The Decisive Decade of the American Century

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by Ahmed E. Souaiaia *

The power of the United States was born out of the violence of the world wars of the 20th century. For nearly 100 years, the United States enjoyed economic and military supremacy, which enable it to lead the Western bloc and to enjoy unprecedented peace and prosperity. Another war in Europe is changing all of that. To understand the significance of the current war in Europe, the 2022 war in Ukraine, one must recall the origin, outcome, and aftermath of the last war that took place in that continent.


Before becoming the center of gravity of the modern civilization along with its broad Western coalition, Europe’s history became different from the rest of the world in that it was home to the deadliest armed conflicts in recorded history. The speed and rate of killing was matched only by the speed of American ascent to power and the rate of exploitation of human and natural resources. The weapons of mass destruction some Western states still store and their ability to unleash mercilessly crushing blows should make every reasonable person skeptical of the virtues of the civilization of superlatives.

Between the so-called world wars one and two, European countries killed between 40 to 60 million people of their own. During the first five years of the 1940’s alone, another 60 million European civilians were uprooted from their homes—27 million of them had left their own countries or had been driven out by force. Out of all this carnage, emerged the leading powers of the world with the United States representing and leading the so-called “free world”. In post-war world order, the Western bloc wielded two unmatchable weapons that ensured the subordination of the rest of the world: (1) The largest military force armed with the most destructive weapons humanity ever invented—nuclear weapons; and (2) a tightly controlled financial system tethered to the US dollar. The Western bloc used both the brute force of the military, including invasions, missile strikes from afar, and covert and overt coups to removed undesired regimes; and the soft power of sanctions that chokes the economies of unfriendly nation states. The deployment of these cruel weapons took place outside Europe and allied nation states. In this context, Europe did not suffer another war since the end of the second war and all Western states enjoyed the accumulation and concentration of wealth—making them home to about 80% of the global wealth. That streak of peace and prosperity came to an end when Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine.

As grave as the consequences of the European wars of the first half of the 20th century, the outbreak of a direct war between Russia and any NATO nation-state, especially one of NATO’s nuclear armed nations, will be catastrophic. Such a war in Europe, given the history of cruelty inflicted on each other by these warring factions, will be catastrophic because any one of the four declared nuclear-armed nations will not hesitate to use the weapons against the other, which will have repercussions not only in Europe but around the world.

Let’ s be specific despite the risks that come with predicting the outcome of an insanely fluid and ongoing event in which so many powerful actors are involved and are working to control its outcomes. These predictions are not privileged by any inside information that people in power or people connected to people in power possess. These predictions are based on an understanding of active and inactive, determinant and contributory systems whose outcomes are often beyond the control of anyone side. First, we will start with the facts and then list the systems that will determine the outcome of this conflict.

Fact 1: If Russia did not have nuclear weapons, the Western world would have invaded it before it invaded Ukraine. Moreover, the fact that Western nations are supplying weapons without involving themselves directly into the conflict makes it clear that they are aware of the consequences of an armed confrontation with a nuclear power. Russia, too, wanted to establish that balance of power when it put its strategic arsenal on alert and clearly defined the set of circumstances under which it would use the nuclear option: Being attacked at home or being attacked in Ukraine by another nuclear power or using arms supplied by another nuclear power. This is good news: It established red lines that cannot or should not be crossed without triggering a catastrophic consequence.

Fact 2: The West has used its most powerful non-military tools to push Russia out of Ukraine: Sanctions. The sanctions were so swift and broad that they surpassed all sanction regimes ever imposed on a non-compliant nation-state including Cuba and Iran. Combined the two countries have been under sanctions for nearly a century–Cuba has been sanctioned for nearly 50 years and Iran has been under some Western sanctions for more than 40 years. Since sanctions have been used before against non-friendly nation-states, including against Russia most recently when it reclaimed Crimea, Russian leaders must have anticipated them. This is important because it helps in understanding the distance the Russian leaders are willing to go in pursuit of their objectives.

Together, from the above facts and the events explained below, it is not unreasonable or hard to predict that Russia will in fact achieve its declared objectives in-cluding:

    • Block Ukraine from joining NATO or any other military alliance that Russia would deem a threat to Russian national security;
    • Annex large Ukrainian territories to autonomous republics that will become part of the Russian Federation; and
    • Normalize the status of Crimea as permanent Russian territory.

These are the obvious and stated objectives. However, Russian leaders were well-aware that these achievements alone will not be enough because none of the political and economic ramifications of the initial incursion can be erased just by ending the armed conflict. Russian leaders know that the world will be transformed in ways similar to when it was transformed after the European wars of the early 20th century. This is evident from the systems that the Russian leaders have established over the last ten years and activated immediately after the start of the military operation. We cannot account for all systems in this limited space. However, we can provide a representative list of some of the most determinant systems that might help understand the nature of the new century and the forces that will drive its events.

  1. Military systems: Building Russia’s military power to deter an attack on the homeland. There is enough credible evidence for Russia’s advances in developing new weapon systems—some unmatched by Western systems; others are less impressive. However, when a nation has several thousand nuclear warheads, all it needs is a strong enough of a military to establish strong deterrence. Russia seems to have achieved that goal as the action in Ukraine shows.
  2. Financial Systems: The untethering of the US dollar from energy and mineral commodities through trade using national currencies. Immediately after the activation of Western sanctions against Russia and the threat of secondary sanctions intended to disincentivize trade with Russia, the Russian president directed state companies that sell oil and natural gas to accept payments in ruble only from all “unfriendly” nation-states. The significance of this development cannot be overstated. Not only did this order stabilize and then improve the value of the Russian currency; but importantly, it also established a new precedent that will, in the long run, store the value of national currencies in the value of unique goods and services of nations. For nations that have something to offer the world that not many other countries can offer, this would mean that the value of their currencies will be tethered to their national products should they follow the precedent initiated by Russia and require payments with their national currencies. It should be noted that one of the reasons the US dollar, and later the European euro, became highly valued around the world is due the fact that trade in oil, natural gas, and many minerals and metals was primarily conducted using the dollar (and to a lesser extent the euro) even though these nation-states were not the primary producers or sellers of oil and natural gas.
  3. Political and Economic Systems: Russia’s integration into regional and global blocs to replace the loss of some Western markets. Over the past 20 years, Russian leaders have methodically reconfigured the structure of the Russian Federation, redesigned their connections to some of the former Soviet Union nation-states—especially the central Asian Muslim-majority states, and joined or created new intergovernmental organizations. These actions included membership in the Council of Europe a participation role in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and East Asia Summit (EAS); a role of an observer state to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC); and a participant in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Eurasian Economic Community, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Russia’s membership in the G-8 was suspended in 2014, but its membership in the G-20 is still active. In addition to its permanent seat on the UNSC—which allows it to veto any resolution it does not like—Russia is a founding member of the emerging block of developing nations—BRICS. Perhaps more telling of Russian leaders’ interest in long-term strategic planning, Russia found a way to play a significant role in OPEC—the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries through an alliance that essentially expended OPEC to OPEC+. This membership, especially, became useful for Russia after the start of its military operation in Ukraine in that it prevented OPEC nations from increasing output to make up for the downfall in Russian export due to sanctions. Related to this point, given Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas, it was no surprise then that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was the main proponent of transforming the teethless Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) into an OPEC-like intergovernmental organization for the management of export of natural gas. These diplomatic, economic, and security systems provide their member states with options when they face global challenges; and the Russian leaders seem to now capitalize on these connections.
  4. Social and Cultural Systems: The shunning of assimilative social systems to prevent secessionist movements. To understand the failure of the Soviet Union to accommodate religious communities and now the shift in attitude in Russia towards not only tolerating religious community, but rather using religion as a political instrument, one should examine the case of Chechnya. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has become one of the main challenges that faced Russian leaders to the extent that it drove two different Russian presidents to launch two military operations to fight armed rebellions in Chechnya. In a way, since the start of the 1990’s, Chechnya had become for Russia what Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union with almost the same key players involved directly or indirectly. Saudi Arabia, especially, provided the ideological and material support to many of the rebels. Over time, however, Putin was able to incentivize Chechnya’s membership in the Russian Federation through economic development, and importantly, through social, religious, and even military accommodation. Chechens were no longer expected to give up their religion, Islam, to be Russian; they embraced Islam, albeit a newly defined brand of Islam compared to Saudi Salafism that allowed them to be both Russian and Chechen. The scenes of bearded men in Russian combat gear, with images and icons of a former rebel fighter, Akhmat/Аxmat Kadyrov, shouting “Allahu Akbar” can be jarring and confusing for Western observers. But that is the kind of integration that the Russian leaders were willing to implement to be able to keep the 25 million Muslim Russians and prevent other nation-states from using them as instruments of destabilization and unrest within the federation. Russian leaders did not only act to rebuild Chechnya economically; importantly, they helped the new Chechen leaders define and refine Islam, assisting them to organize and convene the first international Islamic conference dedicated to answering the question: What is Sunni Islam. These initiatives paid off: On day one of the military operation in Ukraine, the Chechen Republic provided 10,000 elite troops to help dislodge the Ukrainian armed forces from the Donbas region. To fully understand the significance and magnitude of the reconciliation that reintegrated Chechen Muslims into the Russian Federation, imagine if the United States federal government were to grant Native American sovereign tribes the freedom to create their own armed forces, rebuild their indigenous religions and cultures, and establish their own forms of government; because that is what Russia was forced to do to accommodate indigenous Muslims in Chechnya and, to a lesser extent and varying degrees, in nearly a dozen other Muslim-majority regions including Adygeya, Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Northern Ossetia, and Tatarstan.
  5. Media and Information Systems: The diversification of technology and communication systems to replace technology produced in the West. Wars are fought in the battle fields; but the narratives of war are created in media outlets and in publishing houses. The production of narratives is no longer limited to books, newspapers, radio, and television. The new digital information technology expanded media space in ways never seen before. Russian leaders, and leaders around the world, have realized that the success of the West was not made into a success without the media saying that it is so. For this reason, every major regional or world power today funds, subsidizes, and/or promotes its own national, multilingual media platforms that broadcast their stories, their points of view, and their narratives to the world–especially to the region they wish to influence. Russian leaders have built a mirror-image list of media platforms–from satellite television channels inspired by CNN, like Sputnik and Russia Today digital assets, to digital platforms that mimic Twitter (VK), YouTube (rutube), and every other tool of influence, persuasion, and dissemination of information.
  6. Banking Systems: Moving money around the world is akin to moving blood in the human body. The purposes and reasons for moving money are numerous. It can be as mundane as a person sending few hundred dollars from New York City, USA to an ailing mother in Wau, South Sudan; or as complex as funding a business partnership between two entities, one Albania and the other in Zimbabwe. In all cases, persons or entities transferring money are likely to use SWIFT, which stands for the Society for Worldwide International Financial Telecommunications. It was supposed to be a neutral system that banks could use to securely send messages to each other. Overtime, it became the determinant system of the world of banking and finance, connecting more than 11,000 member banks in more than 200 countries and territories around the world. Despite its technical nature, it has become a political instrument as well. Since SWIFT is overseen by ten Western central banks—those of Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States, Switzerland, and Sweden—Western governments used it to punish nation-states that the West wants to cut off from the global financial world. Sure enough, when Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine, many Russian banks were dropped from SWIFT. However, the precedent set when the West disconnected Iranian banks from SWIFT in 2012 nudged Russia to start work on developing an alternative system. Such a system was activated recently, and Russian authorities said that, by May 2022, some 400 banks from around the world were using it. However, Russian leaders seem to prefer having BRICS nations develop an alternative to SWIFT.

These developments are clear and compelling evidence that the world is going through a major transformation like the one experienced in the first half of the 20th century. This transformation is not solely connected to the war in Ukraine. Its starting point could be the spread of covid-19 in 2020. However, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, together, unmasked many of the systemic inequities and revealed the un-remediated historical injustices. These revelations are making the potential for global change, even radical change, desired, if not preferred. In a way, the year 2020 is for the world what 2011 was for the Arab world—though the outcomes are much more consequential in the former.

In 2011, a small segment of society in a small country of the Arab world, Tunisia, rose up to protest inequity, corruption, and abuse of power. The majority of the population did not join in; but the majority of the population and the ruling elite have no rebuttal. Consequently, President Ben Ali fled the country and the regime fell to transition the country from the tyranny of the one-man rule to the paralysis of partisan politics. The war in Ukraine is one between Russia and the West. The rest of the world, an estimated 2/3 of the world, is not threatened by a new world order. So, their silence is enough of an endorsement of Russia’s challenge to the current world order, one established and run by the West. Those who benefited most from the current world order are the ones most affected by its collapse. That is where the United States comes in.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States took credit for that event and acted as the only superpower on Earth. As such, the US initiated a series of events that established the dangerous precedent for what is happening today. Although we introduced the war in Ukraine as a turning point, it should be stressed that all events since the fall of the Soviet Union are connected and have had an accretive effect that made today’s critical events possible. This essay does not have the space to catalog all these events. It should suffice to cite just one illustrative case of such dangerous precedents: the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Leveraging the goodwill generated by the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001 (aka as 9/11), and after invading Afghanistan, the location of planning the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration claimed that the government of Saddam Hussain posed a threat to US national security for it has developed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). After failing to secure a UNSC resolution authorizing the war, because of the mounting evidence pointing to the absence of WMDs in Iraq, the administration put together an “alliance of the willing”, mainly Western nation-states, and invaded and occupied Iraq anyway. It does not take much brainpower to see the connection between that event and how other nation-states used their military superiority to bully or attack weaker sovereign nation-states. If the US can invoke national security reasons and invade another sovereign state that is 6000 miles away from its border, what would stop Russia from invoking the same reason–national security threat; a threat posed by a country, Ukraine, with which Russia shares 1400 miles long border and that is just 471 miles from its capital, Moscow?


Fact-based analysis shows the dilemma of the Western governments: They cannot deny other powerful nations what they claimed as a right for themselves many times over. History has power; therefore, strong actors should be mindful of how they make history and what precedent they establish. Otherwise, they end up writing a terrible script for their own future and losing control over its finale.

Given the power and role it has played since the last armed conflict in Europe, the United States has enjoyed a special place in the world. It benefited from its leadership role, and it has configured global systems in ways that would allow it to preserve its dominant place in the world. By all accounts, this has been the American century. How the next chapter of the story of this global power will be written will be decided in this decade. Internal forces, applied by domestic systems, social and otherwise; along with external forces, applied by parts of the world that did not share in the “peace of prosperity” enjoyed by the Western world, will produce a new reality—a reality radically different from that of the pre-2020.

About 600 years ago, Ibn Khaldun, the preeminent social historian of the Islamic civilization theorized that states have a natural lifespan–just like individual humans do. He contended that leaders of nation-states design social and political systems that eventually predetermine their path to growth, power, decline, and demise; but that the human collective (civilization) will endure and continue its journey, following a cyclical trajectory where one dominant dynasty or regime replaces another. It looks like we are living in such a transition period, at the sharp edge of a new era.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA, Ph.D., a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law; authored many articles and books on the subjects of human rights, jurisprudence, political philosophy, and economics. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.

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