A novel global landscape is currently being forged, and the United States, recognized as the unequivocal leader of the preceding world, understandably harbors concerns regarding its ability to uphold its established position within the emerging order. In the ongoing discourse that has persisted since the conclusion of the Cold War in the late 1980s, a wide array of divergent proposals have been put forth to address this apprehension. Some have advocated for the containment of potential adversaries, while others have advocated for the division of the world into distinct civilizations, necessitating confrontations with each. Consequently, the question arises: What measures can America adopt to sustain its global leadership in this new era? Conceivably, the answer may still reside within the annals of America’s own historical trajectory.
WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS
When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his armies to invade Kuwait on August 2, 1990, he could not have imagined that the whole world would unite against him. The unanimous backing of all permanent members resulted in the adoption of U.N. Security Council resolution 678, authorizing a collective intervention against Iraq. As the United States deployed troops during the Gulf War of 1991, an overwhelming majority of nations rallied behind the military intervention. No American foreign intervention has ever been done with such great consensus. The level of agreement achieved was so extensive that it surpassed even the united front against Hitler’s Germany during the Second World War. Excluding instances like Yemen and Cuba, it could be argued that, perhaps for the first time in human history, all nations were uniting against a tyrant, with the U.S. spearheading the effort.
In the realm of International Relations literature, the extraordinary consensus witnessed during the Gulf War is often attributed primarily to the conclusion of the Cold War. While this assertion holds some truth, it alone falls short of fully elucidating the remarkable unity witnessed during the initial Iraq War. In addition to fortuitous circumstances and unfolding events, the significant role played by the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon in fostering the extensive consensus cannot be understated. Diplomatic efforts were deployed, accompanied by a range of incentives, promises, and even veiled threats, aimed at securing a unanimous UN vote. As an illustration, the US achieved a noteworthy agreement whereby the Saudi government committed to providing $1 billion in aid to the Soviets throughout the winter. (1)
Although certain endeavors may be deemed unethical, I find the United States’ pursuit of global approval commendable. Prior to and during the operation, President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) and the secretaries engaged in dialogue with key Middle Eastern leaders, emphasizing the significance of consultation. As an illustration, Turgut Özal, the Prime Minister of Turkey at that time, took pride in being seen as a guiding influence to the US President due to their frequent bilateral phone calls and in-person meetings. Özal‘s sentiment was not unfounded, as President H. W. Bush demonstrated a genuine concern for the perspectives of Middle Eastern nations and the international community regarding the Iraq War, readily engaging in consultations with global leaders.On November 29, 1990, the United States secured the approval of a resolution from the UN Security Council, authorizing the use of “all necessary means” should Iraq fail to withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991.
Upon obtaining UN support, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney expressed the view that he did not require Congressional approval. Cheney’s rationale behind this stance was to avoid unveiling anti-war sentiments and potentially reawakening memories of the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, President H.W. Bush demonstrated wisdom in rejecting Defense Secretary Cheney‘s perspective. In embarking on the path to war, the President endeavored to secure not only global support but also the backing of American society and institutions. Ultimately, Congress sent a powerful message to the world by granting approval to the President’s request. In fact, what President H.W. Bush accomplished in the early 1990s was akin to “winning hearts and minds,” a feat that subsequent U.S. Presidents, including his son, George Bush, should have pursued in the 2000s but unfortunately fell short of achieving.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged as the sole and unrivaled global superpower. Such was its dominance and influence that even French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, in the late 1990s, referred to the United States as a “hyperpower,” underscoring its unparalleled standing in the international sphere. (2)
CLINTON ERA: A HUMANITARIAN FOREIGN POLICY?
Regardless of whether labeled as “super” or “hyper,” the US foreign policy during the 1990s was not characterized by aggression or arbitrariness. Quite the opposite, under the presidency of William J. Clinton (1993-2001), the United States predominantly pursued its objectives through peaceful and soft power means. Bill Clinton‘s foreign policy was marked by a notable emphasis on international engagement, diplomacy, institutions, values and multilateral approaches.
Clinton was the president of the only hyperpower on earth, and the power he controlled was incomparable to the power of any state. However, during his presidency, the United States did not appear to wield this power arbitrarily or solely for its own interests. Clinton‘s foreign policy agenda encompassed several crucial elements, including the promotion of democracy and human rights, bolstering international trade, facilitating the integration of global markets, pursuing diplomatic resolutions to conflicts, and participating in humanitarian interventions. Similar to his predecessors, President Clinton authorized military operations in various regions across the globe and assumed a role akin to the world’s police force. Nonetheless, unlike previous instances, the United States’ foreign interventions during the Clinton era were perceived as displaying less arrogance and self-interest.
Indeed, in Kosovo, Bosnia, and numerous other instances, American military interventions were designated as “humanitarian interventions,” and the concept of “humanitarian interventionism” gained prominence within Clinton’s foreign policy framework. The Clinton administration displayed a readiness to engage in situations where they perceived humanitarian crises to be unfolding, especially in instances involving genocide, ethnic cleansing, and severe violations of human rights. In the instances of Kosovo and Bosnia, the United States demonstrated a remarkable departure from religious solidarity norms by daring to challenge another taboo and providing protection to oppressed Muslims who were facing oppression from Christians. Regrettably, such instances of principled action are seldom witnessed throughout the annals of human history. These interventions were motivated by the conviction that the international community held a duty to safeguard civilians from egregious human rights abuses, and that the use of military force could be warranted to prevent or halt large-scale atrocities. The US doctrine of humanitarian intervention faced criticism from various quarters, particularly due to concerns over disregarding the sovereign rights of nations. Nevertheless, it also fostered aspirations that humanity could unite in a collective effort to safeguard and uphold human rights.
Undobtedly, certain circles labeled American foreign interventions during the Clinton era as “inhumane” or even “colonial.” Anti-American sentiment was pervasive worldwide, as is often the case in any given period. However, such criticism, when compared to the anti-American movements observed before and after that time, largely remained ineffective and marginal.
Under the Clinton administration, a remarkable wave of optimism and hope surged regarding the future of global affairs under American leadership. The average American saw themselves as citizens of the world’s sole hyperpower, unaware of the potential vulnerability and eventual decline of American power.
9/11: DEVASTATING ATTACKS THAT ALTERED THE COURSE OF A GLOBAL POWER
On September 11, 2001, the United States was subjected to a series of meticulously planned and coordinated terrorist attacks. Perpetrated by the extremist group known as al-Qaeda, these attacks involved the hijacking of four commercial airplanes. Targeting iconic structures that symbolized American power, the assailants strategically deployed the hijacked planes. Two of the aircraft, namely American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were deliberately flown into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, resulting in the catastrophic collapse of both towers within a matter of hours. Another hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was intentionally crashed into the Pentagon located in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, intended for a target within Washington D.C., ultimately crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
The attacks were appalling, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people from more than 90 countries, including individuals from various backgrounds and professions. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in world history and had a profound impact on global politics, security measures, and international relations. An additional significance of these attacks lay in the stark reality that enemy forces had struck the previously sheltered American homeland with unprecedented force and clarity. Even during the conflicts of World War II, the United States had not been subjected to such open vulnerability. Moreover, the U.S. experienced this attack at a time when it felt most powerful and unrivaled. The assailants nearly entangled the shoelaces of the colossal U.S. entity and successfully disrupted its entire equilibrium. The entangled giant, the United States, proceeded to respond precisely as desired by the attackers, fueled by anger and a thirst for vengeance, instead of employing rationality, reason, and caution as it should have done.
Right after the attacks, the sympathy of the whole world was with the Americans. While the attacks were taking place, I was on the streets of Türkiye and I did not see a single person rejoicing at the attacks. Instead, people were filled with compassion, offering their condolences and even uttering prayers for the victims of the 9/11 tragedy and their bereaved families.
A substantial majority of the global community, particularly the nations affiliated with NATO, elected to engage in cooperation with the United States and formally expressed their endorsement. But all these warm feelings did not satisfy the U.S. administration and President George Bush chose a confrontational language and said during his address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” as part of his declaration of a global War on Terrorism. Although the term “war on terror” is used very often, in practice this war cannot be waged against a concrete enemy. Terrorism embodies an elusive nature akin to that of a specter. Engaging in armed conflict against it not only fails to eradicate terror but inadvertently nourishes it, often resulting in harm to numerous innocent civilians. Interestingly, the United States had previously proffered such counsel to developing nations grappling with terrorism. However, when confronted with a similar predicament, Washington D.C. seemingly disregarded these fundamental truths, opting to combat terrorism through conventional methods of warfare. The endeavor, referred to by President Bush as the “war on terror,” resulted in the military interventions in Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq. Regrettably, in both conflicts, the United States failed to sufficiently prioritize the task of garnering global goodwill and public support. Largely attributing its actions to the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, the US exhibited a sense of entitlement rather than diligently seeking to win the hearts and minds of people worldwide. President George Bush, in contrast to his father’s diplomatic and political endeavors prior to the 1991 Gulf War, did not demonstrate an equivalent level of commitment in persuading the international community and the American public.
Thus, with a controversial decision taken from the U.N. and under the protests of millions of people, the US launched an unnecessary invasion of Iraq. The number of Americans who died in the invasion of Iraq even exceeded the number of Americans who died in the 9/11 attacks. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims lost their lives in Iraq, millions of people were displaced from their homes. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States found itself grappling with intangible adversaries, as its intent was to combat terrorists. Paradoxically, this inadvertently aligned with the terrorists’ objectives, leading to the inadvertent infliction of harm upon innocent individuals unaffiliated with terrorism. The American expenditure in Iraq amounted to trillions of dollars with little to show in return. Furthermore, allegations of corruption within the armed forces came to light, further exacerbating the situation. The U.S. gave a very bad test in Iraq:
The utilization of waterboarding, a practice commonly deemed as highly prohibited and classified as an extreme form of torture, emerged as a contentious issue in the United States during the 2000s amid the War on Terror. Following the revelation that the CIA employed waterboarding on certain Al-Qaeda suspects, media reports indicated that additional forms of torture were utilized on detainees in designated partner nations. Furthermore, American officials orchestrated covert transportation of suspects aboard planes to circumvent domestic laws and subject them to mistreatment. The disclosure of images depicting torture by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison, along with reports of human rights violations in Guantanamo Base during the United States’ administration, received widespread coverage in the New York and Washington press, leading to the rapid erosion of global sympathy for America and the emergence of hostile sentiments. It became evident that Americans were conforming to the terrorists’ methods, as the unresolved anger stemming from the 9/11 attacks persisted, clearly influencing the behavior of American officials. In the misguided pursuit of revenge, America, like other states engaged in misguided counterterrorism efforts, compromised its own principles and values.
AMERICA vs. AMERICA
Despite being underestimated, American moral values and democratic institutions serve as a significant source of power, setting an exemplary standard for the world. Many countries around the world teach how Congress, courts, and other American institutions work in their political science schools, and most other country elites feel that they need such institutions and living principles to be strong, like the United States.
However, as the media portrayed the ugly realities of the Iraq War and exposed instances where certain American officials failed to adequately uphold their own values and institutions, the Congress building gradually lost its symbolic significance of representing freedom and the rule of law, particularly for many individuals in the developing world. The once-celebrated notion of the United States as a “superpower” in the 1990s crumbled amidst the rubble of Iraq and Afghanistan. Consequently, perceptions of the United States began to shift, characterizing it as a more ordinary power. These sentiments were not limited to international perceptions but were also observed within American society itself. This ongoing process can be described as the erosion of American institutions and values. America, driven by panic following the destruction of buildings on 9/11, inadvertently weakened its own power by undermining its foundational principles, values, and institutions. Remarkably, at that time, few were cognizant of the unfolding repercussions of these actions.
The terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks, with their aim to manipulate America’s conduct through the destruction of symbolic and monumental structures, unfortunately accomplished their objective and achieved success. The fabric of American society underwent a decline as its behavior shifted, characterized by a disposition towards anger rather than rationality. The once prevailing perception of America as an invincible force began to wane globally, but notably, it also diminished within the hearts of the American people themselves.
THE DECLINE OF AMERICA: REALITY OR ILLUSION?
In my scholarly perspective, the emergence of the “American decline literature” within the American press, political arena, and academic spheres during the 2000s can be attributed to a perceptual construct rooted in psychological traumas rather than materialistic factors.
The comparative economic and social analyses conducted for the aforementioned years fail to substantiate the alleged decline. Undoubtedly, the American economy experienced significant fluctuations during the 2000s, characterized by both favorable and unfavorable trends. However, it would be erroneous to interpret these oscillations as indicative of a sustained and irreversible “decline.” The occurrence of issues like the 2007 financial crisis cannot be attributed to the downfall of America as a civilization but rather to intermittent errors and unforeseen incidents. Empirical economic indicators consistently demonstrated that the United States remained the most prosperous, advanced, and productive nation globally.It would be unrealistic to talk about the economic collapse of a country whose GDP is higher than that of Japan, Italy, even in its poorest state, Mississippi
Indeed, it is verifiable that certain conventional manufacturing facilities have undergone closures, and several labor-intensive enterprises have opted to relocate to foreign nations, such as China, with the intention of mitigating costs within the United States during the 2000s. Nevertheless, contemporaneously, the American economy demonstrated remarkable ingenuity, emerging as the preeminent global creative economy: Prominent entities such as Apple, Amazon (established in 2006), Google (1998), Tesla (2003), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), Instagram (2010), Uber (2009), Netflix (1997), Microsoft, and numerous other renowned brands have exemplified the formidable potency of American creativity and entrepreneurial prowess. These enterprises have successfully engendered nascent industries hitherto inexistent, thus yielding substantial contributions comparable to the economic output of a medium-sized government to the American national economy. American companies have proven how dynamic humanity is still with discoveries never known before. As previously elucidated, it is incontrovertible that the American society, political landscape, and economy encountered a series of crises and confronted significant challenges during the aforementioned timeframe. However, these circumstances should not be regarded as substantiating evidence to support the assertion that the United States has undergone a state of collapse. Concurrently, it is evident that China and certain other competitor nations experienced a substantial upsurge in economic advancement. Nevertheless, the progress achieved by rival nations does not substantiate the notion that the United States has succumbed to decline or disintegration.
To summarize, the apprehensive assertions made during the 2000s, suggesting that “America is in decline” or “America’s societal and cultural hegemony is waning,” can be primarily attributed to psychological factors rather than being grounded in tangible evidence. These psychological factors stem from the profound impact of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which proved to be not only unnecessary but also excessively burdensome in terms of cost. Following the catastrophic events of 9/11, the United States, driven by a vengeful sentiment, regrettably undermined its own foundational values and sources of power. Consequently, a disconcerting phenomenon unfolded, wherein the nation initiated an internal conflict against itself. In such circumstances, the predictable outcome of such a self-destructive war becomes apparent, as history demonstrates that defeat is inevitable in such situations.
A NEW COLD WAR?
Due to the Ukrainian War’s influence, the world is increasingly concerned about the possibility of a new cold war, and perhaps even a hot war. In Europe, countries are already experiencing a standoff between Russia and the US. However, it is the growing power of China that particularly concerns the United States. China, having emerged as the world’s second-largest economy through remarkable growth in recent decades, instills fear among its adversaries due to its substantial military investments, amounting to billions of dollars. Recognizing China as its potential global rival, the US is actively seeking methods to prevent China’s involvement in the production and supply chains of strategic products, such as semiconductors and chips.
It seems that the U.S. is trying to implement the old strategy of the Cold War years, namely the containment policy, against its new rival, China. China, on the other hand, is developing special friendships with strategic countries in very different geographies such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Republic of South Africa, as if to nullify such siege efforts. In contrast to the containment of the Soviet Union, isolating China does not seem like a straightforward task. Unlike the Soviets, China actively engages in the capitalist system, adhering to its rules and avoiding self-imposed isolationist errors.
Another concept influencing American foreign policy today, similar to the “containment policy,” is the notion of “the West and the rest.” This approach suggests that the West stands alone against the rest of the world, relying solely on itself for support.(3) As I previously attempted to explain, this assumption lacks factual basis and is merely an illusion. If the West succumbs to an idea that divides the world into factions, it will harm both itself and the global community. In the emerging nebulous world order, what the U.S. and the West will require most is not adversaries but rather new allies and friendships.
The concept of “winning hearts and minds,” which was commonly employed in the 2000s but fell short of achieving its goals, is the policy that the U.S. will require the most in this new era. In this context, the Middle East and the Islamic world, which the U.S. appears to have overlooked in recent years, also hold significant importance. I acknowledge that there exists considerable frustration and disillusionment within the American government and the Congress regarding the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. This sense of defeat is causing American policymakers to lean towards isolationism or harbor a hostile perception of the Muslim world. Nevertheless, it appears that Middle Eastern states and Muslim nations as a whole will wield a significant influence on establishing equilibrium in the emerging global order. This may explain why China is placing special emphasis on forging alliances with Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Muslim nations, possessing abundant natural resources and comprising a quarter of the world’s population, form a collective that any aspiring global leader would seek as a partner. While the Asia-Pacific region may serve as the focal point of the new global contest, it seems implausible to achieve success in this competition without securing the support of the Middle East, regardless of where the global rivalry unfolds.
NOT “WEST AND THE REST”, BUT “WEST AND THE FRIENDS”
In summary, the United States is not in decline. On the contrary, during the post-Cold War era, the U.S. successfully revitalized itself across various domains and retained its position as the world’s leading economy and political power. However, the global landscape is changing, with other nations experiencing growth and development as well. Given the rapid advancements in technology and evolving nature of global economic relations, the world has become too intricate for a single dominant state to manage alone.
In today’s interconnected world, the mere accumulation of power by the United States or any other global superpower is insufficient to address the collective global challenges. Consequently, both the U.S. and potential rivals require the involvement of regional powers and pivotal countries. The U.S. must now strive to win over more hearts and minds than ever before.
While it remains uncertain whether the newly emerging world order will be a multilateral world order in the classical sense, or whether a variant of the multilateral that we do not know is emerging. But one thing is certain; The United States must strengthen the values, principles, rules and institutions that have made it strong in the past.
An approach that divides the world along hostile civilizational lines, as suggested by Huntington and other thinkers, does not serve the best interests of the United States. On the contrary, it undermines its power. Similarly, it would be excessively optimistic to solely approach the newly formed world order with Cold War reflexes and hope for results by economically and militarily containing potential rivals. Washington must prioritize building friendships before fostering enmities to uphold its global leadership, adopting a mindset of “the West and its friends” rather than “the West and the rest.”
(1) Thomas L. Friedman, “How U.S. Won Support to Use Mideast Forces the Iraq Resolution: A U.S.-Soviet Collaboration”, The New York Times, 2 December 1990, A.1
(2) “To Paris, U.S. Looks Like a ‘Hyperpower'”, The New York Times, 5 February 1999.
(3) Samuel P. Huntington, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, (London: Simon & Schuster, 2002).