Today, the United States still stands as the world’s unrivaled superpower. However due to the absence of superpower rivalry a la the Cold War, the so-called ‘rise of the rest’, lessons learned in recent history with two wars and an over all pronounced lack of global and domestic leadership Washington has become the reluctant superpower in a different, revised unipolar world. A world where although the United States is not challenged politically, militarily, or economically around the world, it nonetheless is unwilling to make tough decisions in a world where there is no central threat to its supremacy yet no other hegemons to share power with.
How did we get here? Three major factors contributed to the change in unipolarity. First, was the continued reluctance of successive American Presidents and members of Congress to tackle the pressing domestic issues in any constructive way. Namely, healthcare, entitlements (mainly Social Security), education, immigration and infrastructure reform. Rising healthcare costs have become a serious public policy issue. Lopsided entitlement payer to payee ratios are projected in the not so distant future. America’s primary education system continues to lag behind other OECD countries while our world-class institutions of higher education are granting advanced degrees to a number of foreign students who are not given the option to remain in the United States. Moreover, America’s infrastructure–it’s power grid, roads, highways, ports and airports are quickly showing their age.
Admittedly the budget deficit has been enormous making it hard to make budget allocations for large-scale reforms a la the Great Society or the New Deal. However, a political culture of ‘kicking the can down the road’, by avoiding the tough issues and an obsession by members of Congress to get reelected has hindered even the most preliminary steps towards real reform. This inaction has less to do with the political leanings of our politicians–Democrat or Republican–and more to do with the political culture of today’s White House as well as Congress.
Second, the experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan humbled Washington and created a war-weary American public. It’s too early to tell if Washington’s efforts at state-building in Iraq have paid off but it’s nation-building efforts–to construct a national identity using the power of the state–has fallen far short of its past efforts in places like Germany, Japan and the Philippines. If the current political situation in the Balkans is any indication, the post-Cold War era hasn’t been the best environment for outside powers to engage in nation-building. At least not without long, sustained foreign interventions in the form of United Nations peacekeeping forces or outright occupation.
Third, the post-Cold War and post-9/11 political environment has changed the view from Washington. In the more than two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, the breadth, depth and weight of the variety of global conflicts and global issues like global warming and the rise of political Islam has been revealed. During the Cold War, the regional and even some domestic conflicts were seen through the prism of the great US-USSR superpower rivalry. Moreover, the dominant preoccupation of the two superpowers was to keep the other in check militarily and politically. The other conflicts and issues were a distant second to the ones Washington and Moscow faced. Absent the Cold War, a whole host of smaller yet dire issues, conflicts and crises throughout the globe have come to the forefront. Couple that with domestic issues explained above and the United States finds itself in the unenviable–albeit default–position of having to prioritize which genocide to halt, which environmental issue to tackle and which ethnic or regional conflict or crisis to mitigate over the other. This is not to say that Washington does not or will not play a role in the events and issues shaping our world. Rather it’s that the United States is less able to play the leading role in every one of them.
One need not go very far for examples. America’s role in Unified Protector, the military intervention mission in Libya has been characterized as a ‘lead from behind‘ strategy. Here the United States provided the support that only a superpower can while it’s allies led the over all mission. This mission was widely seen as a tactical triumph but the jury is still out whether it’s a strategic success. By contrast, the United States has not even come close to the same level of commitment or leadership in the conflict in Syria where an estimated 93,000 people have died. If Libya does not descend into chaos, Unified Protector will be considered a strategic success as well. And so far, there is no palpable consensus as to whether the lead from behind strategy will be welcome in foreign capitols.
Another example is the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The United States has been the lead mediator of the negotiations that have been ongoing for more than 40 years and over successive Israel and Palestinian administrations. The sheer length of the negotiations speaks of missed opportunities during the Cold War and arguably poor mediation on the part of the United States. The result has been not a resolution to the conflict but rather a permanent peace process yielding a fragile peace at best and an ongoing crisis at worst. This even while both Israelis and Palestinians agree that the end game is a two-state solution achieved only through diplomacy. However, until the United States figures out how to become an effective mediator, we can expect more of the same.
Granted, the United States has retained some key competitive advantages it still enjoys. The United States is at or near the forefront in technological advances, especially in computers, medicine and aerospace making it the world’s leading innovation hub. In fact, the United States government is still the global leader in research and development spending. As mentioned earlier, the United States has world-class institutions of higher education that are the envy of the world. Not to mention the predominance of American films, music and iconic products worldwide that has translated to soft power in political terms. The United States has enjoyed these advantages for several generations and with no direct competition from any other single country, the United States will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This despite there being no appropriate historical models for the United States to follow.
Although unipolarity never quite existed before the end of the Cold War, there have been times in history when certain powers did dominate. But even among these, no comparable historical models exist. The Roman empire was sacked and torn to pieces only to be replaced by the chaos of the Middle Ages. The British Empire had the United States itself to help rebuild after World War II and to challenge the Soviet Union. Moreover, the United Kingdom was an empire whose reign differed in kind and not simply degree to the United States. And then there was the Soviet Union which is a non-starter. With no reasonable models for it to follow, the United States does not have the luxury to simply abandon its global responsibilities.
Where we find ourselves today is a unipolar world where the United States is looking to find other countries to share it’s burden. So far this path has not been very fruitful. China, for example is extremely reluctant to meddle in the internal affairs of any other nation in any way. Russia, because of its own host of domestic concerns is not in a position to offer global leadership outside the nonproliferation realm. Regional powers like Brazil and South Africa lack the military and political might to play a significant leadership role beyond their respective regions.
The United States is now more forced to lead rather than willing to lead. This is the new normal in global politics characterized by the Obama Administration’s default “go out and make me do it” posture. Note, that this is not the ‘nonpolar’ world that Richard Haass describes. Rather it’s what I call a revised unipolar world where the United States must increasingly make tough decisions on what major conflict, crisis or issue it should lead. Consequently, Washington will be increasingly accused of being the aggressor or the ‘do nothing’ superpower. Unless the international community can come together and agree to sharing the burden of the world’s conflicts, crises or issues, this revised unipolar world will be continue to be our reality.