Originally Published 2012-01-02 00:00:00 Published on Jan 02, 2012
While the United States suffered some strategic reverses, it has also made a few gains. It is not yet time to write off the United States of America.
2011: Mixed returns for US
Talks about America’s retreat, both economic and strategic, are gaining momentum. The 2008 financial crisis and its continuing reverberations, the American pull out of Iraq a few weeks back and Afghanistan next year, and the strategic stalemate in Iran and North Korea where Washington hasn’t been able to force these weaker powers to bend to its will - all these are touted as indicators of US decline. While these signs need to be taken seriously, there are pointers which clearly suggest that its dominance in world affairs is far from being over.

America has spent enormously, both in wealth and blood, in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the Kabul mission has had greater domestic support, Baghdad has always been a controversial venture even within the US. Their global implications have been equally, if not more, disastrous. A decade of efforts by the world’s most powerful military, using the world’s most advanced technologies of warfare, has been insufficient in gaining Washington a clear victory. Though the US managed to extricate itself from Baghdad in a relatively better condition than it did out of Saigon in 1975, there is little doubt that the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to provide tangible results.

The second indicator of American retreat is Washington’s declining global economic dominance. The financial crisis that hit the US in 2008 began to have serious impact on the nation’s debt-income ratio. In 2011, the country’s national debt overtook its national income. As of December 15, 2011, the gross debt was $15.098 trillion, of which $10.438 trillion was held by the public and $4.659 trillion was intragovernmental holdings. In contrast, in June 2011, the annual gross domestic product was $15.003 trillion.

Meanwhile, other powers such as China and India have been growing fast. Though these trends have been long-standing ones, going back to the end of World War II, their consequences are now appearing to be quite grim for the US. The rise of the BRIC nations, America’s rising foreign debt and a steady shift of the manufacturing sector out of the US are all suggesting that Washington’s global dominance is nearing its end.

Third, Iran and North Korea have become belligerent and the US appears to be in no position to convince them to change their behaviour. The fact that Pyongyang can only be influenced by Beijing has only worsened the situation for Washington. After all, China has been less than forthcoming in helping tone down the aggression of the North Korean leadership. In two decades of negotiations, Pyongyang has become a nuclear power, withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is now thought to be a potential nuclear proliferation threat. Likewise, the US is unable to get Iran change its policies and countries like Russia and China with veto power have restrained America’s manoeuvrability to a large extent. The fiasco with the bad intelligence that led to the Iraq war has meant that Washington is not in a position to convince global opinion that Tehran is building nuclear weapons.

Fourth, the impact of the Arab Spring on the US and its global image hasn’t been positive either. This is odd. After all, America has for long been championing the cause of democracy and human rights in the region. Several US allies have been the ones whom the Arab street targeted and threw out of power, leaving a big question mark on the support for America in these countries. Egypt is a case in point. The new leadership/regime that emerges in these countries need not necessarily be US-friendly and this undermines Washington’s position in the region.

While all these may seem unfavourable, a more holistic overview would demonstrate that it is not that bad for the US. While the decline (in relative terms) is indisputable, there are counterpoints that need to be kept in mind.

So, if one were to concede a strategic and economic retreat for America, how bad is it? For instance, everyone talks about the economic mess that the US is in today, but we should remember that almost every country is in trouble today. Also, the dollar appreciation in recent times demonstrates the economic strength of America. For all the Chinese economic growth story or its influence/stake in the financial restructuring, Beijing does not have the ability to float an alternate currency. Nor can it afford to invest its money in any currency other than the dollar. The Euro crisis has further reinforced the American role in the global economic system.

Second, America’s retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan may appear as weakness, but the move will help Washington consolidate its domestic economy, besides reducing the direct threat that the country faces from Islamist terrorists. Refocussing domestically should help the US deal with the problem better.

On the strategic front, while the US may be disappointed in not being able to get its way vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea, President Barack Obama’s unwearied policy in dealing with the two is gradually paying off. Today the allies as well as other countries in the region are calling upon the US to take necessary action, thus giving Washington a lot more legitimacy to pursue a pro-active policy. For instance, the Arab League is more open to a concrete action being taken against Iran. Similar is the scenario in East Asia, where most countries are today far more keen about the US playing an active role in the region than they were a decade ago. Of course, China’s aggressive foreign policy towards its neighbours has helped the American cause.

America’s military modernisation is another issue. While China is doing a lot in terms of catching up with the US, Washington still maintains an unmatchable technological edge. The drone war, for instance, which the US has pursued against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a feat that no other country can duplicate anytime in the near future. Similarly, the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was an incredible exercise of the American hard power. The kind of intelligence, military and technological capabilities that the country put to use was stupendous and cannot be replicated by other nations in the near future.

Last, the Arab Spring may have been bad news for some American allies, but many of its regional adversaries (Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria), too, have also suffered losses.

In sum, the picture is mixed. While the US has suffered some strategic reverses, it has also made a few gains. It is not yet time to write off the United States of America.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

Courtesy: The Pioneer
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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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