In his 14 months at the White House, Donald Trump has administered several shocks to the American public. But none has been as severe as his appointment of John R. Bolton as the national security advisor. Bolton is known as one of the most radically hawkish voices in American foreign policy. He was a member of the American Enterprise Institute group that coached George W. Bush on foreign policy before he was elected, and then pushed him into invading and destroying Iraq.
President Trump has hired and fired 60 people from top jobs in his administration in the past 14 months, so placing bets on Bolton’s longevity could be risky. But the appointment of such a man to a post that, more than any other in the US government, determines whether the country gets embroiled in another war or not, could not have come at a worse time for it has come when the US is trying to come to terms with the unsustainability of its three-quarter century hegemony over the modern world, and does not know which way to turn. It is at such moments that the possibility of a military conflict, i.e. a war, reaches a peak.
Hegemony must not be confused with dominance. The latter can be achieved through the exercise of military power alone. Hegemony, by contrast, is control, exercised without, or at best with a minimal, use of force. Subordinate countries then follow the hegemon’s lead because its restraint convinces them that it will use force wisely, and only as a last resort.
The US enjoyed this hegemony when it was being openly confronted by the Soviet Union but, paradoxically, began to lose it within months of the USSR’s collapse at a time when, in President Clinton’s words, Americans did not have “a single over-riding threat to their sovereignty”. The decline began, almost unnoticed, in 1994 when Clinton declared that the US no longer felt itself bound by the UN Security Council’s resolutions on Iraq and would not permit the lifting of UN sanctions on Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. This was the beginning of its destruction of the United Nations and its attempt to replace the Westphalian international order enshrined in its Charter, with one that was fashioned by it in its own image.
Since then, the covert or overt use of force to secure regime change has become the central tenet of American foreign policy. This was demonstrated by its unprovoked carpet-bombing of Iraq in 1998, its aerial invasion of Serbia to ‘liberate’ Kosovo 1999 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
For none of these actions did the US seek, let alone obtain, even a token nod from the UN Security Council. Its hegemony could have survived if anything good had resulted from them. But Iraq has emerged as a frail, poor and unstable country riven with sectarian strife, and a breeding ground for al-Qaeda and ISIS. Kosovo is a trans-shipment centre for drugs destined from Afghanistan to Europe; and having had no compelling reason for declaring war on Iraq and Afghanistan, the US found itself unable to end them for years on end.
It, therefore, lost close to 7,000 soldiers, crippled another 60,000, traumatised a quarter of a million, spent trillions of dollars and ran up a national debt of nearly $20 trillion, while its infrastructure mouldered away and its cities began to resemble those of the Third World.
But none of this dented the huge sense of entitlement the US had inherited from its victory in the Cold War. Liberal interventionism therefore revived with a bang with the advent of the so-called Arab Spring. In 2011, Obama joined France and Britain in a disastrous destruction of Libya. In the same year he allowed Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to drag the US into an equally misguided attack on Syria.
As in the first round of military intervention, the UN Security Council was first misled and then excluded again from decision-making on war and peace. But the resemblance between these and the first round of American interventions ends there.
First, the US is no longer willing, or indeed able, to shoulder the burden of intervention alone. Instead, it created a more broad-based ‘transatlantic’ coalition to undertake its ‘humanitarian’ interventions. Its favoured instrument is NATO, which provides a sufficiently wide umbrella of consensus to sustain the illusion of multilateralism, but is flexible enough to allow every member to decide the level of its involvement.
Second, responding to the profound aversion of the American public to the loss of American lives in places they cannot identify on a map, the Obama administration became determined not to send American troops into combat again. To avoid any further unnecessary entanglements, Obama placed an ever increasing reliance upon diplomacy to contain potential threats. Iran, Cuba and the containment of China were his major successes. But the benevolent impact of this upon public perception in smaller nations has been offset by the US’s increasing reliance on drones to wage its never-ending “war on terror”.
Machines have no feelings, so the target groups cannot negotiate with them, cannot surrender to them, cannot even fight them. So drone warfare leaves no room for a hegemonistic relationship. Engaging in it is a tacit abandonment of the quest for hegemony and a conscious decision to rule the world through terror alone.
It is the final difference that has given the coup-de grace to the American Century. The US is now too broke to finance its interventions by itself, so it has begun to pass the hat around. Supposedly it does so only among its allies. But the main financiers with whom the CIA teamed up to arm the insurgents in Libya and Syria have been precisely the countries that had the most to gain from toppling the existing regimes in them – Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates of the Persian Gulf. This has turned the US into a new kind of mercenary – a state that is available for hire.
No man, and therefore no state, can be both ruler and vassal at the same time. Therefore, when the US began to fight wars with other peoples’ money, the American Century became history. No one has taken a greater delight in rubbing this in than the US’s staunchest ally, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Netanyahu attacked Obama on American television in June 2014 for deciding to cooperate with Iran in halting the ISIS’s advance into Iraq, and went uninvited to the US and denounced the American president before the US Congress on American soil for crafting a nuclear agreement with Iran.
The US’s loss of hegemony is only one part of the story. The other part is the West’s loss of moral hegemony in the post-Cold War years. The US and its allies have justified the assaults on Iraq, Libya and Syria by depicting their rulers as tyrants. Removing them would open the way for a transition to democracy. But what they chose to overlook was that the freedom to vote is not an end in itself, but only the means for securing other ends. These are the freedom to think, speak and write, freedom to worship and freedom from gender discrimination.
The states the West destroyed were modern states with high rates of literacy and women’s participation in the workforce, striving to be secular and gender neutral. Their authoritarianism was designed not to prolong but to root out obscurantism, tribalism and religious extremism in their own countries.
By the yardstick of the ends democracy is intended to serve, the assaults on Iraq, Libya and Syria are morally indefensible for they have eliminated the very freedoms that they were supposed to bestow. It is not surprising therefore that the power vacuum their destruction has created has been filled not by democracy but by al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The sudden spate of terrorism and the rebirth of crude nationalism in the heart of Europe is a direct consequence. Brexit is its most flagrant example. But similar racist-nationalist impulses have sprung up in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Austria. A new wave of home-grown terrorism is sweeping across Europe. An unwanted flood of immigrants, in large part caused by the wars unleashed by the West, has triggered a resurgence of racist nationalism in Europe.
As country after country has been convulsed by these challenges, people have begun to turn to strong leaders like Putin, Erdogan, Xi Jinping, Duterte and Narendra Modi, to preserve the essential security without which their world will turn into a living hell. But the more authoritarian that a regime becomes, the greater is the insecurity its leaders feel. The stronger, therefore, becomes the temptation to focus the public’s attention on real or imagined external threats.
It is in such conditions that declining, but still dominant, regimes have sought a solution to their domestic problems, in small, manageable, wars. The Habsburg empire found itself in such a situation at the close of the nineteenth century, and the first decade of the 20th century. In 1914, it tried to tame its fractious minorities by invading Serbia, where an extreme nationalist group had succeeded in assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Hapsburg throne. It ended by triggering its own complete destruction and the First World War.
Sixty-five years later, the Soviet Union, which was similarly caught in a cycle of irresistible economic decline, sought to reinforce its hegemony over the Warsaw Pact countries through a limited military intervention in Afghanistan. It ended by getting enmeshed in a decade-long war it could not win, and brought about its own demise.
The US and Europe are facing a similar crisis today, and succumbing to a similar temptation to contain it by highlighting external threats. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran have been elected as the villains. Russia has to be punished for illegally wresting Crimea from Ukraine, for propping up the Assad regime in Syria, for intervening in the US elections to ensure the victory of Trump, and most recently for the attempted assassination of a former Russian agent, Sergei Skripal on British soil.
North Korea has to be punished for continually violating its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and daring to develop missiles that can carry nuclear warheads to the American mainland. China has to be punished for trying to extend its control over the South China Sea in violation of the 12-mile limit enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Iran has to be punished for just being Iran.
Economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia, and further strengthened on North Korea. Trump is threatening to resile from the nuclear treaty with Iran and not lift the UN sanctions that the US and EU are committed to removing. And he has imposed tariffs on imports, mainly aimed at China, that are on the brink of triggering a trade war.
A joint American, Japanese and, regrettably, Indian naval task force has steamed through the length and breadth of the South China Sea for months to enforce the freedom of military navigation outside the 12-mile limit.
Trump has threatened to obliterate North Korea and sent a submarine, followed by an American task force armed with thousands of Tomahawk missiles to underline his threat.
Britain’s shaky Prime Minister Theresa May has not only expelled scores of Russians from the UK in retaliation for the killing of Skripal (which she has a sovereign right to do) but invoked the treaty obligations imposed by NATO upon its members to persuade them to do the same.
It was a similar invocation of treaty obligations that made Russia back Serbia, Germany back Austria, and Britain and France back Russia and Serbia in 1914, and start a war that none of them wanted, but killed nearly 20 million people and ended monarchical rule in Europe. Russia’s warning to Britain, and by implication NATO, not to ‘play with fire’ is therefore a reminder not to repeat the mistakes of history.
It is into this maelstrom that Trump has dropped Bolton, a self-avowed apostle of war.
Prem Shankar Jha is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.