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What happens after the American Century?

A decade ago, it seemed like the fate of the world was largely in the hands of just one country - the United States

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

A decade ago, it seemed like the fate of the world was largely in the hands of just one country - the United States. The American “way of life” was broadcast around the world as the highest achievement of human civilization, with “freedom,” “democracy,” and a defence budget larger than that of all the other industrial countries combined.

There were also “bad guys” who despised that way of life and sought to threaten it. Where previously there were the “Reds” or the “Commies,” we then had the “terrorists” and the “Islamists.”

It was a simple, predictable Hollywood-style script of good versus evil, where the good guys had to win. If the bad guys had some successes against U.S. interests, such as the 9/11 attacks, that was only due to the lack of vigorous pursuit of the virtues of the true American way of life.

Global superhero

What other country could discipline so many of the bad guys at once: fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, ousting dictators such as Saddam Hussein, and imposing sanctions on countries such as Iran? The United States could fashion itself as a global superhero, and seems to have thought of itself much like those icons of popular culture that it produced.

However, like all the empires of the past, it has overreached. The beginning of the joint Sunni-Shiite insurgency in Iraq was the first symptom. The catastrophic financial crisis of 2008-2009 was the official bell.

Things do not look good for the United States. Russia looks set to engage in a new Cold War and Brazil frequently makes its displeasure heard

After the bravado of the presidency of George W Bush, his successor Barack Obama seems to have accepted the new reality with surprising humility and pragmatism. Washington has been scaling down its overseas commitments around the world. It remains the strongest military power in the world, but it is much more aware of its limits.

Though it had originally engaged with some developments during the Arab Spring, particularly in Libya, later crises have drawn muted responses, whether in Syria or Ukraine. The more instability there is around the globe, the more the limits of American power become apparent.

The unavoidable consequence is a global power vacuum, and countries such as China, Russia and even Iran are jumping in to fill the void. Whether in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, this century is not American, not by a long shot.

Geopolitical consequences

Some of the geopolitical consequences are already apparent. Regional powers are busy carving up their own spheres of influence and strategic security zones. Conflict and instability at the margins can only get worse, whether in the Middle East, the former Soviet states or China. Beyond that, however, the consequences for world trade, regional economic development and international political equilibrium are much more difficult to gauge.

What is becoming crucial is how the United States can engage with rising regional powers to maintain some semblance of international order. Its history with them is mixed. Relations have tended to be very warm with the European Union and the Asian Tigers, but have been difficult recently with the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Things do not look good for the United States. Russia looks set to engage in a new Cold War, Brazil frequently makes its displeasure heard, and even the EU has been severely alienated in the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden.

However, there are some very promising developments: the election of President Hassan Rowhani in Iran and the real possibility of a detente with Tehran in the wake of the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. If this comes to fruition, and Washington maintains good relations with the Saudis and Turks, we may yet see hope for regional stability in the medium to long term.

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Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.