Amer­ica’s in­flu­ence de­flates

The world’s bal­ance of power is chang­ing but who will rise in the suc­ces­sion, asks Si­mon Tis­dall

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page -

Along-run­ning re­gional prob­lem was turned into a fright­en­ing global cri­sis last week by overt US threats of puni­tive mil­i­tary ac­tion fol­low­ing North Ko­rea’s provoca­tive test-fir­ing of a po­ten­tially nu­clear-ca­pa­ble in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile. With Don­ald Trump or­der­ing a show of force off the Korean penin­sula and warn­ing of “very se­vere” reprisals, it fell to China and Rus­sia – usu­ally bad guys in the White House’s global nar­ra­tive – to ap­peal for calm and di­a­logue. The con­fronta­tion, not yet de­fused, in­ten­si­fied broader fears that the world is be­com­ing more dan­ger­ous and chaotic – and that no one is re­ally in charge. Es­tab­lished col­lab­o­ra­tive struc­tures – such as the UN, in­ter­na­tional law and al­liances, mul­ti­lat­eral treaties and hu­man rights con­ven­tions – are be­ing tested to de­struc­tion or re­pu­di­ated out­right. Last week­end’s G20 sum­mit of the planet’s most pow­er­ful lead­ers, far from steady­ing nerves, only added to the sense of a down­ward spi­ral. If the Ham­burg meet­ing showed any­thing, it was that Trump, China’s Xi Jin­ping, Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin and Ger­many’s An­gela Merkel don’t know, or can­not agree on, what to do about North Ko­rea, Syria, cli­mate change, ter­ror­ism, mass mi­gra­tion, and many other alarm­ing is­sues.

Are these fears of deep­en­ing world dis­or­der jus­ti­fied? Or is the ex­ist­ing in­ter­na­tional or­der sim­ply un­der­go­ing one of its pe­ri­odic re­for­ma­tions, as the bal­ance of power shifts and new global forces chal­lenge the sta­tus quo?

The big­gest sin­gle change is a per­ceived de­cline in US in­flu­ence. Al­most as im­pact­ful as North Ko­rea’s filmed im­ages of air­borne ar­maged­don was a jibe by its dic­ta­tor, Kim Jong-un, that the mis­sile launch was an In­de­pen­dence Day gift to “the Amer­i­can bas­tards”. Such lese majesty on Kim’s part is telling. He was play­ing to a world­wide au­di­ence that sus­pects the era of a sole Amer­i­can su­per­power is draw­ing to a de­fin­i­tive close. His taunt was aimed at Trump, who ex­hibits scant un­der­stand­ing or lik­ing for the tra­di­tional US role of global po­lice­man, pre­fer­ring to par­rot his “Amer­ica first” slo­gan. But Kim is far from alone in at­tempt­ing to ex­ploit US am­biva­lence for na­tional ad­van­tage.

This process of Amer­ica turn­ing in­wards, and its con­comi­tant re­duced ap­petite for in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship, ar­guably be­gan in 2009. Barack Obama in­her­ited a coun­try dispir­ited by George W Bush’s cat­a­strophic in­ter­ven­tions in Iraq and Afghanistan and tired of the “global war on ter­ror”. Obama was wary of new over­seas com­mit­ments in Syria, Ukraine and else­where. Trump’s elec­tion vic­tory, based on a na­tion­al­ist, iso­la­tion­ist, pro­tec­tion­ist and xeno­pho­bic agenda, marked the next stage in this process of dis­tanc­ing Amer­ica from the world. His ques­tion­ing of long­stand­ing al­liances, re­pu­di­a­tion of the Paris cli­mate change ac­cord and

the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, and his em­brace of pop­ulist nar­ra­tives all pointed to a par­a­digm shift to­wards dis­en­gage­ment.

A di­vi­sive speech Trump de­liv­ered in War­saw last Thurs­day, be­fore the G20 meet­ing, was re­mark­able for its his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural ig­no­rance, and con­firmed this grim meta­mor­pho­sis. In his sim­plis­tic anal­y­sis, the world is en­gaged in an ex­is­ten­tial strug­gle be­tween the “civilised”

Chris­tian west and dark forces of re­ac­tion and op­pres­sion. His rant in­di­rectly con­firmed mis­giv­ings re­vealed in a re­cent Pew sur­vey that showed only 22% of re­spon­dents world­wide were con­fi­dent he would do the right thing in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs. Rather than be­ing seen as mostly a force for good, as in the past, the US un­der Trump is viewed as threat­en­ing, even dan­ger­ous.

No won­der peo­ple are scared. What might be termed the war of the Amer­i­can suc­ces­sion is now be­ing waged with grow­ing in­ten­sity as emerg­ing or re­ju­ve­nated na­tion states and non-state forces strug­gle to shape and di­rect the new

in­ter­na­tional or­der. Chief among them are China and Rus­sia. Both former em­pires, both har­bour illd­is­guised im­pe­rial re­vival­ist am­bi­tions. In Putin’s case, the aim is to re­store former Soviet dom­i­nance in tra­di­tional, cold war spheres of in­flu­ence, de­spite Rus­sia’s rel­a­tive eco­nomic weak­ness. China is in­dis­putably the world’s fastest-ris­ing power. Yet Xi is adamant that it’s a de­vel­op­ing coun­try, not yet ready for global lead­er­ship. While the two coun­tries of­ten act in con­cert, Bei­jing usu­ally stands be­hind Mos­cow, rather than tak­ing a lead. But the bal­ance of this re­la­tion­ship is chang­ing – in China’s favour.

The EU un­der Merkel is also gain­ing in con­fi­dence after a rocky few years. Shock over Brexit and Trump’s vic­tory has turned into op­ti­mism that Europe can pick up the fallen US ban­ner, es­pe­cially now the pop­ulist tide has ap­par­ently been re­pulsed, no­tably by France’s Em­manuel Macron.

Writ­ing be­fore the G20 sum­mit, the Euro­pean com­mis­sion chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, de­scribed the EU as “a global point of ref­er­ence for all those who value the prin­ci­ples of lib­eral democ­racy and hu­man rights, free and fair trade, and con­crete ac­tions in fac­ing global chal­lenges”. This is the sort of phrase peo­ple

once used when de­scrib­ing the US.

Other ris­ing power blocs are com­pet­ing for in­flu­ence in the vac­uum left by the US. They in­clude the Sunni Mus­lim Arab states, led by Saudi Ara­bia. They are hand­i­capped, how­ever, by their ri­valry with Shia Mus­lim Iran and its al­lies. In the mix, too, are fast-de­vel­op­ing coun­tries such as In­dia, Mex­ico and In­done­sia, whose power, at present, is pri­mar­ily eco­nomic and de­mo­graphic rather than po­lit­i­cal. Then there are non-state ac­tors, such as Isis and al-Qaida; and failed and fail­ing states in­clud­ing North Ko­rea, Syria, Afghanistan, Ye­men, Pak­istan, So­ma­lia, South Su­dan and Venezuela, whose power lies in their po­ten­tial for dis­rup­tion.

Global in­sta­bil­ity can be mea­sured in many ways. The World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s 2016 Global Risks Re­port recorded ris­ing alarm about cli­mate change, mass mi­gra­tion and cy­ber war­fare. But ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies, the num­ber of deaths in con­flicts world­wide fell in 2016 for a sec­ond suc­ces­sive year. Per­haps the best barom­e­ter is hu­man: if peo­ple feel less se­cure, they prob­a­bly are. If the world is in­deed en­ter­ing an era of in­ten­si­fy­ing tur­moil, its pri­mary cause may be summed up in three words: the Trump ef­fect.

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