Imagine if a political party in power stages an attack on a key government building, charges a foreign terrorist with the crime, extracts a confession using torture, declares suspension of civil liberties, then rounds up other enemies of the state and executes the man convicted of the crime. That happened in Germany, in 1933.
Now suppose a similar crime occurred in the United States. How would people react?
Interestingly, many people around the world regard 9/11 in this light. An attack is staged on a symbol of power in one of the world’s leading states. The state, putative exemplar of democratic order in this case, violates international law to round up opponents – using assassination, torture, wars of aggression, surveillance, imprisonment and massacres – all without constraint or regard for long standing allies. The international legal order disintegrates. An order based solely on power gradually replaces one based on rough balances of interests and legal norms.
The former world leader’s main rivals witness this transformation. They see that the United States, with all its impressive military hardware and technology, grows weaker – far weaker than it was when nations conducted their affairs under the leader’s aegis. The persuasive influence of trust and good works always exceeds coercive power, whenever any framework of norms pertains. When norms evaporate, force regains its primacy. Might defines what is right, as laws become insignificant. A single norm replaces all others: strong and impudent governments prevail over weak and retiring ones.
We see that happening now, from Ukraine to Syria, and even the South China Sea. For several reasons the United States declines to use force, or even effective diplomacy, to rectify or settle current conflicts. It understands that few nations care to cooperate with it. Having smashed the order it collaboratively assembled during five and a half decades, it finds itself acting alone. The world looks chaotic, but the U. S. denies the role it played in making it so. The United States tried to extend its empire with client states in Afghanistan and Mesopotamia. It failed, historians will say disastrously. Now it largely watches, war weary, with no plan and no prospect of one.
The world needs leadership from a source that stands for just and free interactions, but people under threats of force see no candidates. Where will ethical leadership originate? What authoritative and respected state, acting with integrity, could possibly restore peace at this point? Virtually no one in the rest of the world believes this leadership can spring from the United States.