The world’s only superpower is unable to play the part

Posted on May 6, 2014

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© CSIS PONI

Ever since the end of the Cold War and the death of the bipolar system of state power, the world’s attention has largely focused on the struggle between the USA and a series of ‘rogue states’. If a superpower is a state that has the economic and material means to project its power anywhere in the world with minimal notice then there is no doubt that the USA is the sole superpower in the world, today.

Logic would suggest that only other superpowers, or coalitions of powers, could hope to challenge a superpower counting on such military and economic might as America does. And yet, rogue states and lesser powers regularly challenge superpowers. From Saddam Hussein in 1991, to Bashar al Assad and Gaddafi during the Arab Spring uprisings, relatively weak states have gambled with American interests while pursuing their own. Yet, one may observe a trend that points to a decreasing extent of American involvement in foreign theatres that is incoherent with its undisputed status as world’s only superpower.

Intervention in Libya, dubbed ‘limited’ by many, came with reluctance and may have never happened without French and British pressure. Today, the foundations are there in Syria for intervention in a context not dissimilar to Libya’s, and yet intervention has not come and it certainly will not in the future. While the reasons behind this discrepancy are rather obvious – Western economic interests in Libya were far greater due to the presence of oil and there was no appetite in Europe for another air campaign – this contrast in US approaches to relatively similar contexts exposes the reluctant superpower that the United States has become. I use the word reluctant because a lone superpower, if it is to maintain its fearsome status, must follow a policy of foreign intervention which is as coherent as possible. Incoherence can translate into weakness and weakness is a rival’s bread and butter.

I have argued in an older post that Putin’s Russia has more to lose than it has to gain from the annexation of Crimea and the tumultuous situation in the Eastern Ukraine, at least at the international political level. However, Putin’s freedom to act unchallenged along Russia’s borders was evident again this winter (another episode being Georgia in 2008), when American reactions ranged from confused to petulant, but were always weak. State Secretary John Kerry famously declared: “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” While there is no denying that Russia has no right to invade another country, it is the way in which the message was conveyed that showed underlying powerlessness and weakness.

All the while, press releases from the White House keep reminding us that new sanctions are always ready to be implemented against Russian companies and individuals. It is preposterous to pretend that Putin had not taken economic sanctions into account when planning the occupation of Crimea, which makes personal sanctions against Russian businessmen useless, as well as opportunistic. To be sure, sanctions against Russia are preferable to a laissez-faire approach, but this does not explain why half-baked economic sanctions are the only way the USA (which in 2012 spent 39% of total world military expenditure) can contain the expansionistic adventures of Russia (with a 5.2% share).

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Of course, no one can blame the Obama administration for wanting to avoid a military stand-off with Russia over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Some may say that the difference between Russia and Libya is the fact that the former can count on a huge amount of nuclear weapons but states know that no victors come out of a nuclear conflict. Russia can act freely in its sphere of influence (and it has been doing for a few years now) because it is clear that the US will not make use of its huge military budget.

Economic sanctions may be successful with Russia in the long run, as they were with Iran (a result which admittedly I had failed to foresee), but they will further undermine the world’s perception of the United States as the superpower you just cannot afford to defy. This article does not at all mean to advocate for military confrontation, but to show how a close-to-40% share of world military expenditure is perhaps an extravagant luxury rather than a deterrent, when rivals and potential enemies know the US are so reluctant to use it.

 

 

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Posted in: America, Europe, News, Opinion