By Shastri Ramachandaran*
Recent developments—such as the pandemic’s impact, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, its nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the release of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou—once again raise the question of whether the US remains the world’s sole superpower with its hegemony unchallenged. As is the wont in matters concerning the United States, analysts are divided on the subject, as they have been since the global financial crisis of 2008.
Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1990, prominent voices in the West hailed the end of the Cold War as a ‘unipolar moment’ on the premise that the centre of world power is the unchallenged superpower, i.e. the United States. Few disagreed with the triumphalist declaration, at least until the international financial downturn, which saw the West’s developed economies in a funk. Developing economies like India and China bucked the trend and moved ahead, while the US and the West were struggling to recover from the collapse. The emerging economies did far better than the world’s economic powerhouse.
Not long after its failure to provide financial leadership to the world’s beleaguered economies at a time of great difficulty, in the second decade of the millennium, the US began looking to cut its losses elsewhere. Notable among these is Afghanistan, where the US had been stuck since 2001 with its troops as well as that of its allies for over a decade. Convinced of the futility of persisting with its military occupation of a country that had in the past seen off other imperialist invaders, the US began exploring ways to retreat without loss of face. Accordingly, it began talks with leading elements of the Taliban. Beginning with covert and shadowy engagements, the process involved Taliban leaders being released and some of them re-settled in Qatar for negotiations. Eventually, in the latter part of President Donald Trump’s term, Washington realised and accepted that it had no choice but to pull out of Afghanistan.
Long before the last act of this great game gone awry, the Covid-19 epidemic showed up the US to be as bad as any ‘third world’ country when it came to dealing with an international public health emergency. It lacked the health infrastructure, the conviction, the courage, the medical and human resources, the power of policy and the force of authority to act in the interests of public good. When it did act, the US was confused, predatory in the acquisition of the equipment and supplies required, wilfully negligent of the needs of other nations and utterly bereft of any mark of leadership. Only because of its military power, evident in hundreds of bases worldwide, could the US commandeer whatever it needed to cope with the pandemic.
Even as the pandemic raged and time was running out for its troops in Afghanistan, the Capitol riots or “insurrection” that preceded the US presidency’s ugly and violent transition bared the rot in the underbelly of the much-vaunted democracy that was once declared to be the world’s only “indispensable country”. The shocking spectacle of the assault on the pillars of this once great but now declining democracy exploded the post-War myth that has long been fostered through pulp fiction, Hollywood films and institutional propaganda of the US being the planet’s greatest power, one that could save the earth even from an alien invasion.
Far from shining bright as a mighty star in the firmament, on the ground, in the war against Afghanistan, for all its immense resources, massive technological superiority and military might, the US, along with its allies, had to bite the dust in one of the world’s poorest countries. In the 20 years since September 11, 2001, the US spent more than $2 trillion on a war that further bled Afghanistan and impoverished its 40 million people. At the end of it, in August 2021, the US forces virtually fled the scene under cover of darkness after executing a scorched-earth policy.
The US had failed in its mission to eliminate the Taliban, crush terrorism and create conditions for peace, stability and reconciliation. The US let down the people of Afghanistan, its neighbours and the region as a whole including India—which had contributed immensely to that country’s all-round development. Structures and processes, besides institutions and people, bear testimony to India’s massive developmental effort in Afghanistan estimated at more than US$ 3 billion in the last 20 years.
US forces fleeing the ‘Heart of Asia’ revived memories of American troops abandoning Saigon in the 1970s with not a thought for those who believed US militarist supremacy to be invincible at all times in all places. Even before Washington could recover from the blow this ignominious exit had dealt to US prestige and influence, came the nuclear submarine deal with Australia—which torpedoed an existing agreement between Australia and France. The US-UK pact for nuclear submarines to Australia at the expense of France has not gone down well with America’s allies; and, a disillusioned European Union is now set to chart its own course in global affairs.
This has consequences for NATO especially as EU foreign, defence and security policies would no longer be dovetailed to US interests across the globe. The EU, and not just France, no longer trusts Washington or its leadership in world affairs including in dealing with China and Russia. The US, and its defence industry, must be in a very bad way if it needs to snatch away deals from its own close military allies—at least that seems to be the perception gaining ground in many capitals. Such a perception reinforces the view that the US is growing weaker and not stronger on the world stage. Setting Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng freed from “persecution”.
Close on the heels of these successive blows to American power and prestige and the “betrayal” of France by leaders of the “democracy bloc”, comes news of China prevailing against the US, and Canada in getting Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng freed from “persecution”.
At one level, this shows China gaining as a power pole, rising to challenge the US as the centre of world power; hastening to end the latter’s unipolar moment; reviving the balance-of-power politics; and, with that, pushing the world back to a state of multipolarity.
At another level, when Meng, a “dictatorship’s daughter”, fares better than Julian Assange, a “democracy bloc’s crusader for freedom” in a world where the US-led democracies are the pre-eminent power, there is much rethinking to be done especially by countries like India. It says a lot about the democracy bloc that Assange, and not Meng, is the (greater) victim of “hostage diplomacy”.
*The author is Editorial Consultant, WION TV and a former Opinion Page Editor of DNA. This article was first carried by WION TV and DNA.