It is universally accepted that following the Cold War, the USA experienced a ‘unipolar moment’, establishing itself as a super power with global influence. Many referred to this as a global hegemony. The US had the strongest economy and unparalleled influence in global organisations. Francis Fukuyama even described this period as the ‘end of history’. However in recent years a number of factors, including the rise of China, military defeats and the loss of moral standing has led many to argue that the US will not maintain its position at the top.
China’s economy will soon overtake the US economy in terms of size, a position the US has held for over a century. Although the US remain the strongest economy at present, it is estimated that China will overtake the US by 2020. This is one of the many economic factors that leads critics to believe that China is likely to overtake the US as a superpower. Mersheimer argues that as China becomes more powerful, the US’ position erodes. In 2014 China’s total GDP overtook the US’ when measured by purchasing power. Following this trend, 124 countries now trade more with China than they do with the US. These figures seem to signify the slow economic decline of the US and this is largely the foundation for maintaining their hegemony. Furthermore the rise of other developing economies continues to undermine the position of the US. The GDP of China and India will soon account for 50% of the worlds GDP. This suggests the power dynamics of the world are shifting away from the East to the West. The US also suffered heavily in the 2007-08 financial crisis, by bank toxic lending largely in the form of mortgages that could not be paid back. Not only did this weaken the US’ own economy, it had a knock on effect causing a global financial crisis enveloping the entire world. This has lowered the trust many have in the ‘American’ system of economic governance and liberal order. The Chinese called for a new thinking to prevent a repeat of the crisis.
However these predictions about China’s dominance are merely projections, many argue there is no real substance to them. This is due to the fact that China’s economy has also experienced a slow down in recent months. Its growth for 2015 was 6.9%, compared to 7.3% the year before. This is its slowest growth in 25 years. The US maintains considerable structural power in terms of economics, dominating Bretton woods institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. These institutions are governed by the principles of the Washington consensus, and America and her allies dominate policy making within. This means the US is still able to maintain economic control and gearing policies towards their own gain. In addition the US still has the highest levels of spending on innovation and development, with creative tech industries pioneering new developments. Many American companies, like Apple have more wealth than two thirds of the world’s countries. America may have experienced a crisis on the level of the 1930’s stock market crash, however it has the ability to rejuvenate as it did after WWII.
The social and cultural influence of the US has also seen significant decline. A countries ability to influence other states without the use of coercion or force is known as ‘Soft Power’; the term was first coined by Joseph Nye. This has largely been a result of the lowering of approval ratings following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Furthermore the US unilateral actions in the ‘war on terror’ has also led to a decline in their moral standing as a nation. Many question the US’ motivations for ‘humanitarian intervention’, there are accusations that the US is just pursuing national interests and its commitment to human rights is a cover for this. Journalist Nafeez Ahmed argues that the invasion of Iraq had little to do with suspected WMDs and more about oil and ensuring big profits for Anglo-American oil conglomerates. The moral standing of the US has been questioned due to accusations of torture and gross violations of human rights in Iraq, prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay stain America’s standing in the world. When ISIS dress their victims in orange jump suits, they send a message to the world about how the US treats its captives. This failure of US global influence has allowed its opponents to cry hypocrisy. The Russians have been particularly critical of ‘US double standards’ and it has set back human rights.
However, it would be wrong to conclude the US has lost all cultural influence and its soft power has declined irreversibly. Hollywood remains the second largest film producer in the world. TNCs like Coca-Cola and McDonalds dominate the global markets and 80% of the internet content is in English. American social media sites like FaceBook has 1.44 billion users. Countries where there are extremely anti-American attitudes still value US TV and products. This suggests that a feeling of anti-Americanism doesn’t really harm America’s domination. In fact, it can be argued that American ideals remain strong. If anything, the world would like America to return to these ideals and to maintain their cultural influence. Furthermore, it may be illusory to believe US soft power has recently been dented, consider the position of America during the Vietnam war. In reality, soft power currency is complex.
In military terms, it can be argued that the US has been severely challenged, which significantly undermines its position as a global superpower. This is most significant for realists, who see military power as the defining feature in terms of a state’s power. The changing nature of war and the rise of terrorism has posed a number of issues for the US. They faced a humiliating defeat in Vietnam and the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have a long and costly legacy and in reality the US has troops still deployed there. The US has struggled to deal with the Syrian conflict, polls in 2013 suggested that the air strikes in Syria faced 90% opposition. Obama threatened the Asad regime over using chemical weapons, calling it his ‘red line’, but failed to respond when he did. He also failed to arm the rebels before they turned to radical militants. The US also failed to reverse Russia’s occupation of Crimea and has dithered over arming anti-russian fighters in eastern Ukraine. All of this may point to a power in decline.
However, the US can still be seen as an unrivalled military power. The state accounts for 50% of the world’s military spending, it outspend the second highest China six fold. Robert Kagan argues that the US maintains its position at the top, the country has a military stronger than the next 10 countries and bases in over 100 countries. The US still has significant influence in NATO, whose collective security policy means that the US maintains supremacy in Europe. It can be argued the reserve of Obama is not down to decline or retrenchment, but rather, points to his conservative realism. The US is picking its fights, using its military power in a smart way.
On balance, the US is not a power in decline. It faces a number of challenges for sure, however its ability to rejuvenate and realign its priorities will help it in an increasing challenging world. What we may be seeing is not a decline of America, but rather a move to multipolarity that the US has to manage.