The end of the American century
It is rare to be able to recognize major historical boundaries as they happen, but in the last few weeks we have witnessed the end of the “American century.”
The abrupt abandonment of our Kurdish allies in northern Syria and acquiescence with Turkish expansion into the area has signaled to the world that we are no longer willing to stand by our commitments to our allies and oppose imperial expansion.
Unfortunately, this particular historical boundary will have serious negative consequences for the U.S. and the rest of the world.
The American century really began in 1919 with President Wilson’s radical, very American proposals that people should have the right of self-determination and that there should be a trans-national organization to guarantee security and mediate disputes.
His proposal on self-determination was written into the Versailles Treaty, and the League of Nations was created — though the U.S. never joined, having chosen isolationism over global engagement. Twenty years later, this initiative seemed to be dying in the face of Japanese and German imperial expansion.
The Americans reengaged only when the Japanese expansion reached the Philippines (which, you should remember, was an American possession at the time) and brought us into the war — the Japanese invasion of the Philippines began the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was done to interfere with our ability to defend that distance possession.
Immediately following the war, the U.S. assumed its role as a global leader, organizing the United Nations, pushing the principles that Wilson had articulated 25 years earlier, and expanding the principles to include human rights.
The American economy made up more than half of the global economy at the time, and we were the only major country that had not suffered major damage to its infrastructure, so the rest of the world needed our assistance. Over the next quarter century, the U.S. built its various military alliances to guarantee stability, and oversaw the decolonialization of Africa and South Asia, made possible by this more stable global political environment.
The last major empire to break up was the Soviet Union, though smaller national breakups continue today as peoples strive for the dream of self-determination and an end to exploitation and repression. Though we haven’t always stuck by our principles on self-determination and human rights when faced with hard political choices, we have always stuck by our allies and broadly supported global stability.
So, what has happened in northern Syria that ends that cycle?
By abruptly abandoning the Kurds, our allies who have served as the ground troops for our effort to suppress the chaos created by ISIS, we have signaled to the rest of our allies that we can no longer be counted on to support them in the face of external military pressure.
You can be assured that this is causing every American ally to reevaluate its defense strategy, and will weaken the forces of stability world-wide.
In addition, we have allowed the Turks (the imperial rulers of that area prior to WWI) to conquer a 35 km-wide strip of northern Syria and subjugate another ethnic group (which was running a government with religious tolerance and no ethnic repression).
As with Russia’s incursions in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, and with China’s expansion into the South China Sea and its silk road initiative, this is just the beginning of a nationalist desire for reestablishment of their lost empire and rebuilding of their former dominant position in the world — don’t expect the Turks to leave, and don’t be surprised if they expand further.
In other words, the new U.S. policy in northern Syria will be viewed as an endorsement of the establishment and rebuilding of empires.
So, the Trump administration has just abandoned our century-old principles, weakened our alliances, and destroyed the moral imperative behind our leadership in the world.
How can this turn out well for anyone, including us?