This century is witnessing the beginning of the end of America’s status as the world’s only superpower. Its reactions to the 9/11 attacks – particularly its invasions of Afghanistan then Iraq – revealed the limits and abuses of its military power, and the extent of global resentment towards its foreign policies, writes Sharif Nashashibi
Since 2011, the US has lost friendly dictators and influence in the region, and is experiencing tensions with remaining allies. It is widely condemned for both interfering and for not doing enough. It has become a target of jihadist as well as nationalist forces, and is up against the resilience and resurgence of its rivals. Since the US became a global superpower, it is hard to remember a time when its regional position looked more precarious than it does now.
Add to all this its economic vulnerabilities exposed by the global financial downturn, and there is increasing debate about whether the end of the unipolar world order – which has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 25 years ago – is already upon us.
However, the extent, duration and consequences of American dominance has resulted in certain myths, false assumptions and ideological dogma that risk dangerously misreading the status quo and where the world is headed. This is particularly true with regard to foreign agendas, imperialism and the projection of power, all of which come together strikingly in the Middle East and North Africa.
Exceptionalism and similarities
People rightly balk at the arrogance of American exceptionalism, the idea that the US is superior to other nations. It is a term often espoused across the spectrum of American polity during elections and foreign policy decision-making. This was most recently expressed by President Barack Obama on 28 May, in which he described the US as “exceptional” and “the one indispensible nation,” adding that “America must always lead on the world stage.”
Both he and his Republican rival Mitt Romney expressed their belief in American exceptionalism during the 2012 presidential elections. “To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation,” said Mike Huckabee, a candidate in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries.
However, critics of this frightening nationalistic ideology are often guilty of fostering a different type of American exceptionalism: that the US is unique in its international malevolence. With regard to the many valid criticisms of American foreign policy, it is naive or disingenuous to believe that other world powers have not, do not, or will not behave similarly.
As the saying goes, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This truism is not confined to Washington. Neither is the fact that all countries act out of self-interest. Unchallenged power raises obvious problems and abuses, so it is understandable that people welcome the erosion of this supremacy, particularly in regions – such as the Arab world – that have been most affected by it.
However, many have an unreasonable faith in the interests of countries – primarily a resurgent Russia and rising China – that are starting to challenge the US globally, as if their foreign agendas and actions cannot also be selfish, obstructive and destructive. Moscow and Beijing are guilty of the same criticisms made of the US.
All three countries back dictators (democracy itself is receding in Russia, and is nonexistent in China). All three use their veto powers in the UN Security Council to shield their allies against the will of the international community (in the context of the Middle East, Israel in America’s case, and the Syrian regime in the case of Russia and China).
All three interfere in other states’ internal affairs. All three are human rights abusers. They are all guilty of double standards in their words and actions – this has been particularly apparent with regard to the Arab Spring, where their positions are based not on principle, but on whether a government is a friend or foe. One can legitimately wish for the end of US supremacy, but to view challengers as principled knights in shining armour is misguided.
This thinking has shaped the anti-imperialist movement since the 1990s, but it has warped the very meaning of imperialism, causing deep divisions within that movement in light of the Arab Spring. The region’s upheavals have demonstrated that many anti-imperialists’ knee-jerk reaction is to support unquestioningly anything or anyone who challenges Washington.
They applauded the overthrow of US-backed dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but condemned the ouster of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and support Syria’s Bashar Assad. Their reactions seem to depend not on the brutality of these autocrats towards their own people, but simply on their stance vis-a-vis the US.
Similarly, they rail against limited American supplies of light and non-lethal weaponry to Syrian rebels, but ignore or justify Russia providing warplanes, tanks and other heavy weaponry to a regime whose atrocities have been amply documented.
Many people – including Muslims – who champion Moscow and Beijing point to America’s undeniably terrible record in the Muslim world. But what of the endemic repression by Russia and China of their own large Muslim populations? Was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan any better than that of the US?
The rhetoric of many anti-imperialists seems to suggest that the only form of imperialism is Western. Imperialism by definition is the extension of a country’s power and influence by various (not just military) means. All empires worldwide have done this throughout history. When Russia, China or Iran challenge the US, they do so not out of altruism, but because this enables them to outwardly project their own power and influence.
Had any country been the world’s only superpower, they would have been as much a bully as the US has been. Like Washington and previous superpowers, they would see themselves with unflinching righteousness as the world’s policeman and a light unto other nations.
Multipolar or bipolar?
That this unipolarity seems to be coming to a gradual end is not in itself a solution. The accepted wisdom is that we are headed towards a multipolar world order. This might be true regionally, but not internationally – not yet anyway.
Rising powers – such as India, Brazil and South Africa – are not asserting themselves on the world stage. Established powers Germany and Japan are restricted by their imperial histories. The EU is hampered by the facts that it is not a country, and that its foreign policy decisions require unanimity among member states. That has always been hard to achieve, and is increasingly so as the bloc expands.
In any case, the foreign policies of most of the above tend to align with that of the US, while those of China and Russia are closely in sync. As such, it is more accurate to say that for the foreseeable future, we are witnessing the revival of a bipolar world, to an extent similar to that which existed during the Cold War.
In viewing that period as one of two superpowers keeping the other in check, the fundamental dysfunctions of that world order are often overlooked, as is the extent to which it failed to stop conflicts.
Issues of international significance were held hostage to the vetoes of the UN Security Council’s rival permanent members, much as they have been since the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the Cold War saw no direct fighting between the two superpowers, it did not stop them engaging in proxy conflicts, again as is happening today.
Having one unrivalled superpower is neither desirable nor sustainable. However, until there is a genuinely multipolar world order, the transition period – which will certainly take years if not decades – will continue to witness the injustices, proxy wars, abuses of power, and blocking of international mechanisms for conflict resolution that took place during the Cold War and since. There may simply be more abuses and abusers.
There will come a time when the US is not the only global superpower, and eventually no longer a superpower at all. However, the same complaints are likely to be made against its successors, perhaps by those who supported their rise. Recent decades have provided stark examples of leaders and organisations who were happy to accept American tutelage during the Cold War, only to become bitter enemies afterwards.
To champion Washington’s challengers without sufficient wariness of the abuses inherent in great power, and the misbehaviour of international players historically, will leave the world dangerously unprepared to face them. Those in the Arab world – which has long borne the brunt of imperialist ambitions, and whose deepening divisions are increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War era – should take note.