The United States has been unquestionably the most powerful and influential nation in the world since the Second World War.
Even though the US has constantly had its international reach evaluated, criticised and analysed we should again look at the factors undermining and diminishing its role on the world stage.
Ten or Fifteen years ago this would’ve been a very easily answerable question. No. During the late 90s and early 00s the United States gained itself a reputation as a worldwide police force. Its interventions in the Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan and its ability to resort to Hard Power in its Foreign Policy was unrivalled. However if we compare this to its ability to resort to that same Hard Power nowadays we find a variety of factors keep it restrained.
First of the restraints on its ability to resort to force is public opinion. The United States isn’t a dictatorship and an unpopular war can cause a headache for any elected President. Most notable of which was the Vietnam war which plagued Lyndon B. Johnson’s second term. The longevity of the war saw his approval ratings plummet towards the end of his tenure. Likewise George W. Bush will forever have the reputation as the President who invaded Iraq to stop a tinpot dictator controlling WMDs. WMDs that did not actually exist.
People are more weary of war than ever. Putting boots on the ground, a once easily achievable and politically manageable task for a President, now comes with intense scrutiny and a high political capital cost. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, public opinion in the US has consistently been dropping against foreign involvement. According to gallup, support for involvement in Syria is much lower than that of Afghanistan, 57% compared to 82% respectively – with it even going as low as 36% in 2013, which shows that appetite for an involved foreign policy has dropped significantly.
Is there a need for such a power?
Another restraint is the actual need (or lack thereof) for intervention by the United States. It can be assumed that the reason why 82% of Americans believed it right for US to invade Afghanistan is because of the September 11 attacks. The invasion was an act of self-defence. Thankfully there has been no attack on the same catastrophic scale as that perpetrated 16 years ago. Of course there is indeed a terror threat stemming from some countries but that does not warrant invasion. However to look at this and say “The US doesn’t need to invade anywhere therefore it is less powerful” is flawed. This argument assumes the US needs to invade a country every other weekend to stay relevant which isn’t true. Absence of Evidence isn’t Evidence of Absence.
It used to be the case that the United States was completely unopposed and the US’ military budget was leagues above any other nation. While this is still the case today the diagram below shows a trend of convergence between the US’ and China’s defence budgets. Of course Donald Trump’s presidency may well buck the trend of lower US spending and slow the convergence.
The United Nations
While the US has never relied on UN’s approval before intervening it is favourable to take UN sanctioned action. The public perceive unilateral action more as aggression after Iraq. On top of this Syria has shown the UNSC is stagnant today in regards to sanctioning a range of military actions. The inability to reach a militaristic consensus like it could in the 1990s (Somalia, for example) has disallowed the US to engage as a UN sanctioned coalition builder. While this is a minor restraint (as mentioned above, the US make no habit of relying on the UN to sanction intervention) it shows the US can and has come to geopolitical loggerheads with an ever-stronger China and Russia.
The South China Sea
Not only has the US’ military spending been converging with China’s but their international clout have also been converging. This is seen with the South China Sea. A large American naval presence in the sea has not deterred China from continuing to build artificial islands. This boldness from the People’s Republic shows that US may not be as dominant geopolitically as it once was. The same can be seen with a much larger Russian presence in the Middle East than in the late 1990s.
The United States maintains a very strong presence across the globe. That much is undisputed. However it must be noted that other superpowers have bolstered their clout also. Although the United States hasn’t significantly lessened its global involvement nominally, its total dominance over world geopolitics is waning. China’s involvement in Africa and boldness in the South China Sea presents a dilemma for American international dominance. This is by no means an anti-American slug fest. I believe a strong United States is a good force for stability and peace. However it is of my personal opinion that the United States faces a much sterner competition to be truly dominant on the world stage. Much more so than it did 20 years ago.