By Stephen Hoadley

This ‘evidence’ of US unreliability, weakness and failure is partial, out of context, and lacking in historical perspective.

Fifty years ago, as I began my teaching career at the University of Auckland, the United States began withdrawing its forces from the Republic of Vietnam.

Three years later that government fell to Ho Chi Minh’s communist army and became part of the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Fifty years later, as I prepared to complete five decades of service to the University, the US withdrew its forces from the Republic of Afghanistan. Its rival, the Taliban, took over and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Its leaders immediately proclaimed China as its closest ally.

These were not isolated instances of US retreats. During my lifetime, the United States has been accused also of ‘losing’ Eastern Europe to Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Czechoslovakia in 1948, China in 1949, Pakistan in 1951, Egypt and India in 1955, Cuba in 1959, Iran and Nicaragua in 1979, Kuwait in 1990, and Cambodia in 2018. To this list of governments rejecting cooperation with the US in recent years might be added Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Lebanon and Sri Lanka.

Other countries in Latin America and Africa slipped from the US sphere of influence for complex reasons. China’s ability in the Belt and Road Initiative to lend vast sums for infrastructure projects in undemocratic countries is a cynical policy to gain influence, but it is working. The US is constitutionally, politically, and morally unable to duplicate it. In most of these cases either the Soviet Union, Russia, or China appeared to gain advantages at American expense.

Consequently, authoritarian regimes have arisen to displace many of the democratic regimes that Washington has attempted to foster. The geopolitical balance appears to be tilting inexorably against Washington.

Is this record evidence of an unreliable ally and a failing hegemon? Is America’s post-World War Two stabilising and democratic leadership now on the decline around the world?

Journalists, think-tank commentators and academics, and some national leaders like Tony Blair, have been critical. Many have branded the precipitous retreat from Afghanistan as a blow to US credibility, a strategic setback, and the beginning of the end of American global predominance.

My response is that this ‘evidence’ of US unreliability, weakness and failure is partial, out of context, and lacking in historical perspective. For every failure, one can point to a qualified success. These include the post-World War Two fostering of model democracies in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and the defence of South Korea from North Korean attack in 1950. Aid to Greece and Turkey in 1948 reduced the appeal of the Soviet Union. Marshall Plan aid revived war-torn economies and brought Western European states into the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO), the world’s most successful alliance. Subsequent US and European ‘containment’ policies curbed expansion by the Soviet Union and induced its collapse in 1991.

Other ‘failures’ were reversed when Egypt and India realigned with the United States and US-led forces liberated Kuwait from Iran. Vietnam has begun hosting US Navy visits to counterbalance pressure from Beijing in the South China Sea. The Republic of the Philippines, whose president flirted with China three years ago, has just signed a military cooperation agreement with the US.

Furthermore, US backing has mentored the independence of Bosnia and Kosovo from Serbia. US forces backing the Iraqi government have enabled the suppression of ISIS and a modicum of political stability in Baghdad. US troops continue to protect the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces in Northeast Syria.

I predict that the governments of the West, and of the Indo-Pacific, will continue to look to Washington for partnership, material assistance and leadership. The alleged ‘failure’ in Afghanistan will be set aside as an exception, a necessary strategic adjustment. If the US in company with the like-minded democracies can rally, consolidate, and focus, they can meet not only the threats of international terrorism but also the challenges of China and Russia, particularly at a time when both are facing economic, political, and military headwinds.

In my opinion, the end of ‘the American Century’ is not imminent. But it might better be recast as ‘the Western Democratic Century’. This would acknowledge that the US is part of a wider political community. The Biden Administration is reaffirming cooperation with democratic governments around the world, to their relief after the uncertainty of the Trump years. Many governments, New Zealand’s included, will welcome Biden’s promise that ‘America is back’.

Whether Biden can keep this promise despite widespread cynicism, political polarisation, and covert and overt opposition at home and abroad is the question partner governments will ask during the coming three years. In the meantime, America, if no longer revered as the ‘indispensable nation’ presiding over ‘the unipolar moment’, is still the least bad choice of partners.

The American Century need not wane if American leaders can learn how to share it with willing allies and partners.

This article was originally published in the October 2021 edition of UniNews and was republished with permission.

Stephen Hoadley is a recently retired Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.

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