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Opinion

If America is to prosper, it must forget about pursuing the global dominance it once held and accept the world has changed

Joe Biden seems keen to reassert the US’s role as ‘global policeman’. But this doesn’t reflect the way the world has evolved, and a position that doesn’t assume American primacy would help in avoiding unnecessary conflicts.

In 1991, US President George H.W. Bush proclaimed a “new world order on the eve of the Gulf War. The speech marked a turning point in history. The Soviet Union was on its last legs, and Ba’athist Iraq under Saddam Hussein was about to feel the brunt of America’s now undisputed global dominance, having occupied Kuwait.

For the senior President Bush, the arrival of US unipolarity and the dawn of a “new American century” would give his country an open canvas to implement its vision across the entire world, and thus establish its position as the ‘global policeman’.

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Thirty years have since passed. The world has changed, but America’s sense of self-perception has not. The vision of a ‘new world order’ that Bush talked about has certainly left its mark. There have been a sporadic number of conflicts that the US has spearheaded or intervened in, including in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. It continues to confront regional adversaries such as Iran, the Taliban and North Korea, all of which are depicted as menaces, while pursuing broader geopolitical spats against Russia and China, which are perceived as challengers to the world it has built.

While 1991 is long gone, its legacy lives on. As set out in a Foreign Affairs article by Stephen Wertheim, America is suffering from “delusions of dominance,” an unimpeded belief that the US must continue to explicitly dominate every region of the world at all costs, and that such a commitment, be it in the Middle East or East Asia, is framed as an uncompromising altruistic struggle between good and evil.

The article notes that it is this cycle of unending militarisation and overstretch that is the cause of many of America’s woes, and with the new Joe Biden administration pledging to restore American primacy by way of ‘multilateral leadership’ and a turn back to NATO, it isn’t about to go away. The new administration must seek a realistic and pragmatic foreign policy, then a chauvinistic one.

Perhaps the one thing Donald Trump got right throughout his presidency was – despite the huge contradictions presented by the number of neoconservatives around him – his belief that the US was not the world’s policeman, and that the pursuit of endless conflict, especially in the Middle East, was not in the national interest.

He viewed American alliances in transactional terms, as opposed to value sentiments, and while this policy never truly made sense – given his colleagues doubled down on confrontation with Iran and vowed to keep militarizing East Asia – his attempts to withdraw the US from Afghanistan, disengage from Syria and pursue other troop removals were praiseworthy. Everything was a mess, yet he had a more meaningful and honest gauge for what the ‘national interest’ truly was, as narrow as it may have been.

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Yet Trump’s isolationist streak has been branded by mainstream liberals as among the reasons why he is now disgraced. The former president is accused of undermining America’s credibility in the world, and challenging the assumption that it has an unending devotion to every region and that its presence is permanent.

And so the Biden administration, despite keeping elements of the “America first” agenda, has sought to portray itself as “America is back” on the global stage and, within its first week, quickly compiled a list of enemies to confront. The new president has slapped Russia back on the agenda, vowed to confront China, Iran and North Korea and review the peace deal with the Taliban, which could easily reset another cycle of never-ending conflict.

But we no longer live in a world of unending American primacy, which creates a problem for this fudging of multiple priorities. The binary framing of US foreign policy as ‘good versus evil’ overlooks the country’s own muddy footprints, and how its actions have brought about devastation and provoked conflict, unrest and disruption, with the Wertheim article noting, for example, the never-ending pursuit of NATO expansion.

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Only last week, the White House condemned China for its military exercises near Taiwan’s air space, seemingly forgetting how the actions of Washington itself in encouraging the island as a bulwark against Beijing have provoked such tensions. There is a pattern in how each issue is approached, and the list is far from exhaustive. For decades, US policy has been driven by a never-ending cycle of threat gaslighting, provoking fear and, in turn, perpetuating conflict.

None of this, however, guarantees that America can return to the dominance it once held. Trump’s more isolationist vision was appealing back in 2016 precisely because it vowed to put ordinary people first, striking a contrast with the globalised agenda pursued by Barack Obama and others.

It didn’t work out in practice, but that doesn’t mean the idea of the US recalibrating its approach was inherently wrong. If, for example, America continues to argue it has a continuing desire to ‘protect’ Afghanistan and stop the Taliban, the quagmire will never end. If it believes it can block China’s rise and put Beijing in a box, it will find itself isolated, and if it continues to expand NATO in Eastern Europe, more instability and conflict will emerge.

Thus, there ought to be a new way, a better way and a more pragmatic way. The US must stop framing its foreign policy in terms of ‘zero-sum global dominance at all costs’ and refine its national interests. That means, as Wertheim points out, learning to live with those it loathes. Not capitulating to them, but striking a balance, adopting compromise and co-existence, as opposed to the 1991 triumphalism of a ‘new world order’ in which America’s way is the only way.

If that continues, then the Biden years are bound to be a disappointment. Yet if there can be pragmatism, then America just might be able to prosper – and, by default, stay ahead of others.

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