The Decline of American Leadership on the World Stage

For many years, it seems that the United States has been the country that everyone loves to hate. Many around the world beg for American assistance and support but also blast the U.S. for all its greatness and power. The U.S. is an easy target when it does not handle things the way everyone else in the world thinks they should be handled. No one will ever always be pleased.

This is typical in any setting. However, in global politics, the stakes are quite high. The United States has occupied a peculiar space in the 30 years since the end of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there hasn’t been another global power or true rival to the United States. American hegemony has been unquestioned for much of that time.

Even now, as we start to see a shift in the global balance of power, there is no real challenge to the U.S. as a global hegemon. However, that also makes the U.S. everyone’s target. It’s no coincidence that since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Islamic jihadist attacks on the West have increased. The timing and correlation of those events are not insignificant.

A lot of American power and influence during the Cold War and through today is still a result of World War II. Once the U.S. emerged as the predominant influencer and victor of the war on two global fronts, its power and influence became unquestionable.

It was American leadership that created this power and influence. Tough men, who rose from tough times, led the country to victory. Today, we have soft men in charge, created in soft times, and we are on an uneasy footing. Today, American power and influence are questioned. All this contributes to a decline in America’s influence and ability to maintain the status quo.

American engagement, presence, and leadership in the international community are necessary for both stability at home and abroad.

It’s Lonely at the Top

Competition creates greatness, innovation, and ingenuity. While the U.S. emerged as a global power and a country to be taken seriously after World War I, arguably, if WWII hadn’t happened American power would not have been what it has been in the last 80 years. The American industrial and technological powerhouse would possibly have not been realized absent the existential crisis presented by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. World War II catapulted the U.S. into action and sparked political, economic, and scientific breakthroughs.

The Cold War and the resulting competition cemented America’s power.

The U.S. survived the Cold War and the Soviet Union did not. But after a bilateral power struggle, there is nowhere else for the victor to go.

For the last 30 years, it’s been lonely at the top.

The New Age of Great-Power Competition

In the last several years, however, we are seeing a shift. Challengers are arriving. The power vacuum is shrinking. While the United States is the only country that can truly project power anywhere in the world, regional power plays are increasing. Regional dominance is where many smaller or aspirational powers, like China, are focusing their efforts. While the U.S. was focused on fighting terrorism in the Middle East, some of its focus shifted away from the emerging power competition. And this has happened without many noticing. Until recently.

China is no small country. Its power and influence are growing quickly, although somewhat unsteadily. Its economic power has come to rival that of the EU and the United States.

Russia, after many years on the bench, is once again looking to become a major player in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It aspires to its Cold War status and wants to counter Western influence.

Further, as Iran continues to seek nuclear weapons and regional dominance and a nuclear-armed Pakistan tries to increase its strategic and regional influence and contain India, the risk of conflict increases.

Nevertheless, the emergence of shifting power dynamics around the world could also create opportunities for increased trade and stability leading to more international cooperation.

International Influence Has an Expiration Date

It’s time to reclaim American predominance — although some would argue that it was never lost. The recent Afghanistan debacle has amplified doubts of America’s incapability thus creating a fully-fledged crisis. In President Biden’s young presidency, the weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy are coming to a head. However, these weaknesses are not new nor unique to the current administration; they have been slowly emerging over the years from the Korean War to the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam.

After decades of conflict in the Middle East, solutions to promote peace remain elusive. The balance of power in Asia and Europe has changed. Africa is the place where no one knows what to do, yet China and Russia’s influence has rapidly been increasing in the continent in recent years. Multiple presidents from both parties, over many years, have contributed to all these issues.

The political clout and international influence that the U.S. accumulated following WWII are running out. President George W. Bush sought to contain international terrorism and went too far. President Obama’s approach was a weak combination of apologizing for American overreach and then doing nothing but giving high-minded speeches. President Trump had intentions of not starting any new wars or conflicts but alienated or strained nearly every alliance the U.S. has. With his blustering ways, he promoted his misguided version of “America First” as a direct response to Obama’s tepid policies. And although President Biden seeks to undo the damage that the Trump presidency caused abroad, he has kept many of his predecessor’s policies in place, while making a mess of other initiatives.

We are experiencing decades of poor strategy, declining power, and waning American influence. This is a bad thing for both the American people and the world.

Engagement Is Better Than Isolation or Unilateral Policies

In some ways, Trump’s “America First” policy was both misunderstood and very poorly executed. Every country should act in its self-interest and every leader has a responsibility to act in the best interest of their country. “America First” was a weak and misdirected attempt of what that could, or should, have been.

Isolationism and nationalism should not be confused as the same, and isolationism doesn’t preclude engagement.

The world is more connected than ever before. The fall of the Soviet Union accelerated globalization. Financial networks and global industry are inextricably intertwined. National events can have global ramifications. While every country should promote and protect its best interests, engagement and cooperation are more important than ever.

The U.S. desperately needs to create a new and successful foreign policy and to do so it must be globally present. Leadership means engaging in communication and conversation, making tough calls, and seeking to understand. A huge lack of understanding in Afghanistan contributed to the mess that exists there today. That is also the fundamental foundation for every other conflict in the world.

If the United States is absent from Africa, China and Russia will step in. If the United States is absent from the Middle East, Russia and Iran will step in. Now that the U.S. is absent from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and terrorist organizations are stepping in. We are seeing these events unfold in real-time. This is not to say that China is inherently our enemy — war with China isn’t inevitable. Rather, whenever there is a vacuum created by America’s absence someone else fills it.

If President Biden abandons the Middle East it will be harder to return to the region later. And it is likely that the U.S. will have to return in the not-so-distant future.

Make America Greater, Again

The United States should use all the tools in its toolkit to retain its leadership status. These tools include diplomacy, international trade, intelligence, economic influence, and military power.

Military power should always be on the table but as a last resort. Any hostile actor should believe that the U.S. can always rely on military power.

The U.S. should pay attention to everything and everywhere. It should engage by talking to our allies, as well as our rivals, and seeking to understand the situation at hand. The U.S. should set the example of what a world leader is; it should always be credible. Whether friend or foe, everyone in the world should believe in American credibility.

With the myriad threats and global challenges in the world today, the U.S. cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. A continued absence of American leadership will be filled by someone else. That will be damaging to everyone.

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