Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law. The US response has been economic: sanctions against Russia that are the largest ever and yet, at the same time, are unlikely to change the form of Russian President Vladimir’s aggression Putin.
So how should we view the United States as a superpower in 2022?
It is too early to draw general conclusions about what the war in Eastern Europe means for America’s future in the world. But there are enough clues to suggest that America’s power has limits, and in fact it always has. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States gained global dominance for a brief unipolar moment. Then President George W. Bush squandered it on destructive (and costly) regime change wars. Subsequent presidents have shone the American public on progress in the Middle East in two conflicts that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Despite all of these unforced errors, the United States remains a superpower, even as the limits of non-military power have been exposed.
Thomas Pickering, who served as ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996, says the “caricature” of America as a superpower has clouded the way most Americans think about how the world works.
As a career diplomat for four decades, Pickering witnessed the shift in America’s global position from the Cold War to the breakup of the Soviet Union to the height of American supremacy at the turn of the millennium. “If your assumption is that a superpower can do anything, anywhere, anytime, without suffering the consequences of risk and uncertainty, then you have misunderstood the current global situation,” m ‘he said.
A superpower is not infallible and omnipotent. The United States will not send troops but has shipped hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to Ukraine, led an international coalition to institute far-reaching economic sanctions, and encouraged tech companies and global organizations like the FIFA and the Olympics to continue cultural isolation. of Russia. And yet the United States, even with the largest military in the world and the strongest economy, has been unable to entice Russia to take a different path. Thus, Putin continues to deploy his army towards Kiev. And stopping that incursion doesn’t seem like something America has the power to change without risking nuclear war.
Superpowers must choose their battles and engage in the same hard choices as any other country, especially when faced with a nuclear-capable adversary like Russia. And rather than grasping the complexity of world affairs, many Americans have internalized the shibboleth that the United States has never lost a war and never compromises with its enemies, especially during conflict. Neither is true.
These two factors show that as a country, the United States has failed to recognize its own constraints, some of which have existed for a long time and are simply heightened by Russian aggression.
How did the unipolar moment end
When the Cold War ended in the 1990s, the United States possessed unrivaled economic and military power. Scholar Francis Fukuyama claimed the “end of history” and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asserted the centrality of American exceptionalism in her currency, “the indispensable nation”.
Some argue that this unipolar moment has been exaggerated. “Look, Americans suffered from hubris after the end of the Soviet Union,” said Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who has written extensively on American power. “The unipolar moment, I think, has always been illusory.”
At the end of the cold war, the United States continued to present itself as the guarantor of security. “The United States has made itself responsible for peace, security and democracy in Europe,” Stephen Wertheim, a historian of American foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. In response to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the United States, through NATO, launched military action against Serbia. The intervention was relatively limited and the result was a successful projection of American power.
But this one-sided moment, real or imagined, was short-lived.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 did not call into question this world supremacy, argues Wertheim. Rather, it is the disastrous 20 years of excess in America’s response. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan revealed the limits of American power.
You could say that Osama bin Laden understood something about Americans that they didn’t understand about themselves, namely that in response to heinous terrorist attacks, America would overreact. With the invasion and occupation of two countries, the United States would face two decades of backlash that tore the seams of the country, that undermined democratic values through the war on terrorism at home and abroad. foreigner. “Basically, with the invasion of Iraq, we bite off more than we can chew, and we get compensation,” Nye said.
The United States, mired in the Middle East and Afghanistan, has continued to expand its role as a global policeman through a network of American bases and military engagements that, against all odds, have undermined American power. It was during this time that China began to rise as a countervailing force and Russia re-emerged as a power in Europe.
“As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have obvious problems, we are beginning to enter a period of gradual decline in the belief that the United States can reshape other societies,” Wertheim explained. “One problem is that this led us to make commitments vis-à-vis Ukraine. This means that we suffer a loss of prestige when we do not respect these commitments.
Now that the United States is caught in a potential confrontation with a nuclear superpower, it is clear that perhaps the greatest failure of recent years has been the de-emphasis on arms control and the reduction of nuclear weapons in the world. President Barack Obama, who early in his life was a staunch anti-nuclear activist, negotiated a New START treaty in 2011, which limits and monitors nuclear warheads from the United States and Russia. This has now been extended to 2026, but more is needed. Over the decades, Washington and Moscow allowed the arms control regime to decline, culminating in President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the large intermediate-range nuclear forces of 1987.
“Slowly, the structures that kept US-Russian military competition visible and predictable crumbled,” said Heather Hurlburt of the New America think tank. “At the same time, Beijing” – itself a nuclear power – “is building up its arsenal and making it very clear that it is not interested in the US-Soviet arms control model”.
And other global crises, like the pandemic, have exposed the United States’ inability to lead as an indispensable nation.
The less discussed dynamics that undermined American power
Today, the United States and Europe are waging an economic war against Russia. Below, we can see America’s failure to imagine a post-oil economy or a set of urgent global policies to address the climate crisis. Even as sanctions hamper Russia, the international market depends on Russian energy resources – with inevitable repercussions that harm everyone.
The human rights rhetoric of American leaders has also misled Americans. Most US presidents, with the exception of Trump, have highlighted abuses around the world. But they haven’t stopped the American way of doing big business with top abusers like Russia and China. Europe has also become familiar with this equation, as Maximilian Popp writes in Spiegel International. It is a contradiction that has empowered authoritarians like Putin.
While the United States has failed to act decisively in the face of the global crises it cannot avoid – climate and pandemic, to name but two – the diplomatic corps has also been drained. Trump can be blamed for some of this disintegration, but not all of it.
Europe wondered if the problem was not just Trump but, deep down, America. This is especially the case after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer. “The Afghan story has heightened the anxiety they have about American power,” said Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations. While European leaders may be mum on this issue now, he told me there are concerns about US jurisdiction due to polarization in Washington, “because Republicans and Democrats are playing politics interior with everything”.
American democracy and America’s ability to promote human rights around the world are intertwined, says Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “It affects us now on a much deeper level, that these two things are intertwined and that our democracy is seen as shaky and crumbling around the edges, that we cannot be an effective force for democracy in the world,” she told me.
A country that relied on its position of economic strength and democratic authority around the world is at its weakest and most dysfunctional level in half a century or more. Hurlburt calls it “self-inflicted decline.” The combined result is that the United States effectively does not show up.
It’s good that Biden ruled out putting American troops in Russia’s new war in Europe, a potentially never-ending conflict for a country that took two decades to leave Afghanistan. This decision lays bare a reality that American foreign policy circles have too often ignored. As Hurlburt said it, “Gravity applies to us as it does to everyone else.”