NYT: America isn’t leading the World

9:56 15.06.2024 •

Pic.: The Global Times

Never in the decades since the Cold War has the United States looked less like a leader of the world and more like the head of a faction — reduced to defending its preferred side against increasingly aligned adversaries, as much of the world looks on and wonders why the Americans think they’re in charge, notes The New York Times.

The United States now must contend with an aggrieved and unpredictable nuclear peer in Moscow. Worse, China, Iran and North Korea have come closer together to supply Russia’s war effort and resist what they call U.S. global hegemony. This anti-American entente has already proved strong enough to mitigate the effects of Western aid to Ukraine, and it is raising the price of U.S. military dominance. Russia directly borders six countries that the United States is treaty-bound to defend. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is preparing for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The United States is not outmatched, exactly. But it is badly overstretched.

Nor is the rest of the world flocking to America’s side. Most countries are casting a plague on both houses, finding fault in Russian aggression but also in the West’s response. Mr. Biden hasn’t helped matters. By couching the conflict as a “battle between democracy and autocracy” and making few visible efforts to seek peace through diplomacy, he has appeared to ask other countries to sign up for an endless struggle. Hardly any nations besides U.S. allies have imposed sanctions on Russia. Isolating China, if it attacked Taiwan, would be an even taller task. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, perceptions of Russia and China have actually improved since 2022.

The Gaza war came at the worst possible time, and Mr. Biden responded to this calamity by plunging in. He immediately pledged support for Israel’s merciless military campaign rather than condition U.S. aid on Israel finding a strategy that would protect civilians. Having chosen to follow, not lead, Mr. Biden was left to tut-tut about Israel’s behavior from the self-imposed sidelines. In a defining conflict, the United States has managed to be weak and oppressive at once. The costs to America’s reputation and security are only beginning to appear.

Part of the problem is the president’s inclination to overidentify with U.S. partners. He has deferred to Ukraine on whether to pursue peace negotiations and has avoided contradicting its maximalist war aims. He fast-tracked aid to Israel even while publicly doubting its war plans. Mr. Biden also vowed four times to defend Taiwan, exceeding the official U.S. commitment to arm the island but not necessarily fight for it. His predecessors were not always so one-sided, maintaining “strategic ambiguity,” for example, over whether the United States would go to war over Taiwan.

Yet Mr. Biden’s instincts reflect a deeper error, decades in the making. Coming out of the Cold War, American policymakers conflated global leadership with military dominance. The United States had sure possession of both. It could safely widen its military reach without encountering deadly pushback from major nations. “The world is no longer divided into two hostile camps,” Bill Clinton declared in 1997, the year he championed NATO’s eastward enlargement. “Instead, now we are building bonds with nations that once were our adversaries.”

But bond-building never overcame mutual suspicion, in part because the United States continued to prize its own global dominance. Successive administrations expanded U.S. alliances, started frequent wars and aimed to spread liberal democracy, expecting potential rivals to accept their lot in the American order. Today that naïve expectation is gone, but the dominance reflex remains. The United States keeps extending itself further and finding formidable resistance — which in turn tempts Washington to double down, as much of the world recoils. This is a losing game, and Americans will have to risk and spend more to keep playing it.

A better approach is available. To reclaim global leadership, the United States should show a suspicious world that it wants to make peace and build resilience, not merely bleed an enemy or back up an ally. That would mean supporting Ukraine but working just as hard to end the war at the negotiating table — along with gradually shifting to a smaller role in NATO and insisting that Europe lead its own defense. Mr. Biden’s recent proposal for a cease-fire in Gaza was laudable, except that it lacked a threat to stop sending arms to Israel if Israel refused.

Pulling back from Europe and the Middle East would improve American engagement where it matters most — in Asia. It would clarify that America’s purpose is not to pursue hegemony, as Beijing’s propaganda alleges, but rather to keep China from establishing an Asian hegemony of its own. From this standpoint, the United States could be a confident leader in the Indo-Pacific even if China continues to rise. China is today far from capable of imposing its will throughout the region, nor would seizing Taiwan, risky in the extreme, enable it to do so.

None of this would be easy, of course. But compare it with the alternative. Leading only a faction of the world turns the United States into a fretful follower. It puts Americans perpetually on the cusp of war in the Middle East, Europe and Asia alike, afraid that losing ground anywhere will set off catastrophe everywhere. The real danger, though, is to stake so much of global security on one country’s willingness to overcommit itself. True leaders know when to make room for others.


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