Thursday, March 3, 2011

America's end, or its democratic moment?

That the American empire is declining is an argument that won’t soon disappear. In recent years it has gained further traction, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis that began in 2007. Empires run on money, skeptics will insist, and the United States simply doesn’t have as much as it once did to spread around.

But there is more to empire than money. As James Morris demonstrated in a three-volume masterpiece on the British Empire, there is also an aesthetic to imperial rule, as well as a swagger and sense of purpose that buttress domination. America may or may not be on the wane, but using Morris’ yardstick, its sponsorship of a decades-old political order in the Middle East – what some have referred to as a Pax Americana – is nearing an end.

Paradoxically, this realization may revive American fortunes. The popular upsurges taking place throughout the Arab world, and which have wreaked havoc on Washington’s allies, compel the U.S. to reinvent its regional role. As the historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote in Newsweek, Americans, in their fondness for revolution, tend to overlook how revolutions by and large produce terrible bloodshed. But if the U.S. can assist in obtaining liberal outcomes from the current Arab revolts, than this could benefit everyone, above all itself.

One thing is certain, America’s old ways in the Middle East are floundering. What are the foundations of Pax Americana? They have changed depending on the timeframe, but from the mid-1940s on a principal pillar was access to cheap oil and the stability of the oil markets. Today, American reliance on Gulf oil has been reduced, but Saudi Arabia, with its spare capacity, is still regarded as a significant stabilizing force (even if leaked American diplomatic cables cast doubt on the volume of spare capacity the kingdom really enjoys).

From the late 1960s onward, a second pillar of America’s Middle Eastern order was the defense of Israel and a guarantee of Israeli military superiority. During the Cold War, Israel was partly viewed through the prism of a containment strategy against communism, as a valuable ally against Arab states supported by the Soviet Union. But there was also a deeper commitment to the idea that the Jewish people must never again face an existential threat. That is why after the Soviet breakup the U.S. continued, and continues, to confer on Israel a status that sometimes appears to transcend its strategic value.

And a third pillar of Pax Americana, especially after the Cold War, was American reliance on partnerships with friendly Arab states at peace with Israel, whether formally or implicitly. This, in turn, afforded the U.S. paramount authority in the Middle East, so that it became the axial state in regional affairs, through which most major policies had to pass. America was uncircumventable and its edicts could only be rejected at great risk. There was one downside, but it never seemed important enough amid the regional status quo: the U.S. system rested exclusively on authoritarian regimes.

Each of these pillars has eroded in the last decade. Saudi intervention in the oil markets remains a matter of great import in Washington, but the U.S.-Saudi relationship, particularly after the 9/11 attacks and the American invasion of Iraq, has deteriorated. Israel still enjoys American backing and remains the largest recipient of American foreign aid, but the relationship has been increasingly costly, because of a widespread Arab conviction that the U.S. will never push Israel to make concessions on behalf of a settlement with the Palestinians.

As for American supremacy in the Middle East, it has sprung a leak from both ends. American mismanagement of postwar Iraq and stumbling in Afghanistan have played to Iran’s advantage. The region has also witnessed the rise of another non-Arab actor, Turkey, which has taken a firm distance from Washington. These dynamics, in turn, fed off and accelerated the relative decay of America’s prominent Arab allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, whose brand of leadership seemed to stifle any regeneration of their states and societies, and who were seen as neutered on the Palestinian issue.

It’s not obvious where the Arab uprisings will lead. Perhaps understandably, given the speed of events, President Barack Obama and his administration are still functioning according to the old paradigm of American influence over the region. Their catchword continues to be stability, even as instability proliferates. However, now seems a necessary time for the U.S. to prepare a new approach to the region, one in which Washington accepts that the days of Pax Americana are over, but also devises a new framework to facilitate the emergence of democratic, pluralistic, secular Arab societies, even if American paramountcy suffers as a consequence.

The tradeoff may not be as straightforward as it seems. American military strength will remain unrivaled, and the antagonism with Iran in particular will persist. Power politics will not suddenly end in the Middle East. However, democracy and pluralism, as concepts, are valuable weapons. The U.S. now has an opportunity to deploy them, and doing so means ensuring that the Arab uprisings do not engender flawed, illiberal orders far worse than what we had before.

If not quite a pillar, there has been a fourth American preoccupation in the Arab world since the 1990s: the suppression of terrorism. Washington’s thinking on that front has been fixated on the use of military countermeasures. But only healthy societies can lastingly eliminate terrorism. And healthy societies are generally open societies that enforce the rule of law. It is America’s moment to recognize this.

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