Over the past two centuries, America has risen dramatically from its humble roots as an isolationist nation to the dominant global superpower it is today. Serving as a beacon of democracy, capitalism and hope, the United States has reshaped the entire world order and contributed more to global, technological and social progress than any contemporary nation. Given the outsized impact our nation has had on every facet of modern life, it’s difficult to imagine a contemporary world order without America at the helm.
However, with the rise of competing economic superpowers, disturbing decline of democracy worldwide and our own internal strife, we now find ourselves at a tipping point, where the U.S. faces the first real threat to its superpower status since the end of the Cold War. While it’s not too late to fight the threat that China, Russia and their allies pose to our geopolitical standing, our leaders must immediately take drastic steps if they hope to retain American economic and military dominance over the next century.
In order to understand how to correct course, it’s important to first trace the roots of our current problems. After decades of trailing Great Britain and other European powers, America first secured its position as the “leader of the free world” after providing the military might necessary to propel the Allied powers to victory in World War II. The period immediately following the war proved critical to establishing America’s superpower status, with the Bretton Woods System making the dollar the world’s de facto reserve currency and the Marshall Plan extending American economic and military influence across western Europe.
Since then, the dollar’s position as a reserve currency and the unprecedented global peace enabled by our military, after the Cold War, have helped both the American and worldwide economy to thrive in a free market system and globalized world order. America still enjoys the effects of our enviable position which allows us to influence worldwide economic and social policies. However, the past two decades have seen our national interests undermined by costly, prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, increasing wealth inequality and the collapse of our manufacturing sector, all of which have contributed to national polarization and legislative stagnation. Internationally, China has capitalized on its enormous blue-collar workforce to propel its economy, in the process taking away many middle-class factory jobs in America. Using their new influx of capital, China has made billions in strategic investments across Asia and Africa, positioning itself in control of the markets projected to have the highest growth in the coming decades.
With all of these factors leading to a downward trend in American might, our nation is at its most fragile point in decades. Worryingly, many other historical global powers facing similar declines have been displaced by new superpowers during times of economic turmoil, a situation that has now arisen given the war in Ukraine. Though the U.S. may not have boots on the ground, our economic response to Russia’s invasion may have accelerated a shift towards worldwide political and economic fragmentation. For years, our foreign policy has been predicated on the belief that intertwining our economy with other nations would create dependencies that could maintain America’s economic position. With petroleum and many other commodities traded in dollars, America has remained at the heart of the global economy, even as our growth has stalled.
After severing Russia from our economic system by banning them from SWIFT, revoking their most-favored-nation trade status and scaling back the presence of American banks, Russia has now found a haven with China, which now powers the Russian economy. This monumental shift isn’t just limited to Russia. After seeing the dizzying impact of American sanctions, Saudi Arabia is now considering accepting Yuan instead of dollars for Chinese oil purchases. As China capitalizes on the Ukrainian conflict by drawing more nations into its economic sphere of influence, rigid lines are finally being drawn dividing the East and West in an increasingly fractured world.
Along with the expanding economic power of China, its military seems poised to make a statement, with the nation’s leaders scarcely concealing their intentions to invade Taiwan. As the potential for future conflicts in Europe and Asia increases and the number of democratic nations decreases, America faces great difficulty in withstanding the alliance of Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa with the Chinese system. Though America retains strong relations with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, many of them, particularly in western Europe, have experienced similar stagnation to the U.S., with flattening population and gross domestic product growth. Barring a tectonic shift in momentum, China will soon capitalize on western weakness to surpass the U.S. as the world’s superpower. While any switch in power will likely be nonviolent due to the inherent risks of conflict between global superpowers in the nuclear era, the effects would nonetheless be catastrophic, with a global decline in democratic institutions and the free market likely.
If we hope to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring, our leaders must immediately take bold action to bolster American power. Perhaps the most critical step is to push back against the recent move toward isolationist policies. While there is merit to avoiding needless conflicts that cost us money and lives, withdrawing on a large scale would be a mistake. Though we should continue to use tariffs as an economic weapon against China, we should simultaneously decrease our reliance on them by doubling down on our trade relations with countries like India and Indonesia, which have the human resources to match the benefits we currently enjoy from China. In addition to Asian countries, we should work to counter China’s massive investments in Africa by investing heavily in the development of our South American allies, many of whom boast similar growth potential. By boosting trade carried out in dollars, we have an opportunity to not only improve our economy, but protect our status as a reserve currency.
Another critical aspect of American power is our military. While it remains the best equipped in the world, because of the lack of support we receive from our NATO allies as well as our own lack of coordination, the West’s military force as a whole has proven ineffectual. During the current Ukrainian crisis, we were slow from the onset to help Ukraine, failing to properly arm the nation before the Russians invaded. Furthermore, a key nation that has failed to condemn Russia’s invasion, India, currently enjoys far better trade relations with the U.S., but was bound to stay silent because of the magnitude of weapons they’ve received from Russia. By increasing contributions to the weapons reserves of allies and ensuring that all NATO nations spend the promised two percent of their GDP on defense, we can take meaningful steps towards fortification.
Ultimately, while these are all broad plans, they have the potential to send a clear message to our enemies about America’s willingness to fight back. At the end of the day, America owes it to the world to preserve our political power in order to continue using it to support economic development, humanitarianism and democracy worldwide. For the good of everyone, let’s hope we get it right.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.