It’s a frenzied and broad agenda for any leader. And it also tells us something about the new world order that is emerging.
While President Trump spends his time tweeting insults and threatening to start Middle Eastern wars, Russia is filling the vacuum in international diplomacy. In the case of Libya, ending a bloody conflict at the doorstep of Europe in an oil-rich country is a major deal. It could bring Erdogan and Putin even closer and force Europeans to start thinking in pragmatic terms about working with Russia on energy and security. As Europe starts thinking of a post-American world, Russia is gaining the prestige it never had.
Russia was always considered a disruptive power while the United States had a track record of establishing “order” in various parts of the world. Post-World War II European unity, supporting democracies after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the equilibrium of military power in Asia or even the efforts to transform the Middle East regimes were, for better of for worse, attempts by Washington to create a friendly and stable order in its own image.
America used to try to design the world, Russia used to try to sabotage those plans. Now things almost look the other way around.
Sure, Russia seems to be punching above its weight in terms of economic and diplomatic capacity, but it is shaping events nonetheless. In Syria, Putin altered the course of a civil war that the United States was watching from afar. In Ukraine, Russian intervention has changed the map and dashed Ukraine’s European dreams. In Venezuela, Moscow’s support has been crucial to maintain Nicolás Maduro in power. In the Middle East, Putin is the leader you want a selfie with.
The decline of U.S. hegemony has been long discussed — the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington documented five waves of post-World War II American “declinism” back in 1988. His view was that the constant fear of American decline was what led to America’s impressive capacity for constant renewal.
But Huntington never bargained for a President Trump. Trump doesn’t believe in the U.S.-led liberal order or in its institutions. He has eviscerated the U.S. diplomatic capacity and undermined the idea of a U.S. global role among a substantial portion of the American public. The United States may still have the capacity for renewal, but under Trump, it doesn’t seem to want to — it no longer seems to have faith in itself or its own ideas.
Right now, the future for Libyans is unclear. If Putin manages to broker a ceasefire over the next few days, political negotiations will take place in Berlin. If all succeeds, Libya will likely emerge as another divided country. There’s always a bargain. For Syrians, Russia’s footprint meant having to learn to live with their torturer. For Ukraine, it was the end of European integration.
Russia will continue pushing for a world order in which the strong rule the weak and take their territory if they object. It will be an unhappy and unstable world where critics and dissidents are discredited and persecuted. An order in which authoritarianism proudly asserts its legitimacy over democracy.