By Arab News
By Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg*
The political bickering and mudslinging in Washington has seriously eroded America’s global leadership and comes on the heels of its inability to manage the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic spread. Because the American political process is wide open and transparent, both these failures have become an international spectacle, widely reported and at times amplified by media all over the world, including in the Middle East and Gulf region. Numerous learned articles have been written lately asserting that US leadership is lost irrevocably. I argue that it is not, especially as there are no convincing alternatives to its global leadership, inadequate as it may be at times.
As it deals with the domestic damage these twin crises have caused, the incoming Biden administration will also need to urgently address international skepticism about the US’ ability to resume its leadership role.
These doubts about future American leadership are, in part, about perceptions. Many other countries have had worse political crises and many more have fumbled dealing with the pandemic. But with its assertive media and an open political culture, the US’ failures have been projected blow by blow across the globe, while its friends have recoiled and its adversaries gloated. In addition, the US holds itself up as an example of good governance and skill in handling public health problems. It is looked at as such by many around the world, meaning the perceived failures have loomed larger.
Many countries rely on US leadership in dealing with global crises, and it has reliably delivered in the past. The Gulf region, for one, has benefited from US leadership. In fact, COVID-19 has been one of the few global challenges in recent history where the US was not at the forefront, shaping, contributing to and coordinating the international response. For example, during the 2008 global financial crisis, the US made countless successful efforts in dealing with its repercussions. With COVID-19, the US was not only absent, but also inexplicably opposed to international coordination.
Taking on the World Health Organization, and the US decision last summer to leave it, made matters worse, backfiring in terms of the US’ abdication of leadership.
As the US itself became a focal point for COVID-19 — having the largest number of infections and deaths anywhere and falling short on both the health and economic dimensions of the crisis — smaller countries looked elsewhere for help in fighting the disease.
In addition to COVID-19 mismanagement, European allies complained about the frequent quarrels over defense and foreign policies, which they saw as examples of US unilateralism. Trade disputes added to the disenchantment with US leadership, as it imposed protectionist tariffs on imports from its close allies in Europe, the Gulf Cooperation Council and elsewhere.
November’s fiercely contested presidential and congressional elections were, as usual, keenly watched and analyzed everywhere. The 2020 elections were followed more closely because there was so much at stake. However, the excessive acrimony and endless disputes over results added to the erosion of US leadership by example.
The US’ distraction from key world problems because of these political and public health crises has led to a perceived atrophy in its ability to lead. It will be an uphill battle to dispel this perception, but the new administration could build on a number of successful steps that were taken by the Trump administration during the past year, but which have been overlooked as the focus was on the issues where it came up short.
One of its important achievements was the role it played in supporting economic stability in many countries during the pandemic. American leadership was evident in its collaboration with the Washington-based International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and with the G20 led last year by Saudi Arabia. Acting as lender of last resort, the US Federal Reserve extended emergency dollar flows (currency swaps) to foreign central banks, with the twin objectives of stabilizing the stock markets and currencies of countries battered by the pandemic and the related economic recession.
To maintain US financial leadership, the Biden administration will need to strengthen the underlying foundations of the US economy, which have been badly shaken by the pandemic: Massive unemployment, shrinking production, and rising trade and budget deficits. Without rebuilding the economy, the US’ capacity to lead will be limited in the future.
Another breakthrough the US managed last year was the restoration of stability in the energy markets. In April, President Donald Trump successfully mediated between OPEC, represented by Saudi Arabia, and Russia, the largest OPEC+ producer. That agreement saved American oil producers too, as the US had recently become the largest oil producer in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The most important achievement of the Trump administration has been its Iran policy. It stood its ground and challenged Tehran’s attacks on maritime navigation in the Gulf, and Iran retreated. Then the US took out Qassem Soleimani and Iran could not retaliate. The Trump administration also supported regional involvement in any future negotiations with Iran.
The Trump administration strongly questioned the value of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, deeming it to be inadequate and too narrowly focused. It subsequently succeeded in persuading the US’ allies and partners of the need to have more expanded negotiations with Iran, to include its ballistic missile program and malign regional activities.
The new administration appears to be in agreement. On Sunday, Jake Sullivan, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick as national security adviser, told CNN that Tehran’s ballistic missile program “has to be on the table” if the US is to re-enter the nuclear deal. He also agreed that participation could extend beyond the permanent five members of the UN Security Council and involve regional players.
There have been more positive steps that were taken by the Trump administration but got overlooked, with the focus on its missteps on COVID-19 and the election. The new administration appears to be looking to build on the achievements and deal with the shortcomings in an effort to restore American political, economic and moral leadership.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1