Within a decade, the growth of a multipolar world will slowly replace Washington’s dreams of global hegemony with multinational alliances or rising regional powers.
Afew recent headlines reveal the painfully inhumane, dangerously volatile state of U.S. relations with its own home region, the continent of North America. A record-breaking 2.76 million border crossings from Mexico filled homeless shelters to the bursting point in cities nationwide in 2022. This year, the possible cessation of Covid restrictions could allow tens of thousands more migrants, now huddling in the cold of northern Mexico, to surge across the border, as some are already able to do. Most of those refugees are Central Americans, fleeing cities ravaged by gang warfare and farms devastated by climate change. The inept U.S. response to such a disturbing world ranges from the Biden administration’s nervously biding its time without a plan in sight to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s cutting an ugly scar through a pristine national forest by building a four-mile border “wall” out of rusted shipping containers (which he now has to dismantle).
Meanwhile, miserable millions in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince are struggling to survive in the world’s worst slums, ravaged by recent earthquakes and roiled by endemic gang violence. While the U.N. Security Council debated launching an international military intervention to address what its secretary-general called “an absolutely nightmarish situation,” the U.S. expelled another 26,000 Haitian asylum seekers without hearings in 2022. The harshness of that was caught in September 2021 when Border Patrol horsemen used “unnecessary force” to herd Haitians back across the Rio Grande. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Washington’s recent economic sanctions on communist Cuba — imposed by Trump and maintained by Biden — have sparked the flight to the U.S. of 250,000 refugees last year, more than 2% of the island’s population.
Farther south, after years of U.S.-led economic blockades and at least one Washington-sponsored coup, Venezuela has hemorrhaged 6.8 million of its citizens in what the U.N. called “the largest refugee and migrant crisis worldwide.” In 2018, only 100 Venezuelans crossed the southern U.S. border. In 2022, that number was an unprecedented 188,000. And keep in mind that all of this is likely to seem but a trickle in the years to come when, as the World Bank warned recently, a human flood may head north as the devastation of climate change uproots as many as four million people annually from Mexico and Central America.
The Fundamentals of Geopolitical Change
As bad as this might seem, there are some faint signs that, however fitfully, the U.S. could at least be moving toward a more positive relationship with its home continent of North America — which includes Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the island nations of the Caribbean. And it can’t happen soon enough since, within a decade, the growth of a multipolar world will slowly replace Washington’s dreams of global hegemony with multinational alliances like the European Union or rising regional powers like Brazil, India, Nigeria, and Turkey.
At the broadest level, geopolitical change is eroding the capacity of any would-be hegemon, China included, to dominate much of the globe the way Washington did for the past 75 years. As the U.S. share of the global economy declined from a whopping 50% in 1950 to just 13% in 2021, its world leadership followed a similar downward trajectory, a process not unlike what Great Britain experienced in the decades before World War I. This relative economic and imperial decline is now undercutting Washington’s long-sought goal of maintaining its dominance over Eurasia, the epicenter of global power. It did so for decades via a tripartite geopolitical strategy — controlling the continent’s western end thanks to NATO and its east via a vast chain of military bases along the Pacific littoral, while working assiduously to block either China or Russia from achieving any sort of full-scale dominance in Central Asia.
Dream on, as they say. In this century, with its disastrous wars, Washington has already lost much of its influence in both the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, as once-close allies (Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) go their own ways. Meanwhile, China has gained significant control over Central Asia, while its recent ad-hoc alliance with an ever-more-battered Russia only fortifies its growing geopolitical power on the Eurasian continent.
Although the Ukraine war has momentarily strengthened the NATO alliance, the unilateral U.S. retreat from Afghanistan in 2021, ending a disastrous 20-year war, forced European leaders for the first time in half a century to consider what life and NATO might be like on a changing planet. They are only now beginning to imagine what taking charge of their own defense would mean perhaps a decade from now, with most U.S. military forces withdrawn from Europe. For the first time in memory, in other words, we could truly find ourselves on another planet.
At Eurasia’s eastern end, Beijing and Washington seem to be squaring off ominously for an armed showdown over Taiwan that — as laid out in a six-phase scenario by the Reuters news service — would likely destroy that island’s cities, disrupt world trade, and devastate much of East Asia. Given Beijing’s strategic advantage of simple proximity to that island and the likelihood of heavy U.S. naval losses in such a conflict, Washington would, in the end, probably blink and retreat from the “first island chain” (Japan-Taiwan-Philippines) to a “second island chain” (Japan-Guam-Palau) or even a “third island chain” (Alaska-Hawaii-New Zealand).
Even without such a disastrous future conflict, which could of course go nuclear, Washington’s position in Eurasia is already beginning to fade. Elsewhere in the world, its influence in South America has fallen strikingly since the Cold War of the last century, while China, capitalizing on a now half-century-old alliance with independent states in Africa, has become the leading power on that continent.
The Rise of Regional Powers
Amid Washington’s fading global hegemony, its most lasting legacy, the liberal international order, has indeed fostered economic growth strengthening a set of regional powers known as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or, more recently, the “13 new emerging economies” (including Indonesia, Nigeria, and South Africa). Their rise is likely to prevent either Washington or Beijing from exercising anything akin to the kind of global dominion of the imperial age or the Cold War era that followed. Instead, regional associations like the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union are likely to grow ever stronger.
With its own global power fading fast, the United States will undoubtedly become a far more regional power. While some Washington insiders might see this trend as at best a retreat or at worst a defeat, it’s actually an opportunity to fundamentally reconsider relations with our home region, North America.
The current U.S. posture toward this continent is a twisted knot of contradictions, the bitter legacy of a fraught history. For more than a century, there has been a striking duality in Washington’s relations with its home region, marked by amity in the north and ambiguity or even hostility to the south, particularly Central America and the Caribbean. After breaking Britain’s decades of informal imperial rule over the whole of Latin America at the dawn of the twentieth century, Washington tried to control its southern neighbors with repeated military interventions — taking Puerto Rico in 1898 and seizing the Panama Canal Zone in 1903, while sending Marines to occupy Caribbean countries like Haiti for decades at a time.
In a bold attempt to change its imperial posture, President Franklin Roosevelt adopted a “good neighbor policy” in the 1930s, briefly abjuring armed occupations. Building on that goodwill, in 1947 Washington forged a mutual defense pact, the Rio Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, with some two-dozen countries in this hemisphere, including Mexico, most of Central America, and all of South America. The Cold War, however, soon brought a surge of controversial CIA interventions — the toppling of Guatemala’s democratic reformist government in 1954, the failed invasion of Cuba in 1961, the occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965, and a series bloody covert wars in Central America during the 1980s.
Even now, the social trauma from those secret wars, marked by massacres and U.S.-financed death squads, is evident in criminal gangs like MS-13 whose 60,000 estimated members now terrorize the northern tier of Central America, forcing many thousands of their victims to flee for the relative safety of the U.S. border. Instead of a collaborative effort to address an increasingly horrific regional brew of endemic violence and climate change, Washington has reacted ever more repressively, while mobilizing border patrols in a futile effort to seal off its southern frontier, as if it had no role in, or responsibility for, the fate of its neighbors.