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#4649, 8 September 2014

Eagle Eye

Changing Global Balance of Power: Obama’s Response
Chintamani Mahapatra
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU

The term ‘unipolar world order’ has slowly been erased from the lexicon of current debates on world affairs. While the Obama Administration appears determined to keep the flag of Pax Americana flying around the world, events in Latin America, Europe, Asia and West Asia have begun to challenge the US-led global order. 

China and Russia have successfully penetrated Latin America by spreading their economic and military presence hitherto completely dominated by the US. While Japan has been seeking in vain to chase the Chinese into Latin America, the Obama Administration has been accused of neglecting its own backyard. 

Many analysts raised eyebrows when US President Barack Obama promised considerable assistance to Africa last month but had little to offer to Latin America. China already has a robust presence in Africa and has replaced the US as the principal trading partner of many Latin American countries. The US financial assistance has always been conditional to protection of human rights or promotion of democracy, but China imposes no strings; and thus, an increasing number of countries in Africa and Latin America are looking up to Beijing for assistance. 

Notably, China has little to offer to strife-torn West Asia. It has taken a back seat in the game of diplomacy and has not even attempted to restore order in Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Syria or Iraq. The US on the other hand has directly or indirectly remained a high profile actor in this region. The reigning superpower, however, has failed to contain, manage, and let alone resolve, the ongoing violence in West Asia.

The credibility of the US as a world leader has been questioned in view of Washington’s alleged mishandling of the Syrian civil war; the delayed response to the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS); the lack of satisfactory steps to re-establish order in the post-Gaddafi Libya; and the inability to arrive at an agreeable solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.  

Critics have pointed to the US’ hasty withdrawal from Iraq before restoration of socio-political stability and its planned exit from Afghanistan despite the resurgence of the Taliban as indicative of the US’ diminished ability and willingness to sustain its hegemonic world order. While some argue that the US is on the march to become-energy independent and hence cares little about the West Asian muddle, the region remains critical to global energy security. Can the US economy sustain itself, if there is instability in the global energy market?

The US’ recent decision to seek NATO assistance in addressing the threat from the IS is but one among several examples that testify the US’ declining power to maintain world order on its own. There was little doubt that the US dominated the NATO during the Cold War. However, this domination ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union and despite NATO’s geographical expansion. 

The support received by the US from NATO in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 vanished in 2003 when the Bush Administration prepared to militarily intervene in Iraq.  In the recent NATO summit in Poland, Obama persuaded some NATO members to expand its activities to other parts of the world with the creation of rapid deployment force. The first such step would be to tackle the terror threat from IS. However, it signifies the US’ weakness than strength in managing the IS threat.
The jerky balance of power in today’s world, however, is more discernible in Europe and the Asia Pacific where the resurgence of Russian power and the emergence of China as a potential global power has put to the test the resilience of the US-led global order. American threats, sanctions, and/or even diplomacy failed to prevent Russia from spreading its control over to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. Over the past several months, Ukraine has emerged as a new cold war battleground between the Obama and the Putin administrations.

After Putin brandished his nuclear arsenal, his proposal for a cease-fire became effective in Eastern Ukraine.   

Similarly, the US seems ineffective in stemming the expansion of Beijing’s influence in the Asia Pacific both due to China’s rising military prowess and vast economic muscle. China has occupied several islands in the South China Sea, harassed smaller neighbours, challenged the US’ naval vessels and surveillance ships risking potential confrontation, declared Air Defence Identification Zones and patrolled in waters close to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in East China Sea. The US has issued statements warning China and assuring its allies, but there is no manifestation of its effect.

Significantly, China and Russia have been forging closer economic and military ties to alter the global power structure, making it difficult for the US to stop the erosion of its global influence.

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