After the end of the Cold War, the academic literature acknowledged that the end of Super Powers had come. From then on, the big players on the international political scene were to be known as the Great Powers, with the United States being the biggest of them. Today, we can recognize that these actors still control and steer most of global politics: the USA, the EU, China, Russia, India.
Yet, there is another fact that the academic literature recognized – that with the demise of ideological and military conflict, there is a new security agenda. With the increasing importance of environmental, energy and economic security, it seems that the battles which we used to fight for human rights and democracy are taking on a secondary role. This is true in most parts of the world, except the conflicts waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. To a large extent, they are still based on the ideology which the US has vouched to spread, and which has given it the label “leader of the free world”.
Nevertheless, the power of the USA is waning. The financial crisis has left the greatest of the Great Powers in turmoil and has caused a split in domestic-foreign politics. President Obama is standing strong when it comes to foreign policy, but he is well aware that there are bigger problems which need to be solved at home. An article in the NYTimes by David Sanger from February 1st also expresses this point: “‘[The reason] why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended,” he said then, “because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.’” It then comes to the fore that the USA is recognizing its own domestic weaknesses. This can have two consequences for the rest of the world.
First, the US lessens its international involvement and concentrates on its domestic problems to such an extent that it leaves the conflict zones where it has been active for so many years under the Bush and Clinton administrations and those conflicts escalate. If that happens, the responsibility for keeping the peace will fall on the shoulders of the other Great Powers, most of whom are not prepared to bear it. The EU’s 27 member states might look prepared for a rapid response to conflict, but any long-term involvement is beyond the meager military spending that all of them have when compared to the USA. China often does not intervene in foreign conflicts on ideological grounds. India is not known to be an intervening power, but it may yet prove to have a role to play. Russia may be militarily strong but its domestic problems seem to be tying up much of that capability. Also, the only reason that would spark Russian involvement is, and has always been, to undermine the US. So, the rest of the world is left to potentially devastating disagreement.
Second, the above-described scenario occurs but a new Great Power steps in to intervene and keep the peace. This does not have to be a global player, but a regional one. Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia could easily intervene in a Middle Eastern conflict for example, which might not be to the great liking of Israel. Or, South Africa could mobilize its military potential to cease a central-African conflict.
The United Nations has always had the capability of intervention if it gets the approval of the permanent members of the Security Council. With the US agreeing to everything just to get the others off their backs it would cause a situation where the other actors have room to breathe and opportunity to diversify the agenda. The UN has always been central to the resolution of conflict and creation of peaceful dialogue between the Great Powers and that should not stop just because one has taken a lower step in world politics.
Still, the question remains whether the US will back down a little or a lot. In the same article quoted above, it was formulated this way: “…as Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, used to ask before he entered government a year ago, ‘How long can the world’s biggest borrower remain the world’s biggest power?’” So, the rise of America was through economic supremacy, but would it be its downfall as well? It has become public knowledge that the US spends a lot of money on its international commitments and now it is being considered that this cannot last for long if they wish to keep a stable financial situation. We can just hope that filling the gap at home will not be at a great expense to others on the other side of the world.
What will be interesting in the future is who decides to step in and on what issue: the EU is currently leading the way on the environmental front; China is a rising economic power together with India (the two being known as the factory of the world). While the USA looks to re-build its nation, the rest of the world will have to take care of itself and the rise of regional players to lead those who need leadership is very much possible. Globalization has been led by the West, but that may be coming to an end and it might be time to recognize Regionalization as the next process in human history.