Since the 21st century, the United States has suffered a series of internal and external challenges. At the beginning of the new century, the United States faced security threats from non-state actors and suffered during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which completely changed America’s traditional security concept of the U.S. homeland as an absolutely safe haven. Subsequently, the Bush administration launched the global war on terrorism. But this made America’s fiscal situation and international reputation fall into trouble, rather than help the United States achieve the stated objectives. Meanwhile, the U.S. has also faced challenges from the rise of non-Western countries. To some extent, the challenges will have a deeper impact on U.S. hegemony. When President Obama took office, he found that the distribution of global power has been experiencing a subtle yet irreversible restructuring, which is the new face of the international system. Thus, in the report of U.S. National Security Strategy (2010), President Obama stated that the current international system needed to be adjusted to accommodate the demands of new centers of power.
While the United States was trapped in two wars, the U.S. domestic economy faced serious problems with the 2008 financial crisis. Meanwhile, a new political and social movement emerged in the United States. The Tea Party and “Occupy Wall Street” movements have served as political agitators and enhanced the political struggle between the two parties. In fact, during the Obama administration, the U.S. parties disagreed on many domestic issues, such as health care, immigration reform, and the debt ceiling. All of this has affected U.S. diplomacy. For instance, President Obama was absent from the APEC meeting last year largely because of the government shutdown.
To attain the goal of fiscal austerity, the U.S. Department of Defense was required to cut $487 billion in military spending over the next decade. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said “these cuts are too fast, too much, too abrupt, and too irresponsible,” and that they would seriously restrict America’s readiness and the ability to respond to challenges. Actually, the U.S. has felt the impact of weakening military power. For example, the United States adopted the so-called “leading from behind” strategy in the Libyan war, which reflected the limits of the U.S. armed services. Currently, the U.S. Ukraine policy is also in the same situation. President Obama has made it clear that “We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.” He also stressed that the U.S. would not make unfulfilled promises to Ukraine when attending the joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on March 27. In fact, in both cases, the United States found itself in a “defensive” position in the geo-strategic game, with its allies questioning the U.S. ability to fulfill its commitments. The distrust could cause larger negative impacts on the U.S. ability to maintain its global leadership, because the international order created and dominated by the United States is largely dependent on the broad, reliable U.S. alliance and partner network in the world. The elements to support the network are United States’ comprehensive strength, as well as allies and partners’ confidence that the U.S. would provide security protection at a critical moment.
How could the U.S. ask its allies and partners to have confidence in its security commitments when it is in decline? One way is to constantly stress that the U.S. has the ability and willingness to fulfill its obligations. This is what the United States is currently doing. For example, on March 20, 2014 when delivering a speech on the issue of Ukraine, President Barack Obama stressed that “America’s support for our NATO allies is unwavering.” On March 26, Obama reiterated this point during the meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Before visiting Japan, Chuck Hagel told Nikkei News “another reason I’m here is to reassure our allies of our commitments to their security.” From April 23-29, President Obama will visit four Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea, its major allies in the region. One of his main aims is to tell US allies and partners that it will remain a pacific power no matter how much the international situation changes. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on April 18 at a press briefing: “The President’s trip to Asia is an important opportunity to underscore our continued focus on the Asia Pacific region…The President will reaffirm as well our steadfast commitment to our allies and partners, which allow us to deter threats and respond to disasters.”
The other is to show the effectiveness of the U.S. security commitments through practical actions. For example, the United States may take actions to support the interests and demands of its allies or partners in international disputes, such as providing weapons to some countries, deploying the advanced weapons systems to the relevant areas, and launching military exercises with its allies. However, the United States may face a greater risk when taking these actions: on the one hand, the United States could be drawn into international disputes and forced to make its intentions clear. In the past, the United States always held an attitude of strategic ambiguity towards international disputes that did not involve the U.S. core interests. On the other hand, the United States might encounter real strategic risks, such as falling into a conflict with another big power. From a historical perspective, when hegemonic powers have been in decline, the international landscape has become more complex and various uncertain factors could increase the risks of the international community. Perhaps it is in such a period today. But, history does not simply repeat itself. If the declining hegemon carefully surveys its strategic choices, and other big countries fully take into account the real interests of the hegemonic power and its needs, a new historical scenario is more likely to be portrayed in the world.
Chen Jimin, Ph.D, is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C.