John Bolton’s appointment has come when the US is trying to come to terms with the un-sustainability of its three-quarter century hegemony over the modern world
In his 14 months at the White House, Donald Trump has administered several shocks to the American public. But none has been as severe as his appointment of most radically hawkish voiced John R Bolton as the national security advisor. Bolton was a member of the American Enterprise Institute group that coached George W. Bush on foreign policy before he was elected, and then pushed him into invading and destroying Iraq.
In recent years, he has urged that the US declare war on both North Korea and Iran. It is no surprise then that Wendy Sherman has described him as a man who “has never met a war he didn’t want”. President Trump has hired and fired 60 people from top jobs in his administration in the past 14 months, so placing bets on Bolton’s longevity could be risky. But the appointment of such a man to a post that, more than any other in the US government, determines whether the country gets embroiled in another war or not.
Hegemony must not be confused with dominance. The latter can be achieved through the exercise of military power alone. Hegemony, by contrast, is control, exercised without, or at best with a minimal, use of force. The US enjoyed this hegemony when it was being openly confronted by the Soviet Union but, paradoxically, began to lose it within months of the USSR’s collapse at a time when, in President Clinton’s words, Americans did not have “a single over-riding threat to their sovereignty”. The decline began, almost unnoticed, in 1994 when Clinton declared that the US no longer felt itself bound by the UN Security Council’s resolutions on Iraq and would not permit the lifting of UN sanctions on Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. Since then, the covert or overt use of force to secure regime change has become the central tenet of American foreign policy. This was demonstrated by its unprovoked carpet-bombing of Iraq in 1998, its aerial invasion of Serbia to ‘liberate’ Kosovo 1999 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
For none of these actions did the US seek, let alone obtain, even a token nod from the UN Security Council. Its hegemony could have survived if anything good had resulted from them. But none of this dented the huge sense of entitlement the US had inherited from its victory in the Cold War. Liberal interventionism therefore revived with a bang with the advent of the so-called Arab Spring. In 2011, Obama joined France and Britain in a disastrous destruction of Libya. In the same year he allowed Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to drag the US into an equally misguided attack on Syria.
As in the first round of military intervention, the UN Security Council was first misled and then excluded again from decision-making on war and peace. But the resemblance between these and the first round of American interventions ends there.
First, the US is no longer willing, or indeed able, to shoulder the burden of intervention alone. Instead, it created a more broad-based ‘transatlantic’ coalition to undertake its ‘humanitarian’ interventions. Second, responding to the profound aversion of the American public to the loss of American lives in places they cannot identify on a map, the Obama administration became determined not to send American troops into combat again. To avoid any further unnecessary entanglements, Obama placed an ever increasing reliance upon diplomacy to contain potential threats. Iran, Cuba and the containment of China were his major successes.
The US is now too broke to finance its interventions by itself, so it has begun to pass the hat around. Supposedly it does so only among its allies. But the main financiers with whom the CIA teamed up to arm the insurgents in Libya and Syria have been precisely the countries that had the most to gain from toppling the existing regimes in them — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates of the Persian Gulf. This has turned the US into a new kind of mercenary — a state that is available for hire.
The US’s loss of hegemony is only one part of the story. The other part is the West’s loss of moral hegemony in the post-Cold War years. The US and its allies have justified the assaults on Iraq, Libya and Syria by depicting their rulers as tyrants.
The sudden spate of terrorism and the rebirth of crude nationalism in the heart of Europe is a direct consequence. Brexit is its most flagrant example. But similar racist-nationalist impulses have sprung up in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Austria. A new wave of home-grown terrorism is sweeping across Europe. An unwanted flood of immigrants, in large part caused by the wars unleashed by the West, has triggered a resurgence of racist nationalism in Europe.
As country after country has been convulsed by these challenges, people have begun to turn to strong leaders like Putin, Erdogan, Xi Jinping, Duterte and Narendra Modi, to preserve the essential security without which their world will turn into a living hell. It is in such conditions that declining, but still dominant, regimes have sought a solution to their domestic problems, in small, manageable, wars.
The Habsburg Empire found itself in such a situation at the close of the nineteenth century, and the first decade of the 20th century. In 1914, it tried to tame its fractious minorities by invading Serbia, where an extreme nationalist group had succeeded in assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Hapsburg throne. It ended by triggering its own complete destruction and the First World War.
Sixty-five years later, the Soviet Union, which was similarly caught in a cycle of irresistible economic decline, sought to reinforce its hegemony over the Warsaw Pact countries through limited military intervention in Afghanistan. It ended by getting enmeshed in a decade-long war it could not win, and brought about its own demise.
The US and Europe are facing a similar crisis today. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran have been elected as the villains. Russia has to be punished for illegally wresting Crimea from Ukraine, for propping up the Assad regime in Syria, for intervening in the US elections to ensure the victory of Trump, and most recently for assassinating a former Russian gent, Boris Skripal on British soil.
North Korea has to be punished for continually violating its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and daring to develop missiles that can carry nuclear warheads to the American mainland. China has to be punished for trying to extend its control over the South China Sea in violation of the 12-mile limit enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Iran has to be punished for just being Iran.
Economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia, and further strengthened on North Korea. Trump is threatening to resile from the nuclear treaty with Iran and not lift the UN sanctions that the US and EU are committed to removing. And he has imposed tariffs on imports, mainly aimed at China, that are on the brink of triggering a trade war.
A joint American, Japanese and, regrettably, Indian naval task force has steamed through the length and breadth of the South China Sea for months to enforce the freedom of military navigation outside the 12-mile limit.
Trump has threatened to obliterate North Korea and sent a submarine, followed by an American task force armed with thousands of Tomahawk missiles to underline his threat.