On the final leg of his four-day tour of the Middle East last week, American President Joe Biden told leaders at the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the regional union bringing together Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, that “the US is not going anywhere”, implying that America continues to be a central player in the international system and still wields the will and the power to influence which way the geopolitical winds blow in the region.
This claim gives the lie to one unfortunate fact of life that seems to have passed largely unnoticed by the Biden administration but not by countless expert analysts, area studies academics and policy wonks informed of world affairs: An increasing number of countries around the globe, including those in the Middle East, are asserting their right to have an independent role in the determination of what constitutes their own national interests, be they political, economic or security ones.
Since the end of the Second World War, when the United States emerged as a superpower and so-called “leader of the free world”, Americans were socialised to think of their country as world leader in everything good — and what was good for America was good for the rest of the world, a self-image bolstered by the smug belief that the country was an “exceptional” nation.
This was a belief that cultural historians have traced back to the American Revolution, whose founders at the time argued (to be sure, not altogether convincingly) that their nation’s social values, political system and cultural ethos were unique in human history, and thus America was both destined and entitled to play a leading role on the world stage.
And since the end of the Cold War, when in Dec. 26, 1991, the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence (and coincidentally Cold Warriors found themselves out of a job), that self-image was bolstered even further after the US found itself enjoying a preponderance of power, facing no credible competitor state, which effectively rendered it the only geopolitical kid on the block with enough swagger to turn heads.
Those were heady days that drove America to, as it were, go where no man had gone before and make the transition from a mere, humble “exceptional” nation to an overconfident “indispensable” nation, a term then Secretary of State Madlein Albright repeatedly invoked while in office (1997-2001) to define the new, putative role the US intended to play in the 21st century.
To be exact, Albright’s idea about the “indispensability” of the US to the orderly conduct of world affairs was an amplification of the bold, albeit outrageous notion propounded by political scientist Francis Fukayama in his paper “The End of History” (which at the time was widely read and earned the 36-year-old hitherto unknown academic and deputy director of policy planning at the State Department celebrity status), where he argued that from then on and seemingly forever more, given the collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by the emergence of a unilateral world and a New World Order, there will be nothing lurking around the corner to make life miserable for the liberalist order in the West.
Mankind’s ideological evolution
He wrote: “Humanity has reached not just the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such — that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Sure, sure, he added, stuff will happen in the countries found on the periphery of the Western core, but “it matters little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania and Burkina Fasso?”
History, however, is more complex an enterprise than the one perceived by a young academic whose intellectual bravado is exceeded only his Eurocentric, indeed racist fantasies. History, in short, is known to always have a few tricks up its sleeve — and in this case it has been playing them in recent years against the United States.
Even before, long before President Donald Trump’s incoherent and at times belligerent America First policy upended America’s relationship with the rest of the world, America had progressively been losing its role as global leader. To say that, however, is not to echo the claim by declinist historians like Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of Empires, 1987) that America will soon whither away as a big power. Lest we forget, the nation remains still a military, economic and political colossus. To say that, rather, is to say that the power of other countries has grown to a point where they are now able to determine their own affairs independently of US wishes, let alone dictates.
An American-led world is now history. And Pax America is no more.
And, you know what? I say it’s about time the world has outgrown American power.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.