The post-1991 era of Western, democratic hegemony has come to an end. It was a long time coming, from every political party in the U.S. and every major Western Power in the world.
It’s finished. The “new world order” President Bush Sr. declared in 1991, with the Gulf War and collapse of the Soviet Union, is now over. It all started with Russian tanks and troops crossing into Ukraine from territories it has occupied—jointly with proxies—since 2014. They also crossed into from Belarus, a close Russia ally. At the same time, at the United Nations headquarters, one of those unforgettable historical moments played out, underscoring the collapse of post-Cold War norms. Ukraine’s Representative to the U.N., Sergiy Kyslytsya, questioned how Russia was able to be a member of the United Nations and any of its various councils. In a humiliating blow for the international body, he repeated many requirements for membership, and reiterated that none of these are followed by the regime of Vladimir Putin. Furthermore, during the session that called for more endless rounds of talks and diplomacy, news broke that Russia had invaded Ukraine. Kyslytsa pointedly remarked that it was “too late” to be discussing de-escalation.
Many have long known that the U.N. has been impotent—indeed, it is often referred to as “Useless Nations” or other such nicknames. The organization has stood by and allowed genocide to occur in Darfur, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and the Near East (against Kurds and Yezidis). It has done nothing to stop the wars, terrorism, and human rights violations it claims to stand against. Indeed, many of the perpetrators of such atrocities lead or take active part in its councils for “standing up for human rights.”
What is remarkable about Kyslytsa’s remarks is that it mirrors the downfall of the Wilsonian World Order nearly 90 years ago. Imperial Japan, unhappy with being condemned by China at the League of Nations, simply walked away and withdrew in March 1933. The Japanese knew that the League of Nations did little more than talk and that Tokyo would suffer no consequences for its actions. This opinion was confirmed when the Italian Empire invaded and occupied Ethiopia just a short while later. A devastating World War took place shortly after, and the League of Nations never recovered. The United Nations took its place after the war and seemed to work for a few short years. Now we are witnessing the aftershock, several decades later.
To be fair, it isn’t just the U.N. that is incapable of maintaining the “liberal international order,” as analysts like Thomas Friedman call it. It is the entire democratic Western camp of countries. The European Union has been too divided amongst itself and weak for many years to do anything of consequence. Brussels has simultaneously angered China, Russia, and the United States, along with smaller powers like Israel, Iran, Turkey, and the Arab World, while also bizarrely trying to appease everyone. It never truly respected the voices of poorer countries in the southeast of the continent, and abandoned them for years to financial ruin and migration crises. The E.U.’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was very poor, to say the least, as was its response to the global economic crisis before that. Its predominant military (and for a while, economic) power, Great Britain, read the tea leaves and left the body. The E.U. put all of its cards in the hands of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who empowered extremist far-right elements all across the continent by bringing in millions of foreigners (including many jihadists) without the consent of her own people, or Europeans in general. Merkel also divided the West—she pleaded for sanctions and a tough line against Russia in light of 2014 events in Ukraine, but still committed to buying Russian gas and expanding trade with Moscow.
This left the U.S. and many European countries looking foolish and isolated—as, of course, did Berlin. At the same time, the E.U. condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq, by and large. However, in 2011 it goaded former U.S. President Barack Obama into toppling the Libyan dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi. The result was a failed state, with hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean into the E.U.’s poorest countries. Furthermore, Russia has gained influence over the civil war in Libya, where terrorism and a slave trade have taken root. The E.U.’s attempt to end conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and the Palestinian Territories have resulted in failure or being sidelined even more. Even more embarrassingly, the E.U. has tried to become “independent” of the U.S., only for it to be displayed for the whole world that this just isn’t possible. The Europeans are far too dependent on the American dollar and American military protection, at least for the foreseeable future.
The United States isn’t exempt from blame either. In fact, the U.S. may be the epicenter of the decline of the very liberal international order that it founded. The two major political parties in the country—Democratic and Republican—have become hollow shells of themselves. They both campaign on being as different as possible from the other, without saying much about what their respective values are. Otherwise, they reminisce about bygone eras, such as those of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Their proposed solutions to many problems are often as vague and silly as school prayer or taxing billionaires. Congress doesn’t function—indeed, how many times has the government shut down over the past twelve years? The nation’s economy never fully recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, and the coronavirus pandemic and inflation have recently hit it harder.
Political leaders domestically have engaged in endless conspiracy theories and racial tropes, as well as endless self-deprecation. They worry more about non-binary bathrooms and renaming schools than they do about U.S. credibility abroad and repairing the water system in Flint, Michigan. QAnon conspiracy theories and “woke” political correctness campaigns have completely destroyed both the Democrats and the “Grand Old Party.” Enormous amounts of American voters now identify as Independents, and even more are not participating in our political process. And why should they, when they see so little progress and so much endless vitriol and hypocrisy?
The GOP went after Bill Clinton for his sexual affairs, and badly mishandled Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War, leading us into a devastating economic crisis. Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s “leadership from behind” destroyed Libya and did nothing in Syria. He empowered autocrats diplomatically (Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority) and financially (the Iranian regime), while abandoning US allies to their fate (Egypt), condemning them (Israel), and letting them be slaughtered (Iran’s Green Protest). His successor, Donald Trump befriended Putin and the North Korean regime, while caving to dictatorships like Turkey when they slaughtered the Kurds of Syria. While Trump did stand up for Israel and its Arab partners in the region—and often rightfully castigated the weak fecklessness of the European Union—his handling of Iranian and Chinese aggression was clumsy. The current president, Joe Biden, has done little more to rectify this situation. He clumsily abandoned Afghanistan to Taliban rule and has no answer to rising inflation in America. His handling of the pandemic inspired little confidence, to say the least. Deploying his vice president, Kamala Harris, to the border has only highlighted the rifts and inexperience in his administration. While Biden has tried to focus on domestic issues that concern voters, he faces a divided Democratic Party: traditional moderates and woke socialists with a penchant for double-standards and befriending dictators.
The world has witnessed this incoherence from the U.S. and Europe and only acted accordingly. Iran has continued to violate sanctions, fire rockets at the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and launch terror attacks against Gulf states with relative impunity. President Biden and the Europeans quickly ditched their desire for a “longer and stronger” Iran nuclear accord for a “shorter and weaker” one. Biden removed a terror designation on the Iran-backed Houthis of Yemen, who responded with more terrorism. North Korea has conducted endless ballistic missile tests as Iran advances its nuclear program. China continues to violate the territorial sovereignty of its neighbors, crack down on Hong Kong and the Uighurs, and lie about the coronavirus. And now, Russia has invaded Ukraine.
When people ask how we got here, they may want to consider the hard facts that this can’t just be blamed on Trump and Republicans; on Biden and Democrats; on only the E.U. and U.N., or only on the U.S. All of the Western institutions, supranational bodies, political parties and great powers share the blame. All of them have become morally bankrupt and hypocritical, weak and spineless, and unable to stand up for “values” that their capitals can’t even clearly define. The endless rounds of talks and negotiations, condemnations and calls for de-escalation will continue as usual. But, as has long been the case, that is as far as it’ll go.