Some years are pivotal and serve to mark off eras of history. 2011 saw the end of American hyperpower, and it announced the end of a decade of US-Muslim conflict that began with 2001. It saw the killing of Usama Bin Laden, the virtual rolling up of al-Qaeda, the repudiation of al-Qaeda’s methods by the masses of the Arab world, and the US military withdrawal from Iraq. The upheavals of the Arab Spring and subsequent elections have led to Muslim fundamentalist parties being drawn into parliamentary politics on a Westminster model, rather than remaining sect-like corporate groups outside the body politic.
The changes in government have left the US and the UK with no choice but to deal with parties such as al-Nahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which right wing members of Congress had earlier lambasted as proto-terrorist organizations. In Libya, the US and NATO allied with the Muslim masses against dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and some of their new allies had been Muslim radicals earlier. Although the degree of US-Muslim polarization of the period 2001-2011 was often exaggerated (Turkey and Morocco, e.g., were American allies), the three unconventional wars (Afghanistan, Iraq and al-Qaeda), along with significant tensions elsewhere (Sudan, Somalia) did create an over-all bipolar framework.
The end of the Cold War, which had stretched from 1946 to 1991, had left the political elites of the United States and Western Europe without a bogeyman or security threat on which they could run for office and through which they could funnel resources to the military-industrial complex that largely pays for their political campaigns. With Russia in steep decline in the 1990s and China still run as a small, cautious power, the US emerged as what the French called a Hyperpower, the sole superpower. US hawks were impatient that Bill Clinton seemed not to realize that he had complete freedom of movement for a brief window of time. It was the new US status of hyperpower that allowed the G. W. Bush administration to respond to the September 11 terrorist attacks by launching two major wars and a host of smaller struggles, all against targets in the Muslim world.
As of 2011, the age of the US hyperpower is passing, along with the possibilities for American wars of choice, i.e., wars of aggression.
The most potent symbol of this change is Syria, where US freedom of movement in staging any sort of intervention is constrained by Russia and China.
In 1991, the US was 25 percent of global GDP. Today, it is 20 percent. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US was the only country in the top 10 global economies with a substantial ability to act alone in projecting military force in the world. Japan and Germany maintained militaries only for self-defense. France, Italy, the UK and Spain typically worked within a NATO framework (except for French interventions in Africa). Brazil was relatively inward-looking. US supremacy was announced with the Gulf War, even before the Soviet system had quite collapsed. Premier Mikhail Gorbachev was unable to protect a former Soviet client state, Iraq, from US ire. And George H. W. Bush put together a coalition of two dozen allies with a UNSC mandate to push Iraq out of occupied Kuwait, thus underlining that the United States was now the successor to the British Empire as guarantor of security in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. George W. Bush’s 2003 war against Iraq, while it lacked the legal framework that the Gulf War enjoyed, was a continuation of that assertion of American dominance on a unilateral basis (not unilateral in the sense that the US had no allies, but unilateral in the sense that none of the allies was indispensable and that the US could do as it pleased).
In 2011, China and India are in the top ten world economies (by purchasing power parity), and each is a hegemonic military power now. China can help protect Syria, e.g., and India insists on buying Iranian petroleum. Russia is likely to rejoin the top ten by 2015, and it is militarily significant. Moscow is running interference for the Baath regime in Syria in part to protect the Tartus naval base on the Mediterranean, which the Russians lease from Damascus.
The United States is no longer the hyperpower. It can no longer necessarily act unilaterally by launching a major war of aggression at will. It lacks the resources. And, it has significant challengers in some theaters. The Obama administration was only able to act in Libya because Russia and China had allowed a strong UNSC resolution in favor of intervention to be passed. Had either exercised a veto, the Libya War would have been forestalled. And, even with a UNSC resolution authorizing the use of force, Washington felt the need to lead from behind and let France, Britain and Qatar stay in the forefront, because it feared bad PR if it were perceived to be yet again unilaterally attacking a Muslim country.
A corollary is that each region of the world is now more independent of the US than it had been. Brazil defied the US on Libya and Latin America is defying the US on relations with Palestine.
The greatest trend to greater independence of the US can be seen in the Middle East and North Africa. Some regimes that were almost sycophants toward Western capitals have been swept away. Indigenous and nativist political movements, especially those based in political Islam, are doing well. Religious parties came to power in Tunisia and Morocco, forming governments and selecting the prime minister. A similar development will likely occur in Egypt, Libya and Yemen in 2012. All of these governments had been dominated by billionaire politicians and increasingly Neoliberal economic policies. The new cabinets dominated by political Islam are economic populists, but likely will not challenge the US significantly. Neither can they be depended upon, however, to do as they’re told, in the way that Mubarak could have been.
It is too early to say whether the assertion of people power, in part via the internet, in the Arab world marks a structural, long-term change in the way business is done. What can be said is that the Middle East is emerging as more independent than it had been since the 1970s.
President Obama gave a speech marking the end of the Iraq War. He should give one marking the end of the “War on Terror.” The US is not actively fighting Muslim troops in Iraq any more. Bin Laden is dead. Whatever is going on in southern Afghanistan will have to work its way out alone.
Those are the three big changes in 2011. The US is one great power among many, now. Muslim radicalism is running out of steam. And, the Middle East is declaring independence along the lines of Brazil.