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Nuclear Weapons

Is the United States Still a Great Power?

by Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins
June 16, 2020

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.

Group of Iranian officials sit at a table

Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran looks on during a meeting of the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) attended by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Iran on June 28, 2019 at the Palais Coburg in Vienna, Austria. The U.S. was not present as it withdrew from the JCPOA in May of 2018.

ALEX HALADA/AFP via Getty Images

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.

group of protestors with Black Lives Matter signs

Protesters keep taking to the streets across America and around the world after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of white police officer, Derek Chauvin. Officer Chauvin Knelt on George Floyd's neck during his arrest as he pleaded that he couldn't breathe. The protests are demanding a stop to police brutality against people of color. Many people are wearing masks and observing social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic. This particular protest in New York on June 7, 2020, offered a Blueprint for change and called on New York state legislators and members of Congress to end the slaughter of Black persons by the very institutions charged with protecting them. The Blueprint is a policy platform to reform failed statutes and regulations and to begin reforming to a more civil and just society. This includes the I Can't Breathe Act, the Blue Wall Act, repealing of statute 50-A, and housing and education reforms.

Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

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. 

world leaders pose for family photo

World leaders attended the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, in Washington, DC. The U.S. hosted the fourth and final in a series of summits to highlight accomplishments and make new commitments towards reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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.

NATO ships sail together

Ships from nations participating in NATO exercise Baltic Operations 2020 sail in formation in the Baltic Sea, June 8, 2020. The ships pictured are from the Royal Canadian Navy, the German Navy, the Royal Norwegian Navy, and the U.S. Navy. Exercise Baltic Operations is one of the largest exercises in Northern Europe and it enhances flexibility and interoperability among allied and partner nations.

U.S. Navy Photo by Kyle Steckler

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.

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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.”

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins is the Founder and Executive Director of Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution.

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