US as a global superpower in the 21st century

04 October, 2014
As appeared in


Does the United States as the world’s sole superpower have the wherewithal to do something, to take the lead, in maintaining international peace and security?

There are, of course, many loaded issues to this question, not least the kind of global order that is to be sustained. In the bipolar world that existed from the end of the Second World War until 1991, there was a clear choice between the western liberal order led by the United States and the communist system offered through the Soviet Union. There were countries that tried to take the middle way of non-alignment but in much of their practice they fell on the one side or the other – rather like in the dirty float of currencies in a claimed freely traded market.

However, the irony of today’s unipolar world is that the United States is not overwhelming choice, whether its system and values, or support of its actions (or inaction) and their consequences. There are many reasons for this.

The most frequently cited is that the United States is in relative decline with an enfeebled economy and divided government. On the other hand, there has been the rise of new centres of influence and power which, even if not yet sufficient to offer an alternative axis, at least raise doubt and cause qualification to all that the United States stands for and all that it does.

China’s rise is one shining reflection of this but there are also other value systems and challenges to US hegemony. The character of that hegemon itself is a cause of the challenge, both its inner character and its outward actions.

When the Soviet Union broke up in the last decade of the last century, there was the presumption western liberalism had triumphed. There was hubris. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, from which he has since retreated, was the most celebrated expression of this.

Actually, there was no such triumph. Soviet communism had simply collapsed from its own inner contradictions, particularly economic weakness but including suppression of nationalism in the Soviet empire. The contradictions within the western liberal order were yet to be displayed.

That singular event, 9/11, was still to occur, an expression of the genius of hate against the United States and the order it supported. Its evil should not obscure the underlying deep dissatisfaction with the regimes of subsidiary orders the United States upheld as well as the convoluted violent attempt to resurrect a suppressed value system.

Such violence continues, especially in the Middle East, today through another agency of hate, the Islamic State (IS). The fact that IS does not deserve to be called Islamic in any way should not, again, deflect attention from the underlying causes of its rise and its crusading character – a revolt against a system of order and values upheld by America in the pre-eminent theatre of that contest in the Arab world.

The United States may bomb Iraq and Syria, as it did Afghanistan many times over, but the violent challenge against the hegemony of this century’s global superpower continues. The comment in western military circles on the need to have boots on the ground to defeat an estimated few thousand IS renegades misses the point. It is not just that the most advanced bombs and missiles cannot do so. It is that the pseudo religious appeal that feeds into frustrated secular lives suppressed by despotic regimes supported by the United States to maintain a certain regional order, is indefatigable.

That appeal extends beyond the Middle East among what can be termed a Muslim diaspora which has strong feelings about US policy in the Middle East as well as their own sources of dissatisfaction – exclusion and deprivation in their own societies.

It is not clear therefore that solving the Palestinian issue alone will assuage the deep resentments, although it certainly would remove a cancer in the Middle East. Will replacement of the reactionary regimes in the Arabian peninsula help in the process of cure? But the Arab Spring has turned out to be like the British summer: It is largely a promise that does not happen. The counter-revolution in Egypt, continued violence in Libya and, of course, in Iraq and particularly Syria point to a situation that leads even a superpower to tear its hair out, what more one for whom hatred is deeply embedded in the region.

What can America do? Where it intervened, as in Iraq, it was condemned and the order it established was torn apart because of local sectarian Shia-Sunni conflict. Where it did not, as in Syria, it stands accused of standing idly by as the Assad regime massacred its own people and of allowing the uprising against that regime to morph into the extreme IS. I just could not believe what I was hearing at a recent conference on US foreign policy which called for America to intervene, or to have intervened, to put everything right, including putting in place just and capable Arab regimes.

A tall order beyond the capability of this superpower – or any other? – in a region torn asunder by intractable disorder. Yet America must try to maintain peace and security in the region. If only America had a coherent Middle East policy, it is said. Not possible, for as long as America gives unqualified support to Israel over Palestine. Not possible without the involvement of Iran, a major regional power, excluded because Israel and Saudi Arabia and the American Congress do not like the regime there.

Thus the kind of order that might ensure peace and security in the region seems impossible to achieve unless there is greater realism and respect among the states there – but also unless there is also good local governance. The calling of a superpower to play a role is evident, but play an effective role it cannot as long it supports Israel to the extent it does and, also, as long as it supports reactionary regimes resistant to the kind of political change which might make that order possible.

The spectacle of a hapless superpower is a sight to behold among other rising or reduced powers which might wish to challenge it over other global issues or in other parts of the world. Russia comes to mind. China might be encouraged. Others watch, unsure about America, uncertain about their future if recalcitrant or revisionist states might want to test American capability and resolve in their regions. It is no wonder then that other poles attract in, ironically, a so-called unipolar world.

But it is not America in the Middle East alone that has caused this equivocation. It is also America at home.

Its system of economy and government – that which was so loudly proclaimed to have triumphed over communism – has been severely tested and it is not clear how it is going to come out.

Leaving the economy for another occasion, its political system has become dysfunctional. President Barack Obama’s (pic) great promise has not been fulfilled because the US Congress has not allowed it. The sight of a chief executive of a superpower not being able to perform his functions and carry out his commitments because of budgetary denial – and denial of his presidency – does not exude confidence in American credibility or, indeed, in Obama himself.

On the one hand, a system of checks and balances – in this case the executive and legislative functions – has become one of checkmate and a gridlock. On the other, what do other leaders conclude when they talk to Obama while thinking how much power he does not have at home?

The implication in the conduct of American foreign policy is immense. Obama may also not have helped himself with his professorial demeanour. Vladimir Putin probably had one meeting with him and decided he was an intellectual wimp, weak at home who could be challenged abroad.

Although the racial element must not be discounted, Obama probably also did not help himself by expressing with his heart in wonderful speeches which made him such a political pop star abroad but only evoked contempt among red-neck, white, hardened American political operators.

How can he even negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu well aware all the time that the American Congress and influential public are absolutely not behind him? Never has an American president been so disabled.

Not just Obama, but the America he represents, then becomes a superpower without teeth – all too often in these few years. In much of the first decade of this century there was an American president who was so overbearing that he antagonised his allies. Next we get a president so weak at home and so consensual in approach abroad that he encourages America’s enemies. More importantly, leaving most other countries unsure about the United States.

Inevitably, there will be a reaction, a harder push, by the next American president. Most probably there will be less antagonism towards a president not likely to be black or intellectual or a perceived upstart. Then situations might arise where America gets clumsy and forgets it is a superpower in the 21st century at a time of great international political and economic change.



Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.

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