Barack Obama says American power declining relative to other powers, such as Russia and China
In the midst of a series of global crises, American President Barack Obama spoke at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Seattle on July 23 and spoke about what the future holds for the U.S. and world society.
According to Barack Obama, the world is in a state of flux and the necessary changes to the global order are not being appropriately interpreted or implemented.
Barack Obama remarked that “Part of people’s concern is just the sense that around the world, the old order isn’t holding and we’re not quite where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles, that’s based on a sense of common humanity, that’s based on economies that work for all people.”
It has become fashionable in commenting on global affairs to slam Barack Obama for his ongoing foreign policy problems, and in many cases the criticisms are deserved. Foreign policy may not determine the outcome of elections very often, if ever, but polling in the U.S. shows that the majority of Americans are very displeased with Obama’s handling of the foreign policy file, as are America’s allies throughout the rest of the world. To explain why, one need only re-read his comments from the July 23 fundraiser.
Barack Obama is half right to note that there is a significant change occurring in the international system that will produce a “new world order”. Immediately following the Cold War, the system of states went from being bipolar, meaning the system was dominated by two superpowers, to unipolar, signifying one lone superpower. The so-called “unipolar moment” saw a sizeable gap between American power and the capabilities of other world powers, which allowed for the emergence and growth in the post-Cold War liberal, or American, world order. This was the era of democratic enlargement, multilateralism and human rights, at least in rhetoric anyway. The truly distinctive feature of the unipolar moment was that America’s long-time rival, Russia, was struggling mightily, and no new major power was on the verge of rivalling U.S. power in the world.
A series of events, some self-imposed and others external, served to gradually reduce America’s relative power capabilities, while other new powers were beginning to emerge. The financial, political, military and human costs of events like the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the onset of the 2008 recession marked the end of U.S. hegemony in the world and the start of a transition towards a new multipolar system, where multiple powers will dominate world affairs.
All of this is not to reduce recent events in Libya, Syria, Gaza, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Iran and Ukraine to a series of theoretical ideas with little practical application; quite the opposite.
It is precisely because the system is going through this transition that the world is seeing a marked increase of global conflict where the interests of great powers, like the U.S., Russia, China, etc. are involved. Further, as American power declines, those powers hostile to the U.S. appear far more willing to challenge U.S. moral authority and test the resolve of the west in its willingness to police the world effectively.
Exacerbating the situation are the foreign policy failures of the Barack Obama Administration at a time when strong international leadership from the U.S. is integral. The double-edged sword of a declining hegemon coupled with policy ineptitude is having a profound impact on current world events. Other western states have neither the credibility nor relative power necessary to fill America’s void, and thus we are faced with more uncertainty and emboldened enemies at a crucial time.
Barack Obama is right to note the ongoing evolution of the world order, but he is dangerously naïve to think that order will be predicated on a sense of common humanity. States like Russia, Syria and Iran have made it clear what their perceptions of the new world order will look like. The question remains just how relevant the U.S. will be if it continues to ignore reality.
Robert W. Murray (@DrRWM) is the Vice-President, Research at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta.