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Foreign Affairs

America's Weakening Gravitational Pull

The world is displaying less enthusiasm for following any single power, including the United States.


Mexican Federal Police stand guard in Cancun, Mexico, where representatives from 194 countries are to meet as part of the UN climate summit.(Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Two dynamics above all are dimming the prospects for an agreement in the international climate talks that resume on Monday in Cancun, Mexico.

One is that the United States' ability to forge a global consensus is eroding, partly because of intractable divisions at home. The other is that China (along with other developing countries) continues to resist being bound by international rules--at least as they have been defined by the industrialized nations. In that shifting balance of power, the chances of agreement are flickering.


That same destabilizing pattern was evident at the G-20 meeting of the world’s largest economies in Seoul earlier this month. There, opposition from China and other emerging economies helped sink U.S. proposals to accelerate global growth by limiting trade imbalances.

In the coming decades, this could become an increasingly common picture. Across a broad array of issues, the U.S. continues to uphold the ideal of common international rules that drive coordinated global action on climate, the economy, or security. But China, often joined by other emerging economies such as Brazil and India, is consistently resisting the U.S.-led order. Meanwhile, political polarization and economic weakness at home is sapping Washington's international leverage. The result is turbulence, as America's capacity to dictate world events diminishes and no new structure arises to fill the vacuum.

These tensions, to a large extent, may be unavoidable. The U.S. remains, by far, the world’s most powerful country. It's difficult to argue with President Obama when he told me and a colleague in an interview last month that, "It is hard to foresee, over the course of the next several decades, any country being able to catch up to us in terms of our ability to influence what's happening around the world and being willing to take responsibility for the events that are taking place around the world."


Yet the decentralization of global economic and political power looms as one of the 21st century's central dynamics. For decades after World War II, the global order revolved around American influence. Obama is undoubtedly correct that the U.S. will remain the world’s single most powerful nation, but neither it nor any other competitor will likely match that influence in the coming decades. "Although our 'gravitational pull' is still strong, it is not so strong that others orbit around us," political scientists Steven Weber and Bruce Jentleson write in their dazzling recent book, The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas. "Most [world leaders] no longer believe that the alternative to a U.S. world order is chaos."

George W. Bush responded to this shifting alignment by more forcefully insisting on American primacy: In a world no longer dominated by any single voice, Bush often seemed a bit like a tourist who talks louder when someone doesn't understand his English. He offered a vision of American power unconstrained by international institutions or consensus that undoubtedly made a mark. But it also left the U.S. isolated, and it demonstrated in Iraq not the length but the limits of our ability to unilaterally reshape the world.

Obama has presented an alternative vision of the U.S. as something more like an orchestra conductor--still the leader, but one that leads by guiding others to operate in harmony. That approach has produced some clear successes, such as a "reset" relationship with Russia (symbolized by Moscow's agreement last week to join with NATO in studying missile defense) and a tenuous but still functioning international consensus on how to stabilize Afghanistan and contain Iran.

But it's also painfully clear that not even this approach can entirely bend the world to American designs. Sometimes the problem is America's own divisions. That's a big reason for the pessimism surrounding next week's climate talks. It's difficult for the U.S. to demand that others cut emissions when the Senate has rejected binding reductions--and in January will receive an infusion of new Republican members who deny that climate change is even occurring.


The larger issue is that however forcefully America leads, the world is displaying less enthusiasm for following any single power. Once again the climate talks are instructive. China is rapidly deploying clean-energy sources, but it has also adamantly resisted any international commitment to reduce its growing carbon emissions, as have other emerging economies. Yet real progress against climate change isn’t possible without meaningful participation by China and other rising powers.

In Cancun, China's recalcitrance and America's weakened hand are likely to produce stalemate. If so, it won't be the last time that formula yields futility. Obama, to his credit, continues to promote an ideal of shared global authority and responsibility. But the U.S. can no longer compel allegiance to its plans. Although China isn't necessarily seeking to disrupt the international order, it has shown that it will embrace global rules only to the extent that they advance Beijing's other priorities, particularly maintaining domestic political stability through economic growth. In a world where the dominant power is hobbled and the rising power is insular, disorder may be the new default.

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