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Joe Biden and the decline of American power

A new book shows how US power is increasingly unable to prevent the shift toward Chinese economic hegemony
US President Joe Biden attends a virtual meeting with members of the "Quad" alliance of Australia, India, Japan and the US, at the White House on 12 March, 2021 (AFP)

The first public meeting since Joe Biden's election between US and Chinese diplomats in Anchorage this week didn't end well. The trade and political tensions that escalated under Biden's predecessor Donald Trump are set to continue.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made plain the US position: “We will… discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber-attacks on the United States, economic coercion of our allies... Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”

In many ways, Biden is Mr Continuity, despite all the hype during his inauguration that the grownups were returning to the White House

In response, China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi hit back: “The United States uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries. It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and incite some countries to attack China."

Biden’s election was supposed to mark an end to the rogue presidency of Donald Trump, who left office after rallying his supporters to storm the Capitol building after refusing to accept he lost the election. But in many ways, Biden is Mr Continuity, despite all the hype during his inauguration that the grown-ups were returning to the White House.

It took newly elected Biden a little over a month before he authorised military strikes on Syria, apparently in response to rocket attacks on US forces in Iraq. A week later, Vice President Kamala Harris publicly declared opposition to a recently announced International Criminal Court (ICC) probe into Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The United States under Trump more than ever used its power nakedly to bully friends and enemies alike, and to rip up international treaties signed by predecessors, such as the Iran nuclear deal. But it is a profound misreading of history to expect Biden to turn his back on most of America’s imperial behaviour.

New language, same policy

Whether it's the Middle East, Russia, Iran or China, the new administration is changing the language (out goes the "China virus") while keeping the substance. Last month, Blinken said Trump "was right in taking a tougher approach to China", while commerce secretary Gina Raimondo has said she will continue the Trump policy of using the "full toolkit at my disposal... to protect America and our networks from Chinese interference".

Economist Jeffrey Sachs describes US exceptionalism - established 200 years ago with the Monroe Doctrine, but actually as old as the first colonial settlement in America - as a “civic religion”, which sees the US having a “destiny and duty to expand its power and the influence of its institutions and beliefs until they dominate the world”.

Dwight Eisenhower, who left the role in 1961, was the last US president to seriously question the pursuit of military supremacy and intolerance of other ideologies and political systems that has governed US foreign policy since 1945 when President Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

“We must be careful to ensure that the ‘merchants of death’ do not come to dictate policy," Eisenhower warned at the end of his time as president.

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Biden is no Eisenhower (who still authorised the overthrow of democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala). His support for Israeli colonialism is no less unconditional than Trump’s, even if his officials make weak noises about a long-dead two-state solution. US military aid to dictators like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continues, despite massive human rights abuses carried out by his regime.

In the wider Middle East and beyond it, the US finds itself at odds with too many international agreements and institutions to list - from arms control, to human rights, to climate and health, exemplified by Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organisation just as the Covid-19 pandemic required global cooperation like never before. 

The US, like Russia, China and Israel, is one of the few countries that is not a signatory to the ICC. Trump even imposed sanctions on the court’s officials.

Washington’s ever-growing regime of sanctions against countries that defy its will today includes Iran, Venezuela, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, and Cuba - imposing immense suffering on their peoples while failing to dislodge any regime.

Yet, as Michael Pembroke outlines in America in Retreat, his new book on the “Decline of US Leadership from World War 2 to Covid-19”, US power is increasingly impotent in the face of global forces that it cannot control, most obviously China’s inexorable economic rise. Pembroke shows how the tectonic forces of economic integration and trade from China to South and East Asia, Africa and the Middle East are remorselessly replacing the US as the dominant economic world power.

The drone and the dollar

What the US still boasts is its unmatched military might, at enormous cost to the American people and millions around the world, with 800 military bases spanning all corners of the globe. 

This is underpinned by the dollar - still used as the world’s favoured reserve currency.

The power that control of the international trading currency confers enables the US to impose its will on much of the global financial system, while also building up debt to pay for its trillion-dollar annual military budget. The rest of the world picks up the tab by buying US Treasury bonds. 

Members of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are increasingly trading in local currencies and reducing dollar dependency

This system has so far suited the likes of China, which benefits from America's trade deficit. But for how long? Trump tried to reverse the US loss of industrial leadership to China through tariffs on Chinese goods, but that policy may have other consequences that accelerate the shift in global power away from Washington.

The United States' growing use of secondary sanctions to impose its will on countries that wish to trade with US-sanctioned states is one of many abuses of its financial power that is pushing the world toward alternatives. China and Russia have already initiated several measures like cross-border inter-bank payment systems parallel to the SWIFT system, while reducing their holdings of US treasuries. 

Members of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are increasingly trading in local currencies and reducing dollar dependency.

Pembroke, a former Australian judge, provides a useful historical survey of America’s journey from architect of the global order at the end of World War Two towards a rogue imperial power that increasingly defies or decouples itself from all legal constraints to its actions. Along the way it has invaded and destabilised dozens of countries, from Iran, to Central America, Indochina and Iraq.

Today it would be hard to imagine the kind of retreat from global empire that happened to the likes of Britain and France in the 20th century. But it's worth recalling that the greatest reach of the British Empire came in 1921, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War as it seized new territories in the Middle East. And yet, within three to four decades, that empire had crumbled. 

Zero-sum approach

America in Retreat

The US is pivoting to Asia in the tried and tested strategy of using its military and technological reach to impede China’s rise. It worked with the Soviets, why not with China too? The zero-sum approach to global politics sees everything as a nail. But the hammer is not so useful when China brings development and soft loans to extend its influence and reach.

China is an authoritarian regime, but it is not a stagnant, militarily overstretched superpower like the Soviet Union in the 1980s. That description better suits the US - a country where Texans freeze to death when the privatised power system fails, and more than half a million died from Covid-19.

Yet consigning the US empire to the dustbin of history is not a done deal. The American and Chinese models of government and global power now confront each other as never before. Few predicted the fall of the Soviet imperium, which came even as America recovered from the Vietnam debacle and analysts feared its eclipse by Japan.

Pembroke dedicates his book to the Millennials, perhaps in the unspoken recognition that the old and middle aged leaders of America are not yet ready to relinquish the destructive exceptionalism that is the core faith of the US empire. Perhaps future leaders might return to the warnings of Eisenhower and change course, but we shouldn’t hold our breath.

America in Retreat: The Decline of US Leadership from WW2 to Covid-19 by Michael Pembroke is published by One World

Joe Gill
Joe Gill has worked as a journalist in London, Oman, Venezuela and the US, for newspapers including Financial Times, Morning Star and Middle East Eye. His Masters was in Politics of the World Economy at the London School of Economics. Twitter @gill_joe