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In the course of the last three weeks, we have probably witnessed the end of the defining feature of the post-Cold War era: unrivaled American power. For all the back and forth between commentators in recent years about the foundations of American dominance, in the end it was the Trump Administration that confirmed to the world the unipolar moment had passed.
It did so by announcing that on its top two foreign policy priorities – addressing the entrenched humanitarian crisis in Syria and the growing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula – US strategy is to look to other major powers to find a solution. An extremely limited and ineffectual military strike on a single air base notwithstanding, Trump’s plan for Syria is to try to convince Russia to sort it out. Pointless bluster about military options being ‘on the table’ aside, his plan for North Korea is to try to convince China to do the same.
The hegemon (unipole/superpower/hyperpower; insert preferred term here!) has been reduced to trying to convince its peer competitors to do its bidding. To add insult to injury, Washington appears to have little genuine leverage in either case. Neither Moscow nor Beijing has much incentive to facilitate Trump’s desired outcomes.
If a country enjoys a position of primacy it means that it sits at the top of the global hierarchy in terms of power and influence. Yes, there may be other countries that wield some degree of influence but none come close to the hegemon. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, American power became unrivaled. Washington faced no peer competitor and therefore enjoyed a position of primacy in world politics. Primacy of course did not mean that Washington got exactly what it wanted 100% of the time. But on the major issues that dominated global headlines, the US had a clear vision of how crises should be resolved and marshalled its resources to see it done. Often this involved relying, at least to some extent, on allies, but never on its adversaries.
The characteristic that defined the unipolar era was that Washington only ever faced a single choice: would it provide leadership or not? There was simply no other alternative. This position endured for many years.
Despite all the commentary heralding a new ‘post-American’ era, sceptics have warned about being too hasty in writing off American dominance. Leaders (including our own in Australia) have insisted that we still live in a US-led order. After all, the US still spends more on its military than the combined expenditure of the next eight biggest spenders. It still has the world’s biggest, richest and most productive economy. It still has more university-educated citizens than any other country. And of course analysts have predicted American decline before and been proven wrong. Critics argue that predictions of American decline following defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s were misplaced, as was the ‘imperial overstretch’ thesis advanced in the late 1980s by the historian Paul Kennedy and others.
But the fact remains that the US is no longer what Madeline Albright called ‘the indispensable nation’. Of course it is still important. There really is no conceivable end to either the conflict in Syria or the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (nor any other major global issue) in which Washington would not play an important role. But it is no longer able to shape the major events on the world stage on its own as it has done since the Cold War ended. America is one of the great powers but no longer the only game in town.
At the height of its power, the US formed coalitions and led military interventions from Iraq to Bosnia to Afghanistan. Not every crisis was successfully resolved of course - Rwanda stands out here. But no other major power stepped in to fill the void; the US simply chose not to be the ‘great power manager’ in certain instances. Looking to a peer competitor was simply unthinkable.
Today, beyond symbolic gestures like sending the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group somewhere in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula (not before it had undertaken its planned exercise in the Indian Ocean) and the extremely limited air strike in Syria, Washington appears to have no strategy for using US power to achieve its aims. Instead the plan is to try to get Russia to rein in its ally in Syria and for China to do the same with North Korea.
By definition, a superpower at the top of a unipolar distribution of power is able to impose its will at a global level either through force or persuasion. Looking to other major powers to achieve your own ends (particularly when achieving them appears to be a fairly remote possibility) is not the strategy of a hegemon. All doubts about America’s relative decline in world politics have been put to rest.
This should not lead anyone to despair. Relative peace and stability is entirely possible without US dominance. But this will require an honest evaluation of the limits of US power and influence. Pretending that we still live in a US-led global order when this is no longer the case will not end well.
Ben Zala is a Research Fellow in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.
This article first appeared in The Interpreter, 1 May 2017.