Even before the outbreak of the global Covid pandemic, it was widely recognized that U.S. hegemony was in irreversible decline. Since then, the pace of hegemony loss has accelerated. In August 2021, the Taliban captured Kabul as U.S. forces withdrew in a chaotic and hasty manner…. Only about six months later, war broke out between Russia and Ukraine.
In the NATO Trap.
The SPD betrays the foundations of its successful security policy, contributing to the EU’s surrender of sovereignty.
by Rudolf Brandner
[This article posted on 11/10/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.rubikon.news/artikel/in-der-nato-falle.]
We dreamed of being protected from acts of war – waking up now we notice that NATO membership drastically increases the likelihood of being involved in wars and conflicts and exposes us as a member state to significant dangers. It is arguably an absurdity that can hardly be surpassed that NATO, once founded as a territorially based defensive alliance against war, has now become a cause of war itself. The European world of states is exposed to the risk of total economic collapse, which could lead to self-destruction. How did this come about and what forces are at play here? What developments are now emerging in October – after an initial, still hopeful perspective in March/April?
NATO at the End of the Cold War
With German reunification and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s raison d’être also became questionable: For where the adversary against whom an alliance had been formed ceases to exist, the alliance itself also becomes obsolete – it becomes superfluous.
In the historical assessment of the situation, the ideological East-West antagonism seemed obsolete, the membership of a reunified Germany in NATO a meaningless formality, secured by the reverse promise that it would not extend an inch beyond the territory of the former GDR. Thus, as in the SPD’s basic program of December 20, 1989, the dissolution of NATO was envisaged. For a military defense alliance always derives all its meaning, its legitimacy, only from a definite enemy threat; where this fails, it loses its basis of legitimacy – it becomes meaningless.
NATO in the Service of US Geopolitics
But things turned out differently; and the historical paradox consists precisely in the fact that a NATO delegitimized in its entire existence did not disintegrate and dissolve, but on the contrary, expanded through the admission of further states and grew to a globally unique military fullness of power, which lacked only one thing – the enemy.
As it became clear in the 1990s, the U.S.-led NATO did not want to give up so easily the strategic power advantage that history had given it. And so, with the enlargement of the EU, NATO’s expansion toward the East also took its course, without even beginning to fill the vacuum of meaning with a changed security architecture. This should have been primarily the task of the European states (EU), which had awakened to a new sovereignty.
But too weak in its formation phase to assert itself against transatlantic interests, it submitted to the geopolitical strategy of U.S.-led NATO, as formulated decisively by Zbigniew Brzezi?ski: The only remaining superpower, the USA, had to concentrate its hegemonic aspirations in the name of democracy and human rights primarily on Eurasia and the “black hole” – the “Eurasian Balkans” (Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan) in order to save the world from an imminent disintegration into international anarchy (1). The new striving for sovereignty of the European world of states (EU) was thus subordinated to the geopolitical supervision of the power against which it was primarily directed (USA).
Thus, EU enlargement became NATO expansion by itself and cemented its geostrategic vassal status vis-à-vis the U.S. hegemonic power. As the latter sought to expand its sphere of influence from the Black Sea via the former southern Soviet republics to China in order to geostrategically limit both Russia, which is rich in raw materials, and China, which is rising to global economic prominence, the “black hole of the Eurasian Balkans” – Ukraine with Crimea as its naval base – was given a key geostrategic position.
Expansion and conceptual realignment of NATO
Based on these geostrategic objectives, the EU is now being urged by the U.S. – as it was previously in the matter of Turkey – to include Ukraine in its enlargement policy. For the European world of states itself can have no interest whatsoever in integrating Turkey or even Ukraine, which is hardly compatible with the EU simply because of its status in terms of corruption and deficient rule of law; which promises no positive repercussions apart from a considerable financial burden and culturally massive conflicts.
Already the EU accession of Romania and Bulgaria had more to do with NATO interests than with EU interests: The EU’s enlargement policy is not determined by the European world of states, but via NATO by U.S. geopolitics, which, without a definite enemy threat, merely seeks to secure its hegemonic status against possible competitors.
This no longer has anything to do with NATO’s original conception. Founded as an institution of the Cold War, it is transforming itself from a defense alliance necessitated by real history into a hegemonic political intervention force, as it corresponds to the self-image of U.S. military doctrine, but not to European security policy.
For protected from all foreign invasions by two oceans and without any neighboring threatening power from north or south, U.S. military policy does not (like European military policy) understand itself from the needs of territorial national defense, but – following the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 – as an international intervention power that always wages war only abroad, but never on its own territory.
As numerous as the wars waged by the United States are, it has never had to experience a modern war at home. Not territorial self-defense and its immeasurable suffering, but extraterritorial power politics, in which the American civilian population holds itself harmless, determines the concept and constitution of the U.S. armed forces.
This is precisely what is now being transferred to NATO’s new self-image and, in borderline cases, also includes European territory, but not the USA, as a theater of war (2). The suspension of compulsory military service and the professionalization of the armed forces into an international intervention force are the conceptual changes of NATO that are also noticeable for the Bundeswehr, which bases its new legitimacy on the supposed universal morality of democracy and human rights. In doing so, it is following in the footsteps of the missionary sense of mission of U.S. geopolitics. NATO doctrine now has at its disposal a widely dispersed field of enemy images that can be invoked wherever the interests of the hegemon seem threatened. Thus, NATO now stands for nothing more than the instrumentalization of the EU for U.S. geopolitical interests.
NATO’s legitimacy crisis and how to overcome it
But there is still no concrete threat from the enemy that could legitimize such a far-reaching military alliance. Quite rightly, therefore, former U.S. President Donald Trump was still able to state 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union that NATO was “obsolete”; and French President Emmanuel Macron attested to its “brain death” (mort cérébrale). It is this existential vacuum of meaning qua NATO’s legitimacy deficit that has now been ended with a thud by Russia’s foreseeable and long-provoked (Western) invasion of Ukraine: The Russian invasion becomes NATO’s life-sustaining sense-making enterprise, a “choc éléctrique” that wakes it up from its “mort cérébrale” – as Macron metaphorically consistently put it at the EU/NATO summit of March 25, 2022.
Whatever the outcome of the geopolitical confrontation, which has already escalated militarily with the Maidan coup (3): NATO regains its lost legitimacy on the long-promoted and finally rediscovered enemy image of “Russia.” Geopolitical strategists must have had this in mind – in addition to the NATO integration of Ukraine – especially since the Afghanistan debacle only exacerbated NATO’s legitimacy crisis. After all, it was already doubtful whether, in view of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an “alliance case” existed at all, the catastrophic and also shameful end of which could drive old doubters to delegitimize the entire alliance.
In this respect, NATO’s geopolitical strategy of virtually coercing Russia to invade, if it did not want to lose all its prestige after decades of insistently repeating its “no-no” to NATO expansion and look like a toothless tiger that no one takes seriously anymore, was an ingenious move that promised multiple gains: With the geostrategic integration of Ukraine at the same time the new self-legitimization of NATO, combined with all the economic profit prospects for the U.S. defense industry, its energy industry (Nord Stream 2) and the entire financial sector (4).
The geostrategic calculation that Russia would inevitably have to invade Ukraine if the Ukrainian military doctrine could still secure NATO’s assistance in restoring its full territorial integrity (Crimea) after the denunciation of the Budapest Agreement (renunciation of nuclear weapons) (in grossest violation of the Istanbul Agreement of 1999) was sharpened into a casus belli with the prospect of full NATO membership contractually promised by U.S. Secretary of State Blinken on November 10, 2021 (5).
The calculation, which was already sealed with the Western boycott of Minsk II, worked out. For, as it turned out and was also publicly stated, the Minsk agreement only served to gain time for the rearmament of Ukraine and the foreseeable war with Russia. It was not that Vladimir Putin “fell into a trap”; he was merely imposed the law of action that he and Russia had given themselves on the Ukraine issue.
It is the simple game-theoretical truth that by challenging one’s opponent’s credibility, one can force him to act in a way that must put him in the wrong – at least in general standing (6). The only alternative would be for him no longer to be taken seriously at all politically. What would be a Russia that cannot even protect its own compatriots in Ukraine (Donbass, Crimea) from military annihilation by a national ideological (neo-Nazi) Ukrainian army?
The EU in the NATO trap
Thus, today we are faced with the hardly surpassable absurdity that NATO, once founded as a territorially anchored defensive alliance against war, has now itself become the cause of war; and paradoxically, solely by inflating itself indefinitely against a media-generated phantasmagorical image of the enemy under the loss of its real-political basis of legitimacy. It is not Russia that is endangering peace in Europe, but NATO through its senseless expansion to secure the geopolitical hegemony of the United States.
It is not Putin who is trapped, but the European world of states under the leadership of the EU, which for decades failed to build up its own security architecture independent of the U.S. and NATO, which also corresponds to its completely different geopolitical interests. It is becoming a prisoner of its political immaturity, while the Ukrainian population, subversively driven into civil war by the Maidan coup, is being used as a pawn on the geopolitical chessboard and an entire region is being abandoned to devastation by another proxy war.
Only history will teach whether the brilliant move in NATO’s geostrategic calculations was really as “brilliant” as it appeared. Its mass psychological effect, however, was, as was to be expected, Western indignation over Russian injustice, which brought the phantasmagorical enemy image of “Russia” (personified in “Putin”) back to unimagined bloom and now unites the West in a regressive identity formation that seemed long outdated: the EU’s political aspirations for sovereignty are relegated to the vassal status of a nullity, and even more, definitively subordinated to the economic interests of U.S. geopolitics.
The specter of “Putin”, staged in rare media one-sidedness, puts the general consciousness into a panic shock paralysis, against which all political rationality threatens to break down into mindless leapfrogging. A frightening mania of persecution is being unleashed against everything Russian and, intoxicated by its moral absoluteness, is causing an overwhelming wave of enthusiasm for military-political self-empowerment to foam up. How will one ever get out of all this discord? – Won’t the European world of states be crushed between the U.S. and Russia? – Isn’t transatlantic dominance dealing a death blow to Europe’s striving for sovereignty? – The question is whether and how Europe can free itself from the NATO trap.
These are the leitmotifs of the Social Democratic foreign and security policy dating back to Willy Brandt, which have been consistently pursued since the 1990s and have now – with the Ukraine crisis – unjustly come under criticism.
The contradiction of EU and NATO
Egon Bahr recognized the security policy Achilles’ heel of the European unification process early on and analyzed it in detail (5). While the political construction of the European Community (EU) is not least a counterweight to U.S. dominance, it is, on the other hand, completely subordinate to the U.S.-led NATO in terms of foreign and security policy and, as a U.S. protectorate, remains without any autonomy and sovereignty. The finality of the EU, to form the continent into a politically independent power, contains in itself the contradiction of realizing itself under the conditions of the world power against which it must of necessity form itself (USA).
A Europe that is deluded about the power-political difference in interests between the USA and the EU and adheres to the mistaken belief in a “transatlantic community of values” cannot pursue a security policy that is decoupled from the USA and that develops the European area “from Vladivostok to Lisbon,” as Bahr never tires of emphasizing, into its own foreign-policy-secured area; on the contrary: The eastward expansion of the EU follows NATO’s geopolitical striving for power in order to tense both – EU and NATO – congruently into the geopolitics of the USA.
Thus NATO becomes “in the last consequence the opponent of the common EU foreign and security policy” (8). The final decision of foreign and security policy does not lie with the EU, but with the US-led NATO, which, by expanding towards Russia, creates an interstate vacuum as a danger zone, which in the meantime – with the Ukraine conflict – has also exploded. If the war is, as it is called, “the continuation of politics by other means,” then the EU is being held liable for a foreign policy in which it has no say whatsoever.
Europeans also renounce sovereignty with regard to the U.S.-stationed nuclear weapons in Germany: Here, too, the final decision on deployment lies solely with the United States. But anyone who stations nuclear weapons on his territory is also a potential target of attack by other nuclear powers: the sovereign state should therefore either decide autonomously on their deployment or order their withdrawal from its territory, since their presence exposes its entire population to the risk of total annihilation.
Under such conditions, an independent foreign and security policy committed to European interests is impossible; NATO: “conceptlessness without a concept” an intellectual imposition that undermines any formation of a cultural-historical community consciousness even more by admitting a non-European state (Turkey). This is how Helmut Schmidt and Giscard d’Estaing already saw it. But this means:
The European world of states must finally emerge from the shadowy existence of its post-war history: its decades-long oblivion of power and conformity mentality, its vassal-like attitude as a U.S. protectorate, and the comfortable luxury of security policy irresponsibility (9).
European Security Architecture
Thus, according to Bahr, there is only one hard alternative: Either one is a transatlanticist or a pro-European – both together are not possible. How then can a purely European security architecture be conceived?
First, without the United States, i.e., either through the complete dissolution or strategic division of NATO into a transatlantic and a European part, each of which would exercise and strategically safeguard the full sovereignty and autonomy of its foreign policy interests.
Secondly, through the nation-state anchoring of the military in a general compulsory military service (with an alternative: social service), which, as a medium of socialization, creates an affirmative community consciousness, especially in societies disintegrating through migration, that is ready to defend itself against any external overpowering. In other words, not a supranational, pan-European army, but an alliance of nationally led military forces that stand together against any territorial violation of one of their members – as European history has already known and successfully practiced in the war against the Moors, the Ottomans and, most recently, the National Socialists.
Such a purely territorial defense alliance without any international intervention mandate does not need any enemy images to justify its sense and legitimacy: Wherever a threat may come from, whether north or south, west or east, above or below – it bases its defensibility purely on the right of self-determination of a nation-state-based community consciousness that abstains itself from all imperial over-empowerment of other states.
The path to such a security architecture may be a difficult and protracted one, especially for the self-divided world of European states, but it is still better than being torn apart by the great powers themselves and being used as a pawn in U.S. geopolitics. Thus, the foundation of a European security architecture – its protection against great powers – lies first and foremost in the renunciation of trying to constitute itself as a great power. But this requires a political reorientation that abandons the centralist project of a European federal state as a colonial field office of the United States. In this sense, Gerhard Schröder’s refusal to allow himself to be drawn into the Iraq war by the Bush administration was a significant “Bahr sign” of newly won German sovereignty (10).
It remains to be seen whether Olaf Scholz has the backbone to continue on the Social Democratic path in the face of the media’s war-mongering mood. He is likely to find decisive support from Macron in shaping the EU’s security policy sovereignty, albeit at the price of its temporary dominance by the French nuclear industry, not least in energy policy issues. The solution to the current Ukraine crisis cannot lie in strengthening, but only in dissolving (transatlantic) NATO, which after Brexit is increasingly committed to the dominance of purely Anglo-Saxon geopolitics.
In this sense, Elizabeth (Liz) Truss, as British Foreign Secretary, proclaims in her Easter speech of April 27, 2022, “The Return of Geopolitics” (11), the conceptual transformation of NATO into a “global player”: after NATO’s Eastern European expansion and its deployment in the Hindu Kush, the Indo-Pacific region all the way to the South China Sea is now in view in order to defend the “Free World” (an outdated combat term from the Cold War). The G-7 countries are assigned the honorable task of acting as NATO’s strong economic arm.
This has as little to do with European security policy as with all the lip service paid to security policy assurances in the OSCE process: It is the consistent instrumentalization of NATO for U.S. hegemonic policy, which at the same time deals a definitive death blow to all striving for sovereignty on the part of the European states (EU).
What remains of the EU – after Brexit and a newly emerging Anglo-Saxon power bloc (Great Britain, USA-Canada, Australia-New Zealand) – is a collection of continental bankrupt states whose most economically powerful centers (such as Germany) are being subjected to Washington’s benevolence in a transatlantic way, stripped of all competitiveness: a shadowy existence in world politics, which does not even have its own subsistence conditions and sacrifices its sovereign rights of freedom qua self-determination to a mindless politics of moral sensitivities under the glare of the “Free World”. Political rationality that keeps in mind the far-reaching historical consequences of the proxy war in Ukraine for the real-historical living conditions of its citizens looks different.
Postscript October 2022
The collective self-sacrifice of the EU in favor of U.S. geopolitical power interests could not have been more drastic. With the terrorist attack on the Nordstream pipelines, the EU would now also have its 9/11 and could declare an alliance emergency, were it not for the fact that NATO’s leading power is itself under urgent suspicion, which is being pushed aside and obscured as best it can both politically and in the media.
The political self-assertion of the EU confirms its unconditional vassal status in the suicidal project of a sanctions policy that largely erodes its economic autonomy and hands it over to the hegemonic leading power in order to let it drive it into a war of annihilation that, if fought on European territory, could only mean the downfall of its entire historical culture of life.
The mental condition of Europe’s political and media leadership is thus in question, which, rejecting all political rationality and intellectual honesty, is putting the very foundations of Europe’s existence at risk, even in the assessment of international questions of international law (12).
In an unstable construct like the EU, which has not yet developed a solidly united self-confidence and does not dare to claim political sovereignty or the right to self-determination, and even less to practice it, it is easy for an external great power to play off the inner-European antagonisms against each other and to present itself as a protective power before a phantasmagorically created spectre of “Russia”, which guarantees security and relieves it of all personal responsibility (divide et impera). A personal responsibility that has become a political no-man’s land anyway due to the centralist erosion of nation-state identity on the part of the EU, and which elevates the tendency toward collective subordination to a transatlantic credo. What prospects are emerging?
The now officially declared war aims of the “collective West,” i.e., the United States: “regime change” in Moscow and “decolonization” of Russia, i.e., secession of the resource-rich transural regions into independent small states under Western leadership, are undoubtedly illusory without a nuclear world war scenario, but even more so with one.
The firm integration and unconditional vassalage of the European states, however, is the basic condition for U.S. geopolitics to be able to weaken Russia decisively and drive it to political implosion. In this sense, the destruction of the Nordstream pipelines served as a hedge against uncertain or fickle candidates who, out of their own geopolitical interests – or simply yielding to the pressure of survival of the population – might succumb to the temptation to back out of the self-destructive sanctions policy.
At the same time, however, this demonstrates the enormous power of the EU, which would find it easy to oppose U.S. geopolitics with a decisive “no.” For without its active participation within the framework of NATO, the escalation of the regionally limited Ukraine conflict into a geopolitical proxy war between the United States and Russia would not be possible. Its renunciation of this power, at the cost of its own territorial security and its economic living conditions, exposes the European world of states to the danger of a fundamental revolution of all its institutions, which would not only sweep away the political and media elites, but could only end in the dissolution of transatlantic NATO and the collapse of the political EU construction, including the euro.
From the end, we are at the beginning of a revolution that will decide the historical existence of Europe; and it is obvious that a European peace order with Russia will only be possible if the trust broken by the West is restored on a new basis by a completely renewed political and media leadership.
And what remains of Ukraine? – If Ukraine’s state budget is already being saved from collapse and declared state bankruptcy by the West, and war financing through bonds on land (“land grabbing”), raw materials and key industries seals the sellout of Ukraine, the hostile takeover by Western companies – here re-declared as “solidarity” – then the only thing left for Ukraine in case of its existence against Russia is debt bondage to the West. What a wonder if it will do everything to keep the existing regime in Kiev in power in order not to lose its massive investments in Ukraine.
After all, in the event of a “regime change” in Kiev, all those investments would be lost, as the over-indebtedness would be declared a matter of a constitutionally illegitimate government and equally illegitimate interference by Western states in its internal affairs. All war-related debt would thus be nullified by an anti-Selensky government – debt bondage would be averted and Ukraine would be economically free and independent.
Even if it has not yet dawned on Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists – the overthrow of the Selenskyj regime is the only way out of the foreseeable Western debt bondage into a free and self-determined Ukraine, which as a neutral buffer zone between the EU and Russia can cultivate productive relations to both sides. Whatever the outcome of the war: The day will come when Ukrainians will curse the Selenskyj regime and wish it to hell; and with it the whole “West”.
Sources and Notes:
(1) Compare Zbigniew Brzezi?ski, The Only World Power. America’s strategy of domination. The original English title, “The grand chessboard,” explicitly acknowledges the geopolitical power game; continued in this spirit by George Friedman: The greatest danger for Anglo-Saxon hegemony is the combination of German technology and Russian raw material wealth, which is why any mutual rapprochement must be prevented by sanctions policy (against technology transfer/commodity supply, see Nordstream 2). The problem is not Germany’s policy toward Russia and its energy dependence, but the geopolitics of U.S.-led NATO, which relies on German-Russian dislocations to secure its own power.
(2) This was already the case in the arms race at the beginning of the 1980s (SS 20/Pershing), when the U.S. strategy planned for the territories of the GDR and the FRG in the event of a nuclear exchange, i.e. the total destruction of Germany. It should look no different if NATO now intervenes in the Ukraine war.
(3) On the Maidan coup, see Ivan Katchanovski, The Maidan massacre in Ukraine. A survey of analysis, evidence and findings. 2016; on the use of NGOs as subversive “regime change” agents and the subversive network “Otpor” (Belgrade) Thomas Fasbender, Vladimir V. Putin. A political biography. Landt Verlag 2022, page 361 and following, based on Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy. A guide to liberation. Munich 2008.
(4) On the political genesis of the Ukraine conflict Willy Wimmer, Deutschland im Umbruch, Vom Diskurs zum Konkurs – ein Land wird abgewickelt. zeitgeist 2018;, Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, Eiszeit, Wie Russland dämonisiert wird und warum das so gefährlich ist. Munich 2017; Daniele Ganser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sMfNmx0wKo; John Mearsheimer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrMiSQAGOS4 as well as.
As Mearsheimer points out, Ukraine is already a de facto, if not de iure, NATO member through training, armament, and participation in joint NATO maneuvers. In addition, the cancellation of the disarmament treaties (ABM and INF) by the U.S. has created a strategic imbalance that can only be seen by Russia as an additional threat to its security situation.
(5) Whether this was coordinated with other NATO members and the EU or was a U.S. solo effort, perhaps to cover up the burgeoning scandal over Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine, is as yet unknown. Russia’s subsequent final attempt to conclude a security agreement with NATO was callously rejected by the latter.
(6) For an assessment of the Ukraine conflict under international law, see Der Ukrainekonflikt im Lichte des Völkerrechts. Multipolar, November 5, 2022,.
(7) The following according to: Egon Bahr, German Interests. Streitschrift zu Macht, Sicherheit und Außenpolitik. Munich 1998.
(8) Ibid, page 36.
(9) Continued in Egon Bahr: Der deutsche Weg. Naturally and Normally. Munich 2003. eastward and nothing forgotten. Freiburg 2015; compare by the author: Real- statt Moralpolitik. In honor of Egon Bahr. TUMULT, December 16, 2018,.
(10) In the line of Egon Bahr have now also Klaus von Dohnanyi: Nationale Interessen. Orientation for German and European Politics in Times of Global Upheaval. Munich 2022; on this see Neue Zürcher Zeitung of March 11, 2022, as well as Gerhard Schröder in the speech in Kocaeli/Turkey on March 24, 2022. Good factual analysis of the problem situation also in economic terms by Michael Lüders.
(11) Elizabeth (Liz) Truss, Speech by the Foreign Secretary at the Lord Mayor’s Easter Banquet, Mansion House on April 27, 2022 “The return of geopolitics”.
(12) The right of Russian-speaking territories to secede from Ukraine is now – after eight years of civil war and the failure of Minsk II – also being asserted under international law; compare, for example, David C. Hendrickson, “Souvereignty’s other half: How International Law bears on Ukraine” . On this, from the author, The Ukraine Conflict in Light of International Law, Multipolar, November 5, 2022,.
Complementary to this essay, an article by the author on “International Law/Ukraine” appeared on Multipolar: https://multipolar-magazin.de/artikel/ukraine-konflikt-volkerrecht
Rudolf Brandner, born in 1955, studied philosophy, psychology and indology in Freiburg, Heidelberg and at the Sorbonne in Paris. After extensive teaching activities in German-speaking countries and numerous guest professorships in France, Italy and India, he withdrew from all academic teaching activities into basic philosophical research in 2000. His most recent publication is “The Ideology of Human Rights and the Ethos of Being Human”. Further information at rudolf-brandner.de.
Nord Stream and the turning point
The collapse of US hegemony
An analysis of the geopolitical challenges by Minqi Li
By Minqi Li
[This article posted in October 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Der Zusammenbruch der US-Hegemonie.]
Even before the outbreak of the global covid pandemic, it was widely recognized that U.S. hegemony was in irreversible decline. Since then, the pace of hegemony loss has accelerated. In August 2021, the Taliban captured Kabul as U.S. forces withdrew in a chaotic and hasty manner. Twenty years of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and the Middle East ended in humiliating defeat. Only about six months later, war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, the economic and geopolitical consequences of which threaten to destabilize all of Europe.
We are witnessing the sheer failure of the incumbent hegemonic power to prevent a major military conflict triggered by another major power in a geopolitically important area. This is definitive proof that the decline of U.S. hegemony has entered its final phase: that of collapse.
In the past, the collapse of hegemonic powers has led to great power conflicts, global economic crises, uprisings and revolutions, and misery and devastation for hundreds of millions of people. What consequences can we expect if American hegemony collapses? Can the system return to some sort of “equilibrium,” or will it collapse as well?
Interstate competition and hegemonic power.
A hegemonic power is much more than merely the “strongest” power in the world capitalist system. According to world system theory, the capitalist world system is based on interstate competition. However, to prevent excessive competition among nation-states, the capitalist world system has historically required successive hegemonic powers to preside over the system to manage and advance its common interests.
These common interests cannot be effectively served by simply allowing each nation-state to pursue its individual “national interests.” Common interests include maintaining system-wide “peace” (preventing great power conflict), ensuring global macroeconomic stability, crafting a global social contract, and, in the context of the 21st century, managing global environmental sustainability.
A system without an effective governance structure would be one subject to the “tyranny of small decisions” or unable to manage “system-level problems” through appropriate “system-level solutions” (Arrighi and Silver 1999: 26-31). A system that regularly fails to find “system-level solutions” will in all likelihood disintegrate, that is, cease to function as a coherent system.
How can capitalism have a system-wide governance structure without abandoning the world system based on interstate competition? Historically, the world capitalist system has managed to deal with this dilemma by having one of the strongest states periodically act as a hegemonic power.
At the height of its power, a hegemonic power has tremendous advantages over other states in the areas of industry, trade, finance, and military. These enable the established hegemonic power to impose its will on other great powers. The established hegemonic power enjoys advantages in the aforementioned areas because it has sufficient power and wealth compared to other nation-states. To the extent that the industrial and financial resources available to the hegemonic power constitute a relatively large share of the total resources of the system, it is reasonable to expect that the national interests of the hegemonic power will largely coincide with the common interests of the system. Therefore, in its prime, the hegemonic power is both strongly motivated and endowed with the resources necessary to manage and promote the system’s common interests (Li 2008: 113-115). However, when a hegemonic power is in decline, it becomes less and less able to manage the common interests of the system. Collapse occurs when such a hegemonic power seems to have lost control over the course of events and therefore loses the ability to manage the common interests of the system. As a result, the system becomes the victim of erratic interactions of various spontaneous forces.
The decline of the U.S. hegemonic power
When the U.S. emerged from World War II as the undisputed new hegemonic power, it led the restructuring of the world capitalist system.
The U.S.-led restructuring contributed to an unprecedented boom in global capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s. In the late 1960s, however, the world capitalist system faced a new wave of economic and political instability. The combination of a long economic boom and welfare state institutions emboldened the Western working classes into militant struggles. From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, the U.S. and the other core capitalist countries (Western Europe and Japan) suffered from a prolonged decline in the rate of profit.
The U.S. defeat in Vietnam revealed the limits of U.S. military supremacy. Revolutionary movements threatened to destabilize both capitalist and socialist governments from Eastern to Western Europe, from China to Latin America, and from Portugal to the African colonies.
The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 offered the first indication that resource and environmental depletion might impose insurmountable limits on future economic growth. As the U.S. international balance of payments became increasingly unfavorable, the United States was forced to abandon the nominal peg of the U.S. dollar to gold that had existed under the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Throughout the 1970s, the world economy struggled with “stagflation,” a combination of growing unemployment and rising inflation that could not be managed by traditional Keynesian policies.
In response to what Giovanni Arrighi has called the “signal crisis” of U.S. hegemony (Arrighi 1994: 214-217), U.S. elites shifted the focus of capital accumulation from material to financial expansion. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates dramatically to contain rising inflation. The policy of monetary austerity led to deep recessions at home and debt crises from Latin America to Eastern Europe. These recessions and subsequent economic stagnation helped weaken the bargaining power of the working class in the core countries of the world capitalist system. At the same time, the “structural adjustments” and “shock therapies” imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank impoverished the populations of Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa. They also forced financial capital to flow back to the United States (Chossudovsky 1998).
By the mid-1990s, profit rates in the United States and Western Europe had returned to or even exceeded the levels of the 1960s. The capitalist world economy experienced a period of relative recovery from 1995 to 2007. At the turn of the century, the United States accounted for about two-fifths, and the United States and its allies together accounted for about three-quarters, of the world’s total military spending (Council on Foreign Relations 2014). At the time, U.S. hegemony seemed unassailable.
But unlike the early postwar years, when U.S.-led restructuring promoted not only the national interests of American capitalism but also the common interests of the system, the transition from material expansion to financial expansion after the 1970s helped restore the rate of profit by exacerbating interstate and social conflicts that would eventually lead to the collapse of hegemony (Arrighi 2005).
The global neoliberal restructuring that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s (which included policies of privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization, and financialization) lowered global effective demand and created the conditions for frequent financial crises (Crotty 2000). As a result, the United States had to stabilize the world economy by acting as a global “borrower of last resort”: it developed significant trade deficits, and U.S. domestic demand had to rely on debt-financed consumption. When U.S. internal and external financial imbalances became unsustainable, the U.S. and the global economy were hit by the “Great Recession” of 2008-09. The decline of U.S. hegemony accelerated (Li 2008: 72-87).
The risks of nuclear proliferation.
In terms of the market value of the dollar, the U.S. share of the global economy fell from 30 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2020. During the same period, China’s share of the world economy increased from 4 percent to 17 percent (World Bank 2022). China is widely expected to replace the United States as the world’s largest economy in the next few years.
In previous hegemonic changes, the new hegemonic power was able to replace the old, declining hegemonic power only after one or two major wars involving all the major powers at the time.
However, it is unlikely that we will see a “Third World War” in the form of an all-out war between the declining hegemonic power (the U.S.) and a major challenger (China or Russia) in the next few decades. This is partly because the cost of an all-out war between great powers has increased dramatically in the age of the atomic bomb: Such a war would result not only in the deaths of millions, but most likely in the mutual annihilation of the main adversaries. Despite the decline of U.S. hegemony, the United States is likely to remain the world’s most significant military power in the coming decades (Beckley 2018). This is likely to deter potential hegemony aspirants from engaging in direct military confrontation with the United States.
However, even if the outbreak of a “Third World War” is not imminent, the decline of the hegemonic power will have serious consequences. In a sense, these have already occurred. As explained above, in a world system based on interstate competition, hegemonic power is indispensable to counter “system-level problems” with appropriate “system-level solutions.” In the past, maintaining system-wide “peace” was mainly about preventing great power military conflicts. But in the age of the atomic bomb, maintaining long-term, sustainable, system-wide “peace” also requires effective containment of nuclear proliferation.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the face of the irreversible decline of U.S. hegemony, the great powers can no longer ensure that only the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have access to nuclear weapons. In addition to the five equally “legal” nuclear powers, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have become “illegal” but openly declared nuclear powers. Israel has never declared that it has nuclear weapons, but is considered a de facto nuclear power. In addition, a number of other countries have developed some nuclear capability (Wallerstein 2014a). As the spread of nuclear weapons has creeped but steadily out of control, the likelihood of “accidental” regional or even global nuclear war has increased. It has also become more likely that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of non-state armed groups.
Heading for geopolitical collapse
In the 20th century, oil was the lifeblood of the global capitalist economy. Despite the development of renewable energy, oil remains an indispensable energy resource for transportation and various industrial sectors (Heinberg 2016: 81-114).
For much of the second half of the 20th century, stabilizing the Middle East-the world’s most important oil and natural gas producing region-was a major U.S. diplomatic and strategic concern. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. ruling elites (mediated through the Bush and Cheney administrations) decided to embark on a strategic gamble. They wanted to directly control much of the Middle East through their military might in order to establish a lasting global hegemony before any other major power had a chance to take on the U.S. in economic and military resources. This gamble failed spectacularly. Instead of securing a lasting hegemony, U.S. defeat in the Middle East transformed a slow and gradual hegemonic decline into a rapid one (Wallerstein 2003: 13-30).
Under Obama, U.S. efforts to reverse the loss of power in the Middle East through interventions in Libya and Syria again proved futile (Wallerstein 2014b). After its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States has abandoned any claim to be the dominant foreign power in the Middle East.
Currently, the Middle East is in a highly unstable and fragile situation. Several regional powers, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey, are entangled in complex ways, whether through hostilities or through constantly and rapidly shifting tactical alliances. Deadly conflicts in Yemen, Palestine, and Syria continue. As Iran moves ever closer to its goal of becoming a genuine nuclear power, the danger grows that Israel will carry out its threat of direct military action.
If the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East has made a future geopolitical collapse of the region (with devastating consequences for global energy supplies and the world economy) very likely, the current war between Russia and Ukraine has brought geopolitical catastrophe to Europe’s doorstep.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. ruling elites have pursued a strategy of NATO expansion eastward to include not only Eastern European countries but also some of the former Soviet republics. Although U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly claimed that eastward expansion is not directed against Russia, from the perspective of the Russian ruling class, there is little doubt that the ultimate intention of the West’s ruling elites is to isolate and weaken Russia in order to pave the way for U.S. domination of Eurasia (Mearsheimer 2014).
Regardless of how one morally views the current war between Russia and Ukraine: What is certain is that Putin would not have made the decision to go to war if he had not recognized the dramatic weakening of the United States as a result of the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal. It can be assumed that Putin was convinced that the time was right for a counteroffensive before the current war began.
It is too early to assess the long-term consequences of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The war and the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia have further impacted global supply chains at a time when those supply chains have not yet recovered from the dislocation caused by the global covid pandemic.
Even before the Russia-Ukraine war, European capitalism was going downhill in a tendecent fashion. The European Union’s share of the global economy, as measured by the euro’s exchange rate, fell from 25 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2020 (World Bank 2022). The prosperity of European capitalism depends largely on its ability to maintain advantages in certain high-tech productive sectors. These sectors, in turn, depend on the supply of cheap energy and a relatively stable and peaceful geopolitical environment. The Russia-Ukraine war has put an end to both.
If the European economy collapses, it is unlikely that European capitalist countries will remain politically and socially stable. The very architecture of the European Union could be called into question. Europe is the geographic origin of the modern world system. The disintegration of European capitalism could very well represent the final collapse of the existing world system.
Challenges of the 21st Century
In the first half of the 20th century, in addition to two world wars, the capitalist world economy suffered increasingly devastating economic crises, culminating in the Great Depression of the 1930s. It remains to be seen whether the current collapse of hegemony will lead to a comparable world economic crisis.
In the current world-historical situation, the greatest threat to civilization comes not from the economy but from environmental collapse. The average global surface temperature is currently about 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than in the pre-industrial era and is rising by another 0.2 degrees every ten years. If the average global temperature rises above two degrees Celsius, it will be too late to prevent some major climate disasters (e.g., a rise in sea level that threatens to inundate most of the world’s coastal cities). If feedbacks are triggered between oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems, climate change could slip out of human control. If so, much of the Earth’s surface would ultimately become unsuitable for human habitation (Spratt and Sutton 2008).
It is well known that the current climate crisis is caused by massive fossil fuel consumption, as has been the case since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Despite technological advances in recent years that have improved energy efficiency and promoted the use of renewable energy, it remains highly unlikely that the world can reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough unless the major emitters (such as China and the core capitalist countries) commit to zero or negative economic growth (Li 2020). However, in a world system based on interstate competition, it is virtually impossible for any nation-state to voluntarily impose zero or negative growth.
Will humanity have enough time to save itself from the threat of ecological collapse before capitalism destroys the material basis of civilization?
In the past, capitalism has survived hegemonic collapses by producing a new hegemonic power capable of meeting “systems-level problems” with “systems-level solutions.” However, in order to offer “system-level solutions,” the new hegemonic power must be sufficiently powerful to impose its will on other great powers if necessary. This requires that the new hegemonic power have formidable advantages over other great powers, including the previous hegemon. In each of the previous hegemonic transitions, the new hegemonic power was many times larger or more powerful than the previous one in terms of territorial scale, industrial resources, and military might (Arrighi 2005).
As a continental power, the United States is many times larger than any European nation-state. Russia’s territory is about one and a half times that of the United States. Since the Russian population is about half the size of the U.S. population and the Russian economy remains relatively weak, Russia has no realistic chance of challenging the U.S. position as the dominant world power, although Russia could emerge as a major power in the northern and western parts of the Eurasian continent, pushing back U.S. influence in that area.
China’s population is about four times that of the United States. However, this also means that China’s per capita natural resource endowment and per capita economic output are only a fraction of the corresponding U.S. per capita endowment and economic output. Although China’s overall economic performance will overtake that of the U.S. in a few years, both the total Chinese population and the Chinese labor force are projected to decline in the coming decades. As a result, China is unlikely to ever achieve overwhelming economic superiority over the U.S., and declining investment efficiency means that China’s per capita economic output is likely to peak at about half the U.S. level (Rajah and Leng 2022).
Because per capita economic output is highly correlated with the level of technological development, China’s relatively low per capita output implies that its military power will likely continue to lag behind that of the U.S. in the coming decades (Beckley 2018: 62-97).
As the U.S. hegemonic power collapses, but there will be no new hegemonic power to take its place and provide “system-level solutions,” the existing world system will lose its ability to solve “system-level problems.” To the extent that a world system is unable to function as a coherent system because it cannot permanently and effectively solve its “system-level problems,” we have reached the historical turning point of transition from the existing system to something else.
What will “something else” consist of? Will capitalism be replaced by a new system or new systems? Will the new system or systems be more egalitarian and democratic than the current one? Or will it or will they prove to be more oppressive and exploitative? Will humanity have enough time to complete the coming world-historical transition before the material foundations of civilization suffer irreparable and irreversible damage?
The answers to all these questions will depend on the global class struggles of the coming decades.