On Sept. 13, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered an address at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Titled “The Power and Purpose of American Diplomacy in a New Era,” it exposed four faulty core assumptions held by the United States.
Misconception 1: American leadership is indispensable
According to Blinken, the international order established under the leadership of the United States after World War II has played an irreplaceable role in maintaining global peace and promoting development. Especially after the Cold War, the world has reaped the benefits of American leadership, enjoying security and prosperity. However, the contemporary world faces significant challenges in areas such as geopolitics, social inequality and the international order. The cumulative impact of these challenges has brought about the end of the post-Cold War order. At this pivotal moment, as the international community stands at a crossroads, once again the United States must bear responsibility for where its leadership takes the world.
In truth, the concept of indispensable American leadership, as articulated by Blinken, is just another expression of the theory of American hegemony. Historical lessons demonstrate that when the United States exercises its overwhelming power and status responsibly to support the public good in the international community, the world benefits and American global leadership is further solidified.
Conversely, when the U.S. prioritizes its own interests over international interests to maintain its hegemonic position, and when it wields its power irresponsibly, the world suffers, and America itself becomes a significant driver of global anti-American sentiment. Therefore, American leadership can either serve as a catalyst for addressing challenges or as a trigger for creating global problems. The question then arises: Where does the concept of indispensable American leadership fit in?
Misconception 2: The international order is exclusively shaped by the United States
The United States has long highlighted its role in crafting the post-World War II international order, asserting that it has brought enduring peace, security, and prosperity to the world. In reality, the postwar international system and order have dual facets:
First, there is the international system centered on the United Nations, along with international norms rooted in the UN Charter and its principles, which emphasize values such as sovereign equality, peace and non-interference in internal affairs. The global order has evolved through collaborative efforts by the community of nations, including the United States, and has garnered extensive support and universal acceptance.
Second, there is the Western hegemonic structure led by the United States, which is focused on sustaining Western dominance in politics, economics, military affairs, technology and international rule-making, while also monopolizing the interpretation of international justice. The conclusion must be drawn that in the post-Cold War era this signifies not the collapse of the UN-centric international system and order but rather the conclusion of the Western hegemonic epoch led by the United States. It signifies a resurgence of the UN system and order.
Misconception 3: The “American way” is a shining path
In his speech, Blinken portrayed two distinct development trajectories. One is the purported Western path to liberal democracy championed by the United States, which he envisions as a hopeful course. The other is the “revisionist” path followed by so-called authoritarian nations, which he perceives as a path shrouded in darkness.
Blinken’s reasoning holds that the path embodied by the United States is the one to which most nations aspire. But then why are numerous countries actively seeking to reshape the status quo? These nations encompass not only globally influential powers but also a significant number of developing nations, attracting widespread international attention as the Global South.
Despite their varied national circumstances, diverse cultures, and assorted systems, these countries stand resolutely united. What binds them is their dissatisfaction with the so-called liberal international order guided by Western nations such as the United States. They contend that the existing order primarily benefits a minority of individuals and countries and fails to align with the equitable, rational and just international order they desire. Consequently, they unite in their pursuit of self-improvement and innovation.
The Havana Declaration issued during the Group of 77 and China summit, convened on Sept. 15 and16, reaffirms the commitment of participating nations to bolster the unity and solidarity of the G-77 while wholeheartedly respecting the principles and purposes of the UN Charter and international law. Further, the declaration underscores a major worry: “We note with deep concern that the major challenges generated by the current unfair international economic order for developing countries have reached their most acute expression in current times.”
This vividly illustrates the disillusionment, discontent and resolve of the majority of developing nations in the global community to advocate for change in the rhetoric of the international order advanced by the United States.
Misconception 4: The alliance system is impervious
In Blinken’s discourse describing the international strategy of the Biden administration, the paramount emphasis is on fortifying an alliance network. Blinken posits that constructing the most extensive alliance system is the dispositive strategy under which the United States will triumph in the contemporary landscape of global competition. He affirmed: “At the core of our strategy is re-engaging, revitalizing, and reimagining our greatest strategic asset — America’s alliances and partnerships.”
This alliance structure exhibits a multilayered, multifaceted and multi-domain nature. In its structural framework, it principally encompasses alliances and partnerships. Concerning subject matter, it encompasses military, political, economic, technological and value-driven dimensions. Geographically, the United States is committed both to bolstering regional partnerships and transcending regional confines to foster inter-regional and even global connections. It endeavors to weave its alliances worldwide into a more tightly interconnected and seamlessly interactive network. For nations within this network, the U.S. enforces a set of policies and principles, whereas those outside the network become targets for marginalization, suppression and containment.
Consequently, the world is partitioned into at least two major systems or blocs. The United States aspires to replicate the Cold War-era model of bloc confrontation to secure victory in its strategic rivalries in the modern era.
In his address, Blinken invoked the names of American strategic luminaries from the Cold War era, including George Kennan, Dean Acheson and Zbigniew Brzezinski, seemingly advocating for the emergence of new leaders fashioned in the mold of Cold War-era statesmen to once again guide the United States to triumph in a new cold war.
However, times have changed. The deepening interweaving of economic integration, the intricate entanglement of global industrial and supply chains and, especially, the profound recollection of the manifold adversities brought about by Cold War-style confrontations render the U.S. approach of securing victory in strategic competition through polarization and confrontation increasingly discordant with contemporary realities.
The aforementioned four misconceptions — or illusions — may have arisen from America’s distinct sense of exceptionalism. They may be the result of its hubris and self-centered mentality, or they may have emerged from its reliance on empirical thought.
Regrettably, even though the United States acknowledges that the world is undergoing significant changes, it has failed to grasp the underlying forces and trajectory of this transformation. This situation can only be viewed as a lamentable oversight for the United States. It is hardly a fortunate development for the global community.