The Twilight of the American World

By winning three world wars in the 20th century, the United States was able to design the world’s global architecture. But as America turns its back on that design, the world finds itself at a hinge in history and must plot the path forward. The world needs a UN 3.0.

Dr. Roland Rich
April 12, 2022

The Colonial Era

The American World is a 20th century phenomenon. It succeeded the colonial era that, after several hundred years, finally came to an end during the decolonization process of the 1960s, leaving only fragments of empire in the hands of the metropolitan powers. The colonial era found its nadir in the 1884-85 Conference of Berlin, whereby a handful of European powers divided Africa amongst themselves, even giving the King of the Belgians his own personal colony in the Congo.

The United States entered the colonial era late, uncertain, and ignorant. It became a member of this club in 1898 when, through the operation of the Monroe Doctrine, it drove Spain out of the Western hemisphere. As a result, it accidentally inherited Spain’s colonies, including Cuba and the Philippines.

The intelligentsia of the former Spanish colonies prepared declarations of independence and drafted constitutions. While Cuba gained its independence, in the Philippines, the United States decided to step into Spain’s shoes, triggering an ugly war in which some 20,000 local combatants and as many as 200,000 civilians died over three years. The United States soon lost interest in its Southeast Asian colony, granting it a large measure of autonomy and eventually independence after defeating Japan.

One reason for the loss of U.S. focus towards the Philippines flowed from events in Europe. Though the United States entered the First World War in the conflict’s later stages, its entry proved to be the decisive factor. Some may argue that this is when the American World came into being, not only due to the decisiveness of U.S. military involvement, but because of the new vision of the post-war world American president Woodrow Wilson brought to Versailles.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points set down basic principles by which the world could live in peace: open treaties openly arrived at; freedom of the seas; free trade; reduction of armaments; and adjustment of colonial claims based on the principles of self-determination. The defense of these principles would be guaranteed by a League of Nations.

One can see in the Wilsonian conception of the world an attempt to translate American constitutionalism to the world stage and to create a world of fair rules with institutions to defend them. But its failure detracts from the conclusion that this was the beginning of the American World. After a promising start in the 1920s, the League of Nations demonstrated its irrelevance in the 1930s with its inability to respond effectively to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian attack on Abyssinia.

Wilson’s principles were also tailored to maintain colonialism. Self-determination became a principle to deal with the demise of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, but it was not applied to the colonized world beyond Europe. Most critically, the Senate famously rejected the Versailles Treaty, leading the United States to withdraw from European politics. There can be no “American World” without American participation.

The American World

The American World truly begins with the decisive victory of the Allies in the Second World War. Having absorbed the lessons of the recent past, President Roosevelt embarked on getting the Wilsonian ideas right and putting them into action. An early normative undertaking was the Four Freedoms speech of 1941. Three of the four freedoms would become the principal purposes of the United Nations. Freedom of speech would articulate into the human rights canon. Freedom from want would morph into the UN’s development agenda. And freedom from fear would become the basis for the peace and security preoccupation.

The necessarily secular United Nations Charter makes no mention of any deity, but does include religion as one of the ascriptive human qualities that cannot be permitted to be used as the basis of discrimination. The human rights canon was launched with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a process led by Eleanor Roosevelt. The economic agenda was overseen by the Bretton Woods institutions, which would provide both a catalyst and a safety net for American-style capitalism. And in keeping with American notions of constitutionalism and rule of law, the United Nations Charter would set basic norms and the companion International Court of Justice would adjudicate disputes.

The lessons learned from the ultimate failure of the League of Nations (which we can think of as UN 1.0) would inform the design the United Nations (UN 2.0). The unanimity rule would be replaced by the hegemony of the great powers, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5). The reach of the United Nations would be extended by seventeen specialized agencies. The universality of the United Nations would be manifested by the speedy growth unleashed by decolonization, bringing its current membership up to 193 states (compared with the 42 original members of the League.)

But the American World did not contain all nations. With the onset of the Cold War, a parallel world developed that was centered in Moscow. The United Nations system, though not the Bretton Woods institutions, provided the overlap for the two worlds which otherwise had few connections. But despite extending into Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and even managing a toehold in the Americas, the Soviet world paled in comparison to the size and vigor of the American World. And a spending competition imposed by President Reagan would demonstrate the Soviet world’s economic, military, and ideological bankruptcy.

With the demise of the Soviet world, the American World was left unchallenged. The main lesson that had been learned from the past, particularly during the interwar period, was that the United States must stay involved in world affairs to act as the guarantor of the American World. It had to be the benign hegemonic stabilizer.

Reagan, Bush, Bush, Trump

By the end of the Reagan presidency, the United States had in effect won the three world wars of the twentieth century. It was the American century and the American World. It is therefore ironic that the first clear signs of the United States turning its back on that world also occurred during the Reagan period. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea had been painstakingly drafted as a package deal, take it or leave it. Yet while all the major U.S. interests—naval, commercial, and environmental—were covered and favored American participation, the United States rejected the treaty, not for reasons of national interest, but out of pride, pique and pettiness.

This would establish something of a pattern. The United States is the only country apart from Somalia not to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is one of only seven countries that chose not to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Yet all seemed to be repaired with the advent of the next administration of President George H.W. Bush.

The American World was not only restored but seemingly reinforced when the United States, under UN auspices, led a vast military coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Describing the situation as a "new world order", Bush placed himself in line behind Wilson and Roosevelt. The successor Clinton Administration would maintain the rhetoric, describing the United States as “the indispensable nation”. Though this new order faced jarring setbacks in places as far-flung as Srebrenica, Somalia, and Rwanda, the American World seemed firmly in place as the century came to its conclusion.

Enter President George W. Bush. Though the president may have been a figurehead, behind him stood a group of restless men—Vice President Dick Cheney leading a phalanx of “neocons”—who understood the fleeting nature of presidential power. These men would not allow the opportunity of a presidency to pass without attempting to remake the world to their specifications.

Though the American presidency has all the trappings of power, the office is deeply constrained by horizontal and vertical checks and balances. The field where the president has the fewest constraints is foreign policy, and the institution with the greatest heft is the military. Rejecting the checks and balances of the global level, the neocons embarked on their Iraq adventure. In so doing, they rejected the world of rules and self-imposed compliance that Wilson, Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush had so carefully constructed.

The Obama Administration slowed the momentum of this turn away from the American World, but could not reverse it. According to Dick Stoken’s cyclical theory of American politics, a change of direction is only accomplished when a two-term president is succeeded by a supporter, as when the Reagan presidency was cemented by the election of Bush Sr. There may have been further examples of this phenomenon had Al Gore or Hillary Clinton won office.  When Donald Trump became president, he set about taking a sledgehammer to the American World in the name of “America First”.

Not only did Trump withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action designed to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, the Paris Climate Change accord, and the UN Human Rights Council, but in a fit of pique in the final days of his presidency, he even withdrew the United States from the World Health Organization while a global pandemic was raging. Trump turned American foreign policy into a transactional process for his own benefit. He abandoned decades of consensus on the centrality of human rights that had been in place since the Carter Administration by cozying up to dictators from Vladimir Putin in Russia to Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. While he was far from the first Republican president to sneer at the United Nations, Trump’s decision to undermine NATO sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of all American allies. If that doubt persists, it will cause the American World to recede from people’s imaginations.

The Biden Administration is trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again by proclaiming that “America is Back”. Because Putin’s war against Ukraine is so egregious, so indefensible, and so heartless, the United States has been able to reassert itself as the leader of a vast domestic and international coalition in opposition. Whether this can be parlayed into rebuilding the American World, or whether it is a passing phenomenon that will not alter the fundamental shift, will ultimately depend on American attitudes. The former would be possible if there existed a domestic consensus in the United States for a permanent reassertion of its global leadership role, and a willingness to demonstrate this leadership through painstaking involvement in world affairs and compliance with world norms. But now that a sufficiently large slice of the American body politic has turned against that role, portrayed as the world of the “globalists”, the latter alternative appears more likely.

The Post-American World

If this is now the twilight of the American World, the world of rules and rights, what will take its place?

If Putin succeeds, the world will revert to a might is right system, putting a premium on armed strength and causing a rush to develop nuclear weaponry. Strong nations across the globe will be emboldened to consider the invasion of pesky neighbors. International organizations and multilateral systems will be sidelined. Great powers will seek to extend their zones of influence. The world will develop a system of “blocism” resembling the world described by George Orwell in 1984. Recall that the three Orwellian blocs were Eurasia, led by Russia, Eastasia, organized around China, and the ocean power of Oceania, comprising the Americas, Britain, Australasia, and the southern tip of Africa.

If Xi Jinping succeeds in turning China into the world’s dominant economy and power, then China would be a pretender to succeed the United States as the global leader. A world led by China would be a world antithetical to democracy, one where the world’s dictators make regular pilgrimages to Beijing in return for special consideration. In fact, China should be disqualified as a candidate for benign global leadership status both as a nation state and as a civilization.

As a state, China’s Leninism is disqualifying. It puts the interests of the party above all else, and as I have argued elsewhere, a Leninist government running a capitalist economy is necessarily corrupt. It fits completely within the Klitgaard formula, whereby C = M + D – A (Corruption equals monopoly plus discretion minus accountability.)

As a civilization, China believes in hierarchy radiating from the middle in which it considers itself situated. It lacks the universalist philosophies of the United Nations, or for that matter, the United States. Under Chinese hegemony, the nations of the world would be organized into a series of tributary relationships with the Middle Kingdom, in which the interests of the former would always be in thrall to the needs of the latter.

In my forthcoming book entitled The United Nations as Leviathan: Global Governance in the Post-American World, I seek a more propitious outcome. I reject the concept of world government, but embrace the idea of global governance in which a renewed United Nations (UN 3.0) demonstrates independence, leadership, and moral force. The theoretical structure underlying this proposal, known as subsidiarity, recognizes that different levels of government should have different responsibilities.

Subsidiarity has a gravitational pull towards the citizen, but also has a balancing requirement that the level of government must have the capacity to deal with the issue. The principle of subsidiarity is practiced in the European Union, but even there, it remains incomplete. What is missing is an institution at the global level that can deal with those problems beyond the capacity of national or even continental governments to tackle successfully. The book describes a series of such problems—including the climate emergency, climate-induced refugee flows, more pandemics, and globalization sauvage—and the role of UN 3.0 in managing them.

Anybody with any association with today’s United Nations knows full well that it is not able to provide global governance. UN 2.0 is a plaything of its member states, in particular of the P5. It has no independence and only marginal competence. Its leadership is weak by design, with the Secretary-General subservient to the P5 (though António Guterres courageously criticized the Russian war). Even the next level of leadership is directly appointed by the P5, while the rank-and-file secretariat is selected based on its array of passports, and not because its members represent “the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity” as required by the Charter.

But the United Nations does have a powerful brand, reflecting a popular yearning that it be fashioned into an effective institution. For that to become a reality, the United Nations needs tripartite governance, in which business and civil society sectors share this responsibility with executive branches.

To become an effective institution, the United Nations needs independent funding. This can be achieved through taxes on globalization paid by urban consumers. The book shows how taxes on air travel, transportation of goods, and financial transactions, directly collected from corporations without the intermediation of national governments, would total around $100 billion annually. The cost to the average urban consumer would be $25 a year.

To provide global governance, the United Nations needs a powerful Secretary-General, no longer selected for timidity and obedience, leading a competent and engaged secretariat. While great power politics would remain, in UN 3.0 there would be a far more effective counterpoint under stronger leadership.

The veto wielded by the P5 is an effective barrier to UN 3.0, blocking any movement in this direction. But, as plotted in the book, this veto power can be circumscribed and limited to decisions under Chapter VII of the Charter which sets out the Security Council’s mandatory powers. The General Assembly and the Security Council can adopt resolutions declaring all other decisions to be procedural, for which no veto is available. If such a resolution by the Security Council were to attract nine votes, the five negative votes of the permanent members would become moot, as a non-P5 chair of the Council would declare the resolution to be procedural and thus adopted. This would represent the first step towards UN 3.0.

The world is at a hinge in history. The path so carefully designed and defended by the United States in the 20th century is receding from view. The emerging paths devised by Putin and Xi must be resolutely rejected in favor of the progressive and cosmopolitan path of global governance.

Dr. Roland Rich is a former Australian Ambassador and a former Head of the United Nations Democracy Fund. He is Director of the United Nations and Global Policy Program at Rutgers University.