USA, the fallen superpower?

The wane of the US as world superpower has long been prophesied. Warwick University student Karan Thakrar argues that recent world events are bringing this moment ever closer, and that one may be replaced by three.


Ever since the end of the Cold War, US dominance as a world superpower has been obvious. Their economic strength and the so-called ‘McDonaldisation‘ of global culture have resulted in the relative destruction of communism as a viable modern ideology. US military capacity is also unusually strong. The US spends $640 billion (£377 billion) on its military alone. Its defence budget is so big, it outspends the defence budgets of all the richest eight countries combined. Add to this a widespread feeling of American exceptionalism – the belief that the US is fundamentally different to other nations – which has contributed to some aggressive foreign policy in the 20th century.

A US soldier in Ameriyah, Iraq, 2007. © US Army/Creative Commons license

But is this declining? While the US has displayed willingness to back itself up with hard power, such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in recent times this has not been the case, and as a result its influence on the world stage has diminished. The Obama administration has arguably been lacklustre in its performance on the international stage compared to previous administrations. Take the example of Syria. Obama’s famous ‘red line’ comment over Assad’s use of chemical weapons sparked a reaction from the US, who immediately started planning on bombing strategic sites in Syria. However, after the British Parliament voted against military intervention, followed by France, the US felt it did not have the support to proceed.

It is hard to think that US administrations of the past would have felt so restricted as to not act in the way that they wished. When George W. Bush set his sights on Iraq, not even the UN could stop him. Regardless of international condemnation from people and governments across the world (namely France, who were prepared to veto the invasion through the UN Security Council), he engaged the country in an illegal war as revenge for 9/11.

The decline in US power is also emphasised by the lack of effective action by the US over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Many commentators claim that the US should have done more to protect Crimea and Ukraine, and that the sanctions put in place against Russia, such as restricting movement of assets and top Russian officials and elites to the US, were hardly punishing. The US had even more of a mandate to act as, in 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arms in return for a guarantee of US security. The fact that the US – although quick to condemn the actions of Russia – has failed to act appropriately to the aggressive actions of Russia emphasises the country’s growing apathy to get involved in external affairs and keep international order.

One sanction imposed by the West and Europe following the annexation of the Crimea was a boycott of Russian gas. Russia’s reaction – to strike the largest gas deal in history with China (a 30-year deal worth $400 billion) – further highlights the loosening grip that the US has on the world. This was a significant turning point in world politics and presents a shift in the power paradigm, a move that promotes a divide once against between East and West (reminiscent of Cold War politics), and an empowerment of China.

The Chinese economy has been growing at around 11 per cent for the last fifteen years, and is the world hub of manufacturing. Labels of items all across the world are marked ‘Made in China’, and this may not be as obvious as the ‘McDonaldisation’ across the world as mentioned before, but undoubtedly highlights that the Chinese have increasing potential on the world stage to exercise their wants, due to their huge economic weight. Their quiet spread of soft power across the world, as well as their colossal investments in Africa, are likely to guarantee much more economic success for the future. Perhaps the American unipolar moment has come to an end, and a new multi-polar world is emerging which involves the triangle of America, Russia and China.

With the radically different ideologies of these countries and their huge military power, their quest to dominate the international stage may pose a frightening prospect, as they each compete to become the sole super-power. However, perhaps a multi-polar world rather than a unipolar, American dominated world is necessary. Checks will be put on these great powers, preventing reckless, impulsive actions. This potential new world order is an exciting prospect, and it may just be the change that is needed to shake up the main players into co-operation.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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