Signs of America’s Declining Power and the Emerging Multipolar World

During Bush’s years as president, Democrats frequently criticized his foreign policy, complaining that he acted like a cowboy, pursuing wars unilaterally without the imprimatur of the “international community.” Internationalism was a particular obsession of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who lambasted the Bush administration for snubbing the United Nations and upsetting France with its Iraq policy.

Obama was mostly a darling of foreign leaders, as he ceded American power and prestige in a bid to right what he considered the historic wrongs of colonialism and western chauvinism. This was evident in his obsession with completing the Iran deal, participating in the Kyoto accords, assisting NATO attacks on Libya and Syria, and in the general tone of public diplomacy during the Arab Spring.

That said, America made quite a few interventions in the Obama years, especially in the second term, and we largely called the shots.

A Fake “International Community”

For all the talk of the international community, it was mostly a fig leaf for American unilateralism no matter which party was in charge. This practice extended from the Clinton presidency through Obama’s. When the United Nations would not approve something, we went to NATO. And when NATO wouldn’t get involved, we acted unilaterally, as in the early attacks on Syria or the targeted killing policy employed against al Qaeda

This is another way of saying that the United States acted as the sole superpower since the end of the Cold War, and this prevailed regardless of the party in power. There were some arguments on the margins, but every administration embraced this prerogative to impose the American vision of a “rules-based international order.” Even Trump, who ran on an America First platform, supported American unilateralism in Syria and expanded the provision of lethal aid to Ukraine.

In practice, the UN, NATO, and other institutions were there either to supply resources and allow the appearance of multilateralism or they were safely ignored. The United States had little fear of the International Criminal Court or the myriad other international institutions because it funded most of them, and they were effectively powerless in the face of American opposition.

The recent weakening of the United States relative to the rest of the world means that reality will begin to match the rhetoric of international institutions and begin constraining every nation, including us.

Evidence of Declining Power and Influence

Three recent examples exemplify the rapid change of our standing in the world.

First, after two decades of effort cultivating good will and cooperation in the war against terror and building a $100 million airbase, the United States is being kicked out of Niger. This follows Niger’s earlier expulsion of American ally France.

Simultaneously, Russia is rapidly and efficiently becoming a major player in Africa. Niger, one may remember, was where the “yellowcake” scandal took place during the George W. Bush administration and also the site of the massacre of an American special forces unit in 2017.

Like so much of our foreign policy, little of our official activity in Niger was known to the public and much was apparently unknown even to key decisionmakers in the government. But whether good policy or bad, it is rare for countries to kick the U.S. to the curb. The last time something like this happened that comes to mind is from 1992, when we were sent packing from Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Niger’s unceremonial expulsion of American forces suggests little interest in maintaining close ties to the United States and reduced fear of consequences. Even if the United States is overextended and overly involved in much of the world, it would still be nice to have the option to be involved (or not) on our own terms.

The second example is the International Criminal Court’s recent issuance of arrest warrants for Israel’s hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to answer for war crimes. Even at the height of public criticism of the Iraq War or the 2008 Gaza Campaign, no one would have dared to insult the United States and its proxies in this manner.

It is true that Israel has gone to war without much of a strategy, and its tactics have resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. And, after moving most of the citizens of Gaza to the southern end of the small territory, it is now moving them into the opposite direction in order to attack the Rafah refugee camp, in spite of warnings from the ICC.

Of course, every war has disagreements about the right amount of force, and belligerents usually have a more generous standard for themselves than neutral third parties. Even so, these indictments are happening now after the United States engaged in substantial levels of destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere over the preceding 20 years.

What this really means is that the United States cannot control the ostensibly neutral institutions of internationalism. When it was the sole superpower, these institutions were just accoutrements to American power, unable to stop us and, in some ways, blessing American activity through their own silence.

International tribunals would go after people like Slobodan Milsoovic and other gadflies of American power, while they would not dare go after an American leader or one of our allies. These practices understandably fueled allegations of hypocrisy. But, in the latest remarkable turn of events, the ICC feels sufficiently empowered to go after the prime minister of America’s “greatest ally.”

The final example of our country’s loosening grip on power comes from the nation of Georgia. Since its “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and the ill-fated 2008 attack on its separatist province of Ossetia, which led to Russian retaliation, Georgia has clamored for closer ties to NATO and the United States. After Georgia’s defeat, the United States accepted the Russian victory as a fait accompli. While remaining an American ally, Georgia’s prospects of NATO membership were essentially eliminated.

But the United States did respond with military aid, training cadres, and a proliferation of NGOs. The latter are supposedly exemplars of Georgian civil society, but they are largely funded by the United States and often serve to further our foreign policy goals. Fearful of the increasingly negative outcome of the Ukraine War, Georgia’s newly elected leadership is seeking a rapprochement with Russia, and one of their priorities (and Russia’s) is a law requiring NGOs with extensive foreign funding to disclose their affiliations. It sounds very similar to the Logan Act here at home.

The United States responded to this proposed law with extreme measures. In addition to public protests, it has instituted a travel ban on the elected leaders of the populist Georgian Dream Party, which proposed the NGO legislation. Additional sanctions are being proposed in Congress to coerce Georgia into rejecting the registration bill, which is expected to pass on Wednesday.

The preferred mechanisms of American foreign policy in much of the world have consisted of deniable influence operations, support for preferred political parties, and, through means known and unknown, the fomentation of violent political “color revolutions” to install friendly “democratic” regimes, such as those that took place in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere.

Our hectoring of Georgia is really unseemly. Actual democracy means, at its core, majority rule. Georgia elected a government that reflected the will of its people. And its people are turning away from their recent foreign and domestic policies. They apparently do not want an army of foreign-funded NGOs to spread propaganda and influence their politics without some disclosure of their foreign funding sources.

This seems reasonable enough to me, but no country has gone this far in the former Soviet space except Russia itself in 2012. Notably, since the passage of this law, Russia has proven immune from the kinds of intrigue that took down Ukraine’s Yanukovich regime in 2014.

If We Adapt, Our Country Can Flourish in a Multipolar World

These three disparate developments—the forced expulsion of the American military from Niger, the ICC indictment of Netanyahu, and Georgia’s flouting of U.S. pressure—are all harbingers of a true multipolar world. While this means the sole superpower era for the United States is over, it’s not so clear this era did much to serve the interests of the American people or peace and justice more generally.

Did the Georgian defeat at Russia’s hands help the United States? How about the decapitation of the Libyan Regime leading to an explosion of terrorism, the death of an ambassador, and infinity African immigration into Europe?

A multipolar world is one where sovereignty and independence are paramount. This is a substantial departure from the current regime of a single superpower meddling in other nations’ internal affairs at will or the Cold War’s implicit mandate that nations be in the orbit of one side or the other.

In other words, power must now be shared. Realism and justice must be the watchwords. On the realism side of the ledger, American strategy must navigate a multipolar world by setting priorities, abandoning vanity projects, reducing the scope of its ambitions, and tailoring the force structure to achieve objectives commensurate with our existing military and industrial capability, along with the likelihood of sustained public support.

Justice, too, should always be at the heart of our policy. We should not be merely strong but also committed to using our strength morally and responsibly. This is not only principled; it is also practical because it avoids conflict. If we want our country to be safe and powerful, we should start on the firm foundations of respect for peace, human life, and other nations’ sovereignty. To do this, we will have to abandon our self-serving policy of applying unprincipled exceptions to the rules we apply to others.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.


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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

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Notable Replies

  1. When retired General Smedley Butler published his book, War is a Racket, in 1935 he wrote, “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers." And while that is a damning indictment, at least one could say being a strong arm man at the time was done in furthering the American Interest. Not much has changed in the ensuing 89 years except that while corporate power remains the driving force of American policy, all of the strong arming now appears to be for the purpose of furthering international corporate interests. American interests----those of John and Mary Doe working that blue collar 9 to 5—have been cast aside. Ross Perot’s giant sucking sound of jobs being moved over seas still reverberates in their ears long after his ill fated presidential bid ended 32 years ago.

    Nothing demonstrates our domestic dilemma better than the supply chain issues we experienced during the Pandemic were never solved. Much ado was made about bringing manufacturing and jobs home, but our pharmaceuticals are still being made in China—as are all of our electronics, most of our steel, and most of our raw materials. We live in the era of America Last.

    The Blob continues playing its Great Game in China, Russia, the Middle East with everyday citizens continuing to pick up the tab. Part of what is contributing to higher food prices is the increase in costs of fertilizers and fuel brought about by our folly of supporting an internecine war in Ukraine. And then there is also the multi-billions in aid and arms sent there at taxpayer expense.

    We still have some 55,000 troops stationed in Germany scattered across 40 military installations with the ostensible purpose of defending against a Soviet threat that ended 88 years ago. Five percent of German GDP is directly attributable to American military spending there. We also have bases in the Middle East, Japan, Korea, islands in the Indian Ocean, Africa, and a host of other diverse places.
    In total, we have just under 230,000 troops scattered across the globe.

    Arguments can be made for some continued US presence—but all? That amounts to a lot of corporate clout when most of that clout appears to be aimed against Americans, not for them.

    We do live in a multipolar world, so is it a surrender of American power to retract some of the tentacles? Isn’t it time for the citizens of the other nations benefitting from our “largess” to pick up part of the tab? Trump tried that and got pilloried for it. Trump also got pilloried for placing higher tariffs on Chinese goods. Biden just did the same thing two weeks ago and nary a ripple of discontent was heard. Now isn’t that funny?

  2. A less malleable world begins with Obama’s America-is-always-wrong wrong-headed foreign policy and comes up to date with the Biden regime’s utterly incompetent policy. Part of a less-malleable world situation is due to other countries lessening their dependence on the US for predictable reasons. The interconnected trading system the US created after WWII that benefited any country seeking to be part of it was never slated to exist forever. Countries that were only peripherally connected to the US system have an overweening and hubristic China to (mostly) bride their leaders into dumping the US. But the current world situation is mainly due to the unwillingness of the US public to continue supporting a globalist regime if it means having their country’s industrial capacity gutted in its name and sharing their country with the rest of the world. So, the ascendency of the world’s bad actors is largely a by-product of the fading interest in the US for a system that required their country to keep it ruinously propped up indefinitely.

  3. While this means the sole superpower era for the United States is over, it’s not so clear this era did much to serve the interests of the American people or peace and justice more generally.

    That sentence was worth the read and demonstrates Roach’s firm grasp of the issues. Americans have been in an almost constant state of war since Wilson (reneging on his promise not to get involved) sent doughboys “Over There”. The developing multipolar world represents exhaustion of American resources, not declining desire by elites for perpetual death, killing and interventions. Washington, D.C. never learns anything because it is not truly part of America any longer. Americans have votes, yet lack representation while continuing to be responsible for the costs of these wasted and wasteful excursions, currently responsible for adding trillions to the national debt, but extinguishing peace and justice both overseas or at home.

    How many times did Bush the Younger lecture the citizenry that it must fight there or risk them coming here while proclaiming that they are just doing jobs the citizenry won’t do? Bizarre conspiracy theories over Bush’s Long Wars beginning with the collapse of the World Trade Center continue because he and others invited in the threats, then failed to monitor or eject any of them. More than 8,263 days have passed since 9/11, and the United States continues to import threats in defiance of the 9/11 Commission’s sound advice to revamp visa issuance/revocation.

    Following the advice of Washington, Jeffferson and Company on foreign entanglements to the detriment of this country is always wise. Would that anyone in government did so.

  4. I analyze the last century of US Superpowerdom as follows:
    First, University President Wilson, a fool like most university presidents, decided to meddle in the Great War. Why? Just to give Gen. Pershing a chance to make up for his failure in Mexico chasing Pancho Villa?
    Second, President Roosevelt cleaned up the mess on Aisle H caused by President Wilson.
    Third, the US stopped the Soviet bid for world supremacy.
    Fourth, the US stupidly did not wind down NATO in 1989. Pity, because such an action would have forced the Europeans to grow a pair and be the backstop against Russia.
    Fifth, it is now time to realize that the US, protected two two vast oceans, does not need a world empire or need to be the world hegemon.
    Sixth, it wouldn’t hurt to do a Kissinger and divide Russia and China.
    Seventh, if our rulers really want to strike an heroic pose, how about backing up Elon Musk and his settler-colonialist effort to Occupy Mars.

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