If Barack Obama was already showing signs of weakness in 2013, then 2014 would be the year he fell into utter vulnerability. In today’s international community, powerful leaders continually emerge, yet the leader of the world’s sole superpower is in an unprecedented position of weakness. This weakness largely reflects the complexity and shift in international position that the United States is currently facing through foreign competition.
The complexity of foreign competition faced by the U.S. is demonstrated mainly by four aspects. First, strategic competitive rivals have begun to challenge American interests. The strong revival of Russia’s strategy and the economic and strategic rise of China pose the most threatening geopolitical challenge for the U.S. since the end of the Cold War. Second, American allies such as the European Union, Israel and Japan are acting more independently. Third, the conflict between the U.S. and the Muslim world has no solution. The rise of the Islamic State set off a new wave of terrorist threats. Fourth, the functions of the international mechanisms led by the U.S. are being degraded, and the world needs new forms of global governance. The U.S. is now facing challenges more threatening and diverse within the international community, making it nearly impossible to devise an effective response.
To some extent, Obama’s weakness is a response to the shift in the international position of the United States. First, although the comprehensive national power of the U.S. remains first in the world, its lead is shrinking. Militarily, Russia’s revival and China’s modernization of its military forces have weakened the U.S. military lead. Economically, the U.S. economy accounted for 22.4 percent of the world economy in 2013, the lowest since World War II. Second, American influence on global affairs is in decline. Over the past few years, the number of countries in disagreement with the U.S. on voting behavior at the United Nations has been on the rise. Third, U.S. resources for foreign affairs are shrinking. Under pressure from a huge budget deficit, cuts in military spending will be a long-term trend for the U.S. The proportion of total global foreign aid contributed by Americans is decreasing. Fourth, the United States’ soft power is in decline. The financial crisis has damaged the appeal of the U.S. development model. Domestic political deadlock has greatly reduced the influence of its political system, while the Edward Snowden incident has tarnished its global reputation on morality. Together, these circumstances have caused the international position of the United States to slip to the lowest point in many years.
Evidently, Obama’s weakness was not only caused by himself or by domestic politics, but was also deeply tied to international politics. Although the next U.S. president may have a more decisive personality than Obama, and the polarization of American politics may dissipate, the decline of the American lead in its position and influence is a long-term trend rather than a cyclical phenomenon.
First, American economic recovery is weakening, which indicates that the inherent vitality of the U.S. economic mechanism is in decline. In the second half of the 20th century, the recovery time for each of the two U.S. economic recessions was fairly quick, and the economic aggregate was restored to approximately a third of the world’s value. The recovery this time has been quite long, with its economic aggregate accounting for only about 20 percent of the total. Second, from an international perspective, the strength and position of the U.S. in the 1990s was drastically elevated when the economic bubbles burst in Russia and Japan. Today, the coincidental economic situations in Russia and Japan which greatly benefited American strategy and its economy are unlikely to occur again. Third, due to the economic rise of emerging economies, the U.S. is currently losing its position as an economic superpower.
Against this background, both the U.S. and the world must accept the new role the U.S. has in international affairs. Although the U.S. remains a political and military superpower, Washington’s global approach will begin to change. The U.S. will concentrate its diplomatic and military intervention overseas on areas of importance or significant interest and will use its military force more cautiously. Toward global affairs, it will take on a role of mobilization and organization, when, for example, it will mobilize and organize other nations to implement an international agenda that the U.S supports, rather than lead the fight or fight head-to-head, to further pursue its interests instead of power. U.S. allies and security partners will be asked to take on more responsibility for security issues, thus developing a more intimate collaboration with the United States. Emerging countries such as China will be asked to play a greater role in global governance, with an increasing number of multilateral mechanisms operating in the absence of U.S. leadership or even participation. International politics will gradually become a “new normal” in the post-hegemony era.