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America: Just a Poor Player

In Cannes, the U.S. will strut and fret its hour on the world stage, but with less impact than ever. The question is, can America’s baby—the international system—stand on its own?


G-20 leaders meet in Cannes for a photo opportunity. From left: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama.(Peer Grimm/Pool/dapd)

In past decades, it was mostly a photo-op pretense: At various international group summits, the U.S. president would pose as just one of many leaders for the cameras, sometimes standing to the side, when he was actually first among equals. But when President Obama finds his place in the G-20 lineup at Cannes on Thursday, the image will be closer to reality than it ever has been. He truly will be just another player.

All of which is something of a historical irony as we approach, next month, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and the start of what used to be called the “unipolar” era, starring America as the “lone superpower.” Indeed, this G-20 summit may be the best illustration we have seen to date that the United States no longer has much influence over events that could alter the future course of civilization.


This is true both because of the diffuse, consensus-based structure of the G-20 group and the crises it is dealing with, especially the euro-zone debt crisis—the main agenda item at Cannes—and the evolving political outcome of the Arab Spring movement. The G-20 is the first major international institution, excepting possibly the International Criminal Court, that was created without a dominant U.S. role as parent or midwife. Instead, the G-20 came of age at a time of U.S. weakness and lack of influence, the Wall Street-engendered global financial crisis of 2007-08. And now, as the euro crisis roils Wall Street and other major markets daily, senior U.S. economic officials find they constitute only one voice among a whole multiplicity—not even a major one at that—trying to bring the 17 euro-zone countries to consensus.

Meanwhile, a major source of U.S. economic stability for the last half-century at least, the oil-rich Arab world, is in a state of upheaval. And despite its critical support role in the Libya intervention, Washington is doing little to shape the political outcome in these countries, although in each case new governments could arise with Islamist, anti-American policies. To the extent that he is exerting influence there, Obama seems to be trying it through proxies: The Indonesians, for example, are advising the Egyptians on how to transition to democracy in a majority Muslim state, at the president’s urging (Obama lived in Jakarta as a child). In Libya, Qatari officials are also on the ground helping per a U.S. request. 

All of this feels like the passing of an era. The United States, of course, has rarely had as much influence on world events as commentators sometimes ascribe to it. But it is undeniably true that, in a burst of institution-building in the mid-to-late 20th century—a time when the U.S. economy comprised nearly half of the global total of gross domestic products and America’s military bestrode every continent—Washington did lay the groundwork for much of the globalized world system we know today. Every major international institution—the U.N., the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the trade "rounds" that led to the World Trade Organization, NATO—was literally made in America during World War II or the Cold War era. The open highways and byways of this system, of international markets and trade rules, international standards for human rights and even, more recently, democracy, were largely American-influenced, and are secured by American power. Even the annual G-7 gatherings of the U.S., Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada began in 1973 as an informal meeting over exchange rates in the White House library.


As a result, Washington has usually enjoyed a baked-in-the-cake dominance in these other institutions, at least in setting the agenda, whether it is acting as one of the “permanent five” veto-bearing members of the U.N. Security Council, anointing the World Bank president, or deciding on NATO deployments.

The main question going forward, perhaps, will be whether these institutions and this law-and-rule-based global system can survive without a dominant power running the show, namely the U.S. In his new book, Liberal Leviathan, Princeton scholar John Ikenberry argues that it can. “If the old postwar hegemonic order were a business enterprise, it would have been called American Inc. It was an order that, in important respects, was owned and operated by the United States. The crisis today is really over ownership of that company,” Ikenberry writes. But other political scientists, such as Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University, argue that it’s very difficult to untangle the “company”—the rules of the world order—from American hegemony. And “the formation of the G-20 is a catch-22 of sorts, in the sense that the advanced industrialized nations had to enlarge the circle because the post-World War II order was anachronistic,” says Kupchan. “But when you’ve got 20 countries around the table, that’ s a lot of cooks in the kitchen.”

The question now is whether such forums will remain as chaotic and indecisive in the future, given the conflicting interests and disparate levels of development of the G-20 nations. Beginning with the Toronto summit in June 2010, Washington has watched with consternation as things have failed to go its way at the G-20. And as we obsess over our problems at home, we may be taking a lot for granted abroad. The outcome of the G-20 process could be a test of future stability: Will one of its major members, China, continue to refuse to help bail out the euro zone, or perhaps extract some kind of European fealty for doing so? Will it end up more of a rogue power that routinely flouts trade rules, manipulates its currency and steals intellectual property, leading to a breakdown of the global trading system? Or will it become a “stakeholder”?

In many respects, the United States is now suffering from a kind of ideological blowback—too much success in touting its agenda and values around the world for the last century or so. After all, both the outcome of the euro-zone crisis and the Arab Spring may be determined by a democratic vote. And there is no question that on most issues, the U.S. remains the dominant player, with far more allies than any other nation. Rajiv Shah, the administrator of USAID, told National Journal in an interview on Wednesday—on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the foreign-aid program—that U.S. institution-building has yielded major results that can be seen today. One good example: the progress of South Korea, for so long a U.S. protectorate. “South Korea was one of our largest recipients through the 1960s and '70s,” says Shah. “Today, they’re taking on the mantle of aid donor themselves.”


But Georgetown’s Kupchan warns that U.S. officials need to do a better job of planning strategy in the post-American world. “The biggest mistake is to assume that the current order persists and we hunker down and stick our heads in the sand,” he says. “Then we’ll wake up in 2025, open the shades, and realize the system has come undone and there’s nothing to replace it.”

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