Which superpower is the greatest
America - the shackled superpower
Globalization-related fears have changed the worldview of many Americans. This and the budget cuts in the military and diplomacy are increasingly limiting Washington's international ambitions.
The United States of America is the most influential country in the world. They combine the greatest economic power, an unmatched military clout and strong alliances with a culture of worldwide influence. The US's global leadership position is at risk, however. To a not insignificant extent, this is due to problems in the country itself. President Donald Trump has further exacerbated the polarization of American society, but it is only a symptom of a deeper, long-standing grievance.
Trump hits the nerve of the times
According to polls, many Trump voters would welcome the US at least partially withdrawing from the existing international order. Why is this so? Many Americans have benefited from globalization. At the same time, since the 1970s, many others have suffered from the consequences of free trade, rapid technological change and measures to weaken the welfare state. These losers from globalization had to accept losses in their real incomes. The number of those who are only able to meet basic needs such as housing and food with great effort has been increasing steadily.
Another factor in the emergence of a mood critical of globalization is the unease about the nation's increasing ethnic diversity. Due to the relatively high immigration rate and the higher birth rates among minorities, at some point during this century the United States will have become, more than ever, a country shaped by the differences between majorities and minorities. Many cultural conservatives are concerned that this process will destroy typical Anglo-Protestant culture in America.
The interplay of growing income disparities and cultural challenges has had a significant impact on the worldview of many Americans. This has consequences for the Republican Party in particular. It was once a center-right that advocated largely open trade, internationalist foreign policy, and a lean central government in Washington. Today, Republicans are increasingly resembling an extreme right-wing party that is primarily concerned with protecting White Americans from perceived threats.
Declining morale in the military
Admittedly, parts of the American left also view the United States' international engagement with unease. The majority of those who share the anti-internationalist sentiment voted for Trump in 2016. They applauded his demonization of immigrants and his sympathy for white nationalism. Trump's rejection of international agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change resonated with these people.
The criticism of globalization goes hand in hand with problems in the armed forces. You can draw on an enormous budget of 700 billion dollars in 2018 - far more money than any other country in the world invests in its military. However, if you take into account all the demands placed on the armed forces, they are underfunded. This is largely the result of cuts made by Congress in 2013. The cuts introduced at the time led to uncertainties in terms of funding and made it difficult to plan long-term investments. The consequence was a decline in the operational readiness of the armed forces and the morale in the troops. Recently, an increase in military spending happened in Congress and was signed by the President. This will temporarily raise the budget ceilings. However, it will take a certain amount of time to repair the damage that has occurred.
Bloodletting in diplomacy
Lack of money combined with mismanagement also damages the diplomatic corps. American diplomacy had suffered from a lack of funding for some time. However, the current budget cuts are further exacerbating the situation. Under the recently sacked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the government suspended new hires and failed to fill vacant management positions. This left many Foreign Ministry employees deeply frustrated. In their opinion, neither Trump nor Tillerson understood the important tasks the ministry had to fulfill in an increasingly conflictual world.
In response, many high-ranking professional diplomats submitted their resignation. In doing so, they deprived the State Department of a supply of expertise that is difficult to replace. In addition, recruiting young diplomats is becoming increasingly difficult. This will make it difficult to train the next generation of senior officials in the State Department.
All of this calls into question the US's accustomed claim to leadership in the world. There is also a radical, populist political culture in which politicians capitalize on the fears of disadvantaged Americans. This damages the “soft power” of the USA. Europeans should be concerned about the tight shackles Washington is putting on itself. The foundation of European foreign and security policy is that America maintains its global commitment and remains a powerful international power. Without American support, Europe will find it difficult to make its interests and values heard.
Jack Thompson is Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.
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