Is the US a superpower in decline or on the hegemonic offensive, asks Jenny Clegg
Is the US a superpower in decline or on the hegemonic offensive? Its international image has been seriously damaged by the 2008-9 financial crisis and its failing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the rise of the Brics group of developing countries has led to much debate about the emergence of a multipolar world.
However over the last couple of years, Barack Obama has started to roll out new agendas to strengthen the US economic and military grip simultaneously across both the Atlantic and Pacific, reinforcing Nato and initiating TTIP to incorporate Europe, while pivoting its military balance towards Asia and using the Trans-Pacific Partnership to draw Asian states in closer.
This year in particular Obama has been out on the global campaign trail.
First came his speech to West Point cadets at the end of May when he declared: “America must always lead on the world stage.”
This message was relayed by then US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel to a security conference in Asia three days later. The Russian representative apparently responded: “Why?”
Then came the Nato summit in early September, which saw the formation of a nine-state core to join in US air strikes against Isis.
Finally Obama was ready to seize the lead at the UN with an appeal for others to join the “global coalition to counter Isis.”
The UN already had before it a resolution on countering violent extremism, focused on stopping the recruitment and travel of foreign terrorist fighters and blocking off support.
Adopted unanimously, it provides a comprehensive response to the conditions conducive to radicalisation and extremism, calling for the promotion of religious tolerance; economic development, social cohesion and inclusiveness; the ending of armed conflicts; and the facilitation of reintegration and rehabilitation.
In upstaging the UN decision, Obama was also working against its non-militarist grain.
The resolution can be traced back to Iran’s initiative at the UN in December 2013 for “A World Against Violence and Violent Extremism.”
Condemning religious hatred and calling for the fostering of understanding, this was to receive strong backing from the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (Cica), which gathered 26 Asian states together for its fourth summit in Shanghai in May.
Cica was initiated by Kazakhstan in 1992, aimed at strengthening Asian co-operation.
Russia, China and India are all involved, together with states from central Asia, the Middle East and south-east Asia.
Cica then covers around 90 per cent of continental Asia’s landmass, more than half the world’s population, and a third of the world economy.
With Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and notably Palestine all included, it takes in virtually all the main zones of instability in Asia.
Other powers such as Japan and the US have observer status.
Asia’s economic dynamism holds the key to the world’s future prosperity but this is jeopardised as Asian security problems are further complicated by US interference.
To counter US destabilisation and prevent a new cold war mentality from dividing Asia, China is becoming more active. Cica’s Shanghai summit was China’s first large-scale security forum, a launch pad for a new stage of diplomacy as it reaches out towards the Middle East and across Eurasia.
As a conflict-resolution organisation, Cica potentially offers a security dimension for China’s plans for economic co-operation in the creation of a “Silk Road Economic Belt.”
Comprising railways, motorways, gas pipelines, power transmission and communication networks, this will stretch from the Pacific right across to the Baltic and to the Mediterranean, with the Middle East as the pivot.
China’s message as summit chair was that “security problems in Asia should be solved by Asians themselves.”
Backing the role of the UN security council, the summit declaration issued a challenge to US leadership and Nato, stating emphatically that “no state or group of states or organisation can have pre-eminent responsibility for maintaining peace and stability.”
Was this what prompted Obama’s renewed call for US leadership before the West Point cadets just days later?
US political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski after all claimed that the US’s worst fear was marginalisation in Eurasia.
Indeed, is the US really interested in eliminating Isis completely?
Terrorism is a useful tool in perpetuating the conflicts in Syria and Iraq which disrupt the Eurasian link, making it hard for China to reach across to Europe and realise its ambitious plans.
The anti-Isis coalition represents the new global style of Nato, using transatlanticism for its base but also including Australia, an exclusively Pacific power, at its core.
Nato members themselves can opt out of military action but still be part of the coalition by providing military support, weapons, equipment and aid.
Great efforts have been made to draw in regional states — the Gulf states, not Iran and Syria — to gain legitimacy for the US claim to be the world’s leader.
Even Taiwan is involved, giving humanitarian aid for Isis’s victims, though not China.
With this greater flexibility and global and regional representation, the coalition endeavours to make military intervention more acceptable, offering a new model, transferable for example to Africa and south-east Asia.
Meanwhile Cica is being heralded as an Asian version of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, given its wide-ranging remit from drugs, terrorism and transnational crime to nuclear disarmament, food and energy security, development and poverty eradication.
However the presence of notorious “rogues” in its gallery may cast doubt over its credibility.
Was the summit just cynical bombast or was it a first step towards “Asians resolving Asian problems?”
Many Asian countries choose to rely on their alliance with the US to the neglect of diplomacy and, realistically, Chinese commentators accept that Cica’s significance is so far largely symbolic.
However the possibility, as they suggest, that Asian countries could take quick action together to fight against terrorism and accelerate economic development may well be what prompted Obama’s global leadership activism.
In the longer term, despite Asia’s divisions and conflicts, Cica offers a security framework for Eurasian development within which Russia, India and Iran can all build their relationships with China together.
What is clear now is that any assessment of the international situation requires an understanding of how the world is being reordered by the unipolar-multipolar dynamic.
So long as the US continues to reassert itself as the key international decision-maker above the UN security council, these two trends are on collision course.
With Russia-China co-ordination now within the Brics, Cica, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and the UN giving the multipolar trend more definition, the US has accelerated the “globalisation” of Nato.
Two choices are emerging — one is to rebuild US hegemony and secure the profits of Western multinational corporations, at growing risk of financial collapse, world war or even nuclear holocaust.
The other is to work towards the gradual strengthening the UN, shifting the world focus over the next 20, or maybe 50, years, from geopolitical wrangling towards a pragmatic co-operation in tackling our common global problems.
Jenny Clegg tweets at @jennyclegg1
This appeared in the Morning Star newspaper