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The American Paradox

The American Paradox

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POUND FOR POUND, America remains the world’s most powerful country. It has the most powerful military, the largest economy and massive amounts of soft power. At times, America uses these tremendous assets for the good of its allies and the world at large. However, at other times, it acts almost solely out of self-interest, irrespective of how these actions impact on the welfare of others. This latter point is true of most countries because self-preservation is a core organising principle in the relations between and among states. However, the difference is that when a country as powerful as the United States (US) acts, the consequences tend to be global.

In recent weeks, the Biden Administration earned a significant amount of good will as it started delivering COVID-19 vaccines to dozens of countries. In the Caribbean, the 15 members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) received their initial batches of the 5.5 million doses pledged by the US. A further 55 million doses of its vaccines have also been committed to Africa, Asia and Latin America. This is an example of America at its best where it uses its position in the world for the greater good.

However, increasingly, it is becoming more difficult to reconcile the softer, kinder and gentler America with the one on display in Afghanistan recently. America’s apparent disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan which hastened the Taliban’s return to power has left many questioning the reliability of the US as a partner. There are even suggestions that the fall of Afghanistan represents “an inflection point in the arc of US power, or even its end,” as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria contends. The Guardian’s Timothy Garton-Ash also wonders whether an era of American dominance has ended.

According to The Economist, “America’s power to deter its enemies and reassure its friends has diminished.” China’s state news agency, Xinhua, has also capitalised on this narrative, stating that “The fall of Kabul marks the collapse of the international image and credibility of the US.” The Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid, has even suggested to Taiwan that if there were a conflict with China, America may prove to be unreliable regarding its commitment to defend Taiwan.

Garton-Ash invites us to contemplate the possibility that the US never returns to a position of international leadership. In such a scenario, he opines that China would continue as a geopolitical force while the European Union (EU) may emerge as the “leader of the free world.” Some European leaders are even talking up the need to have their own strategic independence from the US.

The paradox of America’s global leadership is such that while the US was drawing the ire of allies and foes due to the chaos in Afghanistan, its Vice President, Kamala Harris, was in Singapore trying to reassure leaders in South-East Asia of Washington’s commitment to the region. Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong’s response to this was instructive as he reminded Harris that America’s commitment to the region would be determined more by what it does rather than by what it says. This assessment also rings true for America’s relationship with the rest of the world going forward.

Whether we are truly witnessing the end of US global leadership is an open debate. Certainly, America’s failure in Afghanistan does not represent the first time that US power and leadership have been questioned. Nonetheless, the failure in Afghanistan is definitely another chink in America’s armour.

The US is not immune to decline and there is ample evidence to suggest that hegemonic decay has set in. There is a simple lesson in all of this for countries that are still heavily reliant on the US for among other things, security, trade, financial services and investment. This lesson is that alternative arrangements and strategies need to be pursued.

Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.

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