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America’s Enduring Leadership

WASHINGTON, DC – Many observers have cited the crisis in Ukraine as yet another example of American retrenchment and declining global influence. Some have also interpreted it as evidence of a Russian-led effort to mobilize the major emerging economies – Brazil, India, and China – against the West. While there is a kernel of truth in both narratives, each is a gross exaggeration, as is the notion that America’s capacity to shape a secure and prosperous international system is in decline.

The US has had a rough few years. After two long, draining wars, its withdrawal from Afghanistan is inching along slowly. In Syria, Russian and Chinese intransigence have frustrated its efforts to find a diplomatic solution. And China’s growing assertiveness in the South and East China Seas is threatening US regional dominance, while raising the risk of a crisis with America’s close ally Japan.

Meanwhile, many of America’s European allies are mired in economic malaise. And, though the US economy is recovering from the global financial crisis, America’s treasury and reputation has been dealt a severe blow.

Nonetheless, the US remains the most influential global actor – not least because of the strong alliances that it maintains. All of the attention given to China’s economic rise – and, to a lesser extent, that of India and Brazil – has overshadowed the success of US allies like South Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, and Germany. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s strongest economies are allied with the US.

Moreover, far from coalescing into a united anti-Western bloc, the emerging powers remain sharply divided. There are far more overlapping interests between the established and the emerging powers than the “West versus the rest” narrative suggests; indeed, the rising powers often share as many interests with their Western counterparts as they do with each other.

Given this, even the economic powerhouses that are not US allies do not want to upend the existing world order, but rather to gain more space within it, such as through increased authority in international institutions. After all, they rose precisely by integrating themselves into the global economic system.

Even China, which arguably seeks to curtail US leadership in some domains, has no choice but to cooperate with the US and its allies on many foreign-policy issues. China can challenge American leadership only if others follow it, and so far it has found few takers. Only Russia has sought to play a more destabilizing role – during the global financial crisis, in Syria, and now in Ukraine.

To be sure, the emerging powers do share a strong inclination toward rivalry – or at least toward autonomy – which is rooted in what might be called the “psychology of rise.” But they know that an excessively aggressive stance toward the US would undermine their interest in a stable global economy and the safe passage of their goods and energy through international sea and air routes.

This is particularly true for China, because its domestic stability and international influence depend largely on its ability to maintain rapid economic growth, which demands ever-larger quantities of imported energy and other natural resources. To ensure unimpeded access to these critical resources, China needs stability in the countries from which it can extract them, in the markets in which it can invest, and in the routes linking China to its suppliers. But China’s capacity to maintain these conditions is extremely limited – and in some cases (as in the Persian Gulf), it is heavily dependent on US military power.

In short, striking a balance between the impulse toward rivalry and incentives encouraging restraint is the most important dynamic in contemporary international affairs. And, for now, the global balance is tipping toward restraint.

Of course, the US will invariably face new challenges, all of which are on vivid display in Ukraine. Countries will be torn between retaining their security ties to the US and building new economic linkages with China. The complex global systems in which America’s interests are enmeshed will test US diplomacy.

Perhaps the most dangerous challenge is the prospect of emerging powers leaning increasingly toward autonomy, instead of alliance. China and India may not have been happy about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but none of the emerging economies could bring itself to vote against Russia in the United Nations General Assembly, even though the vote was ultimately meaningless. (China took the strongest position in the Security Council by abstaining.) They are not sticking with Russia; but they are not joining a Western effort to isolate Russia, either.

Ultimately, however, the world’s relentless evolution plays to America’s most important strength: its unique ability to build broad and disparate coalitions. The range of alliances and relationships that the US has created, including with several of the rising powers, far surpasses that of any other global actor – and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This is perhaps the most enduring feature of American power.

There is no denying that the US no longer enjoys the unrivaled hyperpower status that it did at the end of the Cold War. But, for the time being, the international system remains America’s to lead.