US Starts To Take Action To Reverse Loss Of Its Regional Influence – OpEd


By Zaid M. Belbagi

Two years ago, as US forces clambered to hastily withdraw from Afghanistan, leaving billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment behind, the chaotic scenes spoke volumes.

The moment almost seemed to herald a watershed for the Pax Americana that had enveloped the world in relative peace since the end of the Cold War, but both the Pentagon and the White House played down any talk of a retreat, preferring the term “strategic withdrawal.”

Either way, the effects reverberated around the world, nowhere greater than in the wider Middle East. In the two years since the completion of the US departure we have seen the advent of new strategic agendas within the region, alongside newfound readiness by Washington and its allies to show enduring commitment among growing global challenges.

In a similar vein to how a perceived lack of American decisiveness and strategic capacity to influence events in Syria, Iraq and Crimea preceded the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the legacy of Kabul encouraged the circumstances that led to the war in Ukraine.

In arenas around the globe, what was perceived a US withdrawal based on lack of diplomatic commitment and reluctance to engage in a significant way militarily changed the geopolitical landscape. This theme is increasingly apparent in the part of the world that is commonly referred to as the Global South.

In an important article last week, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace joined several prominent academic voices in arguing that the growing use of the term Global South be retired, especially given the growing preference by intergovernmental organizations and institutions for using it.

Whereas during the Cold War the world was effectively split into the US and its northern allies in the West, and the Soviet Union with its allies and satellites in the developing world in the East, the group of 130 states in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean can no longer be so conveniently grouped together as a “Global South” in terms of their development.

In the past two decades, for example, the standard of living in Turkiye has outstripped that of some European countries, Morocco’s economic development can no longer be grouped with that of Egypt, and the growth in Jordan and Malaysia is the envy of Southern European nations.

Politically, the futility of a concept such as the Global South is even more clear. India has long been a US ally, for example, but it has also provided important lifelines to both Russia and Iran, often contrary to Washington’s interests, and has been clear in its position of neutrality concerning the war in Ukraine.

Long-standing US allies in the Gulf region have similarly been slow to offer a position on the conflict, while maintaining close ties with Moscow. Nor have their clear US security relationships prevented them from warming to the BRICS group of emerging economies that includes Russia and Iran, alongside Brazil, China and South Africa.

The once linear stratification of the world, from which the term Global South originated, is now infinitely more complex and diverse, and against the backdrop of this indisputable shift of global power Washington has begun to act.

US power projection is often viewed through the military prism and its defense spending continues to increase. It now spends more on defense than the next 10 top-spending countries combined. This is an increase from 2021 when it outspent the next nine countries combined. The spending by the US accounts for almost 40 percent of military expenditure by all countries, and this staggering amount is intended to maintain the nation’s supremacy and keep other global powers in check.

However, the question of a US withdrawal cannot be considered purely from a military context. The American relationship with international institutions also plays a key role and has the greatest bearing on its influence.

As such, the recent urgency surrounding calls for NATO to regroup, expand and seek out preferred new allies, following several years of US disengagement from the alliance, is indicative of the need to retain the enduring relevance of existing international institutions and frameworks.

In the face of Chinese efforts to upgrade and expand the BRICS bloc of emerging markets into an out-and-out rival to the G7, US President Joe Biden has announced that Washington will be “focusing” on economic support for “like-minded countries of the Global South.”

By channeling $50 billion of investment through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the US is attempting to bolster existing institutions in which it has always played a role. Any attempt to act unilaterally would only serve to further isolate American interests and expose the developing world to the coercive lending practices of China under its Belt and Road Initiative.

With more than 40 poor countries already exposed to Chinese debt totaling as much as 10 percent of their total gross domestic products, empowering the Bretton Woods intuitions (the IMF and World Bank) is an important aspect of US efforts to address the unceasing decline in American power and to support the developmental challenges of its allies.

The US cannot afford to act unilaterally amid the growing multipolar nature of the international system. Yet in recent years it has been seen as steadily retreating from the global arena as a result of a more insular foreign policy.

Last week’s triparty summit, however, which brought together the US with allies Japan and South Korea, was a step in the right direction. It addressed the issue of cooperation, alongside efforts to uphold “international law, freedom of navigation and a peaceful resolution of disputes.”

Continuing support for such initiatives, and working with traditional allies, is key if the US wishes to uphold the rules-based global system it has long supported.

The most pressing theater for such efforts is currently the Middle East, where the US has not recovered from the specter of its hasty retreat from Afghanistan. Longstanding US allies are increasingly looking beyond Washington to secure their stability.

Qatar’s recent 27-year liquefied natural gas deal with China is the largest in history. In addition Doha, a non-NATO ally that supported the US in its efforts to evacuate 80,000 people from Kabul, is simultaneously arming Indonesia while seeking to upgrade its defense pact with Turkiye.

Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet and the UK’s Juffair naval base, retains strong economic interests in Asia but continues to share security concerns with the US.

Given that the perceived US reticence to fully engage in the region has some Arab countries to review their international partnerships, Washington can ill-afford any further signs of disengagement, especially amid a Chinese economic slowdown and the prospect of a new world order emerging.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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