemaking capabilities improved.

This time period also attested to the heyday of the European Union integration process. The EU both enlarged horizontally and deepened vertically. Many countries around the globe looked to the European Union integration process as the ideal example to emulate. EU appeared to be a successful role model for other countries across the globe. Many westerners believed that American hegemony would keep the peace in the world and other countries would be able to devote much more energy and capital to their economic development and political maturation in line with liberal democratic capitalist values.       

It is within such a geopolitical framework that many analysts argued that soft power would gradually eclipse hard power in international politics. As the need to rely on brute force in solving international problems and achieving foreign policy interests became meaningless in the context of global peace and security provided by the American hegemony, countries would increasingly invest in their soft power capabilities. It is not a coincidence that the literature on soft power accumulated fast during this era of new world order. 

Even though the 9/11 attacks on the US homeland dented the image of the United States as the omnipotent global hegemon and criticisms of the American approach to the global war on terror intensified following the US occupation of Iraq, it was primarily following the financial crisis of the late 2000s that a sense of decline began to percolate down to the western elites in the United States and EU members. Not only has the feeling of optimism eroded but also the specter of non-western powers challenging the primacy of western powers has begun to haunt many westerners. As the Russian resurgence and Chinese revival took root, the calls for accommodating rising non-western powers in the institutional structure of the liberal international order began to be heard more loudly. The revised security strategy of the European Union (issued in the summer of the 2016), and the first national security strategy of the Trump administration (issued in December 2017) demonstrate that western powers have increasingly begun feeling threatened by the rise of non-western powers. Both documents suggest some ways to deal with the resurgence of traditional security concerns as well as the worldwide emergence of illiberal authoritarianism.      

Since 2008 there have been disputes all over the world over the values of multiculturalism, openness, tolerance, and universal human rights. The morality of universal cosmopolitanism has gradually given way to the morality of relative communitarianism as rising non-western powers, primarily China and Russia, have increasingly offered non-western conceptualizations of international political order. Non-interference in states’ internal affairs, primacy of state sovereignty, authoritarian leadership, strengthening of national identities, state-led capitalism, spheres of influence mentality, multi-polarism in global governance, primacy of great powers in international relations, mercantilist trade practices, investment in military power capabilities, an increased use of economic power instruments in the name of securing geopolitical gains, and the questioning of the principle ‘responsibility to protect’ are some of the points that Russian and Chinese leaderships have been vehemently prioritizing over the last decade.

This does not, however, suggest that countries like China have not benefited from the liberal international order, particularly in the field of economics. Yet, China’s gains from the liberal-capitalist global order have mainly emanated from western sponsorship, rather than from China acting as a convicted disciple. So long as the western powers, particularly the United States, assumed that China would turn out to become a responsible stakeholder and gradually transform into a liberal democratic polity, they tolerated China’s rise and its inappropriate trade practices and non-democratic political values. The West was able to endure some economic losses relative to emerging powers, so long as it had self-confidence.     

Western powers have not been immune to such currents either. The last decade has witnessed the rise of populist and illiberal political movements in key western countries. The internal criticism of liberal democratic practices has severely affected the attractiveness of a liberal world order. As the Brexit decision in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump to presidency in the United States demonstrates, the forces of illiberalism, populism, protectionism, and xenophobia have gained ground in key western countries. 

Parallel to the shift in material power capabilities across the globe and the growing challenges posed to the normative foundation of the liberal international order, realpolitik foreign policy practices and pragmatic concerns in defining national interests have become more pronounced than moralpolitik practices and normative concerns. Power politics and ‘sphere of influence’ mentality have experienced a revival over the last decade. As geo-economic and geo-political motivations have become more decisive in states’ foreign policies, the dynamics of alliance relationships have also gone through a radical transformation. During the last decade, long-term identity based alliance relationships have been replaced with short-term, pragmatic, and issue-oriented strategic partnerships. The practice of forming interest-oriented cooperation initiatives within multilateral and bilateral frameworks has gained ground in recent years. In today’s world, countries of different value orientations, geographical locations, power capabilities, and threat perceptions are no longer bound to define each other categorically as enemies or friends. The notion of ‘frenemy’ has already become an identity signifier in interstate relations. The practice of coalitions defining missions has gradually given way to the practice of missions defining coalitions. As opposed to Cold War bipolarity and the unipolar order during the first two decades of the post-Cold War era, the practice of illiberal authoritarian states engaging in pragmatic outcome-oriented cooperation with liberal-minded states is now conceivable.

In today’s international order, the ideological polarization of opposing power blocks is not as sharp and rigid as it was during the Cold War era. The interconnectedness between liberal western powers and illiberal authoritarian powers is much higher now than it was between western capitalist and eastern communist countries during the Cold war era. This suggests that we now live in a multiplex world order. Not only are there more actors in international relations but also issues have become so complex that dealing with them increasingly requires global perspectives. This world order leads states with various power capabilities to adopt multidimensional and multidirectional foreign policy strategies.

Even though the debate on the decline of the West still lingers and many dispute the idea of declinizm in the United States, it is now clear that the United States under Trump’s presidency no longer wants to play the leader of the liberal international order. This creates enough room for non-western rising powers to act more assertively and become more visible across the globe.

It is against such a background that the years ahead will likely produce new geopolitical dynamics more akin to those of the Cold War era in which two ideologically different global powers vied for global primacy. It remains to be seen whether the Coronavirus pandemic will usher in a new bipolar confrontation between the United States and China. There are too many unknowns and our next piece will address this question.