The United States (US) has a long history of aggressive behaviors, but this is nothing other than a strategy to reinforce and maintain power. In this article, we will understand the historical reasons that led the US to become a leading power in the first place, how it was able to maintain that power, and why we believe it is currently losing its privileged position.
The United States (US) became the world-leading power at the conclusion of the Second World War (WWII). At that time, the period of dominant British rule ended with the devastation of the war, and the major contenders, Germany and Japan, were broken to pieces. The US was the only country with nuclear weapons, a strong economy, and a leading military.
In the 19thcentury, the United Kingdom established a successful strategy to enlarge its power through trade. The establishment of free trade helped the UK in maintaining a position of leadership until German and Japanese economies became a great challenge, causing the British hegemonic system to eventually collapse.
Learning from the positives of the British experience, the US tried to maintain their strong position by adopting a similar strategy. The rules for a new world order were set at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference. The new global order was based on free trade, economic prosperity and capitalism, and it has been maintained substantially unaltered until now. As planned, this strategy helped the US to maintain a very strong economic leadership, and consequently a strong military one. In order to avoid repeating the failures of the British, the US implemented a few policy changes, as it starkly challenged the initiative of any country to use or try to impose a different economic or political model. To do so, the US repeatedly demonstrated aggressive behaviors. Non-compliance with the rules would be inevitably followed by a military threat from the US.
As the main threat for the American hegemony during the 20th century was the Soviet Union and its communist ideology, whose views radically differed from those of a free capitalist market, Americans often intervened to fight or deter communist groups that challenged governments supported by the US (1). As examples, in the 1950s, the US first intervened in the Korean War by supporting South Korea, which was being invaded by North Korea. Between 1955 and 1975, the US fought in Vietnam to support the Saigon government of the south against the communist government of the north. After the Cuban revolution, between 1965 and 1983, the US deployed military personnel in the Caribbean to deter the spreading of the communist revolution in the region: the US invaded the Dominican Republic to stop the communist revolution in the country. US military advisors further assisted El Salvador government forces (loyal to the US hegemony) in counteracting a guerrilla offensive against it. Later, they invaded Grenada, following a coup that was meant to align Grenada’s government views to those of the Soviet Union.
Using their strong position acquired after the end of WWII, the US built a large number of military bases all over the world, in precise geographical locations convenient for the patrolling and surveillance of potentially any country (see a list of American military bases in the world here). Further, the US has made great use of international airspace and international waters. American vessels and aircrafts have often maintained strategic positions in multiple geographical locations. Whenever their presence has been challenged, Americans intervened with a show of force. As an example, in 1989 US forces were engaged in naval exercises in international waters in the Gulf of Sidra, only 70 miles away from Libya’s land borders. On this occasion, US air jets shot down Libyan military planes, claiming the latter showed aggressive behaviors. More recently, the US has repeatedly challenged Chinese claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea by flying over the area with aircrafts, as reported by the CNN. When in June Iran shot down an American drone that was patrolling international airspace, but very close to Iran’s sovereign territory, the response from Washington has been prompt. After war threats were sent, the US announced further economic retaliation against Iran.
By utilizing this strategy of openness and strength, trade and threats, the US managed to reach a truly unipolar position of power in the 1990s under the presidency of Bill Clinton. This period is the only one that can be really considered as “unipolar” because the Soviet Union, the only challenge to US power, had been defeated by the excessive expenditures of the Cold War arms race.
The following decade was a turning point for the global distribution of power.
While the US was busy with Bush’s “War on Terror” in Afghanistan, and shortly after with the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, China raised its status to that of a world economic and military power. The US underestimated China as a threat to its power, possibly because previous communist models failed to succeed (here is why the Chinese model is a successful one).
Once elected, Obama found himself in a difficult position. China was effectively a superpower, and the hegemonic American momentum was fading away.
As a response, Obama’s government reinforced those strategies the US had followed over the previous decades: free trade and open markets. In addition, however, Obama tried to tackle the issue by taking multilateral decisions, involving historical allies and new partners. Under the Obama administration, the US and China stipulated bilateral agreements, and maintained strong and friendly relations. In line with their renewed intention to solve problems through multilateralism, the US signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate, despite not having ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. On the same line, in 2015 the US signed the “Nuclear Agreement” with Iran, together with other world powers. In brief, Iran would give up their nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The shift of Obama’s administration in foreign policy was a subtle but crucial one. The US peacefully recognized that other players had entered the game, and decided to collaborate with them rather than entering a conflict. After all, increased trades with China or Russia is absolutely not posing a direct threat for the economic growth – or the safety – of the United States. Or to phrase it in the brilliant words of Cheng Li:
“In my opinion, among America’s postwar presidents, Obama has placed the least emphasis on a “top dog” image of the United States. Instead, he has stressed the need for the United States to integrate itself into a changing world rather than stomp around arrogantly and blindly.”
A turning point for the US foreign policy was the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States.
Substantially reverting almost a century of similar commitments on foreign policies based on economic liberalism, the US entered a period of economic protectionism. In order to win popular consensus, Trump weakened an already declining position of the US on the world stage.
The Trump administration started an economic war with multiple countries, first and foremost China, by imposing tariffs on their export products, “in order to protect local American businesses”. Despite the United States still being the world’s leading power, their predominant position is currently being challenged – economically and militarily – by China, Russia and a more cohesive Europe. In this growingly multipolar environment, the US are currently struggling to define a successful strategy to maintain the status quo, preventing those growing superpowers from further challenging their position.
The Trump administration is objectively trying to safeguard the last reservoirs of decisional, economic and military dominance by imposing tariffs indiscriminately on allies and potential enemies. This has tremendous effects for those American companies that operate all over the world and have benefitted from a liberal world order. By trying to limit the growing power of its main competitors, the US is unwittingly pushing the world towards a multipolar entity, further away from the time when America was an unchallenged hegemon.
In support of this view, the US is also losing its grip on a political level. Trump has been supporting those countries that majorly invest in the US economy. The principles of “Just War”, used by previous administrations (2), have been replaced by the principle of “Who sells more”.
For instance, the large investment of Saudi Arabia in American weapons made them Trump’s first ally. Given that the international realm is taking a predominant position in considering Mohammad bin Salman as a warmonger (for the bombardments in Yemen) and assassin (see the case of Jamal Khashoggi), many countries in the world are starting to question the US position as world leaders.
In economic terms, many countries may soon start to question the current economic rules. As underdeveloped countries fail to grow their economies within the liberal system established by the US, they may look at different models such as the Chinese one, likely causing anger in Washington D.C.
In the 1990s it was believed that the sovereignty of the US was possibly the only one across the world to be fully intact, undamaged by the influence of other countries. Nevertheless, in recent times Israel seems to be able to dictate America’s foreign policies, as Trump has given full support to Benjamin Netanyahu’s moves in the region. On December 6th, 2017, Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, angering Palestinians and pleasing Israelis. As expected, this is currently having repercussions on the credibility of Jared Kushner’s plan for Palestine, as it further damaged the US position of being respectable and impartial, and their future capacity to act as mediators over international disputes.
The consequences for the US are however greater than this, as demonstrated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution ES-10/L.22, an emergency session that declared the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “null and void”. Although in the days before the vote, Trump had threatened any countries that voted against the resolution that they would face “the consequence”, 128 countries voted in favour and only 9 voted against. Of these 128, many historical allies, including France and the UK, turned their backs on the US.
It is interesting to note that the resolution was drafted by Turkey, a NATO member, and an American ally. In recent times however, Turkey had diplomatic issues with the US, because of their strong stance in favor of Israel, and the protection of Muhammed Fetullah Gülen, who according to Turkey is the mind behind the failed 2016 coup attempt against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The most important divergence is the American support of Kurdish forces in Syria, who have helped in the fight against ISIL. As Kurdish institutions are considered terror groups by Turkey, their cooperation with US forces is difficult to digest in Ankara. This prompted Turkey to look for a collaboration with Russia and the Syrian regime, and to invade the border region with Syria to defend their interests in the region.
The wounding of American sovereignty also results from the mishandling of several other situations, including those concerning Saudi Arabia. As previously mentioned, the vast investments of Saudis in US companies is the driving force of US policies in the region, first and foremost against Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran. In line with its loss of soft power, the US could not solve the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis, which started in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – among others – imposed a sea and land blockade over their historical ally Qatar, because of its alleged support of terror groups. However, Qatar is an important partner for the US as it hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East, which is of uttermost importance for its strategic position. Therefore, although the US has strong interests in maintaining peace and cooperation between GCC countries, it did not manage to mediate among them and lead to credible solutions.
It does not end here: the biggest lesion of US soft power is its withdrawal from the “Nuclear Deal” with Iran and other world powers. Trump’s reason, according to his words, is to safeguard the world from a nuclear Iran.
Iran had reached the agreement with the intention of being relieved from international sanctions, not to become a nuclear threat for the world. As Iran has been complying with the agreement since its establishment, the US withdrawal from the deal can be considered a historical non-sense. This further damaged US reputation, pushed Tehran towards exceeding previously-agreed limits for uranium enrichment, and forced European partners, also signatories in the agreement, to decrease their trading with Iran. This has further separated European views from those of the US, which have never been so distant since WWII.
European cohesion is another factor that bothers policy makers in Washington, D.C. After WWII, the US had interests in keeping its allies strong enough to benefit from their political and economic support, yet weak enough to prevent them from challenging its power. European states, if taken individually, did not and do not constitute a challenge for the US, rather a big opportunity: they offer military and logistic support when needed, they raise a friendly voice in international settings (e.g. the UN Security Council, or the G8 and G20 meetings), and are trustworthy trading partners. However, in this historical time and given the aforementioned circumstances, a cohesive Europe offers a great challenge. The European Union, if taken as a whole, is the second largest economy of the world, with a nominal GDP that is very close to that of the United States. Further, as the US has lost the trust of many countries as a mediator for international disputes, the European Union has become a valid and trusted replacement.
Although Trump has complained about the limited contribution of European allies to NATO, the US have challenged Macron’s idea of an European army, as it is seen as a threat to US military hegemony over Europe. It would indeed be a great loss for the US to see Europe standing strong as a military, political and economic power.
We therefore opine that preventing the European Union from becoming a more solid reality is one of the objectives of Trump’s cabinet. In line with this, he declared himself in favor of Brexit, deliberately attacking pro-European high ranking politicians such as the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
A final demonstration of the gradual loss of US power is given by its inability to shape a future for Syria, whose political, economic and military control has re-fallen under the Russian sphere of interest. This will further leave the US with little to say at the negotiating table when the future of Syria is finally shaped.
The unipolar momentum has faded away, and an increasingly multipolar world is shaping the future of the relations among states. The US will remain a superpower for the years to come, but it will have to deal with other influential powers: China, Russia and, possibly, the European Union.
- Slater, J., “Dominos in Central America: will they fall? Does it matter?”, International security, 1987.
- Elshtain, J. B., “Just war and humanitarian intervention”, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law), 2001.