America strives for hegemony. If the American dream is that an individual can make it to the top, the political equivalent is that a nation can. And the American dream is that that nation is America.
"Hegemony" derives from the ancient Greek word "hegemonikon," a word used by the Stoic philosophers to mean the leading part of the soul, or mind. The hegemonikon was the rational part of the mind that ordered and ruled all the other parts. But the American hegemon has ceased to lead the rest of the world order: it has divorced the world order and held itself unaccountable to and above the world order. A hegemon does not leave the world order, it leads the world order. America is no longer the hegemon. America is a rogue nation.
The Rogue Nation
In the soap opera that is Washington, and the tabloids that are the mainstream media, two of the most stunning moves in American history went practically unnoticed. America announced to the world that it is no longer accountable to the world, that it is hoisting itself outside of and above the world order.
When the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran following Trump’s illegal termination of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, Iran accused the U.S. of violating their 1955 Treaty of Amity agreement and of "naked economic aggression." Despairing of rational diplomacy with America, Iran took its case instead to the International Court of Justice, the judicial organ of the UN that settles legal disputes between member states. The International Court decided in favor of Iran. Rather than honoring the ruling of the court, the US instead withdrew from the treaty. That is not the response of the hegemon of an international order but the response of a rogue state: if international law says you are not honoring a treaty, don’t modify your behavior, withdraw from the treaty.
When the Palestinians took the United States to the International Criminal Court over the relocation of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the United States withdrew from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes, which removes America from the obligation to resolve disputes peacefully through international means.
When the International Criminal Court ruled against the US on a treaty, the US pulled out of the treaty; when the Palestinians took the US to the International Court, the US pulled out of the court. Donald Trump and the United States no longer seem to recognize America’s accountability to the international order. That is not a hegemon who leads the international order, but a rogue state who exists outside of the international order.
Trump doesn’t seem to recognize his obligation to be held accountable domestically either. His administration’s new rules for White House reporters restricts reporters to a single question with no right to a follow up, barring reporters from asking for evidence, rationalizations or clarifications. That restriction removes the right for the people to hold their president accountable.
Winning America; Losing the World
America’s geopolitical policy over the past half century has been largely shaped by two overarching goals: in Europe’s tug-of-war between integrating Russia or staying in NATO, keep Europe firmly in NATO and in enmity with Russia; and don’t allow Russia to align with China. That is, keep Europe from Russia and Russia from China. Those two goals are two prongs in the plan to resist Russia’s and China’s desire to balance out American influence by creating a multipolar world and, instead, maintain a unipolar world with America as its hegemon. But while America’s rogue approach to the world may be winning votes in America, it is losing the world. In becoming a rogue state, the US is losing at its two primary goals.
When America joined the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran, it was still acting as a hegemon, leading the peaceful resolution of a conflict through international forums. When Trump illegally broke the agreement, against the will of all of his international partners and UN Security Council Resolution 2231, despite repeated verification that Iran was in full compliance with the agreement, America went rogue.
And going rogue had its consequences for hegemony and a unipolar world. The European countries that America led abandoned the now rogue hegemon and sided, in accordance with international law and the international world order, with Iran. The UK, Germany and France issued a joint demand stating: “We urge the US to ensure that the structures of the JCPOA (deal) can remain intact and to avoid taking action which obstructs its full implementation by all other parties to the deal.” They reiterated their opposition to America when they jointly opposed Trump’s reimposition of sanctions against Iran. German chancellor Angela Merkel identified Europe’s "task of the future" as taking "its destiny in its own hands." That is, divorcing itself from the American hegemon. “It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us,” Merkel explained. That concern has been exacerbated by Trumps recent announcement that the US would withdraw from the three decades old Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Europe sees as having contributed to its protection.
Indicating a significant shift in the post cold war unipolar world, Europe found itself best served by allying with Russia against what it saw as an American obstacle. In November 2018, The European Union merged with Russia and China—the two threats to American hegemony in a unipolar world—in establishing a Special Purpose Vehicle financial clearing house that will allow them to evade America and its sanctions and deal, consistently with international law, with Iran.
That Europe’s new perception of the world sees America as an obstacle to the world order, to their interests and to their safety and sees partnering with Russia as part of the solution to maintaining an international world order, world safety and European interests is a consequence of America transforming itself from a hegemon to a rogue state in an increasingly post unipolar world.
Triangular diplomacy was a key to maintaining American hegemony during the cold war. Henry Kissinger explained the strategy as the necessity for America to achieve and maintain better relations with both China and Russia than either of them have with each other. That is the second overarching goal of American geopolitics in the past half century: don’t allow Russia to align with China.
But the continued rejection of Russia as a partner in a transformed international community free of blocs and the refusal to admit it as a partner into Europe and the west following the end of the cold war has forced Russia to adopt the alternate option and turn to China and the east in what Putin has called the "pivot to the east."
Though Trump may have originally intended to rebalance the world order in favor of American unipolarity by confronting and containing China and warming relations with Russia, an unending series of sanctions and hostilities towards both Russia and China has brought about what Russian expert and Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent Richard Sakwa has called "Kissinger’s worst nightmare." In the game of triangular diplomacy, America’s transformation from a hegemon to a rogue state has pushed Russia and China into having better relations with each other than either has with the States. And that has shifted the balance of the unipolar world. America’s going rogue is losing it the world and its unipolar ambitions.
Richard Sakwa says that the Russian-Chinese relationship is now one of the most important in the world. The two eastern powers have partnered in joining the BRICS nations, an informal association of emerging states that could provide an alternative to American international leadership (though that alternative could be sabotaged by the election of the pro-American, right wing Bolsonaro in Brazil). The BRICS nations form a counter block to America’s unipolar ambitions that represents 43% of the world’s population.
Perhaps even more powerfully, Russia and China have partnered in the not nearly enough discussed Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO is an organization that now includes India and Pakistan in addition to Russia and China. It incorporates 42% of the world’s population, two of its greatest powers and four of its nine nuclear powers. The nations of the SCO cooperate on finance and banking as well as the resolution of international problems.
Perhaps most telling in the Russian-Chinese relationship is the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, in which the two nations commit not to enter into "any alliance or be party to any bloc . . . which compromises the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the other. . . . " Dmitri Trenin, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center explains the relationship as one in which, though Russia and China "do not have to follow each other," they "will never go against each other."
A symbol of the shift in triangular diplomacy is that instead of holding their regular military drill to defend against China, this year’s Russian drill along their shared border is a joint exercise with China. China is contributing 2,300 troops, 900 pieces of equipment and 30 aircraft. China says they are participating in order "to further Russian-Chinese relations and strengthen the strategic partnership between the two states." Instead of splitting China from Russia as Kissinger and Nixon intended in their rapprochement with China, America has now forged them together.
As America’s transformation into a rogue state has pushed Europe closer to Russia, so it has pushed Russia closer to China. America’s particular policies to make itself stronger are having the historically ironic effect of making America weaker in its overarching goals: America is losing the world and losing its status as a hegemon in a unipolar world.
The Post Unipolar World
There have been three very recent and very concrete examples of diminishing American hegemony in an increasingly post unipolar world.
The first is Syria. In September of 2018, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an agreement that would resolve the tension in Syria’s Idlib province, the last holdout of the Syrian opposition. It is not the text of the agreement that is important: it is the signatories. As Patrick Cockburn explains, the agreement very loudly broadcasts the changes in the balance of power in the world: "Putin is able to sign a bilateral agreement with Turkey, the second largest military power in NATO, without any reference to the US or other NATO members." This agreement took place in a post unipolar world.
The second is North Korea. While relations between the US and South Korea have cooled over America’s rogue continuing sanctioning of North Korea, the two Koreas have gone on without America. Korea expert John Feffer reports that in the past few weeks, North and South Korea have removed 22 guard posts, demined the Joint Security Area, established a no-fly-zone above their border and discussed reducing artillery positions along their border. North Korea has also shut down its coastal artillery units. Again, what is important here is who was not there. All of these agreements were arrived at in the absence of American negotiators. America was left out.
The third is Israel. The United States acted as a rogue state outside of the international order when it moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and defunded the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Europe opposed both moves, and the European Union, once again, stepped outside of American hegemony by promising to find alternative funding for UNRWA to counterbalance America’s rogue decision. In response to America’s rogue moves, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that the Palestinians will no longer include nor listen to American peace plans or negotiators.
When Israel and Gaza experienced a dangerous flare up of violence in November, the ceasefire negotiations were held outside the door of the unipolar world. True to their word, the Palestinians did not talk to America. America’s new role as a rogue state instead of a hegemon of a unipolar world lost it its seat. Instead, it was Egypt, the United Nations, Norway and Switzerland that got seats at the post unipolar table.
Since it has held itself above the world order, the United States can no longer be in the world order or lead the world order. Its recent geopolitical and foreign policy moves are costing it its role as the hegemon of a unipolar world and establishing it, instead, as a rogue nation in an increasingly post unipolar world.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.