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The headless superpower

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.


Monday, June 19, 2017

If not for the U.S. in all its might, then recent events would indicate that the entire Middle East is on the verge of its own version of a European Great War.

Most of the elements that hurled European powers into conflicts in 1914 and 1939 (and 1870, 1853, 1805, 1756 ...) are present in the Middle East right now. You have two rival alliances, one led by Iran and the other by the Saudis, riven by religion, ideology and strategic interests. You have ongoing proxy wars between them, in Syria and Yemen, that resemble the Spanish Civil War in their ferocity and factional complexity. You have various unpredictable third forces, from the Islamic State to the Kurds to the Russians, whose instigationist activities or mere self-interest could help set a catastrophe into motion.

And now, with the sudden Saudi-led attempt to isolate Qatar and impose a long list of demands on the tiny emirate, you have an Austria-and-Serbia-in-1914 confrontation — a larger power demanding a small country cut ties to terrorism, while the small country looks to the larger power’s rivals for support, and a fog of rumor and misinformation hangs over efforts to resolve the spat.

Indeed, what the Saudis and their allies did to Qatar is, by traditional definition, an act of war — closing borders and waterways and halting flights in what amounts to a soft blockade. The shows of support for Qatar from the Iranians and Turkey, meanwhile, are the kind of steps that historically turn crises into open conflicts and war.

Except: In the historical examples, 1914 and all the rest, there was not a global hegemon with a military dwarfing all the rivalrous powers and a clear interest in making sure that conflicts stay local and that borders stay where they’ve been drawn. And the main point of the Pax Americana, the best case for all the money we spend maintaining it, is that it promises to keeps a lid on exactly these sorts of regional conflicts.

Thus we rely on our unpleasant friends the Saudis not to start a regional war because they depend on us for military hardware and, often, to do their fighting for them.

We rely on our unpleasant enemies the Iranians not to start a regional war because they don’t want to risk going up against our juggernaut directly. We expect Qatar to accept our mediation because (among other reasons) we have a major military base in their territory. 

This can work, and it has worked, in the Middle East and elsewhere: Recent decades have seen fewer major wars, fewer combat deaths and many fewer interstate conflicts than in a multipolar, pre-Pax Americana age.

But it doesn’t inevitably work, and it won’t inevitably last. Our leaders can destabilize things from above, as George W. Bush did when he tried to remake Iraq by force of arms. And local actors can expose the limits of our hegemony, as they did under Barack Obama’s more hands-off style, which avoided an Iraq-level blunder but saw the world’s peace weaken as bloody proxy wars increased.

Now the heir to Bush’s blunder and Obama’s struggles is a man who has no idea what he’s doing in almost any aspect of the presidency. And not surprisingly, that inexperience or incompetence is one reason the Qatar crisis has become this dangerous. All that Trumpian glad-handing and orb-stroking in Saudi Arabia seems to have given the Saudi alliance the sense that they had room to be unusually aggressive, and his tweets and statements since have often seemed to clash with what our diplomats are doing.

So we have a test: How well does U.S. hegemony function when the colossus lacks a head? Is the basic structure of the Pax Americana strong enough to keep lesser powers out of major wars even if the president of the United States doesn’t understand his role or how to play it?

This time, we can reasonably hope, the answer will be yes. But if so, don’t get comfortable: The Middle East will be in a 1914 alignment for the duration of this presidency, and the kind of test happening in Qatar will come around more than once. 

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.