3 August 2017

An Inward-Looking US and its Impact on Global Security

For the past century, the United States has been the undisputed leader of the world, and the country that possessed more power in more categories of power than any other country in the world.  Today, the United States remains the world’s most powerful country by a wide margin and in fact, has pulled away from nearly all of the countries that were rivals to the US prior to the Second World War.  However, due to an increasing focus on internal issues, the United States is threatening to disengage from many international issues, resulting in a situation similar to that of the 1920s and 1930s, when the US first emerged as the world’s leading power, but one that was focused almost exclusively on internal issues. 

Now, it remains to be seen if this inward focus by the US is an anomaly or a trend.  If it is an anomaly, it means that the world’s most powerful country will remain engaged internationally, backing its allies and preventing major powers from going to war with one another.  If it is a trend, then the world is likely to become a much more dangerous place as up-and-coming powers attempt to expand their global and regional power and influence, while declining powers will seek to shore up their weakening bases of power.  As such, the direction taken by the United States in the coming years will go a long way towards shaping the global balance of power for the remainder of the 21st century. 

As you remember from ISA’s 2017 Country Power Rankings that were released a few weeks ago, the United States remains the world’s most powerful country by a wide margin.  In fact, the US led in six of the seven categories that we used to calculate a country’s overall level of power.  However, for the first time since the US assumed the position of the world’s most powerful country, it faces a potential rival that has the scale and the resources to challenge its leading position. 

In fact, while the US may have topped our Country Power Rankings, China finds itself as the undisputed second-most-powerful country in the world, and it has soared past all of its rivals in terms of power in recent decades, bar the US.  In fact, for the foreseeable future, China will be the only power that has the ability to significantly close the power gap with the US, which it has been doing for the past three decades.  Should the US turn inward for a prolonged period of time, some of its power could slip, allowing a rival such as China to take steps to enhance its own power and to further close the gap with the US.  Over the near-term, much will depend on the policies enacted by the Trump Administration, for if the US does turn inward, it may struggle to maintain its lead in some of the categories that determine its overall level of power, while allowing rivals to strengthen their own power and influence.

In recent years, many countries have called for an end to US domination of global affairs and for the establishment of a multipolar world in which a number of larger states share global power, while dominating their home regions.  At the moment, China is the country that is taking the greatest steps towards making this a reality.  However, many fear that this will lead to a situation more closely akin to that of the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union overshadowed all of their partners and rivals and dominated global affairs for more than four decades.  As China moves to expand its influence further beyond its borders, it may find itself at odds with the United States in many areas of the world, and these two countries are likely to possess far greater levels of economic and military power than any of their potential rivals. 

Outside of China, there are a number of other powers that hope to enhance their position within the global balance of power, particularly if the US continues to turn inwards.  For example, Russia is not only seeking to dominate its near-abroad, but it is also seeking to exert its influence further abroad, as evidenced by its role in Syria’s civil war.  India is another power with great ambitions, and one that, thanks to its giant population, could have the ability to one day emerge as a major global player.  The European Union also harbors significant global ambitions, although its deep internal divisions will likely prevent it from ever emerging as a true rival to the US or China.  In fact, only with a complete withdrawal from global affairs by the United States will any of these rivals, bar China, have the capacity to form a truly multipolar world in the near-future.

The potential implications of US isolationism are immense.  Despite many hiccups and mistakes, the US-led global system that was developed after the Second World War brought huge gains in terms of economic growth and living standards for much of the world.  In terms of the economy, the US’ championing of global trade and investment, and its role in securing key shipping lanes, resulted in an unprecedented period of growth, as well as massive reductions in global poverty levels.  Moreover, the US’ overwhelming military power advantage over the rest of the world was the key reason why there has not been a war between two major powers since the early 1960s (China and India). 

Of course, US leadership has not been without its flaws.  For example, its insistence on spreading democracy in recent decades played a major role in the conflicts that now rage across the Middle East and North Africa.  Likewise, the rush to globalization has contributed to growing economic imbalances around the world, including within the United States. 

Now, the US is threatening to abandon the system that it created.  Such a withdrawal will undoubtedly embolden many countries whose ambitions have been thwarted by the presence of the US.  This will raise the potential for conflicts that involve other major powers such as China or Russia.  Meanwhile, the economic system built by the United States after the Second World War may struggle to survive without its champion and this could lead to declines in global trade and investment, creating major disruptions for economies dependent upon trade and foreign investment.  Therefore, while many countries are calling for a multipolar world, the threats that could emerge from such a transition should not be underestimated, and many countries may quickly find themselves hoping for a US re-engagement with the rest of the world.