Three victories and a defeat

There is a spectre haunting American foreign affairs: the spectre of the successive victories of the Second World War, the Cold War, and globalisation. A period of renewal is needed if America’s long period of preeminence is to be sustained.

USA justice, view of four USA national flags sited outside a neoclassical style American courthouse building. Credit: Alamy stock photo.

Faced with global instability and a fracturing of the international order, with a great power adversary in China and a nuclear-armed revanchist Russia, with an Iran inching towards nuclear capability, a nuclear North Korea, and a revitalised Taliban, Americans and their leaders openly fret, yet seem fundamentally not to truly believe, that the global structure they have known for almost eight decades may be disintegrating. There are many reasons for this inability to envision a future that looks radically ­– and dangerously – different from today, but at its core, it may be that the special providence Americans have always felt as their national destiny – and specifically its manifestation in spectacular victories in the twentieth and even twenty-first centuries – have made them insensible to the possibility of failure. To paraphrase Cambridge historian Brendan Simms’s masterful study of eighteenth-century England, after three victories, Americans may be heading towards a defeat.

The three victories that shaped modern America’s DNA are the intertwined ones of the Second World War, the Cold War, and globalisation. Each was won decisively, despite numerous setbacks along the way, and each transformed the world in ways that above all benefited Americans. The sacrifices and hardship of the Second World War were perhaps the touchstone for American self-identity in the second half of the twentieth century, enshrined as the ‘good war’ fought by the ‘greatest generation’. An entire, and seemingly permanent, postwar structure of international order, represented by organisations such as the United Nations, World Bank, and an ever-growing plethora of similar institutions, promised a future of stability, growth, and the spread of universal values laid out in the 1941 Atlantic Charter.

That postwar future was threatened by the Soviet communist challenge, engendering a new generational struggle. The murkier, and ultimately less destructive, Cold War may have been marred by the inconclusive Korean War and outright defeat in Vietnam, but just a decade-and-a-half after the ignominious flight of the last helicopters from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, the sight of the hammer-and-sickle flag being hauled down at the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991 punctuated the fervent belief that this had indeed been the American Century. Hailed as the ‘end of history’ and identified with the ‘Washington Consensus’ of free markets, democracy, and human rights, US victory in the Cold War appeared to be the acid test of the two-century American experiment.

Less dramatic, and without a clear ‘victory’ date, but no less triumphant, was globalisation and the emergence of a world economy shaped around American preferences. While in many cases as harmful to the interests of American labour as it was beneficial to the pocketbooks of American consumers and investors, the shift of manufacturing to Asia, the pervasive flow of capital across borders, the financialisation of the economy to wring out ever greater efficiencies at home and abroad, and the swift creation and conquest of the digital realm by Silicon Valley, all served to create enormous wealth for American elites and transform everything from daily marketing to the most intimate of physical acts. A world in which science and technology – from the automobile to the A-bomb, from the Moon landing to Microsoft ­– had become so dominant as to replace religion as the unifying belief among the elite and educated, was a world inherently American, regardless of whether those at home and abroad embraced or rebelled against that reality.

These three victories were celebrated and internalised across the spectrum of American society, but especially among those who benefited most directly from the reshaping of the world in America’s image. Not all Americans, let alone non-Americans, waved the flag. Women, minorities (especially African Americans), political progressives, the working class, and rural citizens often felt left behind or dissatisfied with the opportunities open to them and their share of the national wealth engendered by America’s three victories. The Civil Rights Movement was but one manifestation of dissatisfaction with the realities of twentieth-century America, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society but one grandiose attempt to solve those inequalities. But Americans by and large supported their country’s triumphs, as shown by the gradual coalescence in policy of the two political parties and the indistinguishable verbiage used by elites whether ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’. What differences there were appeared around the edges: whether to intervene here or subsidise there, but not whether to surrender America’s unique and dominant role in the world.

And thus, in ways that no historian or social scientist – or psychologist – could ever fully capture, Americans by dint of their victories saw the world they had created after 1945 as the natural order of things and a largely unquestioned, if always more-perfectible, good. Whenever policies did not work out or were plainly disastrous, as in Vietnam, they only momentarily disrupted the broader rhythm of American life. Three generations of Americans have now grown up in a land that, compared to large parts of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and even Europe, knows no invasion, no enforced humiliation, and little want. Widescale, catastrophic, endemic suffering is simply not part of the modern American national (not individual) experience.

This unique moment in national history, which secured American wealth, gave it unparalleled global influence, and, except for 9/11, protected the country’s borders – these three victories, ironically, may have made it more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for American leaders and the general public to imagine failure. Except for alarmists, it is hard to envision that the world from which Americans so benefit could collapse in a cinematic-style cataclysm (one might call this the ‘Krypton scenario’). Yet, if less spectacular, no less threatening would be the accumulation of steady shifts in global power that one day result in a fundamentally weakened America both at home and abroad. Unlike the Krypton possibility, this frog-in-the-pot scenario is the more insidious, because stealthy, threat.

The Biden Administration warned in its 2022 National Security Strategy that the 2020s was the ‘decisive decade to advance America‘s vital interests’. Despite this, Americans seem unable to accept that the country’s ingenuity, will, wealth, and power might ultimately fail to preserve global order and a balance of power that privileges American interests. The frog scenario helps explain a desensitisation that feeds hopes that the global economic system will not be fundamentally changed by China’s rise, an unspoken but tangible accommodation with the associated costs of losing manufacturing capability and educational excellence, and a disbelief that Beijing would risk major conflict simply to take over Taiwan or that Russia would use nuclear weapons during the Ukraine war.

The victory of globalisation in large part fuels the enduring American belief in an increasingly borderless world, regulated if not governed by international organisations and similarly educated elites, in which a freely-operating global market will always provide needed resources and goods without interruption. That belief has been tested over the past decade: assumptions of geopolitical stability shaken by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s domination of the South China Sea, crushing of Hong Kong freedom, and threat to Taiwan; confidence in the operation of global markets strained by the COVID pandemic and trade tensions between Beijing and Washington.

Those uncertainties and concerns have so far resulted in little concrete changes in US policy that would be evidence of a true fear that America risks a defeat in maintaining the current world order and structure. Any rhetoric that the United States would ‘decouple’ from China is belied by trade figures, which show record levels of imports and increasing deficits. Washington has done little to develop alternative supply chains and limit Chinese access to the most advanced US research institutes. It lost the race for 5G, and has surrendered the cutting edge on technologies such as hypersonics, while failing to invest in counter-hypersonic technology. China far outstrips American investment in artificial intelligence and associated start-ups. Wall Street continues to invest in China, especially in high-tech, and academia continues to encourage unrestricted exchange, both doing so despite the dangers to American intellectual property and the American worker.

If US policymakers were truly worried about the consequences of losing control of production of semiconductors, they would be investing far more than the relatively limited $52 billion in the already-failing CHIPS Act, and would have done so years earlier. There would be a national report card on plans to ensure the production of rare earth elements, critical medicines, and pandemic-related supplies, to reduce reliance on China and other foreign powers. Effective worker retraining programs would be adopted. More fundamentally, a country that truly feared losing its dominant scientific and technological position would be considering ways to recreate the great innovation organisations of the Cold War, such as Bell and RCA Labs. Instead, the once-vaunted Silicon Valley is losing its competitiveness, while China leaps ahead in quantum communications and computing, voice- and facial-recognition technology, and advanced telecommunications.

A country failing to respond to its shortcomings is unlikely to be able to shape the global environment to protect its interests. Americans seem not fully to acknowledge that a collapsing world order means they may face a future of endemic instability, and perhaps even intensified conflict and potentially direct clashes with autocratic regimes in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang.

A future in which conflict rages repeatedly in Eurasia, not to mention a scenario of concerted Chinese attempts to conquer Taiwan and expand territory in the Asian maritime littoral region, would likely prove exhausting if not overwhelming for America should it try to counter such aggression. Intervention in areas of marginal interest during the 1990s and two decades of conflict in the Middle East have put great stress on the US military and prevented it for years from modernising in ways needed to face new threats from Russia and China. Beijing and Moscow may be inhibited from further aggression by any number of factors, but simple pronunciations of Nato’s cohesion or acknowledgments of the reality of US-China competition are not long-term strategies for protecting US interests. Americans are unlikely to make the actual sacrifices required to maintain global stability unless they share a palpable fear that the world will change in ways that threaten a collective future.

A country battered from two decades of war after 9/11, the 2008 great recession, and the covid pandemic simply may not be able to summon its energies for the even more daunting task ahead of maintaining global stability and US predominance. A similar dynamic spelled the end of British global power and empire after the Second World War – too much sacrifice over too long a period, an end to innovation, and misguided domestic political policies left London little national power to maintain a major global role. Over time, the same could happen to America.

Despite all the evidence of its problems, failure to address weakness, and reverse unpreparedness, Americans still seem to believe or hope that in the end, it will all work out: Putin will die or be overthrown, leaving a weakened Russia that will turn back towards sullen cooperation with the West; Xi Jinping is an outlier, and once he’s gone, Chinese elites invested in the global market will return to engagement with America; America will remain the global tech centre, and even if it never returns to a dominant role of producing advanced tech, the world will remain ‘designed in California’, ensuring both profit and influence around the globe.

Washington, DC, is full of strategies and policies, some more effective than others. Groups such as Eric Schmidt’s Special Competitive Studies Project are attempting to get ahead of the threat curve and Congress is surfeited with suggestions for countering China and further pressuring Russia. No one is blindly sitting by, just waiting for events to transpire. Yet, at the same time, there seems to be a continuing belief that the post-1945 and post-1989 American-made world is so self-evidently the best possible one, that only an extinction-level event could truly threaten its survival. Again, the spectre of Krypton overshadows the threat posed by the frog.

Such thinking is perhaps understandable but increases the risk of tragic consequences. Not realistically responding to the various threats today at home and abroad could potentially end the stability, wealth, and quality of life that so many take for granted. It would be interesting to see how Americans would act, the policies they would adopt, and the sacrifices they would be willing to make, if they truly feared a defeat after three victories.

In order to avoid strategic exhaustion and have a chance of creating a credible and realistic strategy abroad, it is critical to renew American society and strength. More than any policy emanating from a foreign capital, domestic weakness is the most likely cause of a potential American defeat. When domestic economic change and foreign intervention began to undermine the quarter-millennium rule of the Tokugawa shoguns in Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, the catchphrase that summed up their topsy-turvy world was ‘troubles within, dangers without’ (naiyu gaikan). Something similar could be said about America today.

There is an enormous amount of suffering today in America, part of what the author George Packer calls the ‘unwinding’. There is rampant gun violence in the inner cities, with 3,561 shootings in Chicago alone in 2021; there is a devastating opioid epidemic, particularly in rural areas, with over 75,000 opioid deaths, with a significant amount of opioids imported from China. The plight of the lower classes worsens, where low-paying service jobs predominate; poverty is growing, and the number of those participating in the work force continues to shrink. Sociologists like Joel Kotkin warn about a coming ‘neo-feudalism’ threatening to create a permanent class of modern serfs who subsist on shrinking incomes and fail to own property or equities. Over the past thirty years, America’s Gini coefficient, measuring income inequality, has steadily risen, as more national wealth is captured at the top of the income spectrum.

American educational rankings continue to wallow below other industrialised countries, and while the US university system remains the envy of the world, there is not enough concern over the threat to American competitiveness by undereducated and underperforming American youth to force any real change in public education. We are only just beginning to understand the long-term consequences of the school closures and remote learning during the pandemic. The dramatic decline in maths and science degrees obtained by US citizens means that Silicon Valley is largely dependent on foreign tech talent; as a nation of immigrants, such a situation is often adduced as proof of the continuing attractiveness of the American system, but there is far less worry over shrinking opportunity for undereducated, non-elite US youth.

Lower educational and employment opportunities are linked to America’s falling life expectancy and drug addiction and overdose rates, and undoubtedly fuel the recent crime surge that plagues American cities. That America’s future could be one of a truly two-class society, and the implications for everything from domestic innovation to military effectiveness, not to mention personal safety and civic cohesion, has so far failed to affect enough Americans across the political spectrum to force change.

But here is the nub of the matter: all these failings over the past half-century come from domestic sources. It is not because of unequal treaties forced on Washington that drugs flow into the country to snuff out thousands of lives, nor is it because of foreign invasion that thousands of Americans die from gunshot wounds. And as for jobs, no foreign power carried away American factories – management and shareholders shipped those jobs abroad while labour unions refused to compromise on measures to save major American industries. And where America seemingly fruitlessly turned its energies outside its borders, as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failures again were due to its own mistakes and lack of will, not to superior enemies (and even then, its actions have served to prevent another catastrophic attack on the homeland for over two decades after 9/11, and counting).

In other words, even with all this damage and failure, the ability to turn around these trends is entirely within its power. America retains great inherent strengths in its people, its natural resources, and its traditions. As Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in mid-1945 in conjunction with proposed plans for an invasion of Japan, ‘the problem is to translate these advantages into prompt and economical achievement of our objectives’. Nearly eight decades later, it faces the same problem.

Translating advantages into achievement requires a new realism to face squarely both threats abroad and shortcomings at home. It requires reorienting national priorities and accepting shared sacrifice now for long-term health. Kicking the can down the road may means a future of unending muddling through, lurching from crisis at home to crisis abroad. Conversely, bearing the burden of renewal might be the only way to ensure that America’s three victories will not be squandered, and is the best chance to prevent a defeat that could lead to a far greater crisis than those we have faced over the past quarter-century.


Michael Auslin