After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States believed, correctly, that they were the world’s only remaining great power. China was poor. Europe had long been exhausted by its two great 20th century wars, and political collapse in Russia had reduced her to the rank of a middle power—an echo of this view is found in the observation, oft-repeated these days, that the Russian economy is the size of Italy’s. The question then became whether the United States should use its power to police the world, or whether it should allow the lesser powers to mistreat each other or their people.
The first Gulf War seemed to say that, at least when it came to the revision of borders, the United States would police the prevailing territorial status quo. Iraq had annexed Kuwait, and the United States rode in to reverse that outcome. American-led military action also put a stop to Serbian expansionism a few years later, seemingly reinforcing this signal.
The American commitment to protecting individual persons around the world, as opposed to sovereign nations, seemed somewhat weaker, but was by no means non-existent. There was much hand-wringing in Washington about failure to intervene to quell genocide in Rwanda, for example.
The picture of America as sole great power was reinforced over the ensuing decade. The September 11 attacks, carried out by a ragtag group without the backing of any government, suggested that the United States were without any substantial adversary. And the response—the invasion of Afghanistan and the adventure in Iraq—suggested that the United States could strike any nation at will without fear of anything more than a brief tut-tutting from global public opinion.
Then came Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which challenged America’s claim to sole great power status that had by then prevailed for the past quarter century. The first Gulf War, in 1991, had been a warning to the world: the United States, as sole great power, would not tolerate the revision of borders. Now Russia had chosen to revise a border. Would the United States seek to do to Russia—a country it had treated like a middle power for a quarter century—what it had done to Iraq in 1991?
The response was: crickets. The United States did nothing. And just like that, two new great powers (re)appeared on the world stage: Russia and China.
Things had changed over the past decade or so. First, Russia’s weakness, which had fundamentally been a political weakness caused by the collapse of the Soviet state, was gone; the country had regained political stability and was now once again capable of acting decisively on the world stage. And it still had its nuclear weapons, and plenty of delivery channels, which its Italian-sized economy was more than enough to maintain. Second, breakneck economic growth had vaulted China’s economy into competition with the United States, and her wealth was buying her the military capabilities she would need to be a great power as well.
Great power status is not just about wealth and military power, however. It is a mindset. Britain, France, and Germany could all ramp up military expenditures and challenge the United States. But they do not because they were exhausted mentally by their attempts to maintain their great power status in the 20th century. They are content to play second fiddle to the United States. Russia, however, emerged triumphant from the same wars that exhausted Britain, France, and Germany. And China has waited two centuries to regain what it sees as its rightful place as center of the world. Both countries have the great power mindset.
America’s failure to respond to Crimea suggested that perhaps America had lost it—not the mindset needed to be a great power, but the mindset needed to be the sole great power. For any country that fears war more than it fears loss of status loses its status immediately, and what was at stake was America’s claim to be the guarantor of world order. But America’s stated justification for failing to respond to Crimea was precisely that it feared war.
Russia got the hint immediately, and within the year intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war, propping up a regime that the United States opposed, not least on human rights grounds. With that, Russia had challenged not only America’s commitment to protecting states against states (Ukraine against Russia) but also America’s admittedly much more equivocal commitment to protecting people against human rights violations.
Again, the response was: crickets. The United States was willing to tolerate Russian policing of the very region over which the United States had most asserted its own control over the past 25 years. Americans themselves didn’t seem to notice, but anyone who was paying attention (i.e., the rest of the world) understood this to be a signal humiliation.
Meanwhile, even before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Chinese had embarked on a campaign of island building in international waters that China claimed as its own. This was another territorial revision and so another direct challenge to America’s claim to guarantee the territorial status quo.
Here, too, the response was: crickets. And the islands have become a sprawling archipelago.
What we have witnessed over the past ten years is the collapse of the unipolar world order over which the United States presided after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It should be no surprise that Russia would continue to expand territorially in the wake of such a collapse. It will be no surprise when China does as well, not least by retaking Taiwan.
At present, the United States remain the strongest power both economically and militarily. But, particularly in respect of China, that may not continue.
The first question America must answer for herself is: does she want to reestablish her former role as the world’s sole great power? If the answer is yes, then she must fear continued loss of that status more than she fears war. Russia, certainly, values her return to great power status more than she fears war. And that is precisely why she has returned to that status.
So, where do the United States stand on this?
The answer would seem to be: no, America does not want to defend her sole great power status.
And despite enjoying it mightily while it lasted, she perhaps never was willing to suffer anything to protect it. There was, after all, no real risk involved in the first Gulf War; it afforded America the equivalent of “cheap talk” in game theory—an opportunity for empty posturing.
Moreover, if America had wanted the role of sole great power to begin with, she would have exploited the vast nuclear advantage she enjoyed immediately after World War Two to deny Russia the superpower status she later enjoyed.
Having failed to do that, America would, in any event, later have exploited the collapse of the Soviet Union to ensure that Russia never again could pretend to empire.
And America would never have promoted Chinese economic growth in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, for America would have heeded the warning attributed to Napoleon, to wit: “let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.”