In recent weeks the authority of the United States has been tested and found wanting both at the United Nations and throughout the global system. In the peace talks in Syria the US was not even invited to the meetings, a significant event considering the historical influence of America in the region. At the United Nations a proposed arms embargo against South Sudan presented by the US fail short and was struck down. This occurred even as more than 3 million people there have fled their homes, and tens of thousands have died in the South Sudan conflict in recent years.
The measure of power in international relations is the ability to influence other nations toward the ends that you desire. The nation that is best able to do this is the most powerful nation. This is a rule of geopolitics and a historical reality. What we are witnessing is the clear and present decline of American power on the global stage. The nations of the world are increasingly finding less and less cause to be influenced by the purposes of the United States.
Historically, when power fades it is easier to see through the illusion of ideology. For example even as the US was condemning Russian and Syrian massacres in Syria and presenting the South Sudan arms embargo to the United Nations, a separate report was released by the Congressional Research Service titled Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations. The US ranked first in global arms sales last year with a whopping $40 billion in sales worldwide – almost 3 times more than the second place finisher in this report.
The image was clear, out one side of their mouth US policy makers were talking about peace and arms embargoes. Through the other side of their mouth they were raking in deals for enormous arms sales to developing countries around the world – thus insuring further instability and violence in those countries.
It is in these times of a great power’s decline that the world system will often see a convulsion of violence and instability. After World War II we saw this in the rise of radicals and smaller conflicts throughout the formerly imperialized world. The great power that previously negotiated a balance was no longer capable of doing so. Meanwhile the resources and instruments of that nation’s former glory was salvaged throughout the world usually by those who were most ruthless and willing to do so.
The inability of the US to negotiate balance and stability in the world today is a sign of things to come. For the US it means a loss of influence and power but for the rest of the world it means a rising instability and potential for violence. Even as this unfolds the instruments of American might and power such as arms and former alliances will be picked off little by little in the vacuum left behind by American might.
In Washington DC the government may be talking about making America great again but the realities on the ground will not be overcome by rhetoric. We are in the midst of an unfolding and historical process. It might be useful to also remember an old adage “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” This is very likely to be the experience of the global system as American decline accelerates.