The globalization of capitalism and democracy in the aftermath of World War II and after the formation of the United Nations made the United States the lord of world affairs. The US used its dominance to turn its attention to making the world a better place for humanity.
But ironically, that policy created an opportunity for other nations to rise economically and pose a serious threat to US leadership in global affairs, whether it be politics, strategic dominance, economic superiority or environmental challenges.
The recent setback to US interests in the UN Security Council and General Assembly on the issue of Israel’s capital showed how America’s political superiority over others is declining. The economic policies of China and global disrespect for Washington’s environmental politics have added insult to injury.
In a nutshell, the US-led world order is in trouble because of the rise of potential competitors. The recent episodes of disrespect for US interests at international forums in diverse fields are mainly due to the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia.
Rise of ASEAN
Meanwhile, the rise of Southeast Asian nations in economic terms has reduced their dependency on superpowers for their economic stability. Importantly, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region will be the hub of great-power politics in the near future. This became evident when the administration of US president Barack Obama announced its “Asia pivot.” Obviously, despite the current US president’s nationalistic slogans, the US is unlikely to move back from that policy.
But the question is: Will these rising powers become potent enough to counter the US and its allies in politico-economic and militaristic circles, and most important, in socio-cultural terms?
The installation of Donald Trump in the Oval Office has reduced America’s commitment to making the world a democratic place because of the populist slogan “America First.” Consequently, it has compromised the credibility of US-led institutions including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and perhaps the UN.
In this scenario, the emergence of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank by which a rival power fulfills the needs of development requires significant mention. Further, the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS bloc has the capability of countering any adversity in politico-economic terms. Still, the contemporary standing of US-led institutions has not been reduced to such a point that they cannot influence the world.
The recent blame game between China and the US on the issue of economic monopoly and the latter’s National Security Strategy verifies the potential threat of the Thucydides trap. The importance of the ASEAN countries in economic modernity is very much relevant to this great-power struggle, but their strategic limitations mean they cannot be given rival status. Many would argue against this, but history verifies that no example is present in which only economic power has dominated the world. But it is still true that ASEAN nations could become kingmakers in the international arena because of their geo-strategic and geo-economic importance.
As for military might, everyone is aware of the sole dominance of the US in strategic capability, perhaps due to its extraordinary military budget and military engagements in nearly all continents of the Earth. Realistically speaking, however, these commitments by American strategic elites are not only compromising their credibility but also encouraging rivals to increase their own military might.
A recent speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin is worth mentioning, in which he said his country had modernized its weapons so that US defense systems could not trace them. Similarly, the Russian annexation of Crimea and air strikes in Syria against US interests and subsequent patience by the US show a resurgence of Russia as a potential candidate for global dominance.
Meanwhile China, whose rise has been peaceful up to now, is expected to become a major military power because of the continuous rise of its military budget and occupation of several strategic places in the Indian Ocean region. This shows that there is significant potential for conflict between the US and China due to their conflicting interests.
All this is important for dominance in the global arena, but the projection of socio-cultural values seems most important because of globalization and rising expectations of the people in developing countries. At the same time, US values are dominant over others, which is evidenced by the globalization of democracy and the English language.
Critical analysis of contemporary power dynamics shows that the Thucydides trap has huge potential to encircle the world in war clouds. But, at the same time, the presence of nuclear weapons would act as a barrier to war and oblige nations to turn to diplomacy. Also, US dominance is still a reality despite the rise of rivals; this reality will not change in just a matter of days but will take time, perhaps years.
In short, the US will continue to exert influence on others but this influence will no longer be the same as it was in the past. Similarly, the rise of China and resurgence of Russia are no longer a secret. The stability of this multipolar world order looks like continuing given the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
In reality, conflicts will continue given the increasing competition between great powers in socio-economic and military-hardware development. Last but not the least, the stability of this multipolar world order will be influenced by the policies adopted by major rival powers in their relations with others and also upon strategic calculations of military generals of respective great powers.