Some caveats. First, this is not about the perceived decline of the United States because it is not a decline except in relative terms. It is about the reality of multi-polarity and local dominance and not absolute decline and fall – something a vast number of Europeans and Americans simply are too reluctant or obtuse to understand. The United States is still the leading military power on a planet-wide basis in general. Its navy with accompanying air power can go anywhere, anytime and push anyone out of the way. No one can project military power like the US and no one is going to be able to do so for a very long time. In the wrong hands, as we have seen, that has been a problem. But, there is simply no competition.
Nevertheless, on land and in foreign affairs, it is a different matter. The ill-conceived war in Iraq and the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan have drained the power of the United States militarily, economically and politically. The policies of the neo-cons and the far right in the US have destroyed the “city on the hill” image that Ronald Reagan tried to push both domestically and internationally. The eight year Bush administration buried the credibility, economy and good will felt toward the US with its astonishingly arrogant, incompetent (but unsurprising) foreign policy otherwise known as the ‘go-it-alone’, ‘with us or against us’ and ‘international agreements be damned’ posturing.
Second, the European Union remains a creation with enormous potential; but the failure to push for more political integration is now fraying the edges of its economic foundation. If it is able to resolve the fiscal issues of its member states fairly, then the opportunity to conduct a unified foreign policy will have a chance. It is not, in my opinion, likely. Which is why the EU is not included in my list as an entity – just a few member states.
Third, a seismic event could reverse the trend toward the nation-centric foreign policy of pre-1939. I believe in the improbable and dismiss facile bell curves, models and forecasts based on hindsight. It’s what you have dismissed as improbable that will hurt you – usually badly. The fiscal crises which began in 2008 could have been such an event and should not have been unforeseen, but that moment has dissipated with the uneven recovery – some countries doing much better than others such as in the case of Germany which unfortunately, also proceeded to vocally relegate some member states –the southern tier and Greece in particular - to second citizen status with some distasteful, nationalistic remarks bordering on bigotry.
So, on a region by region basis I believe we are looking at an old, new world order. It may last a decade or fifty years. My bet is that it will last longer than anyone expects. Its structure is that of the realpolitik world of pre-1939 which largely came crashing to a bloody end in 1945 with the rise of the blocs. Some blocs are still around but in reality began a rapid disintegration with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Viewing the political map from this geo-political perspective, there are several clear, locally powerful players – China and India; Russia; Turkey; Germany and France; the Visegrad group; and, of course, the US. Oh – and BRIC is not a bloc – it is a label of convenience mostly for economists who, like Linus and his blanket, need to pigeon-hole un-related countries into nice chewable morsels.
I have not included Iran because, compared to the others and despite the hysterics of the galactically stupid right wing in the US, it simply doesn’t count. Its economy is in shambles and it is politically unstable and cannot risk going to war or cutting off the Strait of Hormuz because that would invite retaliation of the most unpleasant sort by almost everyone. It’s not near to building a single nuclear bomb and couldn’t afford to toss it in any direction even it did manage that amazingly difficult task because then it would be wiped out.
I did not include any African country because, well, if you can name one that is a regional power with enough influence both economically and militarily to do anything with significant impact except very locally, you win a cookie. South Africa is the sub-Sahara elephant in the room– but its absurd attempts to play on the world stage as it has in Libya make it more of an annoying busybody than effective player. The African Union in general is an old boys’ club intent on maintaining the status quo. Just look at the lack of effective condemnation of Mugabe’s reign by the AU.
I also do not include any South American country despite my strong temptation to present Brazil as a player. Maybe soon, but not now.
That’s my pre-amble. Next time, and as a first choice, let’s look at Turkey or, more to the point, how Turkey looks at everyone else and their reaction.