Opinion: America’s Turn? Is the United States’ Reign as Global Hegemon Coming to a Close?

Vladimir Putin” by Global Panorama is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

For anyone who has been intimately monitoring the intense impasse between Russia, Ukraine, and the West at large, a frightening reality has quite possibly blossomed from the depths of your imagination – what if the United States is no longer the undisputed premier power globally?  Although this stance surely invokes some natural skepticism – after all, following the conclusion of the Cold War, no rival has seemingly even entered the United States’ stratosphere when it comes to military and economic capabilities – it still looms in the back of your mind.

 

Indeed, following further scrutiny, the merits of the argument supersede the denigrations that would surely follow from the mouths of foreign policy experts and career politicians, who seem content to merely regurgitate the same stale talking points.  You can hear their voices echoing right now: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat to democracy.” “Russia must be held accountable for its actions.”  “Vladimir Putin is guilty of war crimes and must be punished,” or some other trite remark.  However, these are not the sentiments that should dominate our discussions surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Indeed, we must be asking the poignant, sometimes hard-to-hear, questions regarding the United States’ longevity as the world’s foremost power, the questions that the so-called experts seem either incapable or unwilling to ask.

 

Consider that the president of the United States – backed by the entirety of his western allies – was incapable of convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin to cease his incursion of Ukraine’s sovereign border, despite repeated attempts to beseech Russia to desist its escalation, followed by threats of hefty repercussions.  If the United States were the world’s undisputed hegemon, Putin would be shaking in his boots had the United States so much as threatened action against the Kremlin; instead, Putin and Russia seem to be insouciant to the actions engaged in by the United States. 

 

This fact underscores the plausibility of three scenarios: (1) The sheer feebleness and incompetence of President Biden emboldened Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, a stratagem he most certainly would not have employed should a stronger figure be presiding in the Oval Office.  (2) Russia – and more worryingly – China, have been permitted to burgeon at such a rate that they are now staking their claims as global powers, unintimidated by what they view as empty threats by the United States.  (3) Vladimir Putin made a miscalculation of epic proportions, and Russia’s decision to attempt to reclaim Ukraine will hamstring its forthcoming prospects of being a primary competitor on the global stage.  While none of the three scenarios are ideal for the impending prospects of the United States, scenarios (1) and (3) are workable to various degrees.  However, should scenario (2) be the root cause of Russia’s unperturbedness towards the United States’ threats, America’s claim to global hegemony would seem all but certain to be terminated – and in imminent fashion.  With that said, the next step involves analyzing the plausibility of each theory, followed by an outline of what the fulfillment of each scenario would signal.

 

President Biden’s Weakness is Precipitating Russia’s Boldness

 

The case for: Is it mere coincidence that hardly one year following Joe Biden’s supplantation of Donald Trump in the oval office, Vladimir Putin felt emboldened to invade Ukraine?  For many, the answer to this question is a resounding no.  Indeed, from the moment Biden stepped into office, an aura of weakness has come over the White House, as Biden has failed to convey to fellow world leaders that the United States is the foremost power globally.  For one, while I am not trying to make light of the situation, it is clear that President Biden’s cognitive abilities are not what they once were.  His speech frequently devolves into gibberish, and his addresses are often riddled with blunders a-plenty, a reality that does nothing to inspire fear in the hearts of the heads of states in countries such as Russia and China, who seem intent on returning their countries to previous glory.  From there, who could forget Biden’s catastrophic failure in Afghanistan?  Whether or not you concur with Biden’s decision to withdraw, his execution in pulling out so rapidly and without a coherent plan was an unabashed miscalculation. 

 

While Afghanistan was Biden’s most notable foreign policy failure, he deserves admonishment for his handling of other international matters.  For one, he has posited no coherent proposal for foreign policy in the middle east.  During the final months of the Trump administration, the former president began facilitating negotiations in the middle east, representing some of the first steps towards peace in the region.  Meanwhile, Biden has largely failed to continue these promising talks.  In China, Biden has correctly recognized that China’s human rights violations and its attempts to re-incorporate Taiwan and Hong Kong are detrimental endeavors; however, beyond strong language and light sanctions, he has taken little action to show strength to China.  And, to address the elephant in the room, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration had taken minimal action to curb Russian aggression towards its Westward neighbor.  For one, Biden waived sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline last year, a move that, to a degree, reinforced Russia’s status as a key supplier of crude oil globally.  Moreover, as Russian troops began encircling Ukraine in the late months of 2021, Biden again took negligible action to deescalate the situation.  China and Russia stand prepared to exploit any chink in the United States’ armor, and what better chink to take advantage of than a weak executive?

 

What it means: If President Biden’s weakness is the foremost source of Russia’s unashamed attempts to breach Ukrainian borders, the United States would find itself in a precarious, albeit workable, situation.  On the one hand, President Biden will be in office for at least another three years, and if we accept the premise to be true that his weakness has emboldened Russia, we should expect the impending three years to be laden with foreign policy miscalculations.  We simply must hope that none of these miscalculations prove to be fatally detrimental to the United States’ present status as the global hegemon.  On the other hand, call me naïve, if you want, our country’s great system is set up in a manner that one man – in theory – cannot inflict such catastrophic damage on the country in such a short period of time.  If polling is any indication, Republicans seem poised to make substantial gains in the 2022 midterms, and based on Biden’s unpopularity, it seems likely that he will be ousted from office in 2024 by most any sentient Republican candidate.  At that point, it will be up to Republican voters to nominate a candidate who will be tough on the United States’ chief competitors – projecting strength rather than weakness.   

 

Russia and China are Burgeoning Powers Staking Their Claim to Global Hegemony

 

The case for: It’s no secret that Russia and China are attempting to assert themselves as dominant global powers.  In Russia’s case, the country’s aspirations to attain global preeminence have dimmed following the stagnation and eventual dissolution of the USSR in 1991.  However, under the guidance of Vladimir Putin, the country has become a formidable world player, with a sizable population, nuclear capabilities, and a state-run propaganda machine that pacifies the population to a large degree.  Having said that, Russia’s economy is not particularly large; indeed, Russia’s GDP hovers around $1.5 trillion, a meager number compared to the United States and other aspiring global powers – and a reality that has prevented the country from realizing its full potential.  Meanwhile, China’s ascension coincided with its shift towards a market authoritarian economy (a free market economy melded with an authoritarian government) in the late 1970s.  Since then, China has seen its economy blossom, as the country has become a net exporter of a bevy of goods (just look at your local boutique shop).  To accompany China’s sizable economic output is an equally impressive military operation.  Not only does China boast more than two million servicemen, but the Eastern power has also stayed at the forefront of military technology, meaning the country’s defense capabilities are top-notch. 

 

With that said, for one country to supplant another as global hegemon, it is requisite that that country not only possess the means but the motivation to overtake the reigning sovereign power.  In examining Russia and China, it becomes immensely clear that both global superpowers seem amply motivated to, in their eyes, return to their rightful positions as dominant worldwide forces.  In Russia, polling data has consistently suggested that the majority of Russian citizens are sympathetic to the now-dissolved Soviet Union and its leader, Joseph Stalin.  Indeed, much of the impetus for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was based upon nostalgia for the “old system,” where the Soviet Union controlled not only Russia but Ukraine and a bevy of other close-by territories.  Vladimir Putin has no qualms in asserting that he believes Russia’s rightful position is at the top of the global pyramid, so to speak, and the Russian president has further posited that the dissolution of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.  Russia’s intense nationalism in tandem with its disavowal of representative democracy and present clash with the West all point towards a country motivated to ascend to global hegemonic status. 

 

Meanwhile, in China, Xi Jinping has promised to facilitate China’s ascension out of the depths to which it has fallen to help China actualize its previous status as a premier world power.  To understand China’s motivations requires a basic understanding of past Chinese history.  Up until the 15th century, China competed with Europe for the title of global hegemony before eventually faltering behind European innovation, and thus, relinquishing its claim to international dominance.  China’s fall from power culminated in the so-called “century of humiliation;” a time marked by the Qing dynasty repeatedly ceding to European powers across the 19th and 20th centuries.  Xi Jinping has presented a path forward – one marked by a return to Chinese economic and political dominance on the global stage.  Meanwhile, while criticism has been infrequent, Chinese leaders have recently become more emboldened in taking jabs at the United States, all the while presenting their country as a burgeoning power.  For instance, China’s state-run media recently levied criticism against the United States – and the West at large – disparaging American democracy while promoting Chinese stability – both economically and politically.  China’s size and resources combined with its seemingly growing hostility towards the West suggest that it is poised to contend for hegemonic status. 

 

What it means: As noted previously, if either Russia or China sees an opportunity to stake its claim as global hegemon, that would spell disaster for the prosperity of the United States.  Should China or Russia usurp the United States globally, the U.S. dollar would be devalued, as it would no longer serve as the global standard upon which other currencies are based.  This would send the U.S. economy into shambles, as decreased economic output, devaluation of the dollar, and massive national debt would culminate in economic downturn.  Moreover, the erosion of democratic ideals and institutions would be imminent, as totalitarianism would prevail.  No longer would citizens enjoy the basic freedoms that they have been so accustomed to, most notably, the right to elect government leaders.  Furthermore, the social fabric that has long held Western societies together would be all but vanquished.  In its place?  A system of governance that strictly curbs citizens’ rights and freedoms.  For professing Christians such as myself, religion would be denigrated, and the freedom to practice our faith would be fundamentally challenged, if not revoked.    

 

Vladimir Putin Made a Major Miscalculation

 

The case for: Russian President Vladimir Putin has been lauded by many as a genius tactician, but might it be possible that he made a devastating miscalculation?  To analyze this possibility requires an evaluation of what drove Putin to invade Ukraine in the first place.  After all, if his motivations were misplaced, it is possible that Putin’s decision was, concomitantly, based on erroneous ambitions.  As mentioned earlier, the dissolution of the USSR fragmented a number of territories that had previously been under Russian control.  One of these formerly Soviet-controlled territories was Ukraine, which now shares its Eastern border with Russia.  Ukraine has recently taken significant steps towards becoming a member of NATO, at which point, it would bolster its allyship with the West.  Let’s just say this reality is none too pleasing to Vladimir Putin.  Despite Ukraine’s status as an independent state, Putin believes the country’s entrance into NATO would represent a direct threat to Russian sovereignty.  Undoubtedly, for Soviet sympathizers such as Putin, a sense of nostalgia must be invoked at the thought of a “unified” Russia.  And conversely, Putin almost certainly dreads the entry of formerly Soviet territories into NATO, viewing it as the proverbial nail in the coffin in the Kremlin’s attempts to rejoin the Russian territories of old.  Might this reality have clouded Putin’s judgment, spurring him towards reactionism over sound judgment?  The possibility can’t be discounted.

 

This prospect becomes especially apparent once one considers the synchronistic flaws associated with Russia’s military operation, in congruence with the palpable kickback that Russia has experienced following its incursion of Ukraine.  For one, from an outsider’s perspective, Russia’s strategy to annex Ukraine was laden with naivety; specifically, the Kremlin’s assumption that Ukraine would simply capitulate at the sight of Russian forces seems foolish in hindsight.  Indeed, Russia reportedly anticipated that its neighbor to the West’s military would crumble imminently following an influx of Kremlin forces.  To say that Russia misjudged the will of the Ukrainian military and citizens would be an understatement, as Russia may well be dealt an outright defeat in Ukraine.  Moreover, the Russian economy has experienced devastating blow after devastating blow, with Russia’s exports screeching to a halt, its stocks diminishing in value, and its currency facing rampant devaluation.  At this point, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Russia turn into a quasi-pariah state.  While we in the West correctly scrutinize Vladimir Putin’s ends and the means by which he reaches them, the well-informed among us would also rightly acknowledge that the Russian head of state is nonetheless a brilliant mind.  Yet, the totality of the circumstances seems to indicate that Putin’s actions may have been rash and bereft of forethought. 

 

What it means: If this third scenario explains away Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we in the United States should collectively be jumping for joy.  After all, should this theory be proven correct, the United States’ claim to global hegemony would remain intact – for now.  Specifically, we in America could take solace in the fact that it is not weakness in the West that compelled Putin to pursue the annexation of Ukraine, but his own misguided dreams of reconstituting the Soviet Union of old.  Meanwhile, if this scenario is true, Russia would incur immense economic damage, setting the former global power years behind its peers.  Indeed, Russia would see its international status diminished, with the country no longer being able to throw its hat in the ring as a global superpower.  Furthermore, given the litany of countries that have joined in terminating – at least in part – their relations with Russia, Putin may feel the heat from his populace, as Russian citizens seem poised to grow increasingly impatient with the costs of continued war in Ukraine – both human and economic. A scenario thus becomes plausible where Putin’s nearly two-decade long bout as Russian president would come to a sputtering halt. 

 

So, which is it?  Might the proper response be a culmination of two or even three of the theories postulated above?  Might I have missed a theory?  Well, I wish I had the answer; but I do know this…the answer will reveal itself soon enough.  For your sake and mine, let’s hope the evidence doesn’t point to the viability of the second proposal.  

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