What America’s Great Unwinding Would Mean for the World
The conundrum facing America’s allies is how to cope with a great imperial power in decline that is still a great imperial power.
Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET on August 12, 2022
A peculiar cognitive dissonance seems to have taken hold in the world. The Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—led and propped up by the United States—has reminded the world that the international order is, if anything, more dependent on American military, economic, and financial might now than only a few years ago. Yet everywhere you turn, there is a sense that the U.S. is in some form of terminal decline; too divided, incoherent, violent, and dysfunctional to sustain its Pax Americana. Moscow and Beijing seem to think that the great American unwinding has already begun, while in Europe, officials worry about a sudden American collapse. “Do we talk about it?” Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria who remains well connected within Europe’s diplomatic network, told me, somewhat indignantly, after I asked whether an American implosion was ever discussed at the highest levels of government. “We never stop talking about it.”
Again and again, when I spoke with officials, diplomats, politicians, and aides in Britain and Europe over the past few weeks, the same message came back. “It’s weighing on people’s minds, big time,” one senior European Union official told me, speaking, like most of those I interviewed, on condition of anonymity to freely discuss their concerns. From outside the U.S., many now see in America only relentless mass shootings, political dysfunction, social division, and the looming presence of Donald Trump. All of this seems to add up in the collective imagination to an impression of a country on the brink, meeting all the conditions for a descent into civil unrest.
Many Europeans have long considered American decline an inevitability and have looked to prepare themselves for such an eventuality. Pushed by Germany and France, the EU has sought out trade and energy deals with rival global powers, including Russia and China. The idea was that as the U.S. disengaged from Europe, the EU would step up.
But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and everything changed. Suddenly, Europe’s grand strategy was in tatters, and American strength seemed to reassert itself. Europe discovered it had not become more independent from the U.S. but more dependent on it. In fact, Europe was dependent on everyone: Russia for its energy, China for its trade, America for its security. In pursuing a slow, cautious disengagement from the U.S., Europe found itself in the worst of all worlds. And in a desperate bid to reverse out of the mess, it was forced to rush back into the arms of the very leviathan it fears might be not only slowly losing its power but in danger of suddenly imploding.
This, then, is the difficult situation of America’s protectorates today. Worried about the decline of the U.S., much of the American-led world has clung even more tightly to Washington than before. In Asia, the U.S. remains the only power capable of balancing against China’s bid for regional hegemony. In Europe, something similar is true with regard to Russia. To the continent’s eternal shame, as one senior British official told me, the apparently divided, dysfunctional, and declining power of the U.S. has still managed to send drastically more lethal aid to save a European democracy than any other NATO power.
Such is America’s continuing dominance, in fact, that the world’s fixation on the idea of its impending demise seems both a dramatic overreaction and a dramatic underreaction. The depth of America’s military-industrial complex and the scale of its imperial bureaucracy mean that they are simply too heavy for a single president or Congress to remove in one go. To an extraordinary degree, American power has been vaccinated against its own political dysfunction, as Trump’s time in office showed.
And yet the very weight of this Pax Americana means that if the vaccine ever stopped working, the consequences would be globally historic. In Poland and Japan, Taiwan and Ukraine, the very basis of the world order today rests on American supremacy. But besides talking about the fragility of these foundations, no one is actually doing anything to secure them.
Russia’s invasion has revealed the extent of Europe’s weakness, but this very weakness means that for most countries on the continent, the only rational thing to do is to avoid anything that might undermine American commitment. This, in turn, further increases Europe’s dependence on the U.S., and further entrenches the continent’s weakness, resulting in a vicious circle. “Ukraine has made it easier to read the writing on the wall,” as one senior EU official put it to me. “But it has also made it harder to do anything about it.”
In the five months since Vladimir Putin’s attempted colonization of Ukraine, two more European countries, Sweden and Finland, have begun the process of joining NATO, the American-led military alliance that guarantees European security. NATO has also moved to make sure that it remains relevant in Washington by listing China for the first time as a security threat. What’s more, since February, the U.S. has increased its military presence on the continent, and Europe has started importing American gas. Meanwhile, the EU’s proposed trade pact with China shows no sign of waking from its political coma, Britain has distanced itself from Beijing, and the G7 group of advanced economies has reemerged as the primary international forum for the Western world to coordinate its efforts. The euro has fallen so far in its value that it has reached parity with the dollar, French President Emmanuel Macron has lost his majority to govern, Mario Draghi’s government in Rome collapsed, Boris Johnson is on his way out, and Germany faces a winter of discontent with energy shortages.
Yet Europe is divided on the question of how it gets itself out of this mess, split between those who think the American order is the best and only hope, and those who see themselves as continental Cassandras, warning of the catastrophe but unable to persuade anyone to do anything about it.
Quietly, the EU is working on building European resilience in case of a sudden—or not so sudden—American unwinding. The bloc’s officials are developing a variety of measures, including creating a “European cloud,” a European semiconductor industry, European energy networks, and European military-industrial capacity. Officials I spoke with even talked about European moves into the Indo-Pacific region to help protect the current order should American efforts begin to falter.
Some of this seems sensible, some fantastical—and some dangerous. Attempts to produce a specifically European military-industrial capacity, for example, often just mean protectionism and making things harder for American defense firms trying to supply European militaries. Trump need not be president for one to foresee a political problem emerging if Europe were to continue to ask for billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to protect its borders while erecting barriers to American companies. Notions about the EU—unable even to protect its neighbors—stepping into even the mildest vacuum created by an American lack of interest in the Indo-Pacific are utterly ludicrous.
Despite this, there is an understanding within the EU about its own weakness. One official I spoke with, for example, said that building European autonomy was made harder not just by countries such as Hungary, with close ties to Moscow, but by “German irrationality,” which many now see as Europe’s real Achilles’ heel. Berlin doesn’t seem to want anything other than a world of open markets to sell its products. If this means dependence on other countries for security, energy, or other things, then so be it. Today, it is hard to see the unity of political will across the continent required to fundamentally change things.
For some in Britain, European panic about a U.S. withdrawal or collapse is little more than an avoidance technique, allowing officials to point to America while masking their own domestic shortcomings. “American decline is Europe’s comforting fantasy,” one senior U.K. official told me. “It’s a convenient way to avoid making any decisions of their own.”
Perhaps this is the source of Europe’s real panic: that it is becoming irrelevant. As Macron has warned, Europe’s real future may well be less that of a great power in a multipolar world than a geopolitical backwater, unable to develop its own autonomy, but also more and more inconsequential to the great battle for supremacy between the U.S. and China, in which it must play only a supporting role, forever America’s junior partner. No matter how civilized Europe remains, no matter how peaceful and liberal, it will be a place of secondary importance.
In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated 60 years on the throne with a diamond jubilee that represented the high-water mark of Britain’s imperial power. The tribune of empire, Rudyard Kipling, composed two poems for the occasion. Instead of “The White Man’s Burden,” which he ultimately dedicated to America’s colonization of the Philippines two years later, Kipling published “Recessional,” which hit on a different note entirely—about the pride that comes before a fall.
Written in the style of a prayer, “Recessional” pleads with the Almighty—the “God of our fathers, known of old”—not to abandon Britain. “Be with us yet,” Kipling urges the “Lord of our far-flung battle-line, beneath whose awful Hand we hold dominion over palm and pine.” Kipling then adds his famous line: “Lest we forget—lest we forget!” The prayer is a warning to those celebrating Britain’s imperial supremacy that it could be taken away at any moment: Lest we forget! “Far-called; our navies melt away,” Kipling cautions. “On dune and headland sinks the fire: / Lo, all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”
At the height of Britain’s global power, he warned that such things are fleeting and precarious. The poem caused a sensation, cementing Kipling’s place as the poet of empire, but also the prophet of its decline. Some 125 years later, the world is obsessing about the collapse of the new imperium.
The sense of foreboding now seems diffuse, everywhere and nowhere at the same time, not encapsulated in a single poem but out there nonetheless, in hushed diplomatic conversations happening all over Europe (as well as the regular Macron sermons), books, and even in the background of Hollywood movies.
With Russia being held at bay in the Donbas, China being cautioned against invading Taiwan, and the dollar supreme, the American order today looks dominant. And yet, lest we forget.
The danger is surely that everything can be true at the same time. The U.S. remains extraordinarily powerful, but that does not mean its domestic dysfunction and violent social upheavals are irrelevant, incapable of distracting it from ordering the world.
America today is both mightier than it was a decade ago and more vulnerable; the guarantor of the world order and the greatest potential source of its disorder. And as long as that is the case, diplomats, officials, politicians, and the general public outside America are going to both obsess about its collapse—whether out of genuine fear or hallucinatory projection—and be unable to do anything about it.
This article originally stated that Finland and Sweden have joined NATO. In fact, they are still in the process of joining NATO.