Indeed, from the end of World War II until very recently, the United States has performed the role of a hegemon in world politics. America may be democratic at home, but abroad it has been hegemonic. That is, by some rough measure of international consent, it is America that has the responsibility to lead. America formed NATO in Europe, even as its Navy and Air Force exercise preponderant power in the Pacific Basin. And whenever there is a humanitarian catastrophe somewhere in the developing world, it is the United States that has been expected to organize the response. Periodically, America has failed. But in general, it would be a different, much more anarchic world without American hegemony.
But that hegemony, in some aspects, seems to be on the wane. That is what makes this juncture in history unique. NATO is simply not what it used to be. U.S. forces in the Pacific are perceived to be less all-powerful than in the past, as China tests U.S. hegemony in the region. But most importantly, U.S. President Barack Obama is evolving a doctrine of surgical strikes against specific individuals combined with non-interference -- or minimal interference -- in cases of regional disorder. Libya and Syria are cases in point. Gone, at least for the moment, are the days when U.S. forces were at the ready to put a situation to rights in this country or that.
When it comes to the Greater Middle East, Americans seem to want protection on the cheap, and Obama is giving them that. We will kill a terrorist with a drone, but outside of limited numbers of special operations forces there will be no boots on the ground for Libya, Syria or any other place. As for Iran, whatever the White House now says, there is a perception that the administration would rather contain a nuclear Iran than launch a military strike to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
That, by itself, is unexceptional. Previous administrations have been quite averse to the use of force. In recent decades, it was only George W. Bush -- and only in the aftermath of 9/11 -- who relished the concept of large-scale boots on the ground in a war of choice. Nevertheless, something has shifted. In a world of strong states -- a world characterized by hierarchy, that is -- the United States often enforced the rules of the road or competed with another hegemon, the Soviet Union, to do so. Such enforcement came in the form of robust diplomacy, often backed by a threat to use military power. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were noted for American leadership and an effective, sometimes ruthless foreign policy. Since the Cold War ended and Bill Clinton became president, American leadership has often seemed to be either unserious, inexpertly and crudely applied or relatively absent. And this has transpired even as states themselves in the Greater Middle East have become feebler.
In other words, both the hegemon and the many states it influences are weaker. Hierarchy is dissolving on all levels. Equality is now on the march in geopolitics: The American hegemon is less hegemonic, and within individual countries -- Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Tunisia and so on -- internal forces are no longer subservient to the regime. (And states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not in the American camp to the degree that they used to be, further weakening American hegemony.) Moreover, the European Union as a political organizing principle is also weakening, even as the one-party state in China is under increasing duress.
Nevertheless, in the case of the Middle East, do not conflate chaos with democracy. Democracy itself implies an unequal, hierarchal order, albeit one determined by voters. What we have in the Middle East cannot be democracy because almost nowhere is there a new and sufficiently formalized hierarchy. No, what we have in many places in the Middle East is the weakening of central authority with no new hierarchy to adequately replace it.
Unless some force can, against considerable odds, reinstitute hierarchy -- be it an American hegemon acting globally, or an international organization acting regionally or, say, an Egyptian military acting internally -- we will have more fluidity, more equality and therefore more anarchy to look forward to. This is profoundly disturbing, because civilization abjures anarchy. In his novel Billy Budd (1924), Herman Melville deeply laments the fact that even beauty itself must be sacrificed for the maintenance of order. For without order -- without hierarchy -- there is nothing.