You would think that the international community wouldn’t be especially engaged with an election in one country, even if it is as large and complex as the United States. Particularly if the election is only a midterm event, and not one which will define the country’s leadership.
Not to mention that the focus of American voters themselves is not on fundamental questions of world politics or economics, but rather on purely domestic issues, such as inflation, abortion, immigration and street crime.
Nevertheless, last week the world’s attention was fixated on the twists and turns of another round of the perennial Democrat-Republican rivalry. Europe and Asia, Latin America, and Africa closely followed the election, recording any shifts in the mood of certain groups of the American electorate, noting the emergence of new potential leaders and making predictions about the likely future of the American political system. They were not watching out of idle curiosity—the future of the rest of the world depends to some extent on the political dynamics within the US.
Not only in America itself, but far beyond, there is an endless debate about the fate of US leadership and the limits of its international influence. Is it fair to say that, at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, we are witnessing the beginning of the revival of the former American hegemony in world affairs, or is the perceived restoration of a unipolar world nothing more than a delusion created by the efforts of skillful illusionists from the White House and the State Department?
The return of the unipolar world?
Most of the current talk about the resurgence of Pax Americana is in one way or another related to the unfolding conflict between Moscow and the collective West. There is a broad consensus in the expert community today that the US is the main beneficiary of this conflict and in particular of the Russian-Ukrainian dimension.
The current crisis has undoubtedly come in handy for President Joe Biden’s administration. Russia’s special military operation immediately overshadowed the not-so-successful conclusion of the US’ own 20-year offensive in Afghanistan. It also allowed the collective West to be united again under American leadership, disciplining previously not-always compliant European allies.
NATO was unexpectedly enriched by two promising members, and the American military-industrial complex entered very attractive new markets not only in Europe but also in other parts of the world. Unprecedented export opportunities have also opened up for US energy companies, which are increasing the supply of their expensive liquefied natural gas to Europe as an alternative to the cheap Russian pipeline variety.
Among other things, the current crisis has shown that the intellectual and psychological inertia of the old unipolar world is far from being overcome and continues to actively influence the world’s politics and economics. The surprising unanimity shown by the countries of the European Union in their willingness to reject any form of “strategic autonomy” from the US makes one wonder how serious the desire for this very autonomy was in the first place.
But the recurrence of systemic unipolarity is not unique to the West. For example, the threat of secondary sanctions by the US has in many cases proved to be a decisive factor in determining the opportunities and constraints for non-Western countries to develop economic and other cooperation with Moscow. Under US pressure, Turkey decided to refuse to service Russian Mir payment cards, and China’s Huawei was forced to begin winding down its activities in Russia.
The new US National Security Strategy recently signed by Biden is steeped in outright restorationist pathos. The document speaks of the indispensability of American leadership, the unchanging task of “containing” China and Russia, the promotion of liberal values around the world, etc. While US officials use the “politically correct” rhetoric of multipolarity and multilateralism, the Biden administration is determined to restore a unipolar world, exactly as it existed in the 1990s. To quote a well-known aphorism from the days of the Bourbon restoration to the French throne after the Napoleonic wars, one can state that Washington strategists “have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Which is not surprising when you consider what age group Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump belong to.
You cannot step into the same river twice
Perhaps the main weakness of the Biden administration’s foreign policy strategy is in its undisguised desire to reverse history back to the golden age of American hegemony of the last decade of the last century. An acute politico-military crisis can, of course, completely change the picture of international relations for a while, but it cannot undo objective long-term trends in the development of the world. For the US, the Ukrainian crisis has become a kind of political anesthetic, but if a patient has, say, a severe form of peritonitis, no medicine can replace surgical intervention.
Abuse of analgesics or tranquilizers tends to do no good. The current crisis in Europe, for all the tactical dividends the Biden administration is drawing from it, is inevitably distorting the system of US foreign policy priorities, forcing Washington to focus mainly on European problems, postponing for an indefinite future the more important strategic task of containing China’s growing military and economic power. During the two years of the current administration, the White House has not even been able to begin solving this problem, which is perceived, at least by part of the American establishment, especially the Republican part of it, as an obvious shortcoming of the Democrat administration.
Moreover, the Ukrainian crisis has already clearly demonstrated the fundamental impossibility of reviving the unipolar world in its old format. The White House has not been able to regain the trust of even its traditional partners and allies. A clear evidence of the failure can be seen in the tensions that arose in US relations with Saudi Arabia, when Riyadh actually refused Washington’s request to increase Saudi oil supplies to the world markets by going beyond the quotas defined in the OPEC+ format.
US political pressure on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to abandon his country’s privileged strategic partnership with Moscow has not been very successful either. The strategy of reviving a unipolar world based on liberal values can hardly be easily reconciled with the current attempts by the Biden administration to restore relations with Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, who not so long ago was perceived in Washington solely as an international criminal.
As for the US-China stand-off, it is not clear what exactly Washington has prepared to counter Beijing’s growing economic activity in, say, Latin America or Africa.
Of course, the main potential threats to international leadership lie within the US itself. Therefore, the current political priorities manifested during the midterm elections (inflation, crime, migration, etc.) speak more to the common sense and pragmatism of Americans than to an increasingly isolationist sentiment in society. The fundamental problem in the US is not even some specific manifestation of current economic and social malaise, but that American society remains divided: right-wing factions are growing stronger in the Republican Party and left-wing factions in the Democratic Party. The political center is losing its former stability and right-wing and left-wing radicalism is gaining strength. Even if one dismisses as totally untenable the dire prophecies about the inevitability of a civil war and the subsequent collapse of the US, one has to state that a country with deep internal divisions cannot claim to be a confident and long-term leader in international affairs.
The first among equals?
It has to be admitted that, despite all of its obvious weaknesses and limitations, the US remains an indispensable power, without whose participation (all the more so if it is actively opposed) the solution of many regional and global problems is impossible. America’s unique position in the modern world is determined not so much by the strength of the United States itself, as by the weakness or, more precisely, by the immaturity of most other players in world politics, who are not yet quite ready to take on the difficult role of the main protectors of global public goods, let alone to be the main architects of the new world order.
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict cannot be stopped without active American participation. For all the undoubted successes in the de-dollarization of global finance, the greenback remains—and will remain—the world’s main reserve currency for a long time to come. Most transnational technological chains in one way or another pass through America. The potential and use of American “soft power” will long be the envy of allies and adversaries of the United States, whether it concerns productions from Hollywood or the science programs of American universities. The position of the USA in international institutions (especially when it comes to their bureaucracy, which represents a kind of global deep state) is at the moment by and large much stronger than that of any other country in the world.
Nevertheless, a return to the former US hegemony in international relations is not in sight. Not necessarily because America is inevitably becoming weaker and helpless in all areas, but because other players are gradually gaining strength, experience and confidence in their ability to influence the future of our common planet. And that means that the United States will more-so have to adapt to the emerging world than to adapt the world to itself.
The task of adapting to the new realities faces all the countries of the world without exception. But this will be particularly difficult and painful for the American political class, which is accustomed to the lack of an alternative to US global leadership. The longer it takes to adapt, the more painful it will be in the end. Today, the Biden administration is actually trying to maintain the global status quo, and this strategy makes it difficult to expect major gains.
From our partner RIAC