The crisis of American power
2 Feb 2021|

The United States is suffering from a double crisis. Headlines in recent months have focused mainly on America’s crisis of democracy, but its crisis of global power may turn out to be more consequential in the long run.

America’s crisis of democracy has been personified in the figure of former president Donald Trump, the defeated ‘divider-in-chief’ who still commands leadership of the Republican Party. His successor, Democrat Joe Biden, has embarked on a political project to reunite the country and has already revived many of the institutions that Trump attacked while in office. But reversing America’s deepening polarisation and spiralling inequalities will not be easy in a political environment driven by demographic change, media fragmentation and electoral gerrymandering.

As difficult as it will be to repair America’s democratic institutions, it will be harder still to refurbish America’s global image. Following the Cold War, the US enjoyed a power premium. Because friends and foes alike routinely overestimated American interests, the US enjoyed outsize influence around the world.

But thanks to the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis and the Trump presidency, the world no longer places a premium on US power; if anything, it now applies a discount. After all, rather than maintaining an interest in the crises of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and other regions, the US has pulled back and other powers have filled the vacuum.

In Latin America, the US can still fulminate against Venezuela’s government, but to little effect. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, China has become the most important player. In Syria, Libya and the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region of the South Caucasus, it is Russia and Turkey that are shaping the future. But most shocking of all are developments in Europe.

With the Covid-19 pandemic killing millions worldwide, it was easy to miss the fact that the European Union and China concluded negotiations on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment in late 2020. After seven years of negotiations, the CAI was pushed over the line just weeks before Biden’s inauguration, with the Europeans dismissing public pleas by the incoming US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to consult with the new administration first.

By pressing ahead, the EU publicly undercut the Biden administration’s top foreign-policy priority of re-engaging with allies to manage the China challenge together. The EU thus squandered the trust of the new US administration (as well as that of Japan, India and Australia), and emboldened China to pursue a divide-and-rule strategy vis-à-vis the democratic world. The signal sent by Europe’s brazen disregard for US interests should send chills down American policymakers’ spines.

It’s no less striking that it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who negotiated the CAI. Merkel is a committed Atlanticist who would not oppose the US even when it decided to invade Iraq in 2003. Many Europeans back then were unhappy with President George W. Bush’s administration and worried that America had too much power. Today, the problem is inverted: Europeans are happy with Biden and his China agenda but fear that America is too weak to pull it off.

In this respect, European leaders are simply acting on what their citizens think. A recent pan-European survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations finds that a majority of Europeans were delighted to see Biden elected, but have deep doubts about America’s capacity to come back as a global leader. Similarly, a majority fears that the US political system is broken and that Americans can no longer be trusted after having elected Trump in 2016.

Moreover, across the 11 countries surveyed, six out of 10 respondents think China will become more powerful than the US within the next 10 years, and at least 60% of respondents in each country surveyed say they can no longer rely on the US to defend them.

The implications for European policymaking are radical. Most Europeans think they should be investing in their own defence, rather than relying on the US; and many now see Berlin, rather than Washington DC, as the ‘go-to’ capital for leadership. Most alarmingly, most Europeans are not interested in the Biden team’s goal of developing a common transatlantic approach to China. A majority in each country wants to remain neutral in any future conflict between the US and China. This shocking finding first emerged in polling conducted a year ago, when many could dismiss it as a reflection of Europeans’ revulsion toward Trump. That explanation no longer works.

Opinion polling offers only a snapshot of views at a given moment and it’s possible that European attitudes will evolve as Biden and his team bring America back to the world stage. Biden has brilliant advisers in Sullivan, his ‘Indo-Pacific tsar’ Kurt Campbell and many others, and his administration is crafting a tough China strategy that is far more inspiring to US allies than Trump’s bullying bluster ever was. As Campbell and Sullivan explained in a 2019 Foreign Affairs essay, they envision ‘competition without catastrophe’—co-existence without compromising on core values. That is a strategic doctrine all Europeans should embrace.

But a bigger challenge than selling US allies on a China strategy will be restoring faith in America’s might and staying power. As the Chinese economy grows and its links with the rest of the world become more important, America’s own prospects will increasingly depend on its international alliances. Securing a balance of power that favours open societies in every part of the world will be at least as important as preserving an open society in America itself.