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The decline of American power

Last week this column explored the phenomenon of China’s recent rise to power and how this is presently changing the nature of the international system. While readers will be directed to that piecefor a better understanding of what precisely China’s emergence as a central global power means for China, what still needs to be better understood is what the relative decline of American power means for America.

To begin, it is crucial to understand that for the time being the United States remains unparalleled in terms of military power, the basic unit which measures a state’s ability to project influence globally. This power is still overwhelming and formidable. The United States spends more on its military budget than the next 10 states combined, offering it a totally unique scope and international reach animated by the most sophisticated technology available to or developed by militaries anywhere. Belligerent former foes such as Russia – the primary successor state of the Soviet Union – cannot, rhetoric notwithstanding, come close to exerting the kind of influence necessary to sufficiently legitimize its recent tough-headed foreign policy. The European Union is a conglomeration of debt-ridden states in permanent economic crisis mode that in recent history has proven itself incapable of influencing global affairs as a cohesive unit. Even present-day China, the state most ambitious to throw America off of its hegemonic pedestal, is probably decades behind in organizational prowess and technological sophistication.

That being said, a clear vision for the future requires understanding that this state of affairs is temporary. As noted last week, China in particular is desirous of excluding the United States from the Southeast Asian region it regards as its exclusive sphere of dominance. Russia dreams of returning to the world stage as a Eurasian empire. States hostile to American designs such as Iran are vying for influence in the Muslim world, even as more such states in the Arab world emerge with governments influenced by radical Islamism are sure to reduce American prestige and power among themselves. These geopolitical shifts don’t even take into consideration the changing face of the global economy. In 2000, 60% of the world’s wealth was concentrated in the developed world, led by the United States. By 2030, 60% of the world’s economy will be comprised by developing states. And by 2016, one source predicts that China’s economy will overtake America’s in sheer size.

All of this means that to preserve a global order that up to this point in time has been so beneficial for American interests, the United States will have to recalibrate its orientation to the world. It has actually already begun doing this under President Obama through what his administration is calling a “pivot to Asia.” As the war theaters in the Middle East wind down, and as planned drastic reductions in military spending promise to reduce the American presence in Europe, the United States military is preparing to invest considerably more resources into the entire Pacific region. Doing so is essential to counterbalance Chinese growth and to reassure the many states of that region concerned about the rise of Chinese influence that the United States is prepared to commit its power to preserving the present stable order. Vietnam, the Philippines and even Australia have signed on to new and strengthen ties with the United States. South Korea and Japan are as committed as ever to pursuing a close relationship with the United States. This is true of other states as well.

The danger in all of this, of course, is the emergence of an age-old problem inherent in changing global orders. Old, established hegemonic states don’t let go of their hegemony so easily when a new power emerges on the horizon. China sees the United States as an empire in its twilight, unavoidably on the path to relinquishing unquestioned sway over global affairs to a more balanced distribution of power that includes China as the dominant force in Southeast Asia. It is inevitable that the Chinese vision of the Pacific region will at some point clash with America’s, as the two are in essence irreconcilable. (This is contrary to decades of assertions between the two country’s leaders who tout each other’s success and prosperity as good and worthwhile.)

It’s probable that many people take the stability, openness, and prosperity that characterize the modern period for granted, forgetting that it is held together in spite of mankind’s long history of division and war by the power of the United States, the only state with an unmatched ability to project its values and policy preferences (including open trade) globally. (What this means is that after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States found itself in a historically unique situation: no other state had ever enjoyed a capacity to exploit its economic prosperity, size, and military reach in such a profoundly global way before.) What will a world in which American power is relatively declining look like? It’ll undoubtedly be different from the present one. An energized Russia will seek to reestablish its old sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, and also Central Asia, regions in which a number of states during the post-Cold War era drew strongly to the United States as a backlash against long-standing Russian domination. An increasingly confident Iran and Saudi Arabia would compete for dominance in a Muslim world that is quickly pushing out American influence. India and Pakistan, unbound by their security ties with the United States, would rehash old, historical disputes. An increasingly weak Europe would balk in the face of new threats from the east. And above all, China would reshape the Southeast Asia region into its own image, extracting resources, controlling trade routes, and imposing its claims of sovereignty over disputed bodies of water and islands to the detriment of peace.

Not all is lost, however, and there are many things that the United States can do to avoid the consequences listed above. Next week, this column will examine the foreign policy of Barack Obama, and the proposed foreign policy of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, and explore how the two serve or hinder American power in the 21st century.

For reading on this topic, see Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision.

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