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IDEAS

When the US shrinks from the stage, things fall apart

From Ukraine to the Middle East and Taiwan, the world requires bipartisan American leadership that’s gone out of fashion.

A march in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 12.Chris McGrath/Getty

Instead of conceiving of Ukraine, Libya, or Syria as exotic, far-away conflict zones disconnected from Americans’ daily life, what if we looked at them as the result of America’s abrupt withdrawal from its empire and the ever-increasing virulence of domestic American partisanship? These interconnections are all part of what I term the era of global enduring disorder, in which America’s hegemonic global leadership has been replaced by collective action failure among the Western allies and a desire by key players like Russia and China to promote disorder rather than alternative forms of order.

American domestic dysfunction only emboldens our adversaries. It’s not hard to imagine that in 2024, things could get even worse. Imagine a virulently contested election, with various states’ secretaries of state disagreeing with the media’s reporting of the results or refusing to certify the victorious electors. Who knows what would happen then? Would various American allies take different sides? Independent of how a contentious 2024 scenario actually plays out, with Americans absorbed in internal strife, Russia’s Vladimir Putin could push the United States out of our traditional interests in Eastern Europe, while the Chinese might seize Taiwan.

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Seen in this light, the implosion of the Syrian, Libyan, and Yemeni states, the rise of sophisticated disinformation campaigns, the inability of the international community to enforce consensus solutions to climate change, the waxing global financial power of corrupt oligarchs, and Putin’s current menacing behavior toward Russia’s neighbors are not actually separate crises. They are mutually reinforcing symptoms of the same disease: the withdrawal of American global leadership. To a certain extent, it is also the root cause of our internal strife. Although Americans like to think ourselves exceptional, it has always been thus with declining empires: In the later years of the Third and Fourth Republics in France, and in Britain’s turbulent post-World War II decades, imperial withdrawals fueled virulent domestic partisanship.

Today, now that we are barely performing our role as global “order provider” and hegemon, it is more apparent than ever how truly irreplaceable that role is. Coalitions without a clear leader struggle to agree upon collective actions, as a multiplicity of voices at the table causes hesitation and tugs-of-war. The ongoing Ukraine episode has made this clear, revealing that the new German leadership is gun-shy, Brexit has decreased the salience of an already disunited European Union, and many major American political figures no longer feel a strong attachment to either NATO or America’s role as a provider of global order.

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For President Biden to most effectively deter Putin, he needs a coherent Western bloc and a united home front. In 2022, that alignment simply doesn’t exist, and Putin knows it. By late 2024, it is likely to be a whole lot worse.

Traditionally, from Truman to Reagan, foreign policy was far more likely than domestic issues to create cross-party alliances. No longer. From George W. Bush to the present, our infighting has subordinated foreign policy calculations to domestic optics. For example, we are currently on the verge of having contradictory Republican and Democratic foreign policies toward that previously most bipartisan of issues: Israel-Palestine.

It should be manifestly clear that we can’t have separate Republican and Democratic approaches toward Ukraine. Yet Donald Trump tried to create his own approach with his infamous phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky threatening to withhold military aid if he didn’t get dirt on Joe Biden.

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Ukraine’s territorial integrity is a cornerstone of the post-Cold War order as enshrined in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the US, the United Kingdom, and Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s independence. It is arguably one of our most fundamental bipartisan foreign policy principles — up there with the special relationship with Britain. If America fails to uphold our core treaty commitments to our key allies, then American empire has already been consigned to the dustbin of history — replaced by the global enduring disorder.

Trump’s haphazard withdrawal from our international obligations and from coordinating with our traditional allies was not a blip — it was part of a long continuum of chaotic decline. The traditional “America leads and our allies follow” approach to crisis leadership has been over for two decades now. American statesmanship has careened from the Bush-era “You are either with us or against us” to the Obama-era “We should further study the matter and don’t want to get out in front of our allies” to the Trumpian “Let’s outsource our Middle Eastern policy to the Emiratis and let the Russians do whatever they want” to the Bidenite “Let’s claim to be returning to normal while also bringing our troops home,” which is entirely unprecedented since World War II. The assertive approach of old — “The world needs a leader and the accidents of history have anointed us” — is now a thing of the remote past.

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For those who are squeamish about the idea of American empire, we need only ask Libyans, Syrians, Kurds, and Ukrainians if they would currently prefer less American support. Having lived for a couple of years in Syria and recently returned from cohosting the first American trade mission to Libya in nine years, I can confidently tell you the answer: Libyans of all political stripes, other than the old Gaddafi cronies, want the maximum American presence in their politics and economics, and the Syrians and Kurds begrudge us for abandoning them.

It’s not as if Putin is trying to impose a different coherent solution on the Ukrainian and Libyan crises. Russia is not strong enough for that. Putin is more than happy to leave these hot spots as emitters of disorder likely to exacerbate intra-Western tensions. Similarly, these days he is particularly keen on promoting American infighting, as it hastens our withdrawal from global hegemony. Even if he soon pulls his forces back from the Ukrainian border, he has already achieved his strategic objectives of exposing fissures within the West.

Looking ahead, no one knows how the current crisis over Ukraine will play out. But we can be assured of one thing: If we increasingly turn on each other over wokeness, QAnon, progressive policing policies, abortion, mask mandates, and voter rights, Ukraine won’t be the only piece on the global chessboard in danger of being captured. If 2024 goes wrong, American democracy may still recover. For our Taiwanese, Hong Kongese, Georgian, Kurdish, and Libyan allies, the danger is likely existential.

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Jason Pack is the author of “Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder” and senior analyst at the NATO Defense College Foundation.