In various speeches this year, secretary of state Antony Blinken has declared that “the post-Cold War era is over.” The announcement passes all but unnoticed, eclipsed as it is by crises, such as war in Ukraine and the Middle East, that make Blinken’s point in a starker way.
Not so long ago, it was taken for granted that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had inaugurated a new age. Now, if Blinken is correct, the lifespan of that age hardly exceeds the duration of Tom Brady’s career as a star quarterback.
By 1989, the United States had ascended to the status of sole remaining superpower. No challenges to its global primacy — political, military, economic or cultural — were visible anywhere on the horizon. America had established itself, in a famous phrase of the day, as the world’s “indispensable nation.” Who was there to say nay?
Yet today, according to Blinken, the United States finds itself in an “intense competition to shape what comes next.” Gone is the assumption that everybody would eventually conform to the imperatives of American-style liberal democracy. Nevertheless, winning this competition with the likes of China and Russia has become America’s new calling. Even if momentarily diverted, history’s purpose remains foreordained.
Ukrainians, Israelis, Gazans and Yemenis among other recent victims of large-scale violence may be forgiven for dissenting from that reading of history’s purpose. Rather than ending with the collapse of communism, history may have briefly paused; it is resuming with a vengeance. A glance at the evolving crisis in the Middle East makes that clear: America must compete with China and Russia for influence over a regional conflict that could rapidly escalate beyond anyone’s control given the volatility of the Islamic world.
In his somewhat grandiloquent speeches, Secretary Blinken offers no thoughts as to why the interlude of US global supremacy turned out to be so short-lived. He just moves on to defining America’s changing role in this new, more multipolar world. His haste to change the subject may be understandable. But to indulge that inclination is to miss the significance of what has occurred — and to increase the prospect of further miscalculation and disappointment.
Whatever caused the post-Cold War era to end prematurely, we should be clear on one point: the problem was not one of American inaction. If anything, the reverse was true. As measured by the number of countries that US forces bombed, invaded or occupied, military activism proved to be a hallmark of the decades that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Dating from the nearly forgotten invasion of Panama in December 1989 and continuing through the dismal collapse of the US-supported regime in Kabul in August 2021, US forces participated in a dizzying array of interventions abroad.
Alas, only rarely did outcomes fulfill the expectations that inspired them. Varying in size, duration and locale, few ended in unambiguous success. Since Panama, decisive outcomes have been few and far between. Even the Gulf War of 1991, once celebrated as a victory of world-historical significance, now seems like no more than a way station on the road to a larger, longer and more costly conflict.
Meanwhile, unanticipated consequences have been legion, with human and monetary costs almost invariably exceeding those forecast by proponents of action. This was most egregiously the case in campaigns undertaken pursuant to the global “war on terror,” which consumed trillions of dollars and claimed the lives of thousands of US troops.
More troubling still, the promiscuous use of force abroad fostered a domestic backlash, as American populists pushed back against Washington’s penchant for military action. On that score, Donald Trump’s enduring popularity, which many observers profess to find baffling, derives in no small measure from his opposition to foreign wars and his professed determination to shrink the Pentagon’s global footprint. Trump’s promises resonate in the vast realm that lies beyond the Beltway and may yet return him to the White House.
For many, this is evidence of isolationism. But growing numbers of ordinary Americans see the curbing of military ambition as a long overdue corrective. The dysfunction enveloping the nation’s capital, and especially the House of Representatives, has roots in the chronic misuse of American military power and the abuse to which US troops have been subjected.
As it gears up for an era of “intense competition” focused on China and Russia, the Biden administration echoes the architects of the post-Cold War era: “Trust us, we know what we are doing.” Neither administration leaders nor members of the broader national security apparatus have shown any inclination to reflect on how the United States squandered the advantages it had accrued when the Cold War ended.
Responding to the surprise Hamas assault on Israel, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan observed that “we have to prepare for every possible contingency.” For the Biden administration, Sullivan’s assurances have translated into reinforcing the American military presence in the region by dispatch- ing two carrier battle groups into the eastern Mediterranean.
Without any consideration of what past US military actions in the Middle East have accomplished and at what cost, the US signals that it is ready to fight some more. Yet other nations in the region, friend and foe alike, appear to be less than impressed with American saber-rattling. The Biden administration has made its support for Israel abundantly clear. Beyond that, what the US hopes to achieve in the region remains obscure. Hastily planned presidential visits have only revealed the White House’s confusion even as it sounds a cocksure tone.
In Washington and in leading journals of opinion, dissenting voices are few, and possess little real influence. US military policy receives little serious scrutiny. With minimal discussion, bipartisan majorities in Congress routinely vote to increase the Pentagon’s budget, which is now closing in on $1 trillion per year.
But avoiding repetition of the errors that marred US policy in the recent past will require more than money. What’s needed is a thoroughgoing examination of why the promise of the post-Cold War era remains unfulfilled. Further hesitation in undertaking that examination will enable Trump and his allies to fill the vacuum.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2023 World edition.