Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, etc. are seething in conflict. Many other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are also passing through a tumultuous period. While all these conflicts and tensions are unique in themselves, they share a common thread: The breakdown of the post-Cold War world order shaped by the United States.
Francis Fukumaya’s declaration about the end of history may have been precocious, but it was demonstrably premature. Western values have predominated the world, but they have not defeated other value systems. Democracy, freedom and human rights might have found a wider lip service, but they are yet to become universally respected in practice, partly owning to the democratic countries becoming increasingly undemocratic in the name of security and the war on terror. Other countries have followed suit.
Political and economic transformation, or lack of it, has not been uniform. Singapore has become rich without being democratic. China is following the same path. India is democratic, but remains poor. So are most other countries in the Third World. Tribalism, something thought to have been gradually abandoned for nearly a hundred year, has made a roaring come back across the world, giving rise to internal inter-ethnic conflicts and tensions.
BRICS, the rising countries outside the traditional western economic and political powerhouses, have lifted millions of their people out of poverty, signed an agreement to form their own international bank and pursued foreign policies independent of the West. China has become the second largest economy in the world, edging past Japan, and the largest in purchasing power parity terms. India is third in PPP. The Brazilian economy has become bigger than the UK economy. They have begun to challenge Western hegemony in their regions and compete for resources elsewhere to feed their economies.
The West’s decline is demonstrable across the world, but notably in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Syria and Ukraine. The United States, the foremost military and economic power, withdrew from Iraq without securing peace and stability. Now it seems that either the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and Syria will capture the country or the country will disintegrate. The US will pull out of Afghanistan at the end of this year without defeating Taliban, striking a credible deal with them, or stabilizing the poor hilly country.
Nowhere has US power has proved as impotent as in the case of Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East. It seems that US Middle East policy is made in Tel Aviv, not in Washington. Israel has defied America in building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and rejected American proposals for peace in the Middle East. In the latest episode, Tel Aviv has rebuffed the ceasefire proposal of Secretary of State John Kerry to stop violence in Gaza. By failing to confront the Israeli right, Washington has lost the Middle East as a whole and is fast losing the rest of the world, including Europe.
At the other end of the spectrum, President Assad has won a third term despite the military and economic support from Western countries to the rebels seeking to overthrow him. President Barack Obama’s red line that the US will strike if Assad used chemical weapons against his opponents proved a damp squid. Ukraine lost Crimea to Russian aggression. And the battle between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine has all the hallmarks of the Cold War: Washington is supporting Kiev militarily and Moscow is propping Donetsk.
Besides, the West in general and the United States in particular used sanctions to prevent North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons technology. But North Korea has already had nuclear weapons and Iraq may obtain them in the near future. The negotiations between Iran and the United States have halted the nuclear weapons program, but Tehran is yet far from abandoning it.
Clearly, these developments indicate that the post-Cold War world order built in the US vision is in jeopardy. US President Barack Obama, hamstrung by the political gridlock in Washington, has been long on rhetoric and short on action. He has been timid in exercising executive powers and his opponents, the Republicans who control the lower house, have prevented him from obtaining legislative mandates for US action, for instance against Syria several months back. For the same reason, he cannot move an inch to bring Israel into line.
Interestingly, he could not persuade President Hamid Karzai to let the US forces stay in Afghanistan, could not convince Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to quit to form a national government and tackle the growing threat of ISIS in Iraq. And he could not explicitly support his secretary of state’s peace initiative between Israel and Palestine before and could not pick up the phone and tell Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel to stop the ongoing indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, at least to protect the dignity of the Nobel Peace Prize he has been awarded.
My father used to say: Son, try not to be hated or feared. But if you must choose one between the two, choose to be feared than hated. The United States has reached that critical fork in the road in its foreign relations. According to a Pew Research Survey, the United States has been viewed increasingly unfavorably abroad over the last five years, including in Europe. It is also less feared due to its debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Karzai, Maliki, Assad and Netanyahu have already proved it.
Fear comes from brute force and moral authority. The United States continues to enjoy military superiority by spending more on defense than the next 10 countries combined. So the declining fear of America can only be explained by the loss of its moral authority, which it had acquired on the strength of its commitment to such fundamental values as democracy, freedom and human rights. But the United States has trampled these values at home and abroad and lost its moral authority.
For instance, at home, the American government has begun to spy on its people and considerably narrowed the rights and freedoms of its citizens in the name of security. Outside America, in Egypt, it supported the military to stage a coup to remove the democratically elected Morsi government. It allowed Israel to commit war crimes, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently suggested in her statement, in Gaza. It permitted Maliki and Karzai to plunder the government treasuries under its very nose and become sectarian dictators.
The post-Cold War order is broken down, but it could still be fixed. To fix it, Washington should have a principled stand with Israel, Russia and other countries; stop spying on friends; win the confidence of BRICS; contain Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapon programs; and apply the uniform standards across the board to promote the fundamental values of democracy, freedoms and human rights.