I have spent the last two weeks in the Western Balkans, and have, from my perch here, had a front row seat to developments that, taken all together, feel very ominous. It’s not just that this region is in a lot of trouble these days—bad things are happening in Bosnia, in North Macedonia, in Kosovo and Serbia, and in Montenegro. It’s that its troubles are mirrors of the kinds of deteriorations occurring elsewhere on Europe’s periphery—in Belarus and in Ukraine, most recently. The whole edifice feels rickety.
It feels like the order we have all taken for granted since the end of the Cold War is badly decaying, and has gotten so fragile that it might well shatter soon. Worse than the decay itself, however, is what feels like our inability to perceive just how advanced it is. We notice individual problems, but we don’t see how it adds up, nor how we got here. While many have noted the various setbacks and challenges the West has faced in the last two decades, few seem to have properly internalized how damaging those have been. We are still, in some strange way, operating as if things are more or less fine—yes, adjustments must be made, but our world is durable and sound.
The damage started a decade after the Cold War ended. 9/11 and America’s subsequent military debacles in the Middle East and Afghanistan provided a vivid demonstration of the hard limits of its overwhelming might. Both Iraq and Afghanistan were disappointments to those who felt that world history had a broadly emancipatory trajectory, and that American power could be used to nudge things in the right direction. Taken as a whole, the 2000s were a blow not just to American prestige, but also to an idea of how the world was supposed to work. Some Europeans might have been glad to see the brash American cowboys get their comeuppance in Iraq. But as the final collapse of the Afghanistan project earlier this year underlined, the whole optimistic premise of nation- and order-building (upon which the EU project is ultimately premised) was also damaged by America’s failures in the early 2000s.
Next came the 2008 financial crisis, with economic devastation in tow. America recovered reasonably quickly, as did Europe (with some lag), but the Great Recession left deep scars and resentments in place. Without gratuitously oversimplifying, I think it’s fair to say that the populist uprisings that have since shaken the West owe a lot to the shocks of the financial crisis and its aftermath. Beyond making many people poorer, the crisis struck a blow against the very notion of elite competence and worthiness. And ditto abroad. Though the world economy recovered, China rebounded a lot faster than America, and emerged relatively stronger on the other side of the crisis. Like the global-minded political elites that had blithely steered it to catastrophe, America itself was cut down to size in the eyes of the world.
And for the entire decade or so since the financial crisis, the collective West has been repeatedly tested by its major adversaries in ways that simply didn’t happen before. The most egregious such move in the Western hemisphere was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, with the ongoing illegal Chinese buildup in the South China Sea playing an analogous role in Asia. Both big moves have been accompanied by a steady stream of low-grade provocations and military encounters that are so common these days, they don’t merit mention in the non-military press any more.
Today, Russia is massing troops on Ukraine’s border to such an extent that several European allies are meeting with American diplomats to plan contingencies should another invasion occur. Belarus, backed by Russia, has ferried tens of thousands of migrants from the Middle East to the Polish border and has created such an acute crisis that Britain has sent a handful of troops to signal its solidarity should things take a violent turn. And in Bosnia, a secession crisis triggered by a blowhard ethnic Serb leader has caused the United States to send a series of envoys to the region, with sanctions and the mobilization of more troops both on the table. All this goes on as China regularly sends planes into Taiwanese air defense zones.
Like I said, though, it’s not that all these things are happening all at once. That’s bad enough, and has, to be fair, focused some minds. It’s that we are acting as if these crises are still just peripheral challenges to an order that is itself still fundamentally healthy. In response to Russia’s buildup on Ukraine’s borders, for example, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that America’s commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity is “ironclad”. I have every reason to believe that in saying that, Blinken was not suggesting that the United States would deploy ground troops to Ukraine to push back an invasion. And I’m fairly certain that this important nuance has been communicated to Kyiv, so as not to embolden them to provoke the very invasion that the language is meant to deter. Still, as Justin Logan recently wrote on Twitter, Blinken’s language is “emblematic of the view that deterrence is cheap.” It assumes that a loud threat from America is enough to bring rabble-rousing revisionist powers to heel.
That may have been true in the 1990s, but it’s almost certainly not true today. As a new report from the Carnegie Endowment on Russia notes in passing:
The divisions in U.S. domestic politics appear to the Kremlin as signs of weakness. They reinforce perceptions in Kremlin circles that the United States is now in inexorable decline, a narrative that is embraced and propagated by Russian officials, media, and analysts.
This assessment is almost certainly shared by many in Beijing. The emperor has no clothes, they must be saying to themselves. And moreover, this assessment is likely correct, at least for the time being: we have no intention of going to war over Ukraine, and an attack on Taiwan’s outlying islands in the coming months would almost certainly not be met with a coherent and concerted attempt at pushback.
Such an assessment, however, is especially dangerous because it leads aggressors to underestimate the likelihood of the United States snapping to a much more belligerent pose in just a few years’ time. Our elites’ complacency about the current moment hides just how nasty we can get when properly provoked. Indeed, it hides it even from ourselves.