One of the more cliché observations currently circulating the international relations community is that while 20th century belonged to America, the 21st century belongs to China. This theory is wrong on a number of counts. For starters, the first half of the 20th century could hardly be considered American. Europe was still very much at the center of the world affairs until 1945. Nor did the last half of the century belong exclusively to the United States. World leadership was shared with the Soviet Union until 1990. At best, the US could claim the last decade of the 20th century. Furthermore, it is also incorrect to suggest that China will dominate the entirety of 21st century. There are several other rising powers in the world and neither the United States nor Europe is going anywhere.
Even so, historians will likely mark 2001 as the pinnacle of American power. The decade following the turn of the millennium will be recorded as a time of turbulence, after which, America began its long and gradual relative decline. Even though the US is coming down from the height of its influence, it will remain a force to be reckoned with for some time to come. In fact, at its peak, the United States was probably the single most powerful polity in human history. Coming down a few notches from these heights does not make the US weak. Nor will US supremacy necessarily end when the Chinese economy surpasses America’s in the next 15 years.
Economic power is not the sole measure of global influence. Indeed, the US economy surpassed Britain’s around 1880, but that did not prevent the UK from remaining the world’s preeminent power until World War II.
Even though the US will remain one of the principle nations in the world for decades to come, it will be relatively weaker and should recognize this fact sooner rather than later. This article is an attempt to forecast American statecraft in the early years following its apogee. What the US does over the next decade will be crucial in determining its influence over the next century. In these years, the US will have to work harder and smarter to maintain its position. Unlike the containment strategy of the Cold War, no one tactic will characterize this new phase in American diplomacy. Every region of the world will require a different approach, as each region is has its own particular traits. However, there are some general global trends that the US should recognize.
Firstly, the US will no longer play as central a role in the foreign policies of many countries. The world is no longer characterized by a mass of weak developing nations looking towards the rich world for leadership and assistance. The developing world is coming into its own. Although few countries have achieved China’s breathtaking growth numbers, many nations are posting impressive economic gains. Latin America, for instance, recovered quickly from the latest economic crisis and is expected to see robust growth over the coming decade. Africa and many Asian nations have also seen impressive growth over the last 10 to 15 years. Furthermore, democratic institutions have taken root in many parts of East Asia and in almost every European and Latin American country. Even the Arab world, which previously seemed impervious to democratic progress, has recently entered its Spring.
For many non-Americans, the advance of the developing world is proving far more relevant and significant than the opinions and wishes of the United States. Secondly, the countries of the world are actively forging new relationships and building their own regional bases of power. This means that US will no longer have the ability to unilaterally influence world events to the extent it has in the past. The US will increasingly come to work with and rely on regional powers. If the US wants a free trade area with South America, for instance, it will have to talk to Brazil. If it wants to stop genocide in Africa, it will have to have to coordinate with Nigeria and South Africa; if it wants to maintain a significant naval presence in the Indian Ocean, it will have to work with India and Indonesia.
To be sure, the US has always relied on regional allies, however this reliance will become more pronounced in the years to come. Indeed, US policy over the coming decade will not simply focus on building friendly relations with emerging powers. It will increasingly concentrate on preparing these states to assume leadership in their respective regions. Finally, the credibility of the US has fallen drastically in the eyes of the world since 2001. This is not only because of the tragically flawed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many countries are worried about the United State’s inability to bring its fiscal house in order. The failure of the most powerful country in the world to balance its own books has casted doubt on the political resolve and economic long-term health of the US. To many nations, the American fiscal crisis is not only an economic problem; it is a symptom a deeper and more serious political deficiency. For many years, the world has looked to the US model of government. Unfortunately, that model has recently begun to look more and more defective in the eyes of the international community.
While these worldwide trends in the world are significant, it is important to examine how the United States will approach distinct regions of the world. The best place to start this survey is in the US’s own hemisphere, with Latin America. The history of the US in Latin America has been complicated. On the one hand, the United States limited European meddling in the region. On the other, the US has conducted its own infamous interventions. Despite this history and the demagogy of the far left, the US is still viewed quite favorably in the region.
However, the geo-politics of Latin America are changing. Over the coming years, two centers of gravity will emerge in the region. In the North, the countries boarding the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, with the exception of Cuba and Venezuela, will tend to gravitate towards the US and Mexico. Unlike the rest of the world, the US will still hold strong sway over the nations of this region. Conversely, many South American countries will witness a decline of US influence and look increasingly towards Brazil and the Mercosur trading bloc.
In both Northern and Southern Latin America, ultra-leftist Latin American leaders, such as Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and the Castro brothers, have challenged the influence of the United States. The region’s staggeringly high levels of inequality have historically fueled the Latin American left. The best way to undercut this influence is for the US to be more supportive of efforts to combat inequality in the region. This means backing more moderate leftist leaders, despite their socialist rhetoric.
Moreover, a softening of the US stance towards Cuba, could also improve the US brand in the Latin America. While supporting efforts to combat inequality will improve the US image across Latin America, the United States should recognize that the region is bifurcating, and adjust its policy accordingly. In Northern Latin America, the US’s relationship will center on three major issues: immigration, drugs, and trade. As is well known, the war on drugs has cost these countries dearly.
However, an expansion of trade and legal immigration has the potential to greatly increase their economic fortunes. The US has a strong interest in resolving these matters as Northern Latin America represents one of the only areas that will remain clearly in the US sphere of influence for decades to come. Furthermore, the problems of this region have the potential to quickly reverberate into the US homeland itself.
For the countries of Southern Latin America, the issues are different. As already mentioned, the US plays a far less important role in the Latin South. The major emerging issue is how the US will deal with an ascendant Brazil. With almost 200 million people, a democratic government, and a growing economy, Brazil will grow far more powerful than its neighbors over the coming decade. As such, Brazil will want the US to recognize its newfound regional power status. Particularly, Brazil hopes that the US will support its bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Even though Brazil is democratic and largely friendly, the US may hesitate.
The US is concerned with, what it believes to be, Brazil’s immature foreign policy. In the eyes of the United States, Brazil has overly friendly relations with both China and Iran; the latter being particularly troublesome. The United States could support a Brazilian bid if Brazil showed more solidarity with the West on foreign policy positions. For its part, the US should work hard to resolve these issues and support the Brazilian bid. As a democracy on the rise, Brazil could prove a valuable ally. A US move to open up its markets to Brazilian agricultural goods could be a good start in moving things in this direction.
The transatlantic relationship between Europe and the US has long been one of the world’s most important. Unfortunately, relations reached their nadir due to the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Since then, the relationship has improved dramatically. There are still some minor outstanding issues centering on trade, global financial regulation, carbon emissions, and the lack of a visa waiver for some EU countries. However, none of these issues are of great concern to us here.
The most important medium-term issue between the US and Europe is the transatlantic security relationship. The US’s military presence in Europe has long subsidized the region’s defense. It protected Europe for the entirety of the Cold War and provided crucial support to missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya. Yet, the US security umbrella will be significantly weakened over the coming years as America reorients itself away from Europe and towards the Asia-Pacific region.
The military drawdown does not necessarily indicate a weakening of bilateral relations between Europe and the United States. In fact, the relationship between the two halves of Western Civilization may grow even more pronounced over the coming years. As both regions accept their relative decline, they will tend to increasingly gravitate towards each other in order to uphold their common interests and values.
Even though the Europeans no longer face an existential security threat, the drawdown of American troops does have consequences. In the absence of US forces, Russia may feel inclined to influence and intimidate former Soviet-bloc nations. Moreover, Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus, cannot be expected to last in its current form. It is only a matter of time before the democratic tide reaches Minsk and destabilizes the regime, and possibly the region. Additionally, the other side of the Mediterranean is far from stable. Europe may again need to intervene across the sea in order to protect civilians or promote stability. To be sure, the US will be quick to assist its allies if any of these scenarios occur. However, it has no desire to bail out Europe as it has in the past.
Given these threats and the need for a strong security partner, the US is likely to push for further integration of the European militaries. Indeed, the EU possesses advanced technology and a population and economy larger than that of the US. Although smaller and slightly less well equipped, most European nations have well-trained and disciplined forces. The EU also has more people under uniform than the United States. If Europe could better integrate its militaries, they could greatly expand their effectiveness without large increases in funding.
Of all the regions of the world, the United States commands the most popularity in Africa. This is due to two reasons. One is the election of Barack Obama, a man of African descent. The second is the US Pepfar program. This program, started by George W. Bush, has made dramatic gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It is somewhat fortuitous that the US is blessed with good relations with this region during what may be the dawn of Africa’s takeoff.
Like many developing countries of the world, African countries have seen sustained economic growth over the past 10-15 years. According to The Economist, Africa is now growing faster than Asia. Africa’s population is also surging, it is projected to reach 2 billion by the year 2050. In the years ahead, the US will approach African nations more as partners, and less as poor, powerless, aid recipients. The US will look to build especially strong relationships with Nigeria and South Africa: the continent’s two leading nations.
In the decade ahead, African and US relations will likely center around international aid, security, and China’s growing influence. Even though Africa is on the march, it still receives a lot of foreign aid. For all its progress, the continent is still mired in poverty, and plagued by infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. In a time of austerity, it will be difficult for the US to maintain its aid levels. However, the US will need to maintain funding levels if it is to cement African economic gains and ward off Chinese influence.
Africa is also a chaotic place. There are pirates off its east coast, seven UN peacekeeping missions, several terrorists groups, and a growing divide between the continent’s Muslims and Christians. As a result, many Africans will be looking for assistance in building and training their military and law enforcement forces. The US has already played a strong role in combatting terrorism in the region. The US military has even established an African command, Africom, in recognition of the growing importance of the continent. As the US plans to withdraw troops from Europe, it may increasingly commit small-specialized units to Africa in order to combat terrorism, protect civilians, and forge bonds of trust.
China’s presence in Africa has proved a boon for the continent’s economy. Indeed, a vast majority of Africans hold favorable views of the Chinese presence. The US will not actively oppose Chinese inroads into the continent. However, it will use aid and security relationships to counter Chinese influence. The US will also attempt to make common cause with African democracies, and castigate China for its support of tyrants such as Omar al-Bashir and Robert Mugabe. In this way, the US can abridge Chinese influence to some extent, without directly confronting China, or cutting it off from the African resources it craves.
The Middle East
Of the world’s regions, the US approach towards the Middle East is the most difficult to forecast. Iraqi instability, Iranian hostility, and the unknown consequences of the Arab Spring mean the region will remain quite volatile for some time. However, there will be at least four discernable factors driving US policy towards Middle East over the coming decade. These are: Oil, Terrorism, Israel, and Iran.
As much as the US would love to extricate itself from the Middle East permanently, there are gravitations forces that will continue to draw the US in. One of these forces is the region’s vast supply of oil. Not only is petroleum necessary for the US economy, it is necessary for the world economy. As a result, the US will persist in its decades long mission of maintaining the stability of world’s oil supply. The United States will also continue to monitor and interdict terrorists operating in the region. As a result, the US will maintain a significant presence in the region for some time.
Unfortunately the US’s long-standing alliance with Israel, makes it mission of fighting terrorism and safeguarding the global oil supply more difficult. Many have commented on the need to successfully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, a successful resolution of the issue would make America’s job far easier.
Regrettably, there are few indications that such an accommodation can be reached in the near future. Therefore, in order to accomplish its other objectives, the US will have to continue its difficult balancing act of supporting Israel, while maintaining good relations with the Arab states.
While the US’s friendship with Israel complicates its position in the region, its hostility towards Iran makes things somewhat easier. Iran’s recent belligerence has alarmed many of the Arab powers, particularly in the Gulf. Many observers in the region believe that Iran is intent on building a nuclear weapon and turning Iraq into a client state. There is also a belief that Iran is supporting fundamentalist Shia groups across the region in order to destabilize the Arab states.
As a result, these states have looked to the US for protection, drawing the United States in further. Ironically, it is Iran’s own bellicosity that guarantees that the US will have dependable friends in the region for years to come.
However, the US balancing act in the Middle East has grown difficult. As a result, the US may increasingly depend on regional powers, such as its old ally Saudi Arabia, to maintain stability. However, the US may also look to Turkey, whose regional popularity is on the rise. There are several reasons why Turkey proves an appealing partner. The country has a strong military and is a member of NATO. It has democratic institutions, a large population, and a steadily growing economy. If the US is able to overcome Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with Israel and its mildly Islamist government, Turkey could prove a reliable partner for the US in the region.
Russia, in many ways, still sees the United States through the lens of the Cold War. Relations between the two countries were particularly poor during the first decade of the 20th century. Expansion of NATO, the foray into Iraq, and US plans to construct a missile shield only made Russia more suspicious of American intentions. For their part, many American pundits rolled their eyes at Russian criticisms. In there view, Russia is a bellicose nation in terminal decline. With an economy smaller than that of Canada, many of these pundits questions whether Russia rates to be a great power.
Even though the long-term prospects of Russia bode poorly, the nation will remain a power to be reckoned with for some time. Russia has a sizable nuclear arsenal, a formidable military, and a seat on the UN Security Council. It is the largest country in the world by land area and is the world’s largest energy exporter. Russia also shares the Eurasian continent with China, a power that the United States hopes to abridge to some extent.
As a consequence, there are a lot of reasons why the US should try to build bridges with Russia. Indeed, many factors point to a rapprochement with Russia in the decade ahead. Russia’s economy is expected to slow over the coming decade. This weaker economic position should make it less haughty and confrontational. The rise of China will also cause Russia to reevaluate its geo-political positions. Although Russia and China currently get along amicably, that could prove less true in the future. The Russian people have no desire to be drawn into the Chinese orbit and may look for partners that will assure an independent Russian sphere of influence in Eurasia. Another reason that there may be an improvement in Russian relations is because of the reorientation of US policy. The US is not pursuing NATO expansion and the Obama’s administration’s reset has been partially successful. Furthermore, the shift of US military orientation away from Europe should allay some of Russia’s concerns.
US policy towards Russia should center on three goals. The US should endeavor to keep Russia proud, independent, and unafraid. The US should keep Russia proud by ensuring that Russia is treated as the great power it is. There is a lot of post-Soviet nostalgia still present in the country, and many Russians feel slighted at not being treated with the respect that used to be accorded to them. The US and others generated a lot of Russian hostility by treating the country as if it was a second rate power. Simply according Russia the status it feels it deserves, is an easy way to improve relations with the country.
Secondly, the US should recognize that Russia wants to be an independent power, with a separate sphere of influence in Central Asia. It neither wants to be drawn into the Western orbit nor the Chinese orbit. If the US can accommodate this, it will find that an independent Russia can serve as a bulwark against a rising China. Thirdly, the US should attempt to keep Russia unafraid. This means that the US will have to make NATO look less threatening and mollify Russian concerns over a missile shield.
India and the United States did not have the friendliest of relationships during the Cold War. India headed the anti-superpower Non-Aligned Movement, even as it received assistance and military hardware from the Soviet Union. However, since the fall of the USSR relations between the two countries have grown markedly.
Although minor economic issues between the US and India remain, there are more significant concerns surrounding Indian national security. For example, the US is unhappy with India’s cordial relations with Iran, while Delhi harbors anxiety over American military cooperation with Pakistan. There are additional disagreements between the two nations on how to handle Afghanistan. However, differences over Afghanistan may quickly become moot as the US is gradually pulling its forces out of the country. This withdrawal will lessen demand for friendly US-Pakistan relations.
The consequence for South Asia is that India will be pulled closer to the US and Pakistan will be pulled closer to China. This, of course, leaves Afghanistan is a bad strait. Indeed, Afghanistan may come to be a zone of competition for all four countries. While the US and India may have differences over Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are stronger forces pulling the countries together. In fact, many observers have remarked that India is a natural US ally. Like the United States, India is a former British colony of great ethnic and religious diversity. It is also the world’s largest democracy and the overwhelming majority of Indian educated class speaks English. Moreover, the US sees in India a counterweight to a rising China and a demonstration that developing countries can grow fast while remaining democratic.
For its part, India sees the US as an important economic partner that can help it manage a variety of security issues. India sits next to two unfriendly nuclear-armed neighbors, China and Pakistan. There are also significant internal threats to the country. Although it is not well publicized, India is plagued by multiple insurgent and terrorist groups whose ranks number into the tens of thousands.
Over the coming decade, security considerations will move India and the US closer together. India is eager to gain access to US missile, nuclear, and military technology. American intelligence and counter-insurgency expertise could also help India address the threats posed by terrorists and internal militant groups. For the United States, the Indian military has a lot of potential. It ranks include over 1.3 million troops, 4,000 main battle tanks, and an aircraft carrier. Indeed, the Indian armed forces are the world’s third largest and will only get bigger. Moreover, India may one day become the richest and most populous country on the globe, making it an invaluable ally in the years to come.
Many have remarked that the relationship between China and America is now the world’s most important. Indeed, each nation’s economy is heavily dependent on the other. Moreover, the two countries will have to work together on a variety of issues from rogue nations, to global warming, to global financial governance. The relationship between China and America will probably remain polite for the foreseeable future. Yet, there is no denying that two countries are inherent rivals.
In the recent past, US-Chinese relations have been marked by US concerns over Chinese trade barriers, poor intellectual property protections, and undervaluation of the Yuan. China, in turn, has been concerned with American’s unsustainable fiscal path and an expansionary monetary policy. Over the coming years, however, US-China relations will focus less on economic issues and more on geo-political ones.
On the world stage, China will try to resurrect an old international philosophy that urges states to ignore the internal policies of other nations. It will also grow less tolerant of western attempts to expand democracy and uphold human rights; especially, when those attempts target China or its allies. Additionally, the country hopes to eclipse other rising powers, especially India, in the hopes of demonstrating to the world that it is the only new game in town.
Although a rising and assertive China poses problems to the US, the country is far less threatening than USSR, Nazi Germany, or other historical rivals. China has historically been an inward looking country, uninterested in expanding its borders or its ideology. Since 1979, the government of China has served its people well and has given hundreds of millions of its citizens a better life. The US should recognize this and not attempt to abridge China’s economic growth to any significant degree. An attempt to curtail China’s economic expansion would almost certainly shift Sino-American relations from ‘awkward’ to ‘hostile.’
However, just because the US should do nothing to prevent China’s economic expansion, does not mean it should not attempt to abridge Beijing’s geo-political expansion. Indeed, there are reasons why we should be concerned by China’s activities beyond its mainland. China is constructing the so-called ‘string of pearls,’ a series of bases stretching from the South China Sea, to Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Many believe that China is in the early stages of constructing a coalition with these countries that it will use to challenge the supremacy of the US and its allies in the region.
Even though China is on the rise, it does have significant security concerns. Despite its Marxist rhetoric, inequality in the country has skyrocketed and there is an increasing amount of internal dissent. A Shanghai Spring is probably not going to break out any time soon, but the prospect of such an awakening will continue to lurk in the minds of China’s leaders. Even though China has serious internal challenges, it has external problems as well. China is surrounded by countries that remain suspicious of its rise. Indeed, Beijing has standing territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India. It also actively attempts to obscure the fact that its neighbor Taiwan in a separate nation with a democratically elected government.
The US will attempt to capitalize on China’s relative isolation to abridge its geo-political expansion. Washington will mitigate China’s rise by constructing a string of friendly relationships in East Asia. To do this, the United States will continue to rely on old allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea. It will also reach out to emerging powers such as Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Most importantly, however, the US will attempt to cement an alliance with India, the only country in the world truly capable of countering China.
This string of alliances can be thought of as a silk cordon. It will be a far looser coalition than NATO. Indeed, the US will work actively to ensure that the cordon does not appear overtly threatening. The US may expand its military footprint to some degree, but not much. If it constructs new bases they are likely to be small and symbolic, or located in countries farther afield, such as Australia. The intent will be to simply maintain the status quo that has existed in the Pacific Rim since the end of World War II. Taiwan will remain unrecognized but independent. The US and its allies will maintain control of the Pacific Rim, but will not use that power to provoke China or inhibit its economic growth. If China challenges this arrangement in a belligerent manner, it risks arousing the suspicious of its neighbors even more. This will only have the effect of strengthening the cordon and increasing US influence in the area.
As America begins its long gradual decline, it needs to change how it conducts its foreign policy. Firstly, the US should move to restore its credibility. It can do this by getting its fiscal house in order, and engaging in less military adventurism. The US also should recognize that it cannot control world affairs as it once did, and will need to conduct a more skillful foreign policy if it is to maintain influence in the world. The US’s goal is not to build a world it can preside over, but to construct and international environment it can thrive in.
The US’s strategy in the first years after its pinnacle, has three interrelated objectives. These are: constructing a non-threating cordon around China, maintaining a balance of power in Eurasia, and promoting the rise of friendly democratic powers across the world. To construct a cordon, the US will reorient its forces away from Europe and build friendly relations with the nations of East Asia. This cordon will, in-turn, balance power on the Eurasian landmass. In addition to the cordon, the United States will support an independent Russian sphere of influence and forge an alliance with India. In the Middle East, the US will muddle through as best as it can until a suitable power, or powers, prove capable of managing events in the region. By weaning Europe off of American security, it hopes to free up it forces and create a strong partner that can assist it in the years ahead.
Finally, the US will start preparing to turnover leadership to several emerging regional democratic powers. These countries are likely to be, but not excluded to, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Nigeria, South Africa, Indonesia, and, most importantly, India. The US should assist and promote these regional powers while maintaining and building on their democratic credentials. To be sure, this project will take decades, and there are many diplomatic hurdles to overcome. Yet, the global trend lines are clear.
The world is increasingly characterized by countries with democratically elected leaders; reasonably free economies, civil liberty protections, and robust social safety nets. By and large, this is a world that America can live and thrive in. Many Americans will not want to accept that their country is in decline. Others would prefer not to discuss it, as the issue simply depresses them. However, there is a silver lining to this story. Millions of people are being lifted out of poverty and face a future free of tyranny and war. It is this betterment of the lives of millions, that is driving the US’s relative decline, not a deterioration in the US itself. Nor, is our decline something to be ashamed of.
This country’s forefathers founded a Republic, not an Empire. They intended for the US to be a “city upon a hill” a “light unto nations.” And for the most part, despite some miscalculations and misadventures, our country has played its part admirably. The US saved Europe twice, supported decolonization, and defeated communism. It opposed tyrants and dictators, pushed for human rights, and made the world safe for democracy. We proved our virtue towards both our friends and our enemies. Even when we conquered nations, we built them back better, or at least we tried to. Even America’s greatest rival, China, could not have grown at its blistering pace without US trade.
It is now time to finish the task, to step down gracefully and gradually, cementing our relationships with the older democracies while promoting the rise of the emerging republics. By doing so, we can hope to bequeath to the world the gift that was given to us and fulfill the ultimate intention of our founding.