Future historians may well pick 2019 as a decisive year in the decline of the US and UK as world powers. Of course, the UK started at a much lower level in the international pecking order than the US, but the direction of travel in both cases is the same.
This geopolitical shift comes exactly a century after the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919, when the US and UK were at the peak of their power in determining the fate of nations after the First World War. They self-confidently redrew the map of eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa according to their own interests and with minimal concern about the effect on others.
In the case of the US, the retreat from hegemony was made manifest this year when Iran carried out a devastating drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in September. Though a blatant act of war against an important US ally, Donald Trump, the US president, swiftly decided that it was not in America’s interests to retaliate. He may be putting maximum economic pressure on Iran, but he made clear he is not going to fight a war against them.
In October, it was the turn of the Syrian Kurds to become the next victims of the new American realpolitik when Trump greenlighted a Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Despite having fought heroically and lost 10,000 dead as the US on-the-ground ally in the fight against Isis, the Kurds suffered immediate and predictable ethnic cleansing by Turkey.
The fate of the Saudis and Kurds carried a message about future American actions in the world that was ignored by a largely Trump-bashing media. Dismissing Trump’s foreign policy as crazy and self-serving, establishment critics seldom take on board that, in its crude way, the president’s actions do reflect a changed world order in which the US has lost its old supremacy.
Brutal, shambolic, even treacherous, Trump’s foreign ventures may be, but they often have a core of realism, whether he is dealing with South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria or Ukraine. The so-called “grown-ups”, usually military or diplomatic Washington bureaucrats who are protecting their fiefdoms and detest Trump, are often proposing alternative actions in the Middle East or Ukraine that carry a high risk of starting wars that Trump does not want to fight or the US cannot easily win.
None of the Nato leaders gathered in their hotel in Watford this week seemed to have taken on board the lessons of the failed US-led military in the Middle East since Bill Clinton intervened so disastrously in Somalia in 1993 – a war that is still going on.
Trump, likewise, may not know much about the half-dozen militarily conflicts currently raging in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), but he does see that they are “messy” and “endless” and that America would be well advised to stay out of them.
Significantly, Barack Obama also recognised the ebbing of America’s global hegemony and tried to stall – not always successfully – the enthusiasm for military action inside and outside his administration in Washington. Coming from different directions, both Obama and Trump recognised that the era when the US was the sole superpower that could always expect to get its way is now over.
Trump might easily have gone to war with Iran after a series of Iranian attacks in the Gulf over the course of the summer, culminating in the drone and missile assault on the Saudi oil industry. Sensibly, he decided not to retaliate, demonstrating the new limits on America’s willingness and ability to defend its allies.
The US has lost power, but then it has a lot more to lose than Britain, which saw a much steeper decline in its potential influence in the world in 2019. This had everything to do with impending Brexit as it became clear over the course of the year that the country would indeed be leaving the EU.
It is usually argued that, given the length and complexity of the transition period, Britain will not be really leaving the EU for some time. But the formal act of leaving will have immense impact and immediately diminish British influence in the world.
This is partly because the rest of the world sees Brexit as an act of self-destructive folly, given that 45 per cent of British exports went to EU countries in 2018, compared to only 18 per cent to the US. Suddenly, the country will be without real allies for the first time for over 200 years – historians say the last such moment was during some particularly dire moment during the Napoleonic wars.
Brexit supporters who enthuse about “global Britain” have been wilfully blind to the real balance of power between Britain and the EU as revealed by the withdrawal agreement. It should be obvious that British negotiators failed to get the terms they wanted because their EU counterparts in Brussels held all the high cards.
None of this is going to change: there is something ludicrous about Boris Johnson trumpeting his triumph in reopening the withdrawal agreement when he was only able to do so by accepting the EU’s original proposal of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and deserting his DUP allies.
At the beginning of 2019, it looked possible that the whole Brexit project might falter or be carried through in a neutered form, but as next week’s general election approaches it looks increasingly inevitable. Britain will be mired in a Brexit crisis of one sort or another for the foreseeable future, trying to establish a new relationship with the EU and the US, both of whom are more powerful and capable of getting their way than the UK.
The general election will be the point of no return for Britain in the current phase of its decline. Could it be saved from self-willed and self-destructive isolation by a stronger alliance with Trump’s America? Anybody looking for an American rescue should understand that, for different reasons than Britain, the US is also in decline – and remember what just happened to the Saudis and Syrian Kurds.