What threatens US power this century?

American leadership in the 21st century.

According to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the US is the “indispensable nation”. The benign equilibrium after the Cold War would, however, be interrupted by major escalations in inter and intra-state violence, stateless individual acts of terrorism, trends in global markets against manufacturing, China’s evolving attitude towards its world order, and, perhaps most crucially, the decreasing willingness and capacity from the US to play a role.

Nonetheless, the US still possesses an unrivalled military and large economy; it maintains alliances — although not unquestionably; it sets agenda, and attempts to promote universal values of free markets, human rights, and democracy. With oceans to its east and west, friendly neighbours to its north and south, and sufficient distance between its rivals as to make imminent physical danger less likely also reinforce its strength.

One of the favourite talking points from the GOP in the build up to last year’s election, was the ‘China’ case. Namely, thanks to some incredible conspiracy that even the greatest writers in the world couldn’t dream up, Joe Biden’s son was somehow involved in China.

Ok, you might say, my instinct says that could be true. Could you share the details? No, no, is the response, there is no need to worry about pesky facts when the electorate is ripe for clickbait news consumption. Similarly, the sitting President of the United States was caught paying $200,000 in tax to China. Actually, no, it’s not similar at all, is it? One is a lie, the other is true.

But it alludes to a greater truth. That, if it chooses, China can represent a major threat to the US. Its material growth is well documented, with its economy growing by 6.1% in 2019, compared to US growth of a mere 2.3%. Such performance has meant China’s GDP doubled between 2010–2020, while the US’ global share of GDP fell 14%. More worryingly for foreign policy hawks is that China is using its economic growth to facilitate increases in military spending, meaning it will be a first rate military power with an ability to rival the US.

Another area of concern is China’s willingness to come to the table, leading on global solution over the last two decades. While President Xi has admitted China was once sceptical of globalisation, his country has gone onto join the WTO, risen as a substantial trading partner, and developed an economic footprint that covers all major regions and continents. Including areas that the US has largely ignored, such as Africa, or worse, outright insulted. There appears to be a large gap in the respective country’s willingness to lead the globe.

China’s soft power is less well-known, but equally as concerning. Diplomatically it overtook the US in total number of diplomatic outposts in 2019 (Power), and is currently spending $10bn a year to promote pro-Chinese views abroad, waging the so-called huahu-zhanzheng — the discourse war. China’s infrastructure too, most notable the Belt and Road Initiative, will mean further strategic gains. Influence extends beyond Eurasia, as well; China has established Confucius Institutions in over one hundred American universities and it remains the world’s largest producer of coal. Further undermining what Jim Mattis calls “the American way of life”.

Perhaps most crucially of all, China’s capacity to influence has been matched by a willingness of others to be influenced. For example, when China proposed the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), major US allies quickly joined, including Australia, South Korea, and most pointedly, the UK, which gave the US just twenty-four hours’ notice of its intentions. Even China-sceptics argue the bank could dilute US economic influence. China’s ability to offer a new option for countries and nations (Xi) is an explicit call against US authority. At the same time, the image the US has around the world has been in free fall under Donald Trump.

External threats are of course not limited to one country. A recent US intelligence report concluded that Russia and Iran unsuccessfully tried to “meddle in the 2020 election, while China sat it out”. But it is not just sovereign nations who pose a threat.

The attack by suicide bombers hijacking commercial aircrafts on September 11th 2001 was the result of a group cobbled together from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Lebanon, not a large state with infrastructure capable of rivalling the USA’s. The attack proved the US was vulnerable, and that the largest military the world has ever seen can be circumvented. Moreover, terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram have proved successful in recruiting westerns through their offer of a life explicitly opposed to US’ values. Groups — not necessarily states — are able to pose a multitude of threats to the US without a fraction of the culture, economic, or militaristic infrastructure that the US possesses.

The tradition mechanisms of US security are less effective amidst the potency of non-state actors to wield both hard power — terrorist attacks — and soft power — recruit western to their groups on the explicit appeal to an anti-Western, specially anti-American sentiment. Challenges that are ill-suited to be tamed by the largest army ever made, or even the second largest army ever made — that being the US Air Force. All this would be almost impossible for the most able, capable, competent, effective political leaders. Or even the most informed, healthy, educated populace. Sadly, the US has neither of those things, so the task of retaining its position of the (not a, but the) global leaders shifts rapidly from the improbable, towards the impossible.

The US itself is undoubtedly contributing to its own decline. The financial crisis of 2007/2008 exposed the US’ economic system as vulnerable. While this was a crisis that crept to every corner of the globe, the US owned it. The US was the biggest champion of this form of capitalism and, for decades, it not only lived by it, but some were able to thrive in it. When it collapsed, two million people fell behind on mortgage repayments and personal savings as a per-centage of income dropped to just 0.4%, down from 10% in the 1970s.

Politically too, the January 6 insurrection was simply breath-taking. Over one hundred years earlier, in 1917, Woodrow Wilson pledged to make the “world safe for democracy”. More recently, George Bush claimed democracy was “God’s gift to humanity”. In 2021, it is the US that needs to be made safe for democracy. Crucially, it needs to be remembered that the insurrection is not an isolated event. As we speak there are a slew of voter repression laws attempting to be implemented across the country removing democratic rights of individuals. The US has gone to war; it has put its own people in the line of fire in the name of democracy — only to surrender it so weakly, so pathetically, at home. All of this is before we look at the horrific way the country deals with healthcare, crime, and reproductive rights.

Post-script

I am increasingly of the resigned believe that the Coronavirus will be viewed as a defining moment in America’s decline. Not because it changed much, but because it revealed latent misalignments; skewed priorities; short-termism; the ugly, brutal, lethal face of rugged individualism. America has survived crisis after crisis after crisis and come out well. But this feels different. The combination of a political environment where voters are free to choose their own truth and reality is killing 2000 Americans a day, mixed with a litany of fundamental social, economic, and political problems is as troublesome as any threat any foe can muster.

Writing mostly on US politics from across the pond. Occasionally detour into sports/sport performance, and UK politics/culture.

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