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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.

Public Opinion

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.

Competitors

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.

Conclusion

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.

9 COMMENTS

  1. No, it’s facing compromise, which can limit options especially in the face of a potential enemy, like North Korea. The size of the surface fleet has reduced and in some cases, in preference for expensive experiments for future vessels. The carrier fleet is being renewed even in the face of doubts as to whether such vessels are as effective, as they once were? I for one believe large platforms allow for expanded operations on many facets.
    China’s determination to hold the big cards in the SCS, is to some extent understandable, yet it does pose an international threat, simply because it’s there. I feel sure the US will maintain a sizable navy and one that can meet the challenges of the future.

    • The BBC (I forget if it was BBC1 news or Newsnight) observed yesterday that the US wasn’t carrying as big a stick in SCS as might be thought, that the carrier that was much discussed a month or two back is actually no longer on station (it’s docked in Japan) leaving the USA with no carrier in the immediate NK/SK area at the moment, and relatively few other assets within striking range right now (using NK as the topical example).

      One extra thought though…

      “The size of the surface fleet has reduced and in some cases, in preference for expensive experiments for future vessels.”

      This is true. Regarding the future though we can’t know for sure how much of what we might think of as “the future” in terms of capability might be here today. I don’t want to sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist or UFO chaser but in the days of the cold war and slightly afterwards there were lots of highly classified military assets (SR71 and B2 stealth bomber spent their initial years of active service operating unknown to the public to name just two). Just maybe, in extreme circumstances (and an imminent NK nuclear strike or a retaliation thereafter would certainly count as extreme), the US might be able to get more potent assets into SCS area than we might think if there are any next-gen weapons still highly classified (in-orbit stuff, hypersonic planes, etc).

      • I can’t remember the name of the new stealth destroyer class, (with the Dreadnought bow) but at least six or more conventional vessels, could have been built, for the price of the planned three hulls of this class? If true, one has to ask if the benefits of the new design, can replace that of conventional types? A considerable amount of naval duties is patrolling and policing the seas against crime and piracy. This being the case, are small fleets of the horrendously costly ships the real way forward?

        • The Zumwalt Class were designed with an increased Naval Gunfire Support role in mind rather than the multi-mission capability of the Arleigh Burke class, carrying heavier guns and more TLAMs to fulfil the role of a traditional “battleship”. I believe it was intended to supplement the Arleigh Burke rather than replace, as the original planned number was 32 which, if built, would have halved the US Navy’s destroyer numbers.

          I believe that the focus should be on smaller and more cost effective ships to enable larger ship numbers should be the way forward.

          However, at the same time I can’t help but feel the design was a highly ambitious and even innovative experiment that while has been heavily criticised, does hint at what further designs could incorporate. The Zumwalt is a good deal larger than an AL yet the crew size is significantly smaller through automated systems and the PVLS seems like a promising feature whose size allows for future weapons to be easily integrated while increasing the survivability of the ship.

  2. The US has four Ohio-class SSGNs, each equipped with 154 conventional cruise missiles. One boat could cripple the NK missile program and deplete their artillery at the DMZ. Trump has many options available to him. Diplomacy would be the best one here…

    • Stop living in delusion. Diplomacy is NEVER going to work with North Korea. Kim Jong un has based his enire legitimacy and reputation on building nuclear missiles capable if hitting the US. He is NEVER going to stop, no matter what. Even the most stringent and severe sanctions haven’t dettered or slowed him down. Diplomacy is what got us to this situation in the first place.

  3. “However it must be noted that other superpowers have bolstered their clout also.”

    There are no other superpowers outside of the US. China’s and Russia’s global influence and power projection capabilities are minimal compared to the US’s, UK’s, and France’s. Also, per capita income of the two are much less than the later three. China and Russia are regional power and China is the only one capable of gaining greater global influence in the future being that Russia’s population and economy are stagnate/regressive. If you would like to go deeper into this read/watch some videos from Peter Ziehan, he is a Geopolitical strategist who focuses exclusively on the determining the future of countries based on population growth and natural resources among other things, he does not pull things from thin air.

  4. Interesting, will the Zumwalt be equipped with a Rail Gun, or is that already fitted? The problem with modestly sized navies with global ambitions, is the ability to effectively cover the required operational envelopes. In the UK’s case, it simply does not have the numbers to meet post-Brexit commitments. Though it is not possible to get anywhere near US numbers, I feel the RN needs at least 15+ frigates and 12 destroyers, which would get it back to near 1980’s fleet strength.

  5. There are military options but none of them would degrade NK artillery sufficiently quickly to avoid huge numbers of civilian casualties in Seoul. Bannon was right. Diplomacy is the answer and China is the key. Either that or we simply do the best we can to increase anti-missile defences and then basically ignore North Korea. Kim Jong Un wants to hold onto power. He knows that we don’t have any good military options. Therefore, he can spout his tough guy threats with relative impunity. Of course, if he ever did attack Guam or Japan or the United States, we’d wipe him out, regardless of the inevitable destruction of Seoul. If you disagree, then let’s hear your “military options”. Tell me what we could do. Note that the bulk of the artillery threatening Seoul is in North-facing caves that could only be effectively attacked from the North.

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