There is no conclusive evidence, but the influence of the US as the leader internationally appears to be on the wane. Will China replace the US in that leadership position? Time and what transpires over the next decade or so — in the US, in China, and around the world — will shape that story.
Amid China’s economic and military rise, and Russia’s strategic manoeuvring during its war against Ukraine, there is a growing belief in national capitals across the world that the soft and hard power of the United States (US) are on the wane. Some have argued that Pax Americana, which strengthened in the late 1980s with the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union, is about to end, if it hasn’t already done so. Many are convinced that, as US influence shrinks gradually, China is poised to take over some of the roles historically performed by Washington DC.
Three developments, two of them in the past month, tend to corroborate the view that a multipolar world order may be emerging. The most recent was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to Russia, during which he affirmed his country’s support for Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin. In their interactions, both leaders made no attempt to hide their common purpose and shared agenda. In statements, Putin vowed to “jointly work” with China “to create a more just and democratic multipolar world order, which should be based on the central role of the UN, its Security Council, international law, and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.” Xi pledged to strengthen cooperation with Russia “within multilateral structures,” such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the G20.
Perhaps the strongest indication of Beijing’s ambition to match and supplant Washington as a peacemaker came a few days before the Xi-Putin summit, when China brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, restoring normal relations between the two rival powers that were at loggerheads since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Riyadh severed its ties with Tehran in 2016 after Iranians protesting the execution of a Shia cleric by the Saudi regime ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Both these developments can be interpreted as setbacks for the US. By bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran to the negotiating table, China signalled to the world its intention to challenge America’s role as the sheriff in West Asia.
The third development — underway since the beginning of the Ukraine war — is an ongoing effort by many countries to move away from the dollar as the premier currency for global trade. As the US and its allies slapped tough sanctions on Russia, depriving Moscow of access to dollars and the international financial system, a slew of countries traded with Russia in Chinese yuan, UAE dirham and Indian rupee.
In a statement, Putin gleefully highlighted this fact stating, “[The] share of the ruble and yuan in mutual commercial transactions reached 65%” in the first quarter of 2022, allowing the Russia and China “to protect mutual trade from the influence of third countries and negative trends on global currency markets.”
Although the US’s reign as the sole superpower began only at the end of the Cold War, its role as the lynchpin of security for the West and its allies dates back to World War II. In the aftermath of the war, chastened by the devastation it caused, western European nations agreed to US hegemony, in return for guaranteeing peace and security, which allowed them unprecedented economic growth and stability for more than seven decades.
Now the US dominance is threatened by China, the second largest economy in the world. What is undermining a US-dominated world order, however, is not just the rise of China and the Sino-Russian alliance, or the de-dollarisation drive, but also dwindling support for a US-led order domestically.
The Republican Party, for long ardent advocates of interventionism abroad, largely turned inward after Donald Trump emerged as the party’s torchbearer in 2016. In the Trump era, the domestic consensus that existed on foreign policy all but disappeared. At one time, only the progressives and, at times, libertarians, were opposed to foreign wars. At the moment, the biggest opponents of US support for Ukraine are not the anti-war Left, but the Make America Great Again (MAGA) Republicans, aligned with Trump.