Recently, many have been quick to say the United States is weak on the world stage and lacks the influence it once possessed. While the United States may not wield as much influence as it did after World War II or the Cold War, it is not the fault of any one administration, but rather a series of events in conjunction with globalization.
Through initiatives such as the Bretton Woods system and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the United States helped create a "rules based trading system" that it could control. Additionally, the United States utilized a "unilateral" track, in which they could threaten "retaliation, usually in the form of restricting trade partners' access to the vast U.S. market, in order to get the partner to open its markets to U.S. exports or to cease other offensive commercial practices and policies," which CRS noted was used against Japan to get them to "amend domestic laws, regulations, and practices that prevented U.S. exporters from securing what they considered to be a fair share of the Japanese market." These polices did succeed in allowing the United States to both gain more influence and expand global trade, and "growth rates far exceeded the rate of expansion of world trade experienced in the half-century before 1914."
Despite the system the United States helped establish to become the sole superpower, globalization inevitably enabled nations to catch up. Technological innovations such as the jet engine and infrastructure investments have allowed goods and ideas to move much more rapidly than ever before, according to the World Trade Report. The World Trade Report also noted that political changes have spurred global change. "[T]he seeds of economic integration had been sown in Europe, with the Marshall Plan providing a huge impetus to economic recovery and integration. Subsequently, with China's economic reform, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the major political impediments to global economic integration ended," the report stated.
The United States has also been fortunate to be geographically isolated and has benefited from its isolation, having exploited agreements such as the Monroe Doctrine to expand its territory and influence in its hemisphere. Given its strategic and fortunate isolation, the United States is only susceptible to a direct military attack from either the air or sea, which are both easily detectable. A ground invasion would have to come from one of two sovereign nations that borders the U.S. (although Hawaii and Alaska are susceptible.) This is an important distinction because World War II allowed the United States to capitalize on its geographic fortune to become an economic and military hegemon for much of the 20th and 21st centuries as it was geographically separated from much of the war — unlike Europe, Africa and Asia.
Economics was a major contributing factor to the demise of the Soviet Union, as the United States bankrupted them. According to historian Margaret MacMillan, "The United States was both a military power and an economic one; the Soviet Union had only brute force and the intangible attraction of Marxist ideology to keep its own people down and manage its newly acquired empire in the heart of Europe."
Globalization has allowed other nations to catch up to the United States – an inevitability of the free trade and open-market system established. The decimation of Europe after World War II allowed the United States to rise to the power it is today. This powerful influence has emboldened nations to step back, allowing the U.S. to take the lead in global crises – which has been evident with Europe's lethargy in responding to Russian aggression in their backyard recently – creating a moral hazard. The world is much more complicated today than it was after World War II. The United States is not weak; the rest of the world caught up.
Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy.