BERLIN – Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, once described the United States as the “indispensable nation.” Current developments around the world are proving her right. But the proof has been almost entirely negative: Today, America’s importance has become apparent from the absence of US leadership in one crisis after another – an absence that is most immediately obvious in Syria.
In fact, a post-American world is taking shape before our eyes, characterized not by a new international order, but by political ambiguity, instability, and even chaos. This is unfortunate, and could turn out to be so dangerous that even die-hard anti-Americans end up longing for the passé American century and the US role as a global force for order.
Both subjectively and objectively, the US is no longer willing or able to play that role. There have been many causes: a decade of war in the greater Middle East, with its enormous cost in “blood and treasure”; the financial and economic crisis; high public debt; reorientation toward internal problems; and a new focus on Pacific affairs. Add to this America’s relative decline in view of China’s ascendance and that of other large emerging countries.
I am relatively certain that the US will successfully manage its reorientation and realignment, but the relative weight and reach of its power will nonetheless decline in the new world of the twenty-first century, as others grow in strength and catch up. Certainly, America’s global role will not be called into question. China will be busy addressing its own internal contradictions for a long time yet. Nor is India or Russia likely to pose a serious challenge. And Europe’s din of conflicting voices appears to preclude it from claiming America’s mantle.