In 1991, the United States enjoyed a global influence so vast it was unrivaled in human history. The Roman, Ottoman and Mongol empires would have marveled at the breadth of America’s political and economic leadership across the world. After the fall of the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, the U.S. established itself as the uncontested superpower in the post-Cold War era.
America’s decline: The 21st century has seen a descent of U.S. influence across the globe. The U.S., which once created integral international institutions such as the U.N. and IMF, reverts to isolated nationalism and the once-trusted American military is forever associated with wars and cultural ineptitude. America’s geopolitical and economic decline is coming at a time when its leadership is needed most. Autocracy is replacing democracy in countries like Turkey and Venezuela, but the people of these countries can no longer look to the U.S. as the moral defender of liberty it historically claims to be. In October 2019, the Trump Administration bent to the will of the Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan by withdrawing strategically vital troops and gaining nothing in return. Has the U.S.’s power declined so far that it caters to the convenience of Turkey’s president for life?
China’s rise: China’s economic boom has placed U.S. economic leverage — a favorite American diplomatic tool — in jeopardy as well. As China takes the lead on many major economic projects, countries become less reliant on the American economy for support and aid. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been dubbed a 21st century Marshall Plan after exuberant Chinese investment has gone into countries from South Asia to Western Europe to North Africa. Additionally, the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) showed China’s disregard for U.S. power as the Chinese brushed off American dissent while gaining support from the U.S.’s Western allies. Despite U.S. efforts to prevent countries from joining the new international institution, there are 74 member countries and 26 prospective members. The BRI and the AIIB reveal that China wants their geopolitical clout to match their GDP, both of which will pass those of the U.S. if the status quo continues.
Rise of revisionists: America’s decline from hegemony has been met with a rise of revisionism. Xi Jingping, Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei consider their respective countries hamstrung by the U.S.-created international system. Thus, China, Russia and Iran have lashed out against the current system with the goal of replacing it with a less democratic world order. Each of these countries have pushed back against the international order without being held accountable: Iran has bombed Saudi Aramco, Russia has invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine and China has committed atrocious human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. In 1991, it would have been inconceivable for the U.S. to watch these hostilities from the sidelines, but American power has been whittled down to a point where it can be disregarded by revisionists.
What can be done? Globalization has fostered the sentiment that discrepancies in cultures and countries lead to the illumination of staunch divides in values and beliefs. Of course, this is true, and the U.S. benefits from these differences more than any country in the world. A plethora of immigrants, belief systems and ideologies laid the foundation our democracy is built upon. However, the U.S. must realize that many of the moral values America stands for are objective. Liberty, prosperity and human rights are undeniably important ingredients to human flourishing that should be defended and advanced by the U.S. The dangers of moral relativism can be seen across the globe today. Uyghur Muslims, Syrian Kurds and Yemeni children are largely ignored by the world order and abused by immoral powers. If it is inevitable that the U.S. economy is to be surpassed and the military not as powerful, so be it. But America’s response to a multipolar world should be a retrenchment in our values, not an abandonment. The U.S. government can reverse its decline of influence by supporting the marginalized and giving them an ally in the international order. Diplomatic feats such as the Marshall Plan and the First Gulf War were accomplished through advocacy and defense of objective values, as well as a sense of moral obligation, not selfish ambition. The world needs an America that is willing to speak for the voiceless, feed the starving and stand for the oppressed. Without it, the world order could further descend down the path of chaos and violence that revisionist powers have already begun.
Bennett Neuhoff is a junior in the Ford School of Public Policy and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.