For decades, the US has been the centre of the global order. But today, the rise of new powers is challenging America’s supremacy, and most notably incumbent US President Trump is gradually changing many traditional elements of American foreign policy that were fundamental for the existing international system. So, are we leading to a post-American world?
THE US-BASED ORDER
The existing global order is largely the product of the combination of America’s ideals and interests. As it emerged as a great power at the end of the 19th century, the US started taking a more active role in international affairs, leading to its direct intervention in WWI.
As the conflict ended, US President Woodrow Wilson inspired the League of Nations, an international organisation based on liberal principles that in his intention was supposed to ensure the respect of the rule of law, grant the peaceful coexistence of states and prevent new wars.
However, the US Congress refused to confirm America’s participation, and this along with other structural flaws condemned the organisation to failure. Two decades after the League of Nations was established, another more terrible war broke out all over the world. The US intervened once again and as the conflict turned in its favour it started setting the rules of the post-war order that still exists today. The League of Nations was revived in an improved form as the United Nations, which is equally inspired by the American liberal values.
Other ancillary institutions were created. The International Monetary Fund, which has the task of ensuring the global financial stability and economic integration, was also based upon the ideas of US economic liberalism of the time. The same applies to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which later gave birth to the World Trade Organization.
The US dollar became the main currency used in international economic affairs, and America turn into the inspirator of the economic policies implemented around the globe in the following decades. But the US was also the leading economic and military power of the time, and the one who had gained the most from WWII.
Following the conflict, it established military bases and alliances around the entire world and used them to contain the USSR, the only power that could rival its supremacy. It sustained the reconstruction of Europe via the Marshall plan and promoted the creation of the NATO military alliance.
In Asia, it established close alliances with Japan, South Korea, nationalist China and others. In the Middle East, it fostered close ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia and NATO-member Turkey. The USSR supported alternative views and institutions, but the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991 marked their failure.
It seemed the definitive consolidation of a world order based on the rule of law where America would be the granter of international security; and scholars like Francis Fukuyama talked about “The End of History”, meaning the triumph of the concepts of liberal democracy and free market embodied by the US.
THE CHALLENGES TO THE US-BASED ORDER
Yet, optimism did not last for long. America’s withdrawal from Somalia and its inaction to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia showed that it was unwilling to commit its forces where no important national interests were at stake. The rise of terrorism culminated in the 9/11 attacks, following which the US employed enormous resources in two controversial and still unsettled conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2008, a financial crisis caused a severe recession in the US and the rest of the world. In the meanwhile, several emerging powers were getting stronger, first of all China. Thanks to its extraordinary growth rate, it rapidly became the world’s second-largest economy and soon started building up its military; to the point that today it is considered America’s main strategic competitor.
Russia, in spite of its economic weakness compared to other countries, also restructured its armed forces and regained a central place in global affairs. Powers like India and Brazil are also increasing their influence, and others such as Indonesia, Vietnam or Mexico seem all well poised to play a major role in the coming decades.
All this has led many observers to claim that the US is in relative decline and that we are approaching the classic scenario where an emerging power challenges the hegemon as it happened multiple times throughout history.
But what is quite unique of the current situation is that the leading power itself, under Trump’s presidency, is actively moving away from the institutions that it had established and that have ensured its supremacy. After decades of promoting free trade, now the US has shifted to more protectionist policies and has initiated so-called “trade wars” with several countries. These include not only competitors like China, but also close allies like the European states. Similar measures may follow also on India, Turkey, and even on a key ally like Japan. Trump also decided to scrap the NAFTA free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico to negotiate a new deal known as USMCA, whose terms are deemed more favourable to America’s interests.
Similarly, he retired the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a large-scale commerce liberalisation treaty uniting twelve countries from both sides of the Pacific; and refused to move on with negotiations on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the economic deal with the EU.
But Trump’s quarrels with allied powers go beyond trade issues. The President has repeatedly and openly criticised America’s allies for “free-riding” on the US on security issues, meaning that they do not spend enough on defence and rely on the US military to ensure their national security.
Trump has been pressing close partners like NATO members and Japan to increase their defence budged and / or to pay for the upkeep of US military forces.
Finally, Trump has also changed America’s approach to arms control. After decades of US efforts to prevent an arms race with the USSR and then Russia, Trump has decided to abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, an important agreement that prohibited the deployment of intermediate-range and shorter-range nuclear missiles in Europe. It was a major element of the security architecture in the continent, and Russia promptly reacted by leaving the treaty as well.
Now, many fear a new arms race and worry about the tenure of other arms control agreements like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START.
In short, under Trump’s guidance America is moving away from the very institutions it had created to promote its interest. In this context, several analysts claim that we are heading towards a new, post-American global order. But what will it be like?
THE POST-US ORDER
In reality, the easiest answer to this question is that there will not be any post-American order. While it is true that several powers are on the rise, the US still has enormous geopolitical, economic, technological and military advantages that it can exploit to maintain its superiority over competitors. Also, it is not sure that that rival powers will ever be strong enough to actually reshape the international system according to their values and interests as America did in the past.
Even China, by far the main candidate to succeed the US as the world leader, still lags behind in spite of its extraordinary progress. In addition, the PRC has not a clear transnational ideology to which other states can adhere and that can be used to create a new global order. Its pragmatism is certainly good for making business, but it is not enough to convince others to follow China’s lead and make of it the new hegemon.
Finally, Trump could be a temporary phenomenon, and the next administration may retake the US back on the tracks of its traditional foreign policy.
Yet, it is also possible that in this epoch of uncertainty the American electorate will continue voting for Trump-like candidates who promise to preserve the old socio-economic system and its values; and foreign competitors may indeed develop the material means and the ideals to make a bid for global leadership.
China is of course the main power to watch in this sense. In such case, two scenarios are possible: first, a US-China war for global primacy; second, a peaceful transition to a Sino-centric system. The latter is particularly interesting, but difficult to foresee: it would probably be a Eurasian order where China extends its economic interests via the “New Silk Road” and where other states orbit around the PRC, the centre of the system, in a revival of the traditional Chinese political concept of tianxia; a term meaning “Under the Heaven” and indicating China’s political and cultural supremacy over the lands surrounding it.
Finally, another much-talked possibility is a multipolar order; where the US, China, Russia, India, Brazil, the EU and others will establish their own spheres of influence and fight each other for global hegemony; especially in areas where the respective zones of interest collide. Some contest this scenario by saying that only not enough powers would be strong enough to become the “poles” of the new multipolar system; but this lies on the assumption that all “poles” need to have equal strength, which is not necessarily the case. All in all, this could be the most likely scenario, but also a quite unstable one as it inherently implies material and ideological competition that may easily result into open war.
These scenarios are all possible to some degree, and by now it is impossible to determine which one will materialize. In this complex and interconnected world, only time will tell with certainty how the new global order will look like.