There has been a disturbing amount of negative rhetoric about the United States these days. Some political figures would have you believe that American power is seriously in jeopardy. America, it would seem, is in dramatic decline and may never again achieve it's post-Cold War heyday. Here's the problem with this mentality: it's not entirely wrong. It's time to wake up and face reality: the era of the United States as the world's sole superpower is starting to end. Now, this doesn't mean the United States is weak militarily, politically, or culturally. Nor does it mean that the America will be a third-rate nation in a few short years, or even decades. But with the rise and resurgence of nations like China, Brazil, India, and Russia, America's share of the global hegemony is getting smaller. This week, we'll examine the decline of American global hegemony and what it means for international security.
As we've covered several times before, the lynch pin of American global power is the Liberal-International order that was founded after the Second World War and expanded after the end of the Cold War. With the United States at its head, this system promotes interconnected trade networks and democratic governments. It also contains the NATO alliance, which is a military and security agreement among much of Europe and North America. Together these systems have helped encourage the peaceful resolution of conflict among major powers for the last several decades. And of course, the United States has reaped major benefits being the nation at the head of this system.
But recently, it seems that America may be losing it's coveted place in the world order. Before we dive into this more, let's make one thing very clear. By nearly all measures, the United States is and will remain a dominant nation for decades (if not centuries) to come. But, as other nations rise up to take their place in the international spotlight, the global stage will continue to become more crowded. Part of this is due to the success of the system itself. Powers like China were always going to gain influence within a system that allows nations to approach parity (instead of actively tearing them down). Whereas fascism or national socialism would seek to destroy competing powers, the Liberal-International system seeks to encourage their rise (so long as they continue to play within the rules). In a system that highly discourages manipulation of other nations' success, there are few options for America to increase it's power. Instead, it can only maintain it's share or manage the rise of other nations (as argued in Fareed Zakaria's book, The Post-American World).
But unfortunately, America seems barely capable of even managing the "Rise of the Rest" to fit within the existing global framework. We have all the means and power to prevent China's complete domination of the South China Sea (which would have disastrous consequences for America's allies). But we appear to be doing very little to actually address the problem. We have at least some potential to calm North Korea's nuclear aggression, but instead we sit idly by as it continues to test new and more terrifying weapons. Sure, we shake our fists at them, provide vague threats, and issue weak sanctions at North Korea, but then we turn around and complain about how there are no good options and essentially admit defeat.
Essentially, America has become Daenerys in Game of Thrones. We have substantial military, diplomatic, and economic resources at our disposal. We could certainly solve these problems, but we are fighting with both hands tied behind our back. We're simply too afraid to do anything mean (massive military escalations) or make a dramatic move that could mildly upset the international order (like circumventing the U.N. to impose even more dramatic sanctions). So instead, the order begins to crumble and weaken because we are paralyzed by our own indecisiveness and inaction. The United States is constantly playing defense, always reacting to a changing world rather than shaping these changes.
Some of this is also a self-imposed decline. Since the end of the Cold War (or at least since America lost it's mind in the attempt to fight a war on "terrorism"), America has continually chosen to fight in unwinnable conflicts like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. These conflicts have often focused on contradictory goals that, even if successful, would have little strategic value for America, her allies, or their interests. More recently, but no less problematic, is that America and some western allies have decided to willfully retreat from their own positions of global strength. They do this for seemingly no other reason than a misguided sense of being "taken advantage of." Granted, the monetary costs of maintaining America's position in the world are vast, but so are the benefits of leading this system. It's no secret that many nations do rely upon the United States for protection and sometimes take advantage of this reliance. But America still retains the dominant position in this relationship, and there aren't that many other viable options for military protection in the world today..
Now, one of the key problems here is the hyper-politicization of foreign relations. There was once a time when "politics stopped at the water's edge." This meant that, although the executive and legislative branches would sometimes disagree about specifics, they generally all agreed on the overall strategy for America's role in the world. Today, we've taken nearly every global decision directly to the American people for review. Suddenly, everyone has an opinion on the Iran nuclear deal even though the vast majority can't find Iran on a map or have any idea of the subtleties of diplomacy or nuclear negotiation. Thanks in part to the media, we are just informed enough to think we can form an opinion, but not informed enough to understand it's true implications.
Yes, I fully admit that this is a very elitist perspective. But this doesn't suggest that people shouldn't have an opinion on how America wields its power. We absolutely should. But when we completely disregard the opinions of experts and pretend to know more than them, it has damaging consequences. You wouldn't tell your doctor that you think you know a better way to prevent yourself from getting the measles, so why would you think you know a better way to stop North Korean missile tests?
In all, America needs to take ownership of it's foreign relations again. This cannot be done by looking inward and always putting America first. We need bold action to solve global crises, and we need to not be afraid to escalate tensions with the right nations (China or Russia), and not be afraid to cut deals with others (Iran, North Korea) where we are fighting losing battles. We as a people need to decide America's course and stick to it, not thrash back and forth between wildly different strategies every four years. We need to be at the forefront of global agreements and take the lead on international issues. Because if we don't, someone else will, and you can bet they won't have our interests in mind when they do. For those that want to focus only on our domestic issues, if you think things are bad for small town America now, just think about how bad they will be if America completely loses it's place in the world.