On the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the Economist published an essay entitled “How America wasted its unipolar moment.” It was a familiar story in a popular genre of geopolitical analysis: a eulogy for the end of the American century. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the argument goes, the United States no longer had a powerful rival to check its ambitions—a development that led to arrogance and overreach.
Madeleine Albright likened post-Cold War US foreign policy to “being set loose on the ocean and there wasn’t really any charted course.” Then came September 11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the War on Terror. The United States had an apparent purpose, but critics say that it was contrived and imprudent—a distraction from more pressing matters like the rise of China. They argue that the post-Cold War era has been a period of relentless American hubris and incompetence.
Many factors allegedly set the wheels of national decline in motion. Neoliberal economic policies and globalisation caused the displacement of American workers, which laid the foundation for Trumpism. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sapped American power and credibility. Liberals overestimated the appeal of democracy. Despite the liberal market reforms and international integration that characterised the 1990s and 2000s, Russia and China not only failed to adopt democratic norms and institutions but became increasingly authoritarian, nationalistic and aggressive.
Countless post-mortems have been published about the United States’ unipolar moment—a concept that seems more outdated by the day, as China cements its global power. Stephen Walt’s 2018 book The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy argues that US influence steeply declined during the period of “liberal hegemony” that followed the Cold War, due to the follies and illusions of America’s leaders. American policymakers sought to spread democratic values and market reforms as widely as possible through a set of alliances and institutions often referred to—sometimes reverently, sometimes derisively—as the post-war global order. Walt argues that this ambitious project was bound to fail, as it overextended the United States, prompted a backlash against its policies and intensified great power competition.
Those who tell this story of self-inflicted American decline abroad usually also insist that things haven’t been much better at home. Economic forces such as globalization and automation increased competition for American workers, and the displacement and frustration caused by these changes created a political vacuum for a demagogue like Trump to fill. Those who make this argument claim that wasteful interventionism exacerbated these domestic problems by allowing right-wing populists to claim that elites in Washington have ignored American citizens in their quest to maintain liberal hegemony. Tucker Carlson makes the same argument about the United States’ support for Ukraine today. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently warned that support for Ukraine may dwindle with the Republicans in charge: “I think people are going to be sitting in a recession,” he said, “and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.”
American voters don’t typically care as much about foreign policy as they do about domestic issues, which have a more immediate impact on their lives. When they do care, their interest is generally reflexive—a response to shocks like September 11 and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even in these cases, Americans have short attention spans—in the years leading up to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war rarely found its way into the news. Although Afghanistan was back in the headlines for a while, it was displaced overnight by the invasion of Ukraine.
But over the past few years, foreign and domestic policy have become increasingly entwined, as it has never been clearer that the quality of American democracy is one of the most valuable instruments of the United States’ power. Ironically, just when many believe that the United States should be more modest about exporting its democratic ideals, a robust global commitment to those ideals is more vital than it has been in decades.
As Xi Jinping launches his third term (after eliminating the ten-year two-term limit in 2018), his hostility towards the United States has galvanised his policies at home and abroad. He describes the US as the “biggest source of chaos in the present-day world” and the “biggest threat to our country’s development and security.” Xi’s fixation on the United States was evident throughout an important recent speech to the Communist Party Congress. Chris Buckley et al. for the New York Times report that, “though he did not mention the United States by name, his distrust of the world’s other great power was an unmistakable backdrop to that exhortation.” Xi regards Chinese authoritarianism as a more sustainable model of governance than American democracy, and his immovable commitment to this model is one of the reasons why he has been so reluctant to abandon his disastrous zero-Covid policy (which he reaffirmed during the aforementioned speech). To backtrack on this would be to acknowledge that he made a catastrophic error in managing the pandemic—an error that Beijing’s main rival avoided.
On 11 September 2021, the Economist argued that the withdrawal from Afghanistan marked “the end, for now, of a faded idea, about the imperative of spreading America’s ideals throughout the world,” adding, “America is struggling to articulate its ideals, with conviction, to itself, let alone to others. A hardened president leads a tired nation.” Six months after those words were published, the United States was called upon to articulate its democratic ideals more forcefully than at any point since the Cold War.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine represents a fundamental shift in the global conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, for several reasons. First, there are the existential consequences for Ukrainian democracy—the country is fighting for its survival as an independent democratic state, which is why its armed forces and civilian population are resisting their would-be occupiers with such tenacity and ingenuity. Second, the surprising unity of the United States and Europe in their forceful joint response to the invasion has been instructive for other would-be conquerors, such as Xi Jinping. Beijing’s support for Moscow has steadily eroded as Putin has suffered increasing battlefield losses, an economic crisis created by sanctions and international isolation, and intensifying domestic turmoil. While Xi remains adamant that China will absorb Taiwan, the cost of doing so by force is almost certainly much higher than he may have assumed before the invasion of Ukraine.
Finally, the war in Ukraine has given much of the democratic world a just cause to rally around and exposed the bankruptcy of autocratic rule at a time when many in the United States and Europe were beginning to tout its benefits.
President Biden’s recent speeches in Philadelphia and Washington focused on the threat that Trumpism poses to American democracy. From the coordinated campaign to overturn the 2020 election to the explosion of political violence on January 6 and the continued insistence among many Republican candidates that the election wasn’t legitimate, it’s difficult to remember a time when the commitment to democracy in the United States was shakier. The defence of democracy has been a central theme of Biden’s presidency since long before the invasion of Ukraine. In his inaugural address, he told Americans: “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy … We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile.” He declared, “We face an attack on democracy and on truth” and promised to “defend our democracy.”
Just as Trump’s contempt for democracy at home mirrored his support for authoritarians like Viktor Orbán abroad, Biden argued that there’s an inextricable connection between the health of democracy in America and in the rest of the world. “The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world,” he writes in a 2020 essay. “But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” Biden promised to respect the freedom of the press, protect the right to vote and uphold judicial independence. He announced that he would invite “democratic leaders around the world to put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda.” He pointed to the repression of democratic movements in places like Hong Kong and argued that America should be on the right side of this international struggle.
This was all reassuring after four years of Trump. But despite Biden’s soaring rhetoric about democracy, the horrific images coming out of Afghanistan during the United States’ chaotic withdrawal convinced some that the “imperative of spreading America’s ideals throughout the world” was a “faded idea.”
After eight months of war in Ukraine, this argument is difficult to sustain. Democracies on both sides of the Atlantic have shown a surprising willingness to confront Putin and give the Ukrainians the economic and military support they need to resist the invasion. Europe is in the process of dramatically reducing its reliance on Russian natural gas (pipeline exports have already fallen by 75%), which means that the continent will probably face a severe energy crisis this winter. The United States has sent $17.5 billion in military assistance to Ukraine (most of which was provided after the invasion) and authorised much more. Britain and the EU have sent billions in aid as well, while European countries have accepted millions of Ukrainian refugees.
This effort has rightly been seen as the defence of Ukrainian democracy against an imperialist dictatorship. In a speech delivered in Poland a month after the invasion, Biden observed that the “battle for democracy could not conclude and did not conclude with the end of the Cold War,” and that the “democracies of the world are revitalized with purpose and unity found in months that we’d once taken years to accomplish.” When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a speech to Congress, he thanked Biden for the United States’ “sincere commitment to the defence of Ukraine and democracy all over the world.”
Immediately after the Cold War came to an end, a rapid process of democratization took place around the world. While less than 41% of the world’s governments were democratic in 1989, this proportion surged to over 60% within two decades. The ratio of autocracies to democracies has remained relatively unchanged in the years that followed, but the quality of democracy has been in steady decline for over a decade and a half. This degeneration has been pronounced in the United States, where the president sought to overturn an election—and his party stalwarts, his supporters in the media and millions of Americans argued that he had every right to do so. Many of Trump’s loudest enablers now say that Ukrainian democracy isn’t worth defending. This is no coincidence.
The past eight months have been a reminder that the importance of spreading America’s democratic ideals is far from fading. In fact, as the world becomes increasingly multipolar, the case for democracy and the rules-based international order has only grown stronger. Russia’s feared military has been humbled by a defiant Ukrainian resistance, which has performed remarkably well—thanks, in part, to the influx of western arms and years of NATO training assistance. China’s rise was always inevitable, but now that NATO, the EU and Washington have shown resolve in the face of authoritarian aggression, Beijing is probably reassessing the wisdom of launching a war against Taiwan.
It was easy to decry liberal hegemony when the threat of real authoritarianism was less clear. But as Russian missiles smash into Ukrainian cities and Chinese totalitarianism becomes more entrenched and aggressive, it’s a very different sort of hegemony that we should be worried about.