In retrospect, the era of American hegemony — the moment of the “sole superpower,” when the United States was the “essential” country — was remarkably brief. It began in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, probably peaked just before 9/11, and for the past decade — under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — it has been drawing slowly and unevenly to an end. Even while it lasted, this hegemony was partly a game of smoke and mirrors. It depended on perceptions: belief in American wealth, fear of American military power, admiration for American values. It depended on the absence of opponents: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relative weakness of China.
Above all, it depended on an American willingness to invest: in diplomacy, in military power — but above all in alliances. By forging mutually advantageous agreements with Germans or South Koreans, the United States had far greater influence than it would have had otherwise. By creating and then expanding NATO, by maintaining troops in South Korea and Japan, the United States kept parts of Europe and Asia free to choose democracy, and open for commerce and trade. Everywhere else, agreements and partnerships as well as money and armies gave the United States an outsize voice in trade and commerce, as well as matters of war and peace.
President Trump knows no history and does not have any idea how the United States became an “essential” country, let alone a superpower. But he seems to believe that he can maintain that status, and even increase it, without making investments — diplomatic, military or monetary — at all. This week, the outline of what this means — call it “hegemony on the cheap” — suddenly came into sharp focus.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal exposed America’s weak hand. For we left — but then what? In different circumstances — after negotiations, after obtaining proof that Iran was in violation of the deal — it might have been possible to recreate the international coalition that imposed sanctions so successfully in the first place. In different circumstances, it might also have been possible to change the deal: That’s what the French president and German chancellor were offering during their recent visits to Washington, though their efforts were rebuffed. In different circumstances, it might even have been possible to threaten Iran militarily — not a position I advocate, but I can imagine how it could be done.
Instead, we are now in the worst of all possible worlds. We have broken the agreement with Iran, but we are unable to impose a new sanctions regime in its place. Instead of making a diplomatic investment, we are shouting and barking orders. Just after Trump’s announcement, the American ambassador to Germany issued a threat on Twitter: “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” As a result, European leaders are not talking about Iran. They are talking about how they can protect their companies from American sanctions, and how they might retaliate.
Instead of making a military investment in the region, we are goading others to do that for us. Courtesy of the Iranian government, we have just learned that Trump recently sent a letter to Arab allies, demanding that they commit more military resources to solve Middle Eastern problems. Fair enough — but if they aren’t your resources, then you don’t get to decide how they will be used. In fact, quite a few Arab governments are already participating in Middle Eastern wars. Saudi Arabia is already fighting in Yemen, where we don’t have much say in what happens. We don’t have any control over what happens in Libya, either, where the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other states are already participating in a proxy fight. If conflict spreads to Iran, the same will be true.
How far can Trump get by shouting and goading, by talking about how much the United States is “owed” by NATO or the Arab world? How far can he get without investing in allies, in diplomacy, in military engagement? Maybe quite far. That moment of American hegemony really was impressive, and there are many places where the aura has yet to fade. It will take quite a bit of time for Europeans, not to mention Russians and Chinese, to find their way around U.S. sanctions on Iran, to invent alternative ways to invest, to create new sources of credit outside the existing international banking system. It will take time before the rearmed nations of the Middle East realize that there is no reason, any longer, to consult the U.S. government before going to war. It will take time before U.S. economic policy becomes so erratic that others decide not to preserve the dollar as the reserve currency, or not to reserve a space for Americans at the top table.
It may be many years before Americans finally notice that “hegemony on the cheap” means they no longer have much say in what happens outside their borders. But sooner or later that moment will come. Trump may have accelerated its arrival.