End of the American Era?

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
November 17th, 2020


Image Courtesy: The National Interest

For long American scholars and the analysts of American affairs around the globe have been debating the phenomena of American decline. The rise of America has become part of history now, while the relative decline of American hegemony in world affairs is under the spotlight of academic debates and policy analysis in recent decades and years.

When many powerful centres of economic and military power cropped up slowly but steadily in the post Second World War era, the main goal of the US policymakers was to contain the rise of a rival power. The famous containment of communism doctrine was actually a wide ranging strategy, and efforts to prevent or constrain the spread of Soviet power and influence. The United States ultimately defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War and the world witnessed the disintegration of a mighty superpower in the early 1990s.

The engagement of China strategy of the United States in a unipolar world order actually aimed at making China a stakeholder in the US-led world order and simultaneously retaining the supreme position of the country in the hierarchy of global powers. 

While the US-USSR Cold War spanned a little above four decades and the US won the Cold War, the engagement of China strategy began to falter quite early in view of the rapid rise of the Chinese economy and fast decline of the US economy in relative terms during the last couple of decades. 

The US-China trade war launched by the Trump Administration has already failed to bring China on to its knees. On the contrary, the Trump Administration itself has become short-lived as per the results of the 2020 US Presidential election. While many doubt if Joe Biden as the next US president will adopt as tough or tougher policy towards China, it appears certain that the current developments in the domestic sectors in the United States will not enable the country to constrain Chinese foreign policy and strategic behaviour. 

Chinese economy galloped alongside America’s global war against terrorism that took a toll of American wealth, energy and time. Now that a deadly pandemic has been ravaging on, it is very unlikely that the next US administration will be able to focus adequately on foreign policy challenges. 

The United States is now facing a fractured society. Racial hatred, health predicaments, ideological rivalries, economic crisis and the uncertainty surrounding the end of the pandemic clearly indicate a country facing all signs of relative decline from within and the cause is internal weakness and not the rise of other powers abroad. 

Not in far distant past, the United States was a model country for billions of people around the world. Joseph Nye had strikingly narrated the soft power of the United States that charmed other countries and that enabled the country to get things done through attraction rather than coercion. 

But the domestic developments in the US have been fast eroding the soft power of the country. The President himself has no trust in the country’s democratic institutions and complains about widespread fraud in the presidential elections. What is essential to note is the fact that most followers of President Donald Trump still believe in him and their number is over 70 million voters. Several analysts have pointed out that Trump may leave the White House, but Trumpism has come to stay in the United States. 

A country that has had a policy of “promotion of democracy abroad” does not appear to be in a situation now to preach to the world virtues of democracy. It is true that many analysts and political pundits will swear upon the strength of American democracy. It would be unfair to write the obituary of American democracy. But the domestic political divide and the champions of Trumpism shape opinions and inspire the critics abroad. 

There is no qualm that America’s hard power will remain a giant factor in world affairs for quite some time in the future. But the deterioration of domestic strength in terms of economy, equity, social cohesion and democratic political culture would pose the gravest challenge to American global hegemony in the foreseeable future. 

In the meantime, the Chinese economy is displaying all signs of recovery in the eyes of the international community. The recent conclusion of a multilateral free trade agreement among 15 countries of the Indo-Pacific region is a China-led initiative. It is the largest free trade agreement ever. It is located in an area that has the best potential for economic growth in the post-pandemic era. Growth prospects in North America and Europe are much less compared to the Indo-Pacific region as per the assessments of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  And, notably, the United States is not part of the RCEP!

The former Soviet Union disappeared from the political map of the world principally because of its internal crisis. It had sufficient military firepower to meet external challenges to its territorial integrity. Today, the global hegemony of the United States is under a challenge from its internal weaknesses and erosion of its soft power in the world. Its military strength will continue to be unmatched despite impressive Chinese military modernization. But unless the United States is able to stem the attrition of its internal strengths, the world may witness the end of the American era of dominance in the international system.

Even now, a large number of countries will prefer the continuation of American hegemony to rise of the Chinese hegemony. In fact, China will not be able to emerge as a global hegemon. It has still a long way to go and multiple hurdles on that path. What appears almost certain is a consolidation of Chinese power in the dynamic Indo-Pacific and any reduction of American hegemonic influence in this region may spell the beginning of the end of an American era in world affairs. 

There is still time for the United States to reverse the process of Chinese assertive policies and aggressive adventures in the Indo-Pacific.  What it requires is handling the domestic challenges and making deeper engagements in the Indo-Pacific. The Trump Administration was tough on its allies and soft on its adversaries in the last four years. It was both optical and real to a certain extent. It should return to the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership), lift economic pressures on its allies and partners, and strengthen and expand the QUAD.