Describing the balance of power by way of “poles,” the analytical framework so favored in recent decades by professional political scientists, is no longer that useful. The polar concept earned undue acclaim through the writings of the late Charles Krauthammer, whose 1990 Foreign Affairs article, “The Unipolar Moment,” was a succinct way to capture the extent of American geopolitical influence at the end of the Cold War, but is an inadequate yardstick for understanding the present moment or the future of—wait for it—“the American-led liberal international order.”
To be sure, these organizing principles of global life have their discontents. But no one has done better than Walter Russell Mead in describing Iran, Russia, and China as an “Axis of Weevils,” capable only of undermining the world the United States has made, not bringing forth a new one. To begin with, the Weevils lack the same ex nihilo opportunity that presented itself to America in the wake of World War II (and, in fact, World War I before it); absent a similar catastrophe that so inflates and deflates the relative power of nations, constructing a new—even regional—“pole” of power will be the work of decades, if not centuries. Before any fall would come much more decline.
In imagining the fate of the Pax Americana, Rome might well provide a better model than the European empires of the modern age. Like Rome, the United States is a pervasive linguistic, cultural, and economic as well as military influence, and America’s “provinces” enjoy a good deal of autonomy. The number and power of “contented” allies far outstrips the extent of adversarial discontents. Moreover, the Weevils have little to offer by way of ideological attraction. At their cores, China and Russia are animated by a blood-and-soil kind of nationalism, while Iran pairs that with Shi’a sectarianism. There’s not much there if you remain among the “nonaligned” or considering your own long-term interests.
But if the barbarians outside the gates pose a manageable challenge, those within are of greater concern. While much ink and many electrons are spent bewailing the divisions and partisanship of our current politics, it is the increasing agreement over the role of America in the world that is more worrisome. From the Rand Paul Right to the Kamala Harris Left, there is a rising consensus that American power is both waning and illegitimate. President Trump’s “American First” rhetoric is a manifestation of this impulse—though his policies, which have included maintaining the American position in Afghanistan and, reportedly, in Syria as well, do not. Both parties have developed deep phobias about the use of military power, but when a Democrat next occupies the White House, there is likely to be a yearning for the “internationalism” of the Trump years.
Rome survived multiple sackings but not its internal divisions—the one pole became two and then the many squabbling polities of the last millennium. The long decline came before the fall, but the subsequent age was indeed a dark one.
Giselle Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst, is the codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. From 1995 to 1999, she was policy group director for the House Committee on Armed Services. Donnelly also served as a member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. She is the author, coauthor, and editor of numerous articles, essays, and books, including Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama and Clash of Chariots: A History of Armored Warfare. She is currently at work on Empire of Liberty: The Origins of American Strategic Culture.