By the middle of this century, one of three worlds will triumph: the Islamic world of the Middle East, the authoritarian world of China and maybe Russia, or the western world of North America and Europe. I am not confident that the winner will be the West.
The Islamic world is the most volatile. The question here is not a global Islamic triumph, but whether it will dissolve into a chaos to be “rescued” by the authoritarian world or whether it can maintain a basic stability. The simple answer lies in whether the United States chooses to remain strategically engaged in the Islamic world as a bulwark against this chaos.
The stakes are enormous. The Islamic world is geographically vast. It covers almost the entire waist of the Eurasian land mass, includes half the continent of Africa and stretches through the Indian subcontinent on to Malaysia and Indonesia in Southeast Asia. Because of a volatile contagion effect to outbursts of disorder, and the vulnerability of Israel in the middle of it, every post-World War II U.S. president from Harry Truman in the 1940s to George W. Bush in the early 2000s maintained a steadying hand of strategic engagement in the region.
Despite the recent subsequent successes against al-Qaeda and ISIS, both Presidents Obama and Trump were and have been ambivalent about America’s continuing commitment.
The tragedy is that the Islamic world is in the throes of multiples struggles, any one of which can tear the region apart and engulf the rest of the planet. First, there is the fundamental struggle between Islamic radicals who aspire to impose an Islamic caliphate over the entire world versus the larger faction of moderate Islam that accepts accommodation with the modern world. Second, there is the sectarian divide between majority Sunnis, symbolically led by Saudi Arabia, and minority Shias, concentrated in Iran. This tension has triggered a proxy war in Yemen that may well spill into a full-scale war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Third, there is the ongoing civil war in Syria that has drawn in Turkey, Russia, Israel, Iran and the United States. Finally, looming over all these struggles is the almost constant warfare over the existence of Israel.
Indeed, in all these struggles, it is Washington’s commitment to Israel and Saudi Arabia that serves as the pivotal guarantee against a scenario that might trigger a regional nuclear war. And yet, just at this acute moment, President Trump is dithering, just as did his predecessor.
With this indecision, chaos has been Syria’s daily agony, just as unrest again descends on Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. This is just the wedge that Russia is exploiting to regain its hold on the region with the backing of President Xi Jinpeng of China.
Reinforcing this wedge is the longstanding Middle East penchant for authoritarian regimes. Russia may lack the resources for extended engagement in the Middle East, but the Chinese do not. In 2010, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Since then, China’s economic growth rate has been three times that of the United States under President Obama, and twice that of the United States under President Trump. Meanwhile, China’s military is bristling with technology that is surpassing ours, as it militarizes island chains in the South China Sea explicitly designed to push the American Navy out of Asian waters.
On top of all this, Xi Jinping openly has declared that China’s system of political authoritarianism mixed with state capitalism is a better model for this century than Western democracy.
In “ordinary times,” the attraction of the Western freedoms that come with democratic governance, and the opportunities of more open economic and social systems, should serve as a sufficient bulwark against such authoritarian appeals. The challenge is that Western democracies still have to show that they work. But, over the past few years, the two leading Western democracies, the United Kingdom and the United States, have embarrassed themselves by spectacles of dysfunction in their political systems.
In a national referendum in 2016, the British public voted to withdraw from the European Union. Since then, the British Parliament has been unable to agree on how to do this, freezing up its political system.
In the United States, we have been mired in a vicious partisan quest to impeach President Trump that ultimately is likely to go nowhere. Yet, with each passing day, a poisonous bitterness seeps into our body politic like corrosive acid. One of America’s greatest admirers was the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in his “Democracy in America” in 1830 that the best pathway to the future lay in America. He expressed one caveat, however: “A decline in public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office.”
Unless we stop this foolishness, by mid-century the world will be China’s. I pray I am wrong.