The election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the US this month has ignited interest around the world in the direction of US global leadership, a role that significantly plummeted during Donald Trump’s presidency, begging the perennial question: Is the US in decline?
While many scholars and keen observers of international politics have observed that the US’s global power has diminished in recent times, this debate is not new. Since the 1980s, there has been a discourse between “declinists” (proponents of American decline) and “denialists” (defenders of the US’s global primacy).
The debate has oscillated from US decline in the 1980s to American unipolarity (a world with a sole superpower) in the 1990s, American empire in the 2000s and back to declinism in the contemporary era.
The difficulties encountered by Washington between the 1960s and 1980s triggered the rise of the “declinists”. In the 1960s, western Europe and Japan enjoyed massive economic recovery following the economic ruination of World War 2 and the rising US balance of payment deficits.
Between the 1970s and 1980s, the US was struck by surging levels of inflation, and high interest rates and unemployment, as well as the burden of the Vietnam War. It was also challenged by the ideological and military prowess of the Soviet Union and China, and Japan’s ascendance as an economic power. This led to considerable concerns around the decline of American power in this era.
However, in the early 1990s, the US began to experience an economic boom. Countries that were seen to be catching up with Washington either stagnated or plummeted. The Soviet Union, which had been an ideological and military rival of the US, suddenly collapsed into 15 states and the Japanese economy, which had been booming, stagnated.
With the emergence of the Bill Clinton administration, the US economy grew in leaps and bounds, and the debate on American decline gradually ebbed away as Washington had no competitors in all dimensions of power – military, economic, cultural and technological. Thus, the discourse on a unipolar moment, reality and durability displaced the declinist one during this period as the US wielded enormous influence across the globe.
However, the post-9/11 American strategy turned out to be a miscalculation and policy failure as it became evident that, as US scholar Bruce Jentleson noted, “America is not as feared or as loved as it was.” The wars on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq not only ignited anti-Americanism in the Islamic world but across the globe, mainly due to the illegal war in Iraq, and the torture and human rights violations of terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons.
This ran contrary to the American creed and created the impression that the country had adopted double standards and promoted its values only when its economic and strategic interests were not in jeopardy. It prompted US political analyst Joshua Kurlantzick to assert that “… the Iraq war in particular has sharply reduced global acceptance of the legitimacy of America’s role in the world”.
In a nutshell, the American war on terrorism had a massive negative impact on its image across the globe, and consequently diminished its moral authority. Furthermore, the US-triggered 2008/09 financial crisis revealed the shift in economic power from the West to the East and the vulnerability of US-championed economic liberalism.
These two significant events symbolise the US’s decline in the 21st century. Needless to say, Washington’s global hegemony has largely rested on its economic and military prowess. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq highlighted the inadequacies of the American military and the financial crisis evinced the weakness of its economy. Although Washington still enjoys dominance in the military sphere, it has lost its primacy in the areas of economic strength and moral authority as other major powers such as China and Germany are catching up in this regard.
The emergence of Donald Trump’s presidency and its adoption of the policy of global isolationism evident in the administration’s “America First” agenda weakened transatlantic relations, playing a lesser role in organisations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and World Health Organisation, and withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2016 Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
This further undermined the US’s global influence and fuelled the emerging multipolar order (a world with many power centres).
Although predicting the decline of the US was a risky business in the past, only staunch “denialists” will deny its decline in the 21st century. While the emergence of Biden’s administration has seemingly signalled Washington’s return to engagement in world affairs, it will take more than a successful administration to reverse the decline that began at the turn of the 21st century. DM