The post-American world is dangerous: With the U.S. no longer able to play the much maligned yet absolutely essential role of global peacekeeping power, instability and chaos threaten. The situation in Syria shows what can happen if a hegemon is missing — and Europe, too, will have a problem.
Madeleine Albright could actually be very satisfied. The phrase she coined years ago about the U.S. as the “indispensable nation” is currently being proven true by the course of history. However, that this is happening via negative evidence — namely, the absence of the U.S. in the dramatic crisis in Syria — is not be something for the former secretary of state to be pleased about. Instead, she will more likely be greatly concerned.
In front of our eyes, a post-American world is taking shape. This world is certainly not being defined by a new order, but rather by political power ambivalence, instability and, yes, chaos. That is a very disagreeable, from time to time even dangerous prospect that will have even dyed-in-the-wool anti-Americans calling for the old global world order.
Both subjectively and objectively, the U.S. is no longer willing or able to play the much maligned yet absolutely essential role of global peacekeeping power. The wars in the Middle East with their enormous humanitarian and economic losses, the financial and economic crises, debt burden and a new orientation of the U.S. toward solving its internal problems and toward the Pacific Rim — all of these experiences and challenges have contributed to the current trend.
In addition, there is still a relative decline of the country in the face of the rise of China and other large emerging countries. The U.S. will pull off its new orientation and new positioning, of that I am fairly sure. However, its weight, power and scope will relatively decrease in the new world of the 21st century. Others will become stronger and therefore catch up. Certainly, the global role of the U.S. will not be called into question — by whom, anyway? China will remain occupied with its internal contradictions for a long time yet. India? Russia? The European chicken run?
Syria Region Lacks a Hegemon
None of these are serious alternatives to the global role of the U.S. Yet these countries will no longer be solitary and considerably weaker, like they were at the end of the Cold War. One can comprehend this current change in the role the U.S. plays in two central regions of the political world — the Middle East and Asia-Pacific.
In the Middle East, the order of nations created by European colonial powers France and Great Britain, which was carried over through the Cold War and afterward remained untouched by the U.S. for a long time — until the Iraq War of 2003 — is presently being shaken. The colonial borders are being questioned more and more. What will become of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan can hardly be predicted. The potential for regional disintegration and later restructuring is greater than ever. Such a process can release much violence, as witnessed in Syria.
There is no new hegemony in the region, but many contenders for it — Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others — none of whom are strong enough to clinch the role for themselves. Meanwhile, disintegration and hegemonic claims together multiply the potential for violence. Because no peacekeeping power is foreseeable in and for the region, and because the old peacekeeping power U.S. no longer wants to or even can play this role, a prolonged and highly dangerous confrontation threatens.
Even if the U.S. would intervene in the Middle East again, its power would not be sufficient to establish order. Doing so would mean nothing more than beginning a war whose negative outcome is foreseeable in advance. Because this is known only too well in Washington after Iraq, every American administration will carefully think over whether it should risk the lives of its soldiers and its political destiny there.
The situation in eastern Asia looks different because the U.S. retains a presence there; it has even increased its involvement. In eastern and southern Asia, we are up against nuclear powers (China, Russia, India, Pakistan, North Korea) or nearly-nuclear powers (Japan, South Korea) that are all also entangled in a threatening hegemonic rivalry. Added to that is the irrational factor of North Korea.
The presence of the U.S. in Asia has to date hindered an intensification of conflicts and rivalries, but, nonetheless, insecurity is also increasing in this region. Will China be clever, yes, wise enough not to want to rule the region, but rather focus on balance and partnership with its large and small neighbors? What will become of the Korean Peninsula? What of Japan, now increasingly banking on the nationalistic card again and a risky bet in an economic policy whose outcome is uncertain? What of Chinese-Indian relations? What of Pakistan? Never-ending dynamite.
European Disintegration: Not a Good Idea
The strong military and political presence of the U.S. in this wide region has a moderating effect on the regional powers. Without the U.S. presence, one imagines, the situation would be much more dangerous.
Of course, this short analysis also shows that the new global role of the U.S. with its reduced resources will be dependent on interest-based strategic focus. The Asia-Pacific region enjoys clear priority in this case.
The new, limited role of the U.S. raises questions for its European partners — particularly, whether one can allow oneself the luxury in security policy of remaining practically defenseless without the help of the U.S. Certainly, the American guarantee of safety will not be worthless, but will by all means be more difficult to sustain in the future. If the risk of chaos and its consequences in the post-American world is greater than the hope for a new global order — and this risk primarily applies to the European neighborhood — then it would not be a good idea for Europe to break itself up. The exact opposite is in fact necessary.
Joschka Fischer, 65, was the German minister of foreign affairs and vice chancellor, and leader of the Green Party for nearly 20 years.