RECENT weeks have been tough for America’s status as a superpower. The images of police stations being burnt during race riots and the failure to provide global leadership on Covid-19 or tackle the infection well even nationally have exposed its growing fragilities. But these trends are merely the latest signs of a superpower in decline, with Vietnam likely being the first sign. How long can the US remain a superpower, and who or what will replace it?
States become superpowers by amassing vast amounts of technological, military, political, economic and soft powers though the specific strategic mix and use of these different power types vary case to case. But irrespective of strategy, the heavy costs involved in being a superpower ultimately saps the powers of incumbent states and allows competitors to displace them. So Britain’s strategy was to use its technological power to undertake military conquests globally and acquire cheap supply of labour and resources to further enhance its economic power. But the high military and logistical costs of keeping colonies diverted funds from investments in economic and technological powers and allowed the US, Germany and Japan to catch up.
The US strategy was different as it eschewed military conquests. Soft power was a key component of its strategy as it projected the false image of being a benevolent superpower willing to share the ingredients of its success with others who become part of its prescribed global order. But in reality it established a global system that largely benefited the US and its closest allies.
The US often resembles a clueless bystander.
The ingredients of its strategy at the level of values included the adoption of material wealth as the main national goal which was to be achieved via technological means while ignoring political and environmental concerns about equity and sustainability. It co-opted some other states with short-term aid and others by helping dictators stay in power to obtain the natural resources globally that it needed. Global financial policies and institutions also did its bidding. Its vast global military infrastructure underpinned the system’s security. Thus, it aimed to achieve the same returns as the UK but sans the apparent ugliness of colonialism.
However, one by one, the key ingredients of its superpower strategy crumbled even after it defeated its arch-rival the USSR. The failure of its aid to ignite growth in most developing states and the brutalities of its allied dictators turned global opinion against it. The allure of its values has also faded as materialism has failed to provide long-lasting peace of mind even to Western populations benefiting most from this model. Also, the environmental unsustainability of materialism has become apparent via climate change. The heavy cost of imperialism has caused huge (budget and external) deficits and (public and private) debt and diverted investment for the future in physical and human resources. This has allowed countries like Germany, Japan and China to start catching up technologically and economically.
Finally, domestically, the ‘Washington Consensus’ on this model too has frayed as conservatives led by President Donald Trump have become more wary of footing imperialism’s costs without being willing to forego its benefits. Domestic political gridlock has increased as the two parties become unable to develop consensus on domestic and international issues.
So instead of being a global leader against emerging global threats, the US often resembles a clueless bystander and even an active obstructionist, eg on climate change. Its dominant ideology based on materialism and raw power increasingly looks irrelevant. So, will it soon be replaced by another superpower like the UK was 80 years ago? But this is where the similarity with the UK ends. The US had overtaken the UK economically decades before its final demise as a superpower after World War II. China is still decades behind the US. Nor does its autocratic political system make it an attractive global leader for many states. The EU matches the US more closely democratically, economically and technologically, but is not a cohesive political unit. Nor is a World War II-style knockout likely for the US given its huge nuclear stocks.
Thus, the US will likely keep getting weaker and increasingly unable to play the role of a global leader but have no other state able to replace it. Even as global problems increase, the world will remain rudderless. The best solution would be the emergence of a genuinely democratic global order not dependent on one state’s leadership. But not only the US, even China, India, Russia, etc will oppose it. Thus, the world seems headed for decades of turbulence due to a lack of a cohesive global order.
The writer is a fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2020