Wars can jump-start slumping economies and manufacture legitimacy for unpopular or embattled states, but they can be all-on-the-table gambles as well. Even hegemonic global powers — deceived by their own arrogance, the egos of their leaders, or fatal assumptions about the willingness of their people to fight — have walked this road straight into their own collapse.
One may recall that all the major powers involved in the initiation of the First World War saw their empires crumble in the trenches — and one in the streets — with terrifying violence. But as the first bullets sounded in the summer of 1914, the czar, king and kaiser each assumed their victory would come quickly and easily. Rising from the ashes was a new fledgling super-power, the United States.
Self-deception is not the only road toward the collapse of significant powers. Another classic route is the emergence of conflicts or political crises in which a ruling power has an “impossible” choice between action and inaction in relation to a rival or insurgent power. In such situations, inaction exposes weakness, while action risks defeat.
Such “gray zones” were the subject of “Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone,” a report released last year by the United States Army War College (USAWC) Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), under the direction of retired colonel Nathan Freier. In the report, Freier’s team urged the Department of Defense to adapt to a new global environment in which American power faces increasingly complex forms of resistance.
The report focused on the guiding theory of a declining American hegemony, warning of “irreversible strategic consequences” if the Department of Defense failed to adapt to shifting power dynamics in the post-Iraq War world.
A lot can change in a year, as the report’s follow-up, “At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World,” released in June, admits in its title. The term “post-primacy” — describing a global environment in which the United States no longer commands global military, economic, and political hegemony — was not mentioned by Freier in last year’s report, but it is the overall anchor of the new report.
According to the study team, which interviewed dozens of senior-level defense leaders in the public, private and military sectors and reviewed hundreds of articles, a “volatile restructuring of international security affairs currently underway marks the American entrance into a third transformational era since the end of the Cold War,” citing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the September 11 attacks as the starting points of the two former eras.
Framed as a wake-up call to the Department of Defense, “At Our Own Peril” states bluntly, “the status quo that was hatched and nurtured by U.S. strategists after World War II … is not merely fraying but may, in fact, be collapsing” and suggests that “the United States has recently entered, or more accurately has freshly recognized that it is in the midst of what can only be described as the early post-U.S. primacy epoch.”
“Consequently,” it concludes, “the United States’ role in and approach to the world may be fundamentally changing as well.”
Iraq’s Long Shadow
While perhaps shocking to read from the Army’s own strategists, the concept of a collapsing United States hegemony is not new, and was perhaps best summarized in renowned sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s 2003 book The Decline of American Power. “The United States wields the most formidable military apparatus in the world,” Wallerstein correctly suggested as American tanks again rolled across the Kuwaiti border. “But does that mean, then, that [it] can invade Iraq, conquer it rapidly, and install a friendly and stable regime? Unlikely.”
Indeed, interviewed in early June by the Defense & Aerospace Report, Freier suggests that 2005-2008 — the height of the sectarian conflict in Iraq — was the period in which the ground really shifted underneath the US foreign policy establishment.
Today, only a decade and a half after the invasion, former Middle East allies and new non-state formations dangle between the West and new power blocs, Europe faces resurgent nationalist movements and a fraying European Union, and US forces are drawn into supporting conflicts initiated against their strategic approval. No one in the United States defense establishment desired these scenarios.
The rise, fall and resurrection of ISIS (also known as Daesh) helps us understand the story of the decline of US power in the Middle East, and thus, on the global stage. It was in Iraq that the group grew to prominence, first by steering the insurgency into a sectarian conflict in the aftermath of the US invasion, and second, by exploiting the new Iraqi state’s sectarian policies in Sunni-dominated cities like Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul.
By 2007, US strategists were trying to figure out how to get out of Iraq. After some trial and error in Tal Afar, President Bush announced a “surge” to push into neighborhoods, secure them, and leave US soldiers in place until Iraqi forces could take over. This surge had two components; the deployment of 30,000 extra troops to strategic areas of the country, and the “Sahwa” councils, which facilitated the transfer of an estimated 30 million dollars a year into the hands of 100,000 fighters and former-insurgents who were beginning to turn on ISIS (then al-Qaeda in Iraq).
The surge did what it had set out to do: It facilitated a period of relative calm in which multinationals might begin exploiting various sectors of the economy — specifically the oil — and the United States could go home. Though it had a brutal start (as Sarah Lazare and I described in 2010 in The Nation), the period that followed the surge saw a dramatic decline in casualties across the country.
By 2009, when US troops began leaving cities and major towns in the leadup to the general withdrawal in 2011, ISIS had been militarily defeated and economically isolated. But a sectarian rift opened by the invasion, then by the exploitation of the invasion by various groups, then by the Iraqi state’s vengeful and corrupt policies, had left the social fabric of the country in ruins. Food scarcity and energy shortages were fuel for the fire.
Only two years after the “end of the war,” after entering the Syrian uprising to exploit its rebel factions and seize territory amidst the chaos, ISIS followed the Euphrates River from Raqqa to Fallujah and conquered it in less than a week.
It was clear by then that the United States had neither a plan for the Middle East nor the political ability to implement one. And when Russia stepped in to defend the Assad regime from both a popular revolt and sectarian exploitation, it also intended to, and did, challenge US power in the region.
What Does This Mean Now?
The first question one must ask when reading such a report is, is it all true? Does the decline of US military power in this current period mean that US hegemony as a whole is on the decline? If it is, what does that mean for the world?
Truthout spoke with several scholars and activists for their insight on this question, including author Vijay Prashad, who described numerous vectors from which to gauge US power.
“I am of the view that US strength has declined,” he said, “but not its hegemony. The US continues to have the largest military force on the planet. If you accept the view that power cannot just be ideological and financial, but military, there is no counter-military force to the US.”
Furthermore, he added, the US still wields nearly uncontested power in shaping policies and discourse in global financial and political institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In this, its ideological power is still running the show. “Even if the Chinese [have] increased votes in the IMF, the Chinese representatives at the IMF still accept the premises of neoliberal policy,” Prashad explained.
Still, he said he finds himself in a type of agreement with the notion that, whether or not US hegemony is in decline, we are certainly in an era of significant international political and economic changes that will present vast challenges for the world’s people, and has already begun reshaping both global power politics and the ways in which grassroots pushback develops.
Both USAWC reports focus on this when describing the role of popular unrest, the unraveling of political allegiance in countries the world over, and “non-state actors” in creating conditions that have challenged US power. With a wave of revolt spreading from the Middle East, 2011 seemed to introduce the new era. But as we have seen from the rising attraction of groups like ISIS, the Golden Dawn, and the rebranded neo-Nazi movement in the US, this political unraveling is not all good news.
“Today, all states are experiencing a precipitous decline in their authority, influence, reach, and common attraction,” last year’s “Outplayed” report warns. “The increasing chasm between governments and their governed over the basic right to rule is likely to extend beyond the most vulnerable usual suspects.”
It is beyond doubt that the Arab uprisings shook military and political strategists in the United States. It was US allies in the Maghreb that took the first falls, and it was US geopolitical power that was challenged by default when such uprisings threatened the regional order.
It’s also clear that the global eruptions that followed the 2011 uprisings were recognized within the United States military not just as isolated incidents of domestic unrest, but as a general wave of political anger and disenfranchisement.
In the assessment of “At Our Own Peril,” “hyperconnectivity,” the “dissolution of political cohesion and identity” and “leaderless instability” are some of the core post-primacy characteristics affecting this instability in the global system. These characteristics are, the report says, “fundamentally changing the strategic context” within which the United States, and many other powers, operate.
But there are very few signs that a collapse or weakening of US hegemony will, by itself, lead to a more peaceful or just period for the world. The question is, ultimately, what powers will fill these voids, and how will they relate to the needs and desires of people? Also, how will regular people and their movements contend in this new environment?
Writing six years ago, sociologists Beverly Silver and Giovanni Arrighi discussed a waning US hegemony through the lens of material expansion, drawing a comparison to the period of “systemic chaos” that followed the collapse of the British Empire and the subsequent dawn of US dominance; what they’ve termed “The long twentieth century.”
“In the past, declining powers lost their ability to maintain the necessary global institutional conditions [to continue material expansion] before rising powers had the capacity to take over the role of leader,” they explain in “The End of the Long Twentieth Century.” “Thus, periods of transition from one long century to the next historically have been periods of widespread warfare and economic crises.”
As it stands now, rising far-right and nationalist tides in Western and Eastern Europe, Turkey, Russia and the United States suggest a dangerous road ahead. In Asia, a rising Chinese economic behemoth that has already displaced the United States in key regions and has challenged US and allied dominance in the South China Sea looms large in the eyes of US strategists. So, too, does the gray zone challenges presented by a North Korean nuclear program and that country’s open challenging of US power. In the Middle East, a whole new set of political circumstances has rocked the region.
From his position, Prashad sees a bleak immediate future, and emphasizes the need for activists and thinkers to take these moments seriously. He explains a recent shift in his outlook, and gives context to how the last decade has shifted around us.
“When the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] alliance emerged in the 2000s, I looked at the emergence favorably, not because I thought these powers would save the world, but, my hope was that the emergence of the BRICS project would rebalance world power and create a multi-polar world that would allow more regional powers to develop and thus more tightly control their economic and political choices,” he told Truthout.
Prashad said he initially hoped this development would create conditions in which social movements might build popular power and take the reins of states (as they had in Latin America), or achieve objectives outside the state. He had hoped these conditions would also further build an alternative bloc that would oppose neoliberal policies, whether pursued by the US, China, or anyone else.
But with Modi taking power in India and the right-wing taking power in Brazil (as well as significant unrest in Zuma’s South Africa), he said the BRICS alliance is no longer interested in creating a real alternative.
“We are entering into an era of competitive capitalism on a global scale, and this is going to intensify much more,” Prashad told Truthout. “Many countries will be rocked by this … the question isn’t whether or not there will be suffering, but, are peoples’ movements in these countries prepared? And I think that peoples’ movements are not prepared for what I think will be much more extreme turbulence between Russia, China and the US, as well as other entities.