The United States is facing something it never has faced before: waning global influence. In the end, however, the United States will remain the world’s most powerful nation.
The risk facing the United States is not a collapse like that of the Roman Empire, but rather a gradual, relative dilution of its influence in the world and a dampening of its spirit at home.
The greatest single challenge to its authority is the emergence of China as an economic and political colossus.
China is on track to become the world’s largest economy, having recently supplanted Japan for the No. 2 spot. It is already the leader in world trade. In 2006, the United States was the largest trading partner for 127 countries, while China was the largest trading partner for only 70. By last year, however, the figures had flipped: China was the largest trading partner for 124 countries, while the tally for the United States was 76. Countries that are now less dependent on the United States are also less likely to bend to its will.
The Obama administration’s much-vaunted “Pivot to Asia” strategy, according to which America is redirecting the focus of its foreign policy to build power in China’s immediate sphere of influence, seems to have disappeared from the agenda. I haven’t heard John Kerry mention the pivot once since he was appointed secretary of state. Instead, Washington’s attention has been drawn back to the Middle East – specifically to the recent developments in Syria, Egypt, and Israel and Palestine (with more on Iran soon to come as the discussions over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program heat up).
To counter China’s economic upsurge, the United States must build new alliances in order to foster free trade and economic liberalization. It needs to build a coalition of the economic willing.
Unfortunately, former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s recent revelations that the United States engaged in surveillance of the United Nations, the European Union, and more than 80 embassies and consulates worldwide have seriously undermined the trust that would be required to coordinate such a coalition.
The Snowden leaks have also set back American efforts to exert any kind of moral pressure on China to stop its long-term practice of ignoring the rules that govern international trade – rules that most of the industrial democracies follow.
The waning of U.S. power is a function of domestic issues, as well. Until recent years, the United States enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic prosperity. Now, given the extraordinary rise of the U.S. deficit, the growing gap between the rich and poor in the United States, and the erosion of some core American ideals, such as support for free markets and human rights, many Americans believe that the world’s only superpower is becoming just another country.
Looking from the top down, from the perspective of Americans who are doing well, the United States does not appear to be in decline at all – in fact, it looks like it is probably a better place in which to live than it has ever been previously. Yet, from the perspective of the bottom half of American earners, the United States is going downhill. This category of Americans do not have the opportunities they once did, and they fear that their children won’t either.
While its challenges are real, the United States is still the world’s only true superpower.
Look at the U.S. energy revolution. By exploiting its reserves of shale oil, the United States has pretty much guaranteed that it is only a matter of time before it becomes a net exporter of oil.
The United States is also still the most prolific innovator in the world. The fact is that those things that have changed the nature of the global economy and that have broadened the horizons of science have been overwhelmingly developed in America.
If any country has the wherewithal to adapt to the changing global context and defend its interests despite the dilution of its economic and political supremacy, it is the United States.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and the author of “Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World,” “The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall,” and “The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?” This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).