September 2013: The month America's 'moral mission' ended

John Simpson asks, has the world order changed?

Related Stories

Have the events of September 2013 changed the way the world is run? For The Editors, a programme which sets out to ask challenging questions, I decided to find out.

In late August it seemed pretty certain that America would bomb the Assad regime in Syria as a punishment for using chemical weapons.

Then a number of wholly unexpected things happened. Britain's parliament voted not to join in a bombing campaign; President Obama decided he would have to put the issue to Congress before going ahead; and some clever diplomatic footwork by Russia resulted in an offer by Syria to destroy its chemical warfare arsenal.

The world looked like a distinctly different place by the end of the month. It was not simply that war had been averted. The United States seemed diminished, and its previously reliable ally, Britain, was shown to be irrelevant in an area of the world which it once dominated.

Byblos, a small coastal town north of the Lebanese capital Beirut, is a good place to reflect on shifts in world power.

Byblos

It's the town with probably the longest record of continuous habitation in the world - 8,000 years of existence, from the New Stone Age to what may well turn out to be the post-American era.

Byblos has never dominated anyone, instead, it has been overshadowed by something like 19 different civilisations, from the Phoenicians to the French, the Americans and the British in our own day.

Find out more

BBC News: The Editors features the BBC's on-air specialists asking questions which reveal deeper truths about their areas of expertise

Surrounded by the ruins left by the Sumerians, the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Crusaders, you have a physical reminder that empires rise, only sooner or later to fall again.

Have we, perhaps, just witnessed a moment like that in 1975, when the Americans evacuated Saigon and their power in South East Asia was brought to a close?

That may be going too far. As the international protector of Israel, the US will still have a major part to play in the central dispute in the region, even though the Israeli tail usually seems to wag the American dog.

John Simpson: Has the world order changed?

But what does seem to have come to an end is the 23-year period during which the US was the world's only superpower or, as the formidable Madeleine Albright put it when she was Secretary of State, the "indispensable country".

No other single country has come up to join the Americans at the top table. Plenty of people in Lebanon think that Russia, through its diplomatic coup with Syria, has regained its old superpower status, but it simply does not have the economic or military appetite for the job nowadays.

Until recently, people touted China and India as potential superpowers. But China's political future is uncertain, as it comes closer to the point when the Communist Party will have to decide whether, and how, to allow other political forces to challenge its dominance. As for India, it may not have comparable political problems but its economic performance has faded.

Europe seems to have imploded for the time being, and countries like Brazil and South Africa are simply not in the running.

In Beirut, at the American University, which is an important element in America's soft power in the region, I went to see a well-known Palestinian academic and writer, Rami Khouri. "I don't think the Americans have lost power," he said, "I think they've lost conviction."

He is precisely right. The US is still the world's biggest economic and military power, but it seems to have lost the sense of moral mission that caused it to intervene everywhere from Vietnam to Iraq - via, disastrously, Lebanon itself.

That process came to a halt, temporary or otherwise, in Syria. If President Obama had taken his bombing mission to Congress, it would probably have been voted down. The conviction that the US has to put the world to rights does indeed seem to have faded.

In future, America will want to work much more through other countries. There will be degrees of power, but no more superpower - not, at any rate, until things change again.

Quite a month, September 2013. I suspect we'll remember it for some time to come.

BBC News: The Editors features the BBC's on-air specialists asking questions which reveal deeper truths about their areas of expertise. Watch it on BBC One on Monday 30 September at 23.20 BST or catch it later on iPlayer or on BBC World News.

More on This Story

Related Stories

More World stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • MonkeyMeet the tarsier

    The BBC travels to a Philippine island that is home to the world's oldest primate

Programmes

  • Francis Rossi, co-founder of band Status QuoHARDtalk Watch

    Status Quo's Francis Rossi explains how alcohol led him to take cocaine

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.