america and rising powers

Written by Ali Raza Jalbani 12:05 pm Articles, International Relations, Published Content

A Tug of War Between America and the Rising Powers

A unipolar world is transitioning into that of a multipolar, stirring the debate on the decline of the US once again. China, India, and Russia — the major contenders — are challenging the US’s sole authority. The author, Ali Raza Jalbani, follows the debates closely and shares what he’s noticed about the shifting — or sharing — of power in the global arena.
About the Author(s)
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Mr Ali Raza Jalbani is an M.Phil scholar at Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad. He is interested in national and international politics, philosophy and history. He can be reached at [email protected].

Ending Unipolarity

It is being argued that the world is in a transition phase as the unipolar world order is being replaced with that of a multipolar one. The rise of China, Russia, India and some other rising powers is clearly visible on the global stage which is posing a great challenge to the modern empire of America. Some are in the favour of the argument that the sole superpower is slowly and gradually losing its power, whereas others are against this notion of American decline.

The first phase of the debate started during the 1960s and 1970s when the US faced a humiliating defeat in the Vietnam War and national debt on citizens was at an all-time high. The second phase was in favour of the rise of American power, and this phase comprises the period of the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan. Finally, this debate resurfaced, owing to the American invasion of Iraq.

One of the leading advocates of the American decline is Paul Kennedy, the author of ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’. After observing the early policies of President Ronald Reagan, Kennedy stated that “comparisons could sometimes be more dangerous than useful, misleading than helpful. But, like Spain in the 17th century, France in the eighteenth and Britain by the middle of the twentieth, the future for the US is a bleak one. The tide was going out for Pax Americana.”

He added that the US had only two options: either to adjust to this reality or decline even faster by resisting the inevitable. Kennedy meant that the US was bound to decline. Along with him, Henry Kissinger also added his viewpoint during the early debate as he said that the transition was underway which does not favour the US.

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Conclusion of the Cold War

Americans, when the debate on the decline of the US was fading away, denied buying the thesis of an Englishman. As the Cold War ended, the world had become unipolar and the countries of the world were falling in the basket of the US. In the post-Cold War period, the US had all features of a modern empire; it was forming global alliances, had a massive intelligence-gathering apparatus, and global culture and economy.

This entire situation was in favour of the US and it was enough to send the debate of decline behind the curtains. During this phase, Samuel Huntington came up with a critique of Kennedy’s thesis. He said that Kennedy had misunderstood the primacy and uniqueness of the US; America is different from the other rising powers as it supervises the world order, formulates rules and possesses the power to punish transgressors.

However, the Iraq invasion pushed the opinion once again that American power was declining. Several authors including Niall Ferguson, Paul Kennedy, and Michael Cox had argued that this invasion would be at a great cost. Niall Ferguson, who was initially against the argument of American decline, then said that the ‘game is up for America.’

“History shows that it might be sooner than any of us think,” he added. For him, the US was not in the same position anymore. Subsequently, in the first presidential term of the 43rd American President George W. Bush, America emerged as a new empire, but his second term did not go in the country’s favour. Because the US was not doing well in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, hence, on the front of the opinion war, the superpower was losing. The perception of America in the Muslim world was affected at a great level.

China’s Rise

Moreover, a decline does not happen just because a major power loses a regional war – it also occurs when other actors play different sets of rules e.g. China and Europe. Both rising powers started doing things in their own ways which meant that the authority of America was undermined. The 21st century from its very start brought with it what the scholars refer to as the greatest challenge to the US: the rise of China.

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Scholars like John J. Mearsheimer and Graham Allison compared this rise in front of America with that of the revisionist power Sparta vis-à-vis the status quo power Athens which led them to the Peloponnesian Wars. Allison has also anticipated that this rise could lead both of the powers into the Thucydides Trap.

President Barack Obama took the presidential position avowedly as “the first Pacific president,” convinced that the previous Bush administration had paid too little attention to the Asian region. Meanwhile, China’s growing economic activities in the region were enough to create panic for America. During 2010, China’s Asia policy became more hard-edged and the following year, the United States started reducing its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

North Korea was being supported by China, whereas the US extended its support eloquently to South Korea. The Obama administration announced the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy as the Asian region became the centre of American foreign policy. Likewise, this challenge of China’s rise for America became even more visible when the former announced the policy of the Belt and Road Initiative in September 2013.

Chinese President Xi Jinping started a grand project that would connect almost every continent through sea and land routes that China planned to build. Owing to achieving economic interests and becoming a part of this project, states have started to get closer to China. Consequently, America has started supporting India to become a regional power. Alliances like QUAD (and now AUKUS as well) came into being to contain China.

On the other hand, Russia’s involvement in the Middle East, especially in Syria, is also suggesting that America has not remained the sole military power in the Arab region. The US lost the Syrian proxy war and Russia ended as a victorious party. Besides, the Trump era has also cemented the idea that America is unwilling to take the lead to solve the issues of the world. His policies of isolation paved the way for China to start mask diplomacy during the early days of the COVID pandemic.

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Ousting the US?

These developments brought hundreds of articles and research papers to question the role of America as the global leader. This debate is on the rise again, and thinkers like Samuel Huntington, Niall Ferguson and Henry Kissinger are revisiting their earlier thoughts. However, Robert D. Kaplan has a different viewpoint; for him, the American geographical bounty still provides it with an edge over the other great powers.

Huntington, contrary to his earlier notion, thinks that “the US has been reverting to a more normal state of multipolarity ever since China, Russia, India, Europe and other powers are gaining power.” Moreover, Ferguson, like his earlier stand, opines in favour of the decline of America, whereas Paul Kennedy has cemented his views by taking America’s defeat in Afghanistan into account, he says that “… it (the US) is only one of a bunch of gorillas (not the only)…”.

Therefore, as of now, Kennedy’s thesis has an edge over the arguments of the others. To sum it up, perceptions of the American decline have changed with the passage of time. Sometimes the political developments have favoured the opinion of the ‘declinists’ and at times the optimists have got favourable situations to deny any such arguments.  

Indeed, the American position as it was in the first decade of this century is not the same, but the analysis of the American history and opinions of the thinkers suggest that it is not going anywhere anytime soon. However, the rise of other powers, especially China and Russia, is clearly observable at the global stage which can, of course, render a power dent to the status of the US but cannot get it completely out of the great game.


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