For almost as long as the USA has been the dominant global power, people have been forecasting its decline. Indeed, American anxiety over a looming Asian economic powerhouse is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s and 1980s, the rapid rise of the Japanese economy was met with deep-seated worry in the USA. Under an extravagant Republican President hailing from the entertainment business, the threat of competition with a Far-Eastern rival seemed inevitable. History, as they say, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Now, of course, like the ‘boy who cried wolf,’ just because predictions were wrong before doesn’t mean America’s downfall isn’t imminent. Almost every collapse or waning of a power, from the Soviet Union to the British Empire, was predicted erroneously decades before it actually happened. Today, with Donald Trump only just out of the White House following his ill-fated job appraisal with the people, the threat to the US is very real. An emergent superpower, China seems set to overtake the US in terms of Gross Domestic Production at some point in the next couple of decades. Militarily, it is just beginning to flex its nascent muscles in the South China Sea. Economically, it is embracing links with countries across Asia and Africa with the ambitious ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.
So, is America still the most powerful nation on earth, or is it becoming a laughing stock?
Well, first, let’s ask ourselves why the world would be laughing at America. If you listen to the American right, they’ll point to the USA’s role in global institutions. Trump made plain longstanding complaints by many American conservatives about American contributions to NATO, for example. In the United Nations, the United States’ interests usually carry the day, with the USA holding both a veto over all meaningful resolutions and having unparalleled capacity to bribe or cajole allies to their way of thinking. Nevertheless, the ability for other Security Council members or votes by the Assembly to block US interests is sometimes seen as a cause of laughter in the international community. In 2018, Trump said that the ‘world is laughing at us’ over the issue of immigration. For most of these, the world is obviously not laughing at the America. The USA is easily the most powerful single nation in most multilateral organisations that it’s part of. Many of the other important players in global organisations, such as most of the US Security Council Permanent Members and the EU, are American allies with very close alignment to American interests. In general, the rules-based order helps to reinforce American power, not dilute it.
The left, meanwhile, point to myriad of other reasons that the world is laughing at America. The USA is alone amongst developed nations in being unable to control gun crime and in failing to provide universal healthcare. Likewise, Donald Trump is particularly unpopular with people in many foreign countries, especially in the West. However, none of these are new phenomena. As I mentioned earlier, many Europeans felt similarly about Ronald Reagan, at least early on in his presidency, and George W Bush. It’s often easy, in Western Europe or North America, to confuse the personality or persona of any individual leader with the standing of that nation internationally. It’s a simple fact that Tony Blair, despite being much more charismatic than George Bush on the world stage, would not get the same welcome in most foreign countries. The same is also true now – an embarrassing president doesn’t undo the immense fear and respect in which most countries in the world hold the global hegemony.
Nevertheless, over recent years, Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric and ideology has definitely damaged US standing around the world. Far from funny, though, it’s probably been a mixture of unsettling and baffling for the international community. In particular, the pandemic is a bad look. That China coped (seemingly) so much better with the virus than both the USA and the EU will definitely improve its global reputation. Again, though, this sort of shift in the world order is not something to be laughed at. At best, it’s an opportunity for countries around the world. As moving to secondary school is a chance to make new friendships and discard old reputations, so a substantial shift in geopolitics could offer the opportunity for new ties and alliances with rising powers. At worst, it’s a serious threat with a new age of great power competition again threatening global security and war between nuclear nations. Either way, it’s certainly no laughing matter.
As to whether America remains the most powerful nation on earth, that’s an easy question to answer. America’s old foe, Russia, despite retaining considerable military power, is no longer a significant challenger to the USA. It has an economy similar in size to Italy and South Korea, both tiny compared to the largest economy in history. The only serious challenger to the US as a global superpower is China. Despite a rapidly growing economy and huge growth in global influence, China is still a very long way behind the US. The beginning of strategic competition between the US and China in East Asia is, after all, more reminiscent of the contest between a superpower and a regional power than it is of great power contest. The US isn’t competing with China for military command of the world, it’s competing with China for command of China’s own neighbourhood. Again, though China is growing its soft power at an alarming rate, American cultural exports remain unmatched anywhere else in the world. Hollywood, for example, still functions as the perfect cultural export, cementing American dominance in hearts and minds all over the globe.
Finally, any comparison of the U.S. with its would-be competitors that neglects to consider the power of international alliances would be incredibly simplistic. Almost every major international economy, from Japan to India, Australia to New Zealand, and the European Union, is a close American ally. The USA remains the captain of easily the best team in the world. Of course, sometimes the captain will make decisions we don’t all agree with, but that doesn’t change the facts. The fate of the world’s superpower is not a laughing matter.
Matthew Oulton is a second-year Economics student from Merseyside.