In 1969, Henry Kissinger wrote: “The essence of a revolution is that it appears to contemporaries as a series of more or less unrelated upheavals. But the crises which form the headlines of the day are symptoms of deep-seated structural problems.” At that time, the world was facing the distribution of power, which influenced the US foreign policy, but this quote can be applied today as well.
In today’s world, the United States of America need to deal with numerous challenges. First of all, there is Russia, and on and off relationship they have, but another country which is assuming a world-leader role is China, which keeps developing perhaps too quickly. Furthermore, North Korea is making threats, and their nuclear program is a concern to the America leaders, whereas constant wars in the Middle East are also putting the strain on the US budget. The world is pushed further down into instability and as every day passes we are falling into the abyss.
These geopolitical changes need to be taken seriously. One of the things which are discussed is polarity. Many argue that the United States isn’t as strong as it used to be a few decades back and that their “unipolar moment” has passed. However, this debate can be misleading. Indeed, Washington isn’t as influential as it used to be, but there isn’t any sole challenger who can be a threat to the country. The US still sits at the top of the throne, but the fact is that things are stirring and we might see the US foreign policy during and after Trump administration wrecked by crises.
In order to understand the world we are living in today, we need to compare it to the post-Cold War era and the Western primacy which was unrivaled at the time. There was no doubt who the world leader was after the Cold War. With almost 25 percent of the global GDP in 1994, USA showed everyone its power. Moreover, the country had a major edge in global power-projection capabilities with almost 40 percent of world defense outlays that were in America’s hands. In addition to this, America had highly capable allies both in Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific, and they accounted for 47 percent of global GDP and 35 percent of global military spending. Put two and two together, and you will realize that the US had 70 percent of global economic power and military spending. These numbers clearly showed that the USA was the force to be reckoned with. With USSR divided, there was no other country on the horizon to contest the American power. Backed by its allies, the US managed to keep this state of affairs winning the Gulf War and the Afghanistan War.
At this point, we need to refer to Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” He noted that this was the period in which democracy and open market spread more widely than ever before. This meant that the liberal-capitalist model was widely accepted and even the countries which you wouldn’t expect it to integrate into the liberal order made efforts to do so. These countries are Russia and China, but the latter saw this model as a grave threat. It leads us to the third phenomenon which managed to strengthen America after the Cold War. When the crisis ended, everybody anticipated seeing the American centered alliance to fragment. However, all of the allies continued to support Washington, and the war between the great powers of the world was unimaginable at the time.
The overall picture of the world was the following. The United States became superior with the allies supporting it in Europe and Asia-Pacific. Since there was no great-power conflict at the time, it was a lot easier for the United States to organize their forces and deal with some “minor” issues. For instance, they confronted Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq at the beginning of the 21st century, plus they had to deal with Al Qaeda when they attacked on 9/11. NATO’s role changed completely with the Soviet Union gone, and the alliance could focus on some “outer” problems and help the United States clean things up.
The changes that we have witnessed over the next two decades were severe, and the Western primacy has diminished. The United States itself is weaker than in 1994. While they had to be the ones to put out occasional fires in different parts of the world, they were starting to get weaker as the other countries had a chance to focus on their economy and develop as much as possible. For instance, in 2004, the US accounted for 25 percent of the GDP and 42 percent of military spending, but that has dropped by 3 and 9 percent respectively 11 years later. While this is a significant decline, the allies did even worse. For instance, they accounted for 47 percent of global GDP and 35 percent of global military spending in 1994, but in 20 years, these numbers plummeted to 39 and 25 percent respectively. The UK used to be a renowned naval force, but they are struggling to rule the waters around the island today.
And while this is happening with the US and its allies, the main competitors are getting stronger every year. Russia is still having major issues with the economy, but they modernized their military and increased the defense spending significantly over the years. Today, they have capabilities to compete with the West and once again, they have become a relevant country that has a major influence on the world. On the other hand, China has become even more powerful than its Russian neighbors. Between 1994 and 2015, China’s global wealth saw a jump from 3.3 percent to 11.8 percent, while the military spending increased from 2.2 to 12.2 percent. The rise of these countries couldn’t have been stopped, and today, they are challenging the primacy of the West.
China had a different look at the USA after the Cold War. They knew it was just a transitory condition which had to be endured. They didn’t saw that victory the way the Americans did, and during the post-war time, they have been patient, investing a lot of money to improve their country. Also, resurgent Russia has managed to undermine NATO and the European Union, and they have waged wars in Ukraine and Georgia that they have won. Slowly but surely, Russia, just like China, has built up its military, and both countries are challenging the USA and its weakened allies. The USA will have a difficult time facing the challenges, but some things need to be considered before we reach the best solution possible.
First of all, the USA must not abandon its posts around the world and return to “Fortress America.” Over the years, they have worked hard to gain such dominance and even though it is receding, the USA must not withdraw. This would only wreak havoc on the world scene, and disruptive trends would be on the rise. Let’s not forget that America is still the most powerful country in the world and they still have a say when it comes to shaping the International system. Shaping and influencing the international order is one major reason why the U.S. is so successful, but American public needs to be satisfied with such role. Last but not least, the USA needs to recognize what they are up against. Once they do that, they could start looking for solutions.