Systemic Decline of the American Power?
Vivek Sugandh

“While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies”, reads the resignation letter of US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, a seasoned military general, who resigned after President Donald Trump's December last declaration of withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan. In the letter, several trigger points like the strategic importance of alliances, which Mr Trump has time and again questioned, and handling of the relations with adversarial competitors like Russia and China finds mention. Such high-profile resignations are not new in Donald Trump’s America, which has been increasingly coming under strain owing to both internal and external systemic pressures.

What does this disruption imply for the USA and its allies? Does the post-Cold War era marked with Trans-Atlantic dominance receding quickly? Will the onset of multi-polarity be smooth or marked with tensions with rising states like China and Russia? Are we witnessing another phase of USA’s Isolationism? This write up attempts to answer such questions and unfold various nuances associated with the changing geo-dynamics and its impact in the world system.

United States as the ‘only’ Super Power

The Cold War bipolarity ended after the disintegration of USSR which led to the US becoming the sole superpower in the international system. This led to a phase of unilateralism, which saw spread of western values, economics and socio-political framework - largely dubbed as the ‘Washington Consensus’. Political commentators came up with terminologies like ‘Hyper Power’ to describe America’s huge power margin over others and signifying the onset of ‘Pax Americana’, a phase of unbridled superiority.

How has been this phase of unchallenged supremacy of the US? Has America acted as a benign power or in zeal to assert its hegemony created chaos? This has been a matter of debate in the scholarly domain. One school of thought subscribes to ‘Hegemony Stability theory’ (HST) in international relations given by Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Gilpin. HST argues that a single hegemon brings stability in the international system characterized by anarchy, as it crafts institutions, rules and regulations of conduct and ensures its adherence. In this regard, some scholars argue that America has ensured spread of peace and democracy, stewarded globalization and multilateral institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) thus enabling global prosperity, and prevented unrestrained militarization and wars by providing security umbrella to other actors like Japan and the European Union by acting as the global policeman (Kagan, 2012).

However, on the other hand, ardent critics like Noam Chomsky have called the US as a ‘rogue Super Power’ for its disregard to the established principles of sovereignty, democracy and rule of law through its unilateral interventions like in Iraq and Libya, war in Afghanistan, attempting colour revolutions in non-Western model regimes, playing power politics in the Middle East through appeasement of Arab autocrats (mainly Saudi Arabia), and supporting Israel’s adventurism and blocking solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This list goes on long. Leading international relations theorist John Mearsheimer argues that the radical doctrine of going for wars to promote “liberal hegemony” was “prone to failure as it produced quagmire after quagmire, fired global anti-Americanism, and fuelled conflict around the world” (Mann, 2004), (Brands, 2018). Thus, the debate over nature of American hegemony remains contested as ever.

Changing Dynamics and Multi-Polar World Order

The era of dominance of ‘End of History’ theorists led by Francis Fukuyama is on the wane, as lately, the phase of the western hegemony under the stewardship of the United States of America is under scrutiny. Within the discipline of international relations, a dominant paradigm exists which talks about the ‘rise and fall of great powers’ and the ‘cyclic nature of power shifts’ in international system. Kenneth Organski in his ‘Power Transition Theory’ argues that the dominant power designs and sustains the international system and this ‘Balance of Power’ is regularly challenged by emerging powers, which have achieved parity or even overpassed the declining hegemon (Lemke, 2004). This can be explained as seen in case of Germany during the post-First World War era and the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. Such phases of instability also erode the power of the existing hegemon as seen in case of the Great Britain after the World Wars.

Applying such an argument in current context suggests that the decline of American heft globally is inevitable. However, such a process is further complicated if seen through the prism of cataclysmic rise of Donald Trump and internal turmoil in American domestic politics, along with his ‘transactional worldview’ of foreign policy orientations. The challenge from ‘revisionist states’, especially China and Russia, too looms large along with increasing uneasiness among the US allies with regard to America’s commitment to global and regional peace and stability. Once cemented notions like the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, Washington Consensus and the Liberal Democratic Framework has come under strain. On the global economy framework, Bretton Wood institutions like the IMF and the World Bank have been challenged owing to what scholar Dani Rodrik dubs as their obsession with ‘one-fit-all model of structural adjustments and conditionalities and emergence of alternate institutions like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Development Bank (NDB), which are largely bankrolled by China.

Rise of Trump and the Age of Disruption

The 2016 Presidential election fought between the Republican candidate Donald Trump and the Democrat candidate Hilary Clinton flayed in open the existing cleavages in the US socio-political system. The elections were chaotic with both candidates inflicting personal allegations amidst charges of corruption against Ms Clinton and Russia’s meddling in the elections. Mr Trump’s divisive anti-establishment outlook was hugely criticized by mainstream media and politics. When results came, Mr Trump won with larger number of Electoral College votes, although he trailed behind Ms Clinton in popular vote. It came as a shocker worldwide as not many would have predicted that “Donald Trump would become President-elect in the United States of America from nowhere”. It seemed that his campaigns populist discourse fused with nationalist rhetoric had worked in cajoling the commoners, who were largely disillusioned with the existing system.

In this regard, Fareed Zakaria sees Trump's victory “a kind of a class rebellion against people like us, educated professionals who live in cities, who have cosmopolitan views about a lot of things”. Such elites, owing to their disconnect with people, failed to see the rising white middle class woes against capitalism which fail to enrich their lives further, and the breeding of inequality, cultural divide owing to large scale immigration (mainly African-Americans and Hispanics), working class rising against job displacement to others’ and the information revolution led by social media (Zakaria, 2017), (Price, 2017). Mr Trump capitalized on this fear psychosis and his promises to “Make America Great Again” along with rethink on its role as ‘the watchdog and police of the world’ found takers (Abutu & Abubakar, 2017).

The rise of Trump phenomenon echoes possible decline of the USA’s hegemony in global world order. When he took office, the stage was set for a disruption as President Trump challenged multilateralism and static notions and partnerships. In his 2018 UN General Assembly speech (UNGA), President Trump, in his disregard to the globalized order, asserted that “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism”. Over these years, Mr Trump left a number of organizations and agreements - ranging from the UNESCO, Iran’s nuclear deal signed with P5+1 group of countries, a proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union, Paris Climate deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and so on. Several other institutions like WTO remains in the President’s radar. This was followed by his ambiguous declarations of military withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. President Trump has also started ‘Trade Wars’, especially against China.

With regard to allies, President Trump has been vocal about their ‘free ride’ over America’s back and at times mocking their efforts and objectives. This was in blatant display when President Trump proffered his ‘library jibe’ at India over the latter’s efforts in Afghanistan thus showing little understanding or appreciation of the fact that India remains the largest regional donor to Afghanistan. This was not too long when President Trump dubbed India as ‘tariff king’. Similarly, Canada too faced Mr Trump’s wrath over North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations, which was later replaced with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in 2018.

Such foreign policy flip-flops and ambivalence towards the existing order points towards a missing strategic orientation in America’s foreign policy. With its emphasis on transactional gains like greater trade numbers and reduced assistance to allies, President Trump is challenging long held policy visions like Trans-Atlantic solidarity, Pivot to Asia and so on. Thus, with his rhetoric against neo-liberal world order Present Trump presents himself as a challenge to system established by USA itself which has been created and mastered by successive White House sitters.

America’s Internal Turmoil

Internal coherence and consensus on foreign policy goals is an important constituent of national power but America of today seems to be deeply divided along partisan lines. Its society too exhibit several fault lines along the lines of race, ethnicity and immigration. This is further complicated by a sorry state of affairs in the White House, which has seen spate of dismissals and resignations, the most recent being that of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis. The on-going investigations of Russia’s role in elections too have rocked American politics. With Democrats getting majority in the House of Representatives, things are going to get tough for President Trump, as seen recently in the partial government shutdown (third in 2018) due to disagreement over funding of a Mexican border wall to check illegal immigration.

Similarly, several insider accounts have criticized the way Mr Trump exercises his presidential responsibilities and his personal shortcomings. That paints a very sordid picture of the White House affairs, as characterized by internal dissensions within the bureaucracy, against many of the President Trump’s view points, and his differences with the Congress and Judiciary.

At personal level, Mr. Trump has been dubbed as erratic and irrational, lacking strategic perspective over domestic and global issues and unpredictable in his approach. Michael Woff in his book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, argues that “Trump never wanted to be president, and was as appalled as the rest of us when he won” (Conrad, 2018), and dubs the Trump’s White House as “a Shakespearean drama where family loyalty rules” (Lynch, 2018). Similarly, veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in his book, Fear: Trump in the White House, draws a parallel between Trump’s presidency and Richard Nixon’s period which was dogged with anti-Vietnam war protests and Watergate scandal which manifested into a period of crisis of leadership in the USA (Abramson, 2018). The book also lists several anecdotes to prove how the presidential bureaucracy on a regular basis thwart “President’s most dangerous impulses” and likens it to a kind of “an administrative coup d’état” in challenging the authority of the President itself. One of the important anecdotes were of Mr Trump, like an “elementary school student” questioning monetary support to South Korea for THAAD anti-ballistic missile systems despite the then Defence Secretary Jim Mattis substantiating it with the underlying reasons of peace in the Korean Peninsula and to check North Korea’s belligerence in the region (Lakshman, 2018).

Under Mr Trump, American society has become more polarised over issues of immigration, LGBT and women rights, environmental issues and so on. As per Southern Poverty Law Center study, Mr Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened both white and counter-black supremacist groups in America. Charlottesville car attack during ‘Unite the Right rally’ in Charlottesville, Virginia, organised by white extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) remains a case in point (Heim, 2018). Similarly, lobby groups like National Rifle Association (NRA) have emerged much stronger in America under President Trump which does not bode well to society’s stability. Such deep divisions in America call for effective and inclusive leadership; which at present is clearly absent.

Revisionist China and Revivalist Russia

Is USA’s loss, China’s gain? This question becomes obvious when China is closing the power gap with the United States. China, under President Xi Jinping, has embarked on domestic consolidation by moving beyond the communist ‘collective leadership’ notion to centralization and by removing presidential term limits and declaring Mr Xi as ‘core leader’, thus putting him at par with the likes of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Over the years, China has provided economic and security guarantees to countries like Pakistan, Sudan and Venezuela, initiating big bang projects like the One Belt One Road (OBOR) and Asia Infra Investment Bank (AIIB), and asserting authority in Asia, especially in South China Sea. Its grand visions like the ‘Made in China 2025’ and ‘Artificial Intelligence Vision 2030’ presents serious challenges to the status quo. Owing to the current state of affairs in America, the “Chinese are enjoying a golden field for their propaganda”, presenting the pitfalls of democracy and eulogizing centralized leadership. Professor Xu Guoqi of Hong Kong University argues that, “Because of Trump, Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream could be achievable now” (Carlson, 2018).

America’s supposed global retreat under President Trump would further enhance China’s scope of manoeuvring to present itself as a champion of 21st century globalized world order. Despite being a violator of principles of international law and globalization for long, America’s exit from multilateral agreements like Paris Summit could be capitalized by China to posit itself as a ‘responsible global power’ as seen during the 2017 World Economic Forum Summit at Davos where President Jinping gave a rousing speech in defence of globalisation.

With regard to Russia, the veracity of claims like the onset of a New Cold War due to resurgence of Russia remains contested, but Vladimir Putin led Russia does present imminent challenge to America’s foreign policy especially in the theatres of Ukraine and Syria. Russia, under Putin, has been vociferous in its criticism with respect to NATO expansion along its borders and the missile defence systems, western unilateralism and colour revolutions like in Georgia and Tajikistan. Putin, in his 2018 Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly spoke of highly sophisticated Russia’s ‘strategic weapons’ like a nuclear-powered underwater drone, nuclear-powered cruise missile and new hypersonic missile which would make “NATO's US-led missile defence useless" (PresidentOfRussia, 2018).

Similarly, Russia’s initiatives like Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), along with emerging cooperation with China under Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), presents an imminent challenge for America in the Eurasian space. The West has also time and again blamed Russia for interfering in elections through asymmetric information propaganda and cybersecurity threats. The on-going investigation of Russia’s meddling in the US elections is a case in point. Thus, for the US to navigate its foreign policy in such troubled scenario requires a certain degree of strategic orientation and shedding its contemporary narrow understanding of national interests.

Towards another phase of Isolationism: Reality or Fiction?

Isolationist foreign policy outlook has been a dominant fixture in the US history owing to its geographical location and circumstantial needs. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger terms America’s foreign policy as, “Torn between nostalgia for a pristine past and yearning for a perfect future, American thought has oscillated between isolationism and commitment" (Mead, 2001). Thus, isolationism remains a dominant discourse from the inception.

So does Mr Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy stance signal rebirth of American isolationism? Not exactly. In this regard, noted International Relations expert Stephen Walt in his book, The Hell of Good Intentions (2018), presents a perfect explanation. Walt criticizes America for over engaging itself in “forever wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan, which, apart from its disastrous consequences, played a key role in polarizing the Islamic world against the US besides causing monetary and human losses; and all this in obsession with ‘liberal hegemony’. However, the author abstains from arguing for an isolationist stance, and rather calls for a nuanced world view to favour “offshore balancing” rather than isolationism or disengagement. This strategy involves restraining military commitments of the US to situations involving “threats to the balance of power in critical strategic regions like Europe, Asia, or the Persian Gulf”, while remaining engaged economically and diplomatically. For him, the cornerstone of American foreign policy should be to “manage China’s rise” through dual policies of coercion and cooperation, along with deeper engagement with other Asian powers. Walt calls for appreciating regime diversity, nation building and support rather that one size model of unilateral interventions. Similarly, on Israeli-Palestine dispute, Walt favours concerted efforts from the US to find solution along the lines of the ‘Two State Solution’ (Laidler, 2018) (Walt, 2018).

If we look at Trump’s foreign policy manoeuvres, it is quite clear that his approach does represent a break from past but he is not taking the US towards isolationism. His West Asian policy has been more activist with strengthening alliances with Israel and Arab autocrats to contain Shia Iran, moving out of the Iranian nuclear accord, troops and support in Syria and Yemen proxy struggles, and a clear disavowal of two-state solution to Israel-Palestine conflict as exemplified in his shifting of American embassy to Jerusalem. Similarly, on North Korea, Mr Trump has been more conciliatory to President Kim Jong Un in an attempt to include North Korea within the nuclear proliferation architecture as seen in last year’s Singapore Summit between the two leaders, Trump being the first President to do so. The United States’ National Security Strategy (2017) unveiled by President Trump calls for securing American interests against “foreign rival powers” including “revisionist powers” like Russia and China and “rogue regimes” like North Korea and Iran through increased defence spending, economic aggression to reduce burgeoning trade deficits and cooperation with “traditional allies” on a fair burden sharing basis (WhiteHouse, 2017), (Weaver, 2018).

On South Asia, President Trump’s 2017 New South Asia Strategy states increased military footprint in Afghanistan and peace process with Taliban, pressurizing Pakistan to do more on terrorism and supporting India’s role in the region (Paripiani, 2018). In this regard, with respect to the recent USA’s proposed withdrawal from Afghanistan, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as part of his Raisina Dialogue (2019) conversation, calls Afghanistan as “breathtakingly strategic” as many global powers are present in the region, and further asserted that the US would not exit Afghanistan as, “They didn’t come to leave”. He continues saying that even after troop withdrawal, if it happens, cooperation under the Bilateral Security Agreement will continue (ORF, 2019). Thus, such an observation obviates any sort of withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Thus, seen from the abovementioned arguments, it becomes quite apparent that President Trump’s diplomatic and security exhortations often contradict each other, thus making his foreign policy orientation ambiguous but never ‘Isolationist’. An isolationist foreign policy would have called for closing over 800 US military bases worldwide, which is hard to imagine today. US has not left institutions like WTO, NATO, and NAFTA and so on, which were crucial points during his election campaign rhetoric. Thus, President Trump’s foreign policy is more directed towards changing the nature of certain relationships and situations, which he assumes as disadvantageous to American interests. In this regard, renegotiation of trade relationships with Mexico and Canada under NAFTA and on-going trade war with China for a “better trade deal” are apt examples.

Managing the Decline

‘Dear Enemy Effect’ is a well-studied behavioural phenomenon in animals, which argues that “territory owners often respond with greater aggression to strangers than to neighbouring individuals” (Christensen & Radford, 2018). Applying the same analogy in the current international context, the American imperative should be to strengthen the status-quo and manage its decline to counter “strangers” (read Russia and China). This could be done by exercising its dominance by keeping its flock of allies together and happy, solidifying its commitments to global democracy and rule of law, reinforcing the US crafted institutions like NATO, World Bank and IMF, and steadfastly tackling the challenge from revisionist states. In this regard, Michael Beckley in his book, Unrivalled - Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower, argues that competition from rising powers like China and India are overstated as such countries lack the nature of technological and military sophistication which the US possesses. Most importantly, unlike the USA, such countries suffer from adverse geography, conflicts with neighbours and internals security problems (March, 2018). Compared to USA’s time-tested institutions, Chinese initiatives like AIIB and OBOR are still comparatively in nascent stage and genuine reform of such initiatives is in America’s interests.

Similarly, with regard to Russia, policy reorientation and shedding Cold War mentality is needed. Noted expert on Russia’s foreign policy, Richard Sakwa calls for appreciation of Russia’s “genuine concerns” like expansion of NATO and the EU along its borders, and a realization among the Western powers to see Russia as a credible great power. Russia has been further nudged towards siding with China due to the Western power’s disregard to Russia’s strategic interests. So an olive branch to Russia might serve the US purpose of containing China. America's approach needs to shift beyond ‘American Exceptionalism’ with its extreme focus on “military might and wars of choice to a commitment to shared objectives of sustainable development” (Sachs, 2018). However, such a grand vision would require a degree of coherence in the USA’s domestic socio-political situation and a consensus with respect to country’s foreign policy goals and objectives.

To possess a status of Super Power with system changing capabilities has its own share of luxuries and burdens. Since the breakdown of Soviet Union in 1991, USA has enjoyed the phase of unquestioned superiority and at times stood to the associated responsibilities like in the Middle East and Afghanistan - although, it’s aims and results are debatable. It’s up to Uncle Sam to decide whether he wants to eye only for the ‘luxuries’, disregarding the ‘burdens’, and in the process denouncing the superiority altogether or reposition himself as a credible global hegemon. In the current charged discourse, a pertinent question arises if the oft repeated rhetoric of ‘Making America Great Again’ posits death knell for the American hegemony? Now that is for the coming times to unravel.


(The author is a Junior Research Fellow pursing M.Phil in the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies (CRCAS), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal National University.)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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