The world has passed from the era of the Pax Americana to a geopolitical recession.
It is not you; global politics have really been going crazy lately. And while each geopolitical story has its own set of actors and circumstances driving their respective dramas, the common thread that unites them is the absence of global leadership to keep things under control. The world has passed from the era of Pax Americana — one in which the U.S. used its economic and military influence to ensure a basic level of global stability and to coordinate global responses to global problems among allies of like-minded ideas — to a geopolitical recession, an unraveling of the old global order.
Looking back at the last 30 years, there have been four cataclysmic events that have brought the world to its current state of political dysfunction.
The first turning point was the inadequate response of the West to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After decades of being locked in a fierce ideological battle with the Soviets, Western democracies celebrated victory, welcomed the former USSR to the fold of democratic capitalism, and then effectively left it to fend for itself.
There was no Marshall Plan for ex-Soviets like the one for Europe after the devastation of World War II. In retrospect, the post-Soviet states, especially Russia, needed much more attention and help from the West than they received. The result was the seizure of critical industries by special interests and oligarchs, which gave way to a political leadership whose general geopolitical objective in 2019 is to destabilize Western democracies, through disinformation campaigns and tactically provocative action in the geopolitical arena.
The second turning point was the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and the exaggerated reaction of the West that launched two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although the war against Afghanistan was understandable at the time, given the clear link between the Taliban and al-Qaida, the U.S. decision to continue the war against Saddam Hussein for spurious reasons remains unforgivable for many around the world and left tarnished forever the image of the United States as global leader.
In addition, those wars led to two failed states that continue to present serious security challenges to the region. The extraordinary costs of both wars — millions spent and thousands of lives lost — caused the U.S. and its allies to fear repeating the same mistake and to be much less interested in playing the role of global police.
The third turning point was the financial crisis of 2008. The global response to the impending collapse of the world’s financial architecture was the last time we saw true American leadership and genuine cooperation among advanced industrial democracies in addressing a crisis that threatened everyone. In fact, it is the only time the Group of Seven leading industrial nations really worked as one, and it also marked the beginning of the first meeting — and the most functional — of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging market nations to date.
But the way in which the financial system was saved — rescuing the large banks and financial institutions, using taxpayers’ money — fueled the perception that those who made political decisions were irrevocably out of touch with the people who elected them, and raised serious questions about how Western-style capitalism fulfilled the social contract in the 21st century.
China, in the midst of meteoric economic growth, became more cautious than necessary to maintain a different political and economic structure, in order to avoid a similar fate. Movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, came and went in the West, but the problem was fundamentally not addressed.
That led to the fourth turning point: the populist surge of 2015/2016, a polarized political environment that culminated in the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump; both decisions fractured the internal politics of their respective countries, as well as global cooperation. It was the final signal to the world that the global order led by the United States was over, which led to a wide acceptance of a spirit of “every nation for itself” that has been gaining popularity in the world’s democracies ever since.
This, combined with an ambitious and opportunistic China, which is building an alternative international architecture to compete with the West, means that global politics has not been so volatile since World War II.
The geopolitical recession in which we live today will not last forever, but the end of the Pax Americana is clear. The question is what comes next.