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The United States in an Uncertain World

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States enjoyed near-total dominance on the global stage as the preeminent military, economic, and cultural power. Communism was discredited, and liberal democracy appeared triumphant. That unipolar moment—and the 'peace dividend' that accompanied it—is now decisively over.

A hostile axis of rogue states—Russia, North Korea, and Iran—flout international law with impunity. Russia's war against Ukraine is turning into a bitter stalemate, as Putin cracks down on dissent at home; North Korea continues to lob missiles into the Sea of Japan; and from Gaza to Sudan, Iran is arming proxies to achieve its foreign policy aims. China's economic prowess despite its ruthless authoritarian practices should give pause. Indeed, authoritarianism is alive and thriving; the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2023 report found that the global average democracy score dropped to its lowest level since they began collecting data in 2006.

Faced with these challenges in a turbulent world, the United States is playing the wrong game: retreating from the world order it created, turning inward, and abandoning its moral obligations. It is ignoring the recipe which won it the Cold War—one that was not predicated solely upon military might, but necessarily included economic influence and tremendous soft power. 

Identity Crisis

The U.S. need not apologize for its strength. Fareed Zakaria, in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, notes that measures of economic prowess, technological innovation, energy production, and demography all point to a healthy and strong United States, especially when compared with other advanced economies. But the U.S. doesn't see what the world sees: it is acting with uncharacteristic uncertainty, self-doubt, and hesitation. U.S. tariffs on imported goods are at their highest rate since the 1930s. Congress is delaying aid packages to Ukraine and Israel. Washington is struggling to exert leverage over traditional allies, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, let alone over adversaries.

A confluence of factors is responsible for the American crisis of identity and praxis, but they all point to a failure to adapt to the post-Cold War world. William Overholt of Harvard's Kennedy School argues:

“Having won the Cold War, we allowed the Bretton Woods institutions and aid systems to atrophy. After the 1994 costless Mexican bailout, Congress banned such bailouts, making it impossible to rescue allies like Thailand during the Asian Crisis of 1997-98. A stingy Congress refused to increase the capital of the World Bank and IMF … Short-sighted leaders gutted the State Department budget, eliminated the U.S. Information Agency, and truncated our aid and institution-building development programs.”

The State Department's position in the total federal budget was cut in half from 1993-1998. The elimination of the U.S. Information Agency meant that hundreds of American Spaces across the world shut down. And from 1991 to 2021, the ratio of U.S. military spending to foreign aid grew from 9:1 to 14:1.

Simultaneously, the United States leveraged unrivaled hard power to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan, wasting trillions and jeopardizing its moral authority on the world stage. It also failed to act forcefully in other moments when it should have, like in Rwanda (1994) and Scarborough Shoal (2012). To make matters worse, misplaced fear of globalization's impact on American industry has prompted an agenda of protectionism that hurts America's image. 

Beyond tariffs, Former President Donald Trump repeatedly assailed NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the World Health Organization. These repeated missteps, coupled with the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of right-wing populism in the West, have shaken the world's faith in the Western liberal order that seemed so triumphant in 1991. The world is doubting America, and now America has begun to doubt itself.  

Rise of Chinese Soft Power

The situation is complicated by China's rise. After a 'century of humiliation,' and nearly three decades of disastrous turmoil under Mao Zedong, China began to reform itself under Deng Xiaoping into the economic superpower it is today. Despite the assumption that such growth would liberalize China, it continued to aggressively crack down on dissent and expanded its surveillance drastically after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. Even with its recent economic struggles and impending demography problems, China has pursued a bold strategy to reshape geopolitical dynamics to benefit itself.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a trillion-dollar global infrastructure project. Its introduction, partially a response to the American 'Pivot to Asia,' has occurred concurrently with major developments in China's foreign policy: Xi's call for a 'New Type of Great-Power Relations,' the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AAIB) and the BRICS Bank, and efforts to transform the Renminbi into an international currency. What the BRI achieves in ambition, it often lacks in terms of financial viability and efficacy. Nevertheless, as David Sacks writes for the Council on Foreign Relations, “China has had a fair amount of success in redrawing trade maps around the world, in ways that put China at the center and not the U.S. or Europe.” According to Sacks, BRI countries now comprise “two-thirds of global population and 40 percent of global GDP.” That is no insignificant feat.

While the United States often characterizes the BRI as 'debt-trap diplomacy' and 'exploitation,' empirical evidence reveals that these criticisms have fallen on deaf ears in the Global South. Despite U.S. claims, asset seizures are exceptionally rare—practically non-existent. Meanwhile, BRI projects provide developing countries with much-needed infrastructure and energy projects. Maria Repkinova, writing for Foreign Affairs, describes how BRI projects often enhance perceptions of China in recipient countries:

“For the broader public in places such as Ethiopia, Chinese soft power tends to become visible through infrastructure projects, such as railways, bridges, and highways. Many of these projects… elevate China's standing. In Addis Ababa, ubiquitous construction sites funded by Chinese investment are covered with posters advertising Chinese companies. When I asked Ethiopians about the critiques from U.S. officials who warn of China's malign influence…, the response I often heard was, 'And where are the Americans?'”

While developing countries are frustrated with International Monetary Fund conditionality, China offers them loans with 'no-strings-attached.' And while countries wait over two years, on average, for World Bank project approval, they wait just seven months for the AAIB.

The result is the United States waning its influence in the developing world. 2023 Pew Research Center data shows that, while the United States continues to receive far better favorability ratings than China in North America, Europe, and Asia, China is perceived more favorably in Latin American and African countries. Likewise, a 2022 Centre for the Future of Democracy survey found that for the first time, China enjoyed higher favorability ratings than the United States in the developing world.

The United States has responded to conflict, tension, and shifting geopolitical power with uncertainty. It has begun to turn inward and abandon the liberal order it created, leaving opportunities for China and others to expand their influence and fill the vacuum. We can hardly blame developing countries then, for turning away from the United States. Normative claims about democracy, liberty, and a world order that imbues those values may convince Western audiences, but they are often ineffective elsewhere, coming across as hypocritical, sententious, and unsympathetic to the material needs of the developing world.

To adapt to an uncertain world, the United States can choose instead to act with certainty, boldness, and compassion: it can recognize its still-powerful position and not shy away from leadership on crucial issues, like climate change and artificial intelligence governance. It can recognize immigration as a source of strength, rather than instability. It can compete with China for influence in Africa—not with special forces, but with material aid. Rather than lambast its allies, the United States can stand solidly behind NATO; rather than abandon the Bretton Woods institutions, the United States can reinvigorate them. It took nearly a century of unprecedented carnage for the liberal order to come to fruition. Now, in its hour of greatest need, it is up to America to defend the order it made.


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