End of Pax Americana
The United States, President Obama said at the U.N. General
Assembly last week, “worked with many nations in this assembly to prevent a
third world war—by forging alliances with old adversaries.” Presumably, the
president was not referring to his deeply flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of
Action, the recent agreement that the White House has marketed as the only
alternative to war with a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. Rather, it seems he was
referring to the post-World War II period, when the United States created and
presided over an international order that prevented an even larger, potentially
nuclear, conflict with the Soviet Union. Now, that Pax Americana may be ending.
Indeed, Russia’s airstrikes against CIA-vetted Syrian rebels
last week looked like a punctuation mark. When the secretary of state holds a
joint press conference with Moscow’s foreign minister after Russia has
decimated American proxies bearing American arms, we are not witnessing anything
like a return to the Cold War. Rather, we’re witnessing a new order being
born. It is an order that is being designed by others, without any concern for
Its cradle is not the conference rooms of the U.N., but the
killing fields of Syria. After four and a half years, the Syrian civil war and
the refugee crisis it has spawned threaten to disrupt two zones of American
vital interest, the Persian Gulf and Europe.
America’s Cold War prosperity depended on our ability to
trade with the rest of the world across both oceans. The United States built a
powerful blue-water navy and far-flung bases as tokens of our willingness to
protect our allies and stand up to their, and our, adversaries. What facilitates
both trade and the movement of a military as large as America’s is access to
affordable sources of energy, which is why the security of the Persian Gulf has
been a vital American interest for 70 years.
The nuclear agreement with Iran signals that Obama doesn’t
see things this way. From his perspective, no core American interest would be
threatened by either the domination of the Gulf by revolutionary Iran or the
likelihood that other regional powers will go nuclear. The JCPOA told American
partners in the Middle East that the old alliance system was finished. Israel
and Saudi Arabia would get stiff-armed, and Iran would get to call plays in the
huddle. What Obama sought, as he said in a New Yorker interview, was a
“new geopolitical equilibrium.”
Vladimir Putin understood Obama’s rhetoric and actions as
confirmation of what he’d already surmised. Putin showed NATO to be a paper
tiger when he moved against Georgia, then ordered a Russian crew based in Syria
to shoot down a jet flown by NATO member Turkey, then annexed Crimea, to little
response. In July, the JCPOA opened the way for Russian and Iranian cooperation
in Syria. The Americans, Putin understood, had no stomach for a fight. But the
White House may have helped create the conditions for a conflict much larger
than the war already underway in Syria, a conflict that could someday force the
United States to defend its vital interests.
“There already is a third world war underway,” says Angelo
Codevilla, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.
“It’s the war between Sunnis and Shiites. It’s a world war because it
engages people all around the world who happen to be Muslims.”
Codevilla thinks it unlikely that the war will expand past the
Middle East but notes that Pakistan, a nuclear Sunni power, could present
problems. In any event, the Obama administration has little ability to shape
outcomes. “Once you seize a position by force, as the Russians have,” says
Codevilla, “you are in the diplomatic driver’s seat. Putin is schooling the
U.S. foreign policy establishment in foreign affairs. He has put his armed
forces not at the service of Bashar al-Assad, but at the service of Russian
And Obama? The White House believes in a balance of power
without winners and losers, an abstract international system with room for every
nation to pursue its rational interests. But this is fantasy: Whatever order
exists belongs to the power that imposes it. The Syrian war threatens two of the
pillars of the order we formerly led.
“At what point does the Syrian conflict create political
instability in places like Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing states in the
Persian Gulf?” asks Walter Russell Mead, professor of foreign policy and
humanities at Bard College. “As long as nothing is happening to block the oil
flow, it’s the refugee flow that makes Syria an international issue.”
But even before the refugees, European security services were
overwhelmed trying to keep tabs on potential jihadist recruits traveling from
Europe to the Middle East and back. The influx of hundreds of thousands more
migrants from the region is likely to generate political instability and could
carry the war between Sunnis and Shiites into Europe.
To stem the refugee crisis, the White House is broadly hinting
it is willing to go along with Tehran and Moscow and let Assad stay in power, at
least for now. But it is Assad and his allies—not, as the administration seems
to suggest, the Islamic State—who are responsible for the vast majority of the
refugees. If the Obama administration accommodates Russia and Iran on Assad, it
will be acquiescing in a plot to extort and destabilize Europe.
In the Gulf, Mead says, “if the Sunnis continue to feel that
they’re losing an existential conflict with Iran, they may move toward a
closer relationship between governments and radical groups. Keeping oil money
out of the hands of truly radical jihadists has been a core U.S. interest since
September 11, but if the Gulf states don’t feel we are keeping our part of the
bargain by providing security, they could take matters into their own hands.”
Of course, another option for the Gulf states would be to
enlist Russia, which, unlike the Obama administration, has shown its willingness
to act on behalf of its own interests. Now that Obama has forsaken America’s
post-World War II patrimony, life is more dangerous for America and its allies.
This won’t be easy to reverse, no matter who succeeds Barack Obama.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.