The decline of America’s leadership
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Washington is failing to use its leverage in the international environment

February 10, 2024 12:08 am | Updated 10:51 am IST

‘The American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dissipated America’s credibility’

‘The American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dissipated America’s credibility’ | Photo Credit: AP

The traditional strengths of America are its values platform, its military power, its pivotal position in the global financial system, and as a technology pioneer. The energetic pro-American lobby in India advocates ever-closer engagement with the United States, rejecting arguments about its diminishing influence.

This is contradicted by authoritative commentators such as Ian Bremmer (“The US is already the world’s most divided and dysfunctional advanced industrial democracy”), Laura Kuenssberg (“Western leaders in 2024 [are] grappling with a world where other dominant countries are less attached to conventional international rules”) and Andrew Whitehead (“America’s democracy seems to have lost the ability to renew itself”) with former U.S. President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden in the race for a second presidential term.

These experts are supported by Jonathan Freedland (“Not for nothing is there serious concern in the US that January 2025 could open a new chapter of US authoritarianism, even an American dictatorship), Frank Gardner (“The past 12 months have seen a number of setbacks for the US, Europe and other major democracies on the international politics stage…they point to a shifting balance of power away from the US-dominated, Western values that have held sway for years. On many fronts, the wind is blowing in the wrong direction for Western interests”) and Niall Ferguson (“The harsh reality is that the US is no longer very good at getting B to do something that B would not otherwise do”) which is more than evident in Israel’s Gaza war. Ferguson adds that in purchasing power parity, China, in 2023, had an economy that was a fifth larger than that of the U.S. To him American problems were illegal immigration and deficits in the rule of law, secondary education, public health, new technologies, and the national debt rising to $32 trillion.

After the Second World War, the U.S. shaped the rules-based international system. A rules-based order is an abstract concept; in practice it was neither centred on rules nor was it entirely global. It was a power-based system established by the U.S. and its allies, and Washington considered itself exempt from its norms, particularly those prohibiting interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dissipated America’s credibility due to its emphasis on military expeditionism, evidenced by about 750 military bases in 80 countries, though Al Jazeera says the number “may be even higher as not all data is published by the Pentagon”.

Polarisation, issue of legitimacy

Actions speak louder than values, and Washington is failing to leverage its standing in the international environment, thereby empowering polarisation politically, economically and culturally. The U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that emphasised human rights, transparency and liberal democracy, and also from many other international obligations. While it sought international dominance, domestic polarisation induced ideological separation, rendering cooperation in its two-party system non-existent.

In the West and parts of Asia, open liberalism and globalisation made links of community, family and society brittle, with many feeling excluded from economic progress. Individual freedom was juxtaposed against state, society and law, and the movements of people have resulted in a backlash against immigration, feeding populist movements.

The exercise of power is insufficient to be a dominant geopolitical player; legitimacy is also necessary. The most powerful leaders still crave legitimacy both at home and abroad.

There is now a shift in power equations, with challenges to the legitimacy of institutions and leaderships. Mr. Trump and his supporters openly question the validity of the U.S.’s electoral system. American soft power, such as its entertainment industry, which is non-government and unregulated, balances some negativity, as do enduring alliances in Southeast Asia and Europe, though U.S. complicity with Israel’s violence against Palestinians has scrambled all its pre-existing policies in West Asia.

Moves by China and Russia

The leaders of China and Russia are determined to maintain their authoritarian regimes and seek to reshape the international system, using trade, pressure and diasporic ties to obstruct the spread of western democratic values that have held sway for decades. In parts of Asia and Africa, western liberalism is often interpreted at worst as a smoke screen for neo-imperialism, and at best as an insensitive expression of American and European arrogance. And although there is no chance of dethroning the international financial settlement infrastructure soon, BRICS’ policies seem to herald a contest between local currencies and the dollar because the risks in the current dollar-centric system are unacceptably high.

U.S.-China security and economic competition is the central issue in the world today, and will be potentially dangerous in the years to come. China campaigns to project power with traditional and non-traditional techniques, such as the Confucius Institutes, TikTok and gaming. Its prowess in high technology and geo-engineering inspire admiration, along with its programme of overseas infrastructure financing unmatched by any other country. Due to internal dissonance, the U.S. has failed to assume leadership in Artificial Intelligence when compared to China and the European Union, which are setting the standards.

Whether or not the U.S. remains “the indispensable nation”, as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright termed it, India should develop an advantageous relationship with America while keeping in mind its deficiencies.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary

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