By Ali Imran
The chaos enveloping the Middle East looms so largely on the international landscape that it appears to eclipse other challenges like Europe’s growing sense of home-grown insecurity, Afghan uncertainty, climate perils, and Africa’s widespread economic woes.
Yet that is not all that is testing America’s global leadership in unprecedented ways. China’s rise as a major power with newfound economic and political clout also raises the double-edged prospect – of being a rivalling competitor or a cooperative partner for peace and stability.
Some of the defining events of our times took place at the start of the century in 2001. The 9/11 terror attacks inflamed a two-tier war – between the progressive and radical forces within the Muslim world and between the US and the militant groups, ISIS being the latest. The Afghan war, launched on October 7, cast a long shadow on the region with introduction of drone technology.
Beijing’s entry into World Trade Organisation on December 11 the same year marked a transformative development for the world economic order, kicking off a massive inflow of foreign investment, and an era of robust Chinese manufacturing, exports and growth.
However, differences between Beijing and the West over fiscal and labour policies led to a kind of trade war, with the United States, the largest economy offshoring jobs to the Chinese market that offers far lower production costs. As a result, multinational corporations reaped benefits from inexpensive manufacturing and Washington-Beijing economic interdependence amplified.
George W Bush’s conduct of costly Afghan and Iraq wars with their hurtful consequences and human suffering, and the 2007-09 financial crisis, also ratcheted up the international economic and security stakes, deeply impacting the way we live now.
Despite many ups and downs over the last 15 years, a waning image at the height of Afghanistan and Iraq war controversies, testing times during the Arab Spring convulsions, Washington has retained its primacy on the world stage, which climaxed in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War, brought about by the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the latest instances, the US leadership was on display in the fight against Ebola and formation of a coalition against ISIS militancy.
Meanwhile, America’s economy is rebounding with much greater energy independence, GDP expansion and lowest unemployment rate in years, even as Europe feels staggering new travails like the Greek financial crisis, Russia grows more unpredictable, and China’s continues to advance as a major power with initiatives like “string of pearls” seaports.
The unfolding scenario raises the question as to how the United States will maintain its global leadership in a far more complicated world and how competition or cooperation between the US and China might shape the future.
A number of books including The Next 100 Years, The Revenge of Geography and The World is Flat, have attempted to explore the future kaleidoscope and the United States’ place in it.
In a recent book, “The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Pre-eminence and the Coming Global Disorder,” Peter Zeihan cites the United States’ unique strengths behind what he calls a “singular combination of geography, industry, and technological development.” Among the distinctive US geographical features are twelve major American navigable rivers, with the temperate zone rivers flowing 14,650 miles long. The primary source of American power, he argues, would continue to give Washington an edge over other countries for the foreseeable future.
Take for example the enormous geostrategic role America has played in ensuring security for sea trade and energy corridors since 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement.
While some of Zeihan’s predictions of a bleak future for America’s competitors, friends and foes alike – due to a variety of factors — appear to be sweeping, his focus on the United States’ geographical bounties illustrates America’s immense naturally endowed advantages in the evolving world. His argument regarding America maintaining a preeminent world leadership role in the future has a fair degree of logic.
Meanwhile, the fast globalizing world continues to grow more complex, throwing up new dilemmatic situations for Washington. For example, the US had to do a delicate dance during the Arab Spring in finding a balance between support for democratic aspirations of people and imperatives for the regional stability. Similarly, while the Afghan and Iraq wars have given rise to new security implications for Americans and the broader Middle East, the regional imbroglio has imparted a new sense of urgency for a US role for peace and stability.
The Ukraine conflict and simmering Middle Eastern hotspots in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and the long-running Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and high-stakes issues like Iranian nuclear negotiations, demand a feisty but prudent world leadership. As seen in the case of the Iraqi-Syrian-ISIS conflagration, an American retreat or estrangement from troubled places is fraught with dangers of escalation. The deep-running divisions among the Middle Eastern nations may likely orchestrate new configurations.
This week, a group of Republican lawmakers’ warning to Tehran against sealing a nuclear deal with President Obama represents Washington’s own political challenge to American leadership on contentious international issues.
South Asia, housing more than one fifth of humanity, is likely to remain a strategically important region for the United States. By virtue of its close ties with both Islamabad and New Delhi, the United States is the only country with the ability to enforce conflict management between Pakistan and India, locked in a decades-long standoff over Kashmir.
China, after a hands-off stance during the Afghan war, has shown willingness to help stabilise Afghanistan with economic investment and support for Afghan reconciliation.
According to expert Barnett Rubin China’s potentially becoming a regional peacemaker is welcome news for the Barack Obama administration, as it will help Washington’s objective to prevent Afghanistan from sliding into another safe haven for al Qaeda. “The US hopes that China will become a full-fledged partner in international efforts to support and stabilise Afghanistan,” Rubin told The New York Times last month.
A successful Chinese effort in stabilizing Afghanistan – building on the US-led progress — would signify vast possibilities that the US-China convergence of interests could unlock for the region.
Pakistan, having wide-ranging bilateral relationships with both the United States and China, could also benefit enormously. If the US and Chinese cooperation can help Pakistan expand economic opportunity for its people, it will pave the way for connectivity between South and Central Asia and help turn off the extremist mindset afflicting the region.
Around the globe, countries will also have to contend with impending environment threats. That means America will be often required to lead a response to natural calamities as it did during the 2004 Tsunami, 2005 Pakistan earthquake and 2010 Haiti temblor.
The fact that more countries are likely to suffer more grievously from climate change and depletion of resources will inevitably accentuate the role of the uniquely positioned United States.
But the emergence of multiple crises would inescapably distract and divide American attention, and heighten the need for cooperation among major countries. The 2003 invasion of Iraq — that diverted vital resources from the Afghanistan war theatre, and ultimately resulted in a fierce Taliban insurgency — is a case in point.
With the world population expected to surpass nine billion by 2050, the core wealth of the nations will likely depend as much on the quality of their people as availability of natural resources. The 20th century America owed its economic and military success to a combination of factors including leadership, agricultural boost, entrepreneurial spirit, research, technological advancement, and human resource development. Going forward, much will also depend on how America fares as a pluralistic society amidst many world conflicts, and continues to be a land of opportunity for the best and the brightest to come, innovate and grow.
America and the world need a creative focus to grapple with unforeseen future challenges with greater collaboration and a critical mind that avoids wasteful wars, addresses climate change issues and seeks a judicious use of resources for common good of humanity.
This piece originally appeared in Pakistan Today on March 14, 2015