By Chintamani Mahapatra*
The qualified deterioration of the US’ global influence has been debated for long, but the US leadership seems worried that the country is fast losing respect in the world as well. Of course, when some Americans keep repeating that the US possesses the most powerful military in the world, it does not create respect, but fear. Respect is inspired by one’s economic performance, political ideals and cooperative social fabric.
The economic performance of the US is anything but spectacular. It has been experiencing the Great Recession for the last seven years. The unemployment rate is high and is more than the government statistics suggest. Leaders across the political divide complain about jobs travelling abroad and promise to create more jobs for their citizens. According to reports, about seven million people out of 62 million in the age group of 25-54 are neither employed nor looking for employment. The opportunity cost of two million people in US prisons is not common knowledge, but it is real.
This problem has a spill-over effect on social stability as well. It is extremely difficult and increasingly so for someone who has been arrested or convicted to get a job in any company. That means the prisoners in the US, highest among the developed countries, will remain jobless for the rest of their lives. They will, in other words, be passengers in the revolving door connecting prisons with the streets.
Significantly, African-Americans constitute the largest section of the prison population, disproportionate to their numbers in the census figures. During the last several months the killing of African-Americans in the streets of the US by policemen has generated a deep sense of insecurity among the people and resentment among minority communities. The assassination of five white policemen in Dallas and its repercussion across US cities reflect anger, frustration and insecurity in the society.
This has in turn infected the political space in the US. Several leaders belonging to various political parties have expressed diverse opinions on the Dallas incident. Some have expressed sympathy with the police department, some have called for serious investigation and some have even spoken about the need for reforms in the system. While President Barack Obama opines that the situation is not as bad as it was during the 1960s, presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party Donald Trump sees a deep racial divide in the society. Everyone, nevertheless, calls for national unity and living the American dream.
The current US social and economic scene, however, does not inspire the international community. American ideals and treatment of minority communities is not reflected in the present state of race relations, and nor does the existing state of the US economy encourage other countries to follow. The days of the Washington Consensus as an economic model are over.
On the other hand, the Chinese economic performance has certainly brought international respect and admiration to that country. Generally speaking, US’loss cannot be China’s gain and vice versa. But the evolving Sino-US Cold Confrontation negates that general proposition. China has undoubtedly gained admiration abroad in recent decades, especially around the time the US began to lose it.
The 9/11 terrorist attack on the US, harmful fallout of the US invasion of Iraq and then their exit, inability of the US and NATO forces to bring order to Afghanistan after fifteen years of intervention and the mishandling of the Arab Spring culminating in the rise of the Islamic State (IS) have all been perceived as US’ weaknesses.
In the meantime, Russia’s geopolitical gains in Eurasia and China’s awe-inspiring assertiveness in the East and South China Seas have certainly made these countries less popular and more feared, but the regional countries, particularly the victims of Russian and Chinese muscle flexing, have little expectation from the US except loud lip service. The US is neither in a position to confront Russia except in imposing token or mild sanctions, nor in preventing China from reclaiming islands and militarising some of those in the South China Sea.
The respect that the US commands from various allies and strategic partners is in serious danger of further erosion. These allies expect the US to protect their interests from being allegedly infringed upon by regional powers, such as Russia and China. But the complex interdependence in the international system has tied US’ hands from behind. The US has deeper economic cooperation with China, and Russia has expansive energy and economic cooperation with US’European allies to the extent that makes it difficult for the NATO members to play the same tune with Washington on critical issues.
Thus, foreign policy intricacies, domestic, social and political divides, and the economic recession pose serious challenges to the US position in the world. In addition, the Donald Trump phenomenon appears to have frightened its allies around the globe.
* Chintamani Mahapatra
Rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Professor, School of International Studies, JNU, & Columnist, IPCS