The sequel to Tom Cruise’s new Top Gun landed in movie theaters to widespread acclaim last spring. After two grim years of lockdown and global uncertainty, Maverick was an unabashed celebration of military daring and American showmanship. It was also nostalgic for a world that no longer exists.
In 1986, the plot of Top Gun corresponded to the reality of a global liberal order shortly to be led by the United States alone. All that was necessary to preserve world order was a few targeted military strikes. Maverick was far less believable because, as we have seen in the last year, it is built on assumptions about the world which have crumbled in the intervening years. The new multipolar world is much less simple—and the United States, as well as its allies, will have to tap the deep wells of practical wisdom in order to navigate it successfully.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in late February 2022, the world has commenced a series of rapid shifts. While the United States has gotten locally stronger, it has become globally weaker, driving Russia and China closer together and hastening the rise of the “BRICS+” alliance. Renegade nations do not simply bend or collapse in response to U.S. air superiority as they once did. The era Maverick celebrates no longer exists, and we need to understand why.