Whither US hegemony post COVID-19?

This is a 64 zillion dollar question and will be dealt in two parts. Part -I deals with the question “USA: A declining power” and Part-II will explains about “Resurgent USA in a multi-polar world and the US-China-India Triangle”. This Part-I.

USA: A declining power

Ironically, the $64 zillion question answers itself (incidentally one zillion is a huge but nonspecific number). Being a truism in today’s context that among many verticals, economic strength is the pivotal ingredient of comprehensive national power (CNP). Especially after COVID-19, a large number of papers/articles/media discussions have emerged regarding the future status of USA. Ironically and unsurprisingly, the maximum coverage is from within USA, but all other nations are also analysing, watching and reading the geo-political and geo-strategic signals and CNP indices of nations specially of USA and China intently, to catch the emerging trends accurately.

There is no doubt in any nation’s or people’s mind that the world order and geo-strategic-political status is likely to change forever post COVID-19. Currently the number of doomsayers predicting a permanent gradual / sudden degrading of USA’s status and power projection capabilities outnumber the hopefuls who predict that like numerous times before, USA will bounce back and be acknowledged as the numero uno power. Experts acknowledge that the days of absolute domination by USA, like after the collapse of USSR is unlikely to re-emerge, and we are gradually seeing the emergence (some say emerged) a multi-polar world. The US in its National Security Strategy (2017) has acknowledged the emergence of China as a peer competitor, and along with Russia being her main adversaries. This accompanied by 24X7 multi-domain competition and confrontation between nations/alliances is a sure shot recipe for a turbulent unstable international security environment.

The multi-domain contest includes the classical DIME (diplomatic, informational, military and economic) to other kinetic and non-kinetic domains of niche technology (artificial intelligence, nano, hyper velocity weapons, robotics), psychological, cyber, network-centric, electromagnetic spectrum related, space, satellites, rare earths, scarce resources, which has changed the security landscape to one of ‘persistent engagement’ between nations and even groups (MNCs, terrorist organisations who do not follow any national borders).

This two-part article examines both sides of the US story; in Part I we look at the indicators which show USA in terminal decline [i], Part II covers the prospect of USA rising again as the pre-eminent power and future of US-China-India triangular relations.

What does it mean to be a superpower?      

Surprisingly, there is no official definition of what constitutes a superpower, but according to a range of definitions, a superpower is typically characterised by a nation’s ability to exert influence and project itself as a dominating power anywhere in the world. There are several measurements of power which include military and economic strength, as well as diplomatic and cultural influence, and other emerging domains mentioned above; while no nation can dominate all domains all the time; a superpower should be a leader in all of these areas.

Prelude

International relations and US policy expert Gordon Adams told ABC that if power were solely measured in military terms, there is no question the US is the only military superpower. Similarly, the World Economic Forum, contends that US is currently the only global military power with the ability to plan, deploy, sustain and fight on a scale and at a distance from its homeland across land, sea, air and space in a way that’s just not possible for any other country. Those who argue against the US’s unrivalled status suggest that the very concept of a superpower is losing its relevance in an increasingly “multi-power” world while maintaining that the Western giant no longer meets all the required criteria, is losing its dominant role in world affairs and is no longer calling the shots on the global economic stage.

But what does it mean to be a “superpower” in 2020 and beyond? How will we know if or when China has rivalled or passed the US? And are recent phenomena like the rise of US President Donald Trump to blame or are we witnessing the transformative stages of a future inevitability? Many like Maria Rost Rublee, associate professor of international relations at Monash University tend to agree by giving the example of Chinese threat of no longer buying US bonds, but in actuality selling it, which would singe USA very badly. Chinese economy is becoming “a very serious rival” and globalisation has dispersed economic power widely around the globe.

China’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is an economic and power projection/influencing pathway is proof of China’s growing clout. US no longer sets the agenda or calls the shots in the Middle East (Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia do). We are seeing a re-balancing of power among the nations in the world, and, of course, the persistent rise of powerful actors like terrorist organisations or MNCs which are turning increasingly influential on the world stage. We are witnessing the old architecture of power being completely redistributed over time, and it is systematically eroding any capacity of the US to actually lead. The Lowy Institute’s recently released Asia Power Index shows a shrinking power differential between US and China. The net assessment worksheet is extraordinarily exhaustive and analysis factors ranging from economic, military, diplomatic, technology and future resources, resilience, defence networks and even cultural influence with each factor having numerous sub-factors. In fact, the report ranked Washington behind Beijing and Tokyo for diplomatic influence in Asia partially due to contradictions between the United States’ “revisionist economic agenda and its traditional role of providing consensus-based leadership”.

Bewildering Surrender/Defeat of the USA to COVID-19 without fighting

World sees US response to COVID-19, both internally and externally as a significant indicator of its current stomach for global moral, material and crisis management leadership. Trump government confronted the Coronavirus epidemic the way that France faced Germany in World War-II (when German armour punched through Ardennes forest to break the Maginot Line): first by glossing over the COVID threat, then declared war without planning for any particular contingencies, and it failed to level with the public about the threat it faced, let alone to persuade it to make sacrifices.

Lack of US leadership led to the uncoordinated international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic downturns, the resurgence of nationalist politics, and the hardening of state borders all seem to herald the emergence of a less cooperative and more fragile international system. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be further accelerating the erosion of US hegemony, with China increasing its influence in the World Health Organization (WHO) and other global institutions in the wake of the Trump administration’s attempts to defund and scapegoat the public health body. Beijing and Moscow are portraying themselves as providers of emergency goods and medical supplies to Africa, European countries such as Italy, Serbia, and Spain, and even to the United States. Illiberal governments worldwide are using the pandemic as cover for restricting media freedom and cracking down on political opposition and civil society. Although the United States still enjoys military supremacy, that dimension of US dominance is especially ill-suited to deal with this global crisis and its ripple effects.

Historical Precept

Countries decay only in retrospect [ii]. Historically powerful states and its citizens, suffer from the “comfort zone cult,”, the tendency in seemingly stable societies to believe that ‘Reason will prevail’ and that ‘Everything will be all right’ being seductive. As a result, when a terminal crisis comes, it is likely to be unexpected, confusing and catastrophic, with the causes so seemingly trivial, the consequences so easily reparable if political leaders would only do the right thing, that no one can quite believe it has come to this. USA, a country which enjoys untrammeled power for decades, has little incentive to look inward at what was wrong at the core. US possibly considers itself the acme of perfection and therefore has no wish to change its ways either of its own free will or, still less, by making concessions to anyone or anything. Generally, a political system at some point triggers one of two reactions—a devastating backlash from those most threatened by change or a realization by the change makers (Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea) that their goals can no longer be realized within the institutions and ideologies of the present order? Propensity of great powers’ like USA for self-delusion and self-isolation puts them at a particular disadvantage (most Americans think that the world is USA!).

US Hegemony post the collapse of USSR

Many international relations experts attribute the decline to President Trump, who has withdrawn from US commitment to a liberal democratic international order due to his “America first” policies, his zero-sum transactional politics and that things will turn around post Trump. That could prove difficult, as the very forces that made US hegemony so durable before, are today driving its dissolution.

Three developments led to a unipolar world; First, after the defeat of communism (China can no longer be defined as one), the US faced no major global ideological rival; Second, it also brought about collapse of accompanying infrastructure of institutions and partnerships, and smaller/developing/illiberal states lacked significant alternatives, when it came to securing military, economic, and political support; and Third, democratic liberal order was the flavor of the season and got increasingly bolstered[iii].

Today, with the rise of powers such as China and a resurgent Russia, autocratic and illiberal projects rival the liberal international system. Nations have options to seek alternative patrons rather than remain dependent on Western largesse and support. The US global leadership is eroding before our very eyes in numerous domains of economy, technology, diplomacy and even military where regional powers are seeking domination of their strategic space like China in Asia, and even EU in Europe. Many feel the decline is not cyclical but permanent.

Ironically, the United States spends more on its military than its next seven rivals combined and maintains an unparalleled network of overseas military bases. Military power plays an important role in creating and maintaining US dominance, and no other country could extend credible security guarantees across the entire international system. This rivalry was a major factor for the collapse of USSR. The growing technological advantage enjoyed by the US military, ensured willingness of most of the world’s second-tier powers to rely on the United States rather than build up their own military forces. US hegemony provided the security umbrella to the World.

Unipolarity provided nations with very little options which allowed US and its allies to do as they wished. They did promote some autocratic states (such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan) for strategic and economic reasons, violated international norms, concerning human, civil, and political rights, even resorted to torture and extraordinary renditions during the so-called war on terror. Concurrently, they promoted commitment to liberal principles and norms in form of international Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank, IMF, WTO) and others like UN and WHO, and numerous NGOs. USA created its version of the world where rules where framed and adhered to by others, including controlling the international security environment. Undeniably there was an illusion of an unassailable liberal order resting on durable US global hegemony. Ground realities are breaking that illusion.

The Multi-Polar Emergence led by Russia and China[iv]

Today, other powers offer rival narratives of global order, often autocratic ones that appeal to many leaders of weaker states. The West no longer dictates the monopoly on patronage. New regional organizations and illiberal transnational networks contest US influence. Decisive shifts in the global economy, the rise of Asia particularly China, have transformed the geopolitical landscape. In April 1997, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged “to promote the multi-polarisation of the world and the establishment of a new international order.” It was dismissed by the West, as China was committed to the rules and norms of the US-led order being a prime beneficiary (China acknowledges the role of USA in becoming a global power), and specifically doubted that Beijing and Moscow could overcome decades of mistrust and rivalry to cooperate against US efforts to maintain and shape the international order.

China and Russia now directly contest the international order from within that order’s institutions and forums; at the same time, they are building an alternative order through new institutions and venues in which they wield greater influence (lesser focus on human rights and civil liberties). At the United Nations, the two countries routinely consult on votes and initiatives. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, they have coordinated their opposition to criticise Western interventions and calls for regime change; they have vetoed Western-sponsored proposals on Syria and efforts to impose sanctions on Venezuela and Yemen. In the UN General Assembly, between 2006 and 2018, China and Russia voted the same way 86% of the time. By contrast, since 2005, China and the United States have agreed only 21% of the time. Beijing and Moscow have also led UN initiatives to promote new norms, that privilege national sovereignty over individual rights. They have created new international institutions and regional forums that exclude the United States and the West like BRICS grouping, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. In 2016, the BRICS countries created the New Development Bank, which is dedicated to financing infrastructure projects in the developing world.

Creation of Security Organisations sans USA and her Allies

China and Russia have also pushed a plethora of new regional security organizations[v], including the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CISA), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and economic institutions, including the Chinese-run Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security organization that promotes cooperation among security services and oversees biennial military exercises was founded in 2001 at the initiative of both Beijing and Moscow. It added India and Pakistan as full members in 2017.

I enjoy highlighting another organisation, the ‘Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism’ set up by Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan to jointly combat terrorism! The net result is the emergence of parallel structures of global governance that are dominated by authoritarian states and that compete with older, more liberal structures. These groupings may not be very effective as yet, but allow members to affirm common values, generate denser diplomatic ties among their members, which, in turn, make it easier for those members to build military and political coalitions. In short, these organizations constitute a critical part of the infrastructure of international order, an infrastructure that was dominated by Western democracies after the end of the Cold War.

A powerful initiative by China, the BRI which is a global pathway to promote Chinese economic, diplomatic, security, influence and trade domains is occupying centre-stage. China and Russia are entering areas traditionally dominated by the United States and its allies; for example, China convenes the 17+1 group with states in central and eastern Europe and the China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Forum in Latin America. These groupings provide states in these regions with new arenas for partnership and support while also challenging the cohesion of traditional Western blocs.

Against a common adversary USA, Russia and China have successfully managed their alliance of convenience, defying predictions that they would be unable to tolerate each other’s international projects. For example, in CAR (Central Asian Republics), which Russia considers its backyard, Kremlin’s rhetoric has shifted from talking about a clearly demarcated Russian “sphere of influence”, to embracing a “Greater Eurasia” in which Chinese-led investment and integration dovetails with Russian efforts to shut out Western influence. Russia vocally supports China’s BRI. China has also proved willing to accommodate Russian concerns and sensitivities.

Chinese state-affiliated lenders, such as the China Development Bank, have opened substantial lines of credit across Africa and the developing world. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, China became an important source of loans and emergency funding for countries that could not access, or were excluded from Western financial institutions. During the financial crisis, China extended over $75 billion in loans for energy deals to countries in Latin America, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and to Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan in Eurasia. Other cash rich nations too have stepped in; after the Arab Spring, Gulf states such as Qatar lent money to Egypt, allowing Cairo to avoid turning to the IMF during a turbulent time. But China has been by far the most ambitious country in this regard. China today has surpassed annual US aid disbursals. Chinese economic benevolence is never altruistic as stated, but stoked blatant corruption and habits of regime patronage, with an eye on establishing significant influence and dependence. Here, I must add that US and its allies have been no angels either, and there are innumerable instances of double-speak and hypocrisy. As somebody mentioned ‘their world order has neither been democratic nor liberal’!

China is not USSR         

Like the Soviet Union, China is a continent-sized competitor with a repressive political system and big ambitions. But the analogy is not appropriate. China today is a peer competitor that is more formidable economically, more sophisticated diplomatically, and more flexible ideologically than the Soviet Union ever was. And unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply integrated into the world economy, especially US. The Cold War truly was an existential struggle. The US strategy of containment worked on an economically weak USSR. Chinese Communist Party has displayed a remarkable ability to adapt to circumstances, often brutally so. Even if the state does collapse, it is likely to be the result of internal dynamics rather than US pressure. Beijing has been better at converting its country’s economic heft into strategic influence. China has embraced globalization to become the top trading partner for more than two-thirds of the world’s nations. The kinds of economic, people-to-people, and technological linkages that were lacking in the militarized US-Soviet conflict define China’s relationship with the United States and the wider world. Ironically, China is central to the prosperity of American allies and partners! Countries which are trading or acquiring hi-tech from China are not doing it with the intention of going over to China’s side or because they don’t identify with US power.

The Phasing out of the Unipolar System     

The end of the West’s monopoly on patronage has seen the concurrent rise of fiery populist nationalists even in countries that were firmly embedded in the United States’ economic and security orbit. The likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have painted themselves as guardians of domestic sovereignty against liberal subversion. They dismiss Western concerns about democratic backsliding in their countries and emphasize the growing importance of their economic and security relationships with China and Russia. In the case of the Philippines, Duterte recently terminated a two-decade-old military treaty with the United States after Washington canceled the visa of the former national chief of police, who is accused of human rights violations in the Philippines’ bloody and controversial war on drugs. Of course, some of these specific challenges to US leadership will wax and wane since they stem from shifting political circumstances and the dispositions of individual leaders. But the expansion of “exit options”, of alternative patrons, institutions, and political models, now seems a permanent feature of international politics.

Another important shift is that the transnational civil society networks that stitched together the liberal international order no longer enjoy the power and influence they once had. Illiberal competitors now challenge them in many areas, including gender rights, multiculturalism, and the principles of liberal democratic governance. Some of these movements like KKK have originated in the United States and Western European countries themselves. Autocratic regimes have found ways to limit or even eliminate the influence of liberal transnational advocacy networks and reform-minded NGOs. They imposed tight restrictions on receiving foreign funds, proscribed various political activities, and labeled certain activists “foreign agents.” Some governments now sponsor their own NGOs both to suppress liberalizing pressures at home and to contest the liberal order abroad. Russia founded the youth group Nashi to mobilize young people in support of the state, and the Red Cross Society of China, China’s oldest government-organized NGO, has delivered medical supplies to European countries in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign. While not every illiberal or right-wing movement oppose the US led order, such movements help polarize politics in advanced industrial democracies and weaken support for the order’s institutions.

Conclusion

The erosion of America’s global power may be accelerated by the current US foreign policy. The rules-based international order that has been in place since the end of World War-II is unravelling with USA pulling out of its own created treaties, being insensitive and indifferent to close allies, imposing economic sanctions, starting trade and cold wars. Concurrently, led by China, other nations have begun to rise and play an important role on the global stage. Reshuffling of the deck internationally is taking place, and it will be interesting to watch it play out, and specially how India manoeuvres through the geo-strategic maze. The unipolar moment has passed, and it isn’t coming back.

In Part II, we shall examine the merits of US backers who predict the bouncing back of USA to superpower status, how USA must deal with the world in view of current international ground realities, and major issues relating to USA-China-India triangular relations.


[i]Innumerable publications, internationally and regionally publish Articles/podcasts on US status as a superpower and its future. Perused Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Brittanica and numerous magazines (including digital) focused on geo-politics, strategy and security. The theme for my study for Part I and II was recurrent, and most articles have expanded on the central theme.

[ii] ‘How a Great Power Falls Apart: Decline Is Invisible From the Inside’, By Charles King; Foreign  Affairs, June 30, 2020

[iii] ‘Competition Without Catastrophe: How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist with China’ By Kurt M. Campbell and Jake Sullivan, Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2019

[iv] Innumerable publications, internationally and regionally publish Articles/podcasts on US status as a superpower and its future. Perused Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Brittanica and numerous magazines (including digital) focused on geo-politics, strategy and security. The theme for my study for Part I and II was recurrent, and most articles have expanded on the central theme. Also gleaned ideas from the article ‘How Hegemony Ends: The Unraveling of American Power’ by Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon, Foreign Affairs, Jul//Aug 2020

[v] The decline of US global leadership: Power without authority’ by Allen Behm, in theinterpreter published daily by the Lowy Institute on 07 Oct 2019.

Lt. Gen. PR Kumar (Retd.)
Lt. Gen. PR Kumar (Retd.)
Lt. Gen. PR Kumar retired from the post of Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the Indian Army. As DGMO he was responsible for the entire operational planning, preparation and execution of plans and border management. After his retirement he has been writing for numerous Think Tanks on international and national strategic issues and on security related aspects. He also delivers talks in Armed Forces and Educational institutions.

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