PARIS — Before the end of 2014, China will have become the world’s largest economy. For the first time since 1872 — when China overtook Britain — the United States will not top the list. This news amid data published last week by the International Comparison Program, a respected institution hosted by the World Bank, came as a surprise. The hierarchical shift of the world’s most powerful economies wasn’t expected to happen until 2019.
But this goes beyond just the field of economics. America’s domination faces more challenges ahead. Though the United States does not yet have a rival when it comes to foreign policy, Washington’s voice is not as strong as it had been for over 70 years.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s humiliating failure in negotiations between Israel and Palestine is only the most recent example of this relative decline. Has the world’s biggest military and diplomatic force lost its power to convince and constrain its allies as well as its adversaries?
President Barack Obama is not the unique cause of this loss of prestige and influence, but he is indisputably part of the problem. The agreement reached with Russia in September 2013 on the Syrian crisis can be seen in hindsight as a decisive turning point. By relegitimizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Obama reinforced the belief in what was then no more than a shadow of a doubt: The United States is hesitant and retreating. All you need to do is speak louder than them.
Since then, this doubt has encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin in his imperial plans for Ukraine. And it is this same doubt that Obama tried to clear up during his recent Asian tour. In Japan as well as in South Korea, Malaysia or the Philippines, the U.S. president was always faced with more or less veiled fear, despite the fundamental differences between these four countries.
In the face of China’s increasingly visible ambitions, is it still possible to trust the U.S. to counterbalance the People’s Republic? Why would Washington show more firmness towards Beijing tomorrow than it did towards Damascus or Moscow yesterday and today, not to mention Jerusalem, which has mastered the art of using the U.S. Congress against the presidential administration?
There is a vicious circle at work. The less credible the U.S., the more its opponents and reluctant allies feel a sense of entitlement.
Is there not a deep incompatibility between Barack Obama’s personality and the transition period between two worlds that we are experiencing? The illusions born at the end of the Cold War about the so-called “end of history” are crumbling, and the world is witnessing the triumphal comeback of geopolitics in its most classic sense. Meanwhile, the United States is led by a president who, while certainly clever and charismatic, seems more able to handle continuity than to impose radical change, at least on the international stage.
And Obama failed miserably in his choice of advisors. His team desperately lacks a visionary strategist like George F. Kennan, the father of “containment,” or Henry Kissinger, who as a nostalgic of Otto von Bismark’s balance of power diplomacy understood perfectly well the rules of realpolitik.
The cards the U.S. is holding are objectively far better than what Washington’s three main rivals have — Russia, Iran and China. But even bad cards can be well used. Putin is demonstrating that in Ukraine.
Beyond the personality of its president, the reality is that the United States is faced with a double dilemma. Just when the U.S. would like to focus on domestic issues and significantly reduce the defense budget, a return of geopolitics shakes the founding principles of the country’s political reasoning. Contrary to Richard Hass’s recently published book Foreign Policy Begins at Home, thatidea is simply no longer true. Instead, exterior challenges multiply and intensify, and they are interdependent.
Washington is well aware that Moscow intends to talk the United States out of reacting in Ukraine by suggesting that it could otherwise revise its strategy in the Middle East, with regards to Syria and Iran, for example. Leading your opponent to believe that the last thing you want is an escalation is never a good move.
To understand how the world works today, we must steer clear of tempting but misleading analogies. This is not a new Cold War, and not just because Russia is not the USSR. It’s also because the United States is not what it once was.
At the end of the Cold War, many analysts who were critical of the behavior on both sides spoke of a “competitive decadence” between the two superpowers. This has never been more true, but Russia’s weaknesses are still of a different nature and scale than those of the United States.