The U.S. administration has recently begun using the term "Great Power Politics” again in much of its policy discussions. But, is the U.S. a Great Power? And, what does it mean to be a Great Power?
In the past three years, the U.S. has not shown leadership on any of the most critical global issues: infectious disease, climate change, and nuclear nonproliferation. It withdrew from the Climate Change agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; have taken steps backward on issues of human rights; have created an immigration disaster; and even tried to destroy our protection of wildlife. And, the list goes on. What is even more baffling is that these are fundamental global issues that countries must deal with collaboratively. Yet, the U.S. has not been working with our allies and has shown no leadership or strategy to find ways to address these threats. U.S. leaders have often criticized scientists and career government officials who have the skills and expertise to combat these issues.
In the past months, the U.S. has had a dismal response to COVID-19. The country has witnessed massive protests on race and discrimination issues that have plagued Black people for years. The U.S. withdrew from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, a treaty that, despite its problems, still helps provide a platform to build trust amongst the parties.
Traditionally, a nation viewed as a Great Power has "exceptional military and economic strength, and consequently plays a major, often decisive, role in international affairs.” But, the landscape and the issues that are of concern today are evolving. Military and economic power should no longer be the best measure of “Greatness.” I would emphasize that a country is a Great Power when it is a model that others wish to emulate and follow. A Great Power tackles the problems of today and is a leader in doing so. A Great Power galvanizes the international community to focus on issues of importance to the global landscape. That would mean leading on issues of nonproliferation, climate change, infectious disease, human rights, etc.
The United States enjoyed the status of a military and economic Great Power for decades. The U.S. used its power to influence decision making using its military might but also using its diplomatic abilities and international development aid. The international community viewed the U.S. favorably for sticking to its treaties and legal obligations and being a leader in international institutions. And, the U.S. took leadership roles in NATO and other multilateral bodies. Leadership also meant stepping up when there was a gap, as when the U.S. sent troops to help address a need in East Africa during Ebola.
Now the U.S. is stepping away. U.S. actions the past few years have been challenging to understand. In this environment, one may ask if the U.S. is deliberately looking for ways to give up its long-standing Great Power status. The U.S. has acted as if it does not want to be a world leader, much less a Great Power. For the past few years, the U.S. has adopted a policy of “America First” which has meant “America Alone.” Adhering to America First means that American interests can involve the detriment of others. One must also ask, how a country can be a leader if, increasingly, no one is following? The U.S. is asked by allies to consider staying in agreements that are working for the global good. Yet, the U.S. says, “no” and cedes its influence and leadership. Countries go forth without us.
The world is moving towards a new stage where power and greatness are on a different calculus. The United States should take stock of its status as an international actor and its part in the community of countries. In the past few years, the U.S. has become very good at being the spoiler, blocking international and multilateral efforts to address global threats. The U.S. is now the country that pulls out of treaties meant to address global risks, with a leadership that is not adequately addressing its health challenges or racial disparities, unable to deal with its issues of immigration, and ignoring climate change.
If the world keeps moving without the U.S., not trusting the judgment of U.S. leadership, the U.S. will continue to lose its international influence on many important issues. The U.S. should reassess its role in the world because it will become even less of a leader and a questionable “Great Power.”