A world without American primacy could prove a dangerous place.
In comparison with the powers of the past, American dominance in world affairs overall has been more benevolent. Yet, during its worst stage, especially the early 2000s, the US policies have stoked resistance among many Eurasian states, seeing the hard drive for liberal hegemony causing a push-back from illiberalism, which eventually evolved into an authoritarian tide.
Looked at it from a century-long perspective, the rise of those states that now oppose the US was the result of a generally positive economic and political atmosphere in the world that enabled the exchange of ideas and economic profits, to nearly everyone’s benefit. China, for example, rose to prominence within a US-dominated world. Even Russia benefits in many ways from the rules-based world order. If the challenge to US primacy emanates from those two states, which for decades have been near-integral parts of the world economy, the results of the US’ withdrawal from its eminent position could resemble what happened when the America backtracked from its responsibilities following WWI.
Historical pride, a belief in destiny, and the pursuit of exclusive spheres of interest, as well as historical insecurities rooted in geography, are propelling China and Russia to seek a rapprochement to push back against the US-led world. Each seeks to establish either military or economic control (or, in certain circumstances, both) over large swaths of inner Eurasia. Beijing is trying to build a China-centric regional order by using its wealth to reshape the US-led world order; Russia wants its own sphere of economic and military influence in its immediate neighborhood.
Accompanying trends like the revived arms race and fractures in security architecture can lead to a power competition that could slowly turn into open rivalry, with a high chance of global military conflict either between the great powers themselves or through prolonged conflict with proxy actors.
It has been suggested that a “Concert of Europe”-like global order should reemerge in which the powers can work to attain a more inclusive and peaceful vision. Its purpose would be to establish a permanent multilateral structure to build understanding on basic norms of peaceful cooperation, negotiate new rules of state conduct, and deal with geopolitical crises.
While some trends do indicate that spheres of influence are reemerging, a 19th century model for the modern world might not be entirely suitable. In the Concert of Europe model, the presupposed cooperation was between the then major European powers, which were united by a set of common ideals.
Even France, which went through a revolution and forged new social norms, adhered to the Vienna Order of 1815.
None of these sentiments exist in the modern world. Russia and China are united by a common adherence to pushing back against liberalism, but beyond this, they have shared norms. Other powers are even more dissimilar. It is hard to picture America, Russia, China, India, Japan, and the European democracies sitting around a table to discuss global issues and forge long-term solutions. They might work together on climate change concerns, but they have little interest in working together on other matters.
In the Concert of Europe, democracies worked with autocratic states; the states were united by their aristocracies and shared norms. But even then, disagreements abounded by the end of the 19th century, and by the 20th century, the countries had become unpalatable to one another as the different economic trajectories of the European states undermined their fragile unity.
Why, then, should a similar system work in the 21st century?
A key factor challenging the notion of several major powers policing the world is the nature of today’s world. It contains nearly 200 states, so even with the resurgence of spheres of influence, it would be difficult if not impossible for a few powers to control so many players. There is also the question of how those powers would manage the grievances of smaller but nevertheless powerful states like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, South Africa, and Brazil.
International orders take shape as a natural development; i.e., as the next stage in international relations. What might be the world’s next stage? This is a hard question to answer, but there are trends worth considering.
First we need to state some simple truths. We must cast off the idea of a world without American influence. Powerful states do not lose their geopolitical weight overnight (consider the Roman Empire in late antiquity, the Mongols in the Middle Ages, and the British Empire in the relatively recent past). The 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic undermined the West’s position, but it has not lost its edge, and the US remains the most geopolitically favored power.
It must also be acknowledged that spreading one ideological model all over the world cannot work. No state in history has ever managed to do this. There were always several power centers, even in the time of the all-powerful Roman Empire and the period of British dominance of the seas. There are simply not enough resources for one state to dominate the world and all its lands.
Even after the fall of communism and the collapse of its great power rival, the US did not manage to spread liberal democracy deep into the heart of Eurasia, Africa, and elsewhere. Efforts were made, but with minimal success.
China is in many ways exceptional, as it possesses both vast human resources and constantly improving technological capabilities. It also sits at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and looks into the heart of Eurasia. It has the potential to transform the entire continent (the Belt and Road Initiative comes to mind). But it lacks what the US has: soft power, which includes a wide variety of highly attractive tools, from governance to education to economic liberalism.
China will gain momentum by enlisting many more partners and could even pursue a policy of purposeful support for and spread of illiberalism and defense of autocracies. But it is safe to say that there will be a limit to Chinese success. The border will likely be drawn somewhere from the Baltic Sea to the Caucasus and the Mediterranean, the area where Western influence is strong.
China will also face the question of legitimacy. Why should it be welcome to form the rules for those parts of the world that resisted an equivalent effort from the US? Even some illiberal states will stand up to Beijing.
A world without active American engagement in Eurasia will accelerate a new age of spheres of influence. This might resuscitate the role of diplomacy and diminish the need to use the military tool, but diplomatic engagement will be based on the prestige of two or three states, especially their leaders. Less attention will be paid to international mechanisms, global institutions with erstwhile pretensions to introduce norms on the behavior of and between states. The power and influence of those institutions will decay, and in the extreme scenario, they could share the fate of the League of Nations following WWI.
The new age of spheres of influence will allow the US to engage in offshore balancing, something like what the British Empire did in the 19th to early 20th centuries. Balancing among Eurasian states will be possible only through the constant application of diplomatic and at times military capabilities. With a few exceptions, the US will base its foreign policy on realpolitik, even helping autocratic states when necessary to shore up weak states against stronger ones.
Offshore balancing is not only less reliable but also fraught with the potential for military clashes. The pre-WWI period is a good testimony to this. A milieu-based approach in which multilateral global institutions are built and promoted is a far more powerful tool with which to moderate the behavior of rogue and illiberal states.
By Emil Avdaliani
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at Georgian think-tank, Geocase.