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Foreign Policy

Can the US Still Reshape the World Order?

Apr 12, 2019
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The United States has long believed its purpose is to lead other countries and to provide solutions to many international issues. Indeed, that is the way the U.S. has historically played its role in international politics. The United States will undoubtedly remain the most important player in the world, but recent developments indicate that the U.S. is losing its capacity to guide the international community.

The U.S. used to be able to manage or even control the direction of major international issues, particularly right after the end of the Cold War. That unipolar style was also the way in which the U.S. influenced the international community: the U.S. would express its positions on international issues, and its Western allies and some other states would follow its lead.
In 1990-91, strong and clear US opposition to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was well echoed by the international community. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 678 to authorize military action against the invasion, with 34 nations joining in the U.S.-led coalition to drive Hussein’s forces back into Iraq. Eventually the issue was finally resolved to America’s satisfaction, as Saddam’s forces were driven back.

On October 30 through November 1, 1991, the U.S. co-organized the Madrid peace conference with Spain and the Soviet Union. Major parties to the Middle East conflicts participating in the conference, which finally resulted in a smoothly progressing Middle East peace process: Israel reached the Oslo Accords with Palestine in 1993 and peace agreements with Jordan in 1994.

The new century also witnessed America’s success in shaping the direction of regional affairs. When the U.S. signaled in early 2011 that it would no longer support Egypt’s incumbent government, Husni Mubarak’s government collapsed almost immediately; and when the U.S. joined European efforts to topple Muammur Qaddafi’s regime, he was defeated and killed that same year, only a few months later.

But things seem to have changed in the last couple of years. Though the U.S. is still the single most important player in the world, the U.S. is no longer a leader on major issues, in the eyes of its allies and other parties. Either events have gone in the opposite direction from what the US proposed, or the U.S. has not been followed by its allies and partners.

One example can be seen in the U.S. failure on the Syrian issue. Syria, like other countries in its neighborhood, in 2011 faced a quagmire of domestic crises as anti-government demonstrations took place in some Syrian cities and towns, which eventually turned into an eight-year civil war. Barack Obama’s administration at the very beginning voiced that the U.S. will stand on the right side of history, which meant that the U.S. would encourage and support armed opposition to topple the government. Unlike the cases of Egypt and Libya, the Syrian crisis did not evolve in the direction laid by the U.S.—Bashar Assad’s government defeated the armed opposition, by 2018 had recovered the land taken by the opposition, and finally survived the crisis.

U.S. policy toward Iran is another recent example indicating that the U.S. has lost its ability to set the agenda. The U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also dubbed the Iran nuclear deal, on July 14, 2015. But Trump’s administration withdrew from the deal unilaterally on May 8, 2018, and restored the sanctions on Iran in August and November of that year. Trump’s administration also pressed European countries to follow suit and renegotiate the deal. But unlike their cooperation in negotiating the deal during the Obama administration, major European countries refused to cooperate with the U.S. this time. They remain resolute in implementing the deal, and have even established a new mechanism to avoid U.S. sanctions.

In February 2019, the U.S., together with Poland, organized in Warsaw the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, which was widely regarded as forming an anti-Iran coalition. The outcome of the conference was not successful despite U.S. claims. Among the five permanent members of the Security Council, only the U.S. was enthusiastic about it. China, Russia and France didn’t participate in the conference. Germany was not there. Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy was absent, with the excuse of having a conflicting agenda. The British Foreign Minister attended only briefly. An event designed to isolate Iran finally resulted in the U.S. being isolated itself.

In 2016, the U.S. tried but failed to persuade some European countries not to join in AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) as founding members. In March 2019, the U.S. pressed Germany and Britain to reduce their cooperation with China’s hi-tech giant Huawei, but did not succeed. Recently, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that Germany can never be blackmailed, does not need advice from anyone, and will make its decisions autonomously.

It seems that the United States is no longer the leader for other states and even its Western allies to follow. The reasons are numerous, but the primary cause is that the U.S. is not working for the global good or to maintain world order, but only for its own interests.

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