Moving toward a renewal of US leadership abroad

Moving toward a renewal of US leadership abroad
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Many articles describe the diminishing influence of the United States internationally. An economy in turmoil, a rising force in Asia and a defeated incumbent President. But wait, that was 1980 and what happened in the years that followed should cause those envisaging a diminished role for the U.S. to hesitate and remember Mark Twain’s rebuff: “rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” Indeed, Biden's administration action and other factors could strengthen U.S. leadership in the future.

One challenge facing the U.S. in international matters is its decreasing share of the global economy. In 2000, the U.S. generated 21 percent of global GDP. By 2019, this share dropped to 16 percent (even though the U.S. economy had doubled in size) and is projected to continue declining. This drop is largely being driven by expanding emerging economies, notably China, whose GDP now surpasses Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. China is also working to increase its global influence, including its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (“BRI”) and intensified diplomatic efforts. Various commentators argue that U.S. influence has been damaged as the Trump administration has spurned allies in Europe and elsewhere. Europe has indeed been pivoting from U.S. leadership to expand its own role on climate and other matters.

While these factors might foreshadow a loss of influence, experience from the 1980’s/90’s points to the potential for a U.S. resurgence. Like today, the U.S. in 1980 was concerned about a rising Asian competitor. From cars to electronics, Japanese imports flowed into U.S. markets, generating calls for tariffs and other protections. Japan’s economy enjoyed robust growth rates, exceeding those of the U.S. in 15 of the preceding 20 years, while the U.S. economy was under stress, contracting in 1980. The superpower conflict with the Soviet Union seemed without end. The U.S. was viewed by many as weakened (evidenced, for example, by the Iranian Hostage Crisis), and President Carter became the first incumbent in nearly 50 years to lose. 

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What happened next? U.S. influence not only didn’t wane; it increased over the next two decades as various internal and external forces came into play. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 left the U.S. as the world’s only superpower, a position it enhanced by successfully leading a 39-country coalition in the first Gulf War. Japan’s economy began to stagnate while the U.S. enjoyed relatively higher growth, powered in part by a high-tech sector that burnished its image abroad. By the end of the 1990s, the U.S. was not only a superpower; it was one of history’s few “hyperpowers.” 

Today, several factors similarly point to a potentially resurgent U.S. internationally. Europe and others continue to focus on this country, as evidenced by President-elect Biden's congratulations that flowed in immediately following his victory. For example, as the European Union Minister for Foreign Affairs wrote: “Great day for U.S. and Europe, we look forward to working together with the new administration to rebuild our partnership.” Rebuilding relationships with these previously spurned allies will require skill by the Biden team, especially given Europe and others' initiatives to assert themselves in the vacuum created by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from various international efforts and their resentment about how they were treated. 

China’s ability to expand its own global influence to compete with the U.S. faces important domestic and international challenges. First, as Japan’s experience illustrates, it is difficult to sustain robust economic growth over an extended period, which China will need to do to have the capacity to overcome domestic poverty challenges while simultaneously expanding its influence abroad. Although China’s leaders recognize this need to sustain robust growth, their ability to do so is uncertain. Second, China’s superpower posturing is creating anxieties, notably about security for its Asian neighbors, and under the BRI where there are concerns investments will lead recipient countries into a financial trap.

But more than what foreign governments do, U.S. influence will be driven by what it does, diplomatically and domestically. An important driver on the foreign relations front will be the way the U.S. addresses China in three key areas:

  1. The above-noted security concerns for Asia

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  2. Access to China’s domestic markets and trade, major issues for Europe and the U.S. alike

  3. China’s domestic human rights abuses

The U.S.'s ability to assert itself as a powerful but friendly and democratic alternative to China and Russia will enhance its international appeal. 

The Biden team has announced plans to undo Trump policies on climate and elsewhere, but more will be needed for a U.S. resurgence. For example, in addition to rejoining the Paris Agreement, the U.S. should set out an ambitious program for itself and support others to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (mostly generated outside this country). The updated “nationally determined contribution” on climate due next year under the Paris Agreement provides an opportunity for the U.S. to assert leadership. Stronger engagement with multilateral organizations is another avenue to amplify U.S. influence, including with the World Health Organization and the United Nations (which is headquartered in the U.S. for a reason). 

A vital lesson from the 1980’s/90’s is that a stronger U.S. domestically supports a more forceful U.S. internationally. The ability of the different government branches to work together strengthens the U.S. capacity to deal with foreign rivals and allies. Re-energizing the economy at home will make the U.S. stronger internationally, just as it did last century. Technological advancements in consumer products and elsewhere enhances the U.S. brand internationally (as evidenced, for example, by the iPhone). Even efforts to tackle domestic social challenges resonate positively abroad, as reflected by the demonstrations in other countries echoing the U.S. racial justice movement. But for U.S. domestic strength to translate forcefully into greater influence abroad, it needs to support international goals in addition to national concerns.

As the Biden administration prepares to take office, history shows an opportunity to increase U.S. influence. This country still retains unique leadership potential as the world’s lone democratic superpower, projecting an unmatched combination of economic, military, and diplomatic forces. This was the situation in 1980 and remains the case in 2021. Whether the U.S. succeeds in reasserting and expanding its influence internationally will depend on its skill in dealing with rivals and allies abroad and building a stronger and more perfect union at home. 

Philippe Benoit is an adjunct senior research scholar with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and previously worked as Division Head-Energy Environment at the International Energy Agency and Energy Sector Manager at the World Bank. The views expressed are those of the author in his individual capacity.