The Changing Global Context: U.S. and European Approaches and Options



By Robbin Laird

The United States is no longer a superpower.  It is clearly a significant global power. 

The period where the Soviet Union collapsed and left the US in a lopsided leadership position was a clear anomaly.  This period is in the rear view mirror.

Some asserted during the late 20th century the bipolar world was being replaced by a multipolar world and that multipolarity would govern the new global order.

Terms like the global commons and institutions such as the G-X which grew by expanding numbers, not enhanced performance, proliferated.  There seemed to be an assumption that the bipolar world would transition into something like a new global power balance or some sort of management of the “global commons” which would allow some sort of relatively tranquil period of history.

But this seems to not have happened.

What seems to have appeared is really a chaotic situation in which regional powers are seeking to expand their influence in their regions, seeking partnerships with powers outside their region for better positioning within the global system, and with a continued decline of the influence of the United States and Europe in shaping outcomes.

Clearly, the US and Europe are key players.

But the question is how can the United States and Europe shape the next decade more effectively?

How can they protect their global interests through engagement in regional competitions?

And how will they deal with competitors such as the PRC and Russia who have aspirations way beyond those of simply working with the US and Europe to manage the global common?

In this series, we intend to look at some recent publications or events, which identify the dynamics of change, and to puzzle over the nature of chaos in the early 21st century.

Recently, we published a piece by a perceptive researcher from Baku who focused on what he saw as the U.S. not playing as effective a role as smaller powers think is necessary to promote global stability.

In other words, even though the U.S. is no longer a superpower, it is a key player in shaping the prospects for global stability or security, but only if acts and does not simply talk.

As this researcher put it:

Clearly, choosing the right strategy to reverse decline poses a more delicate intellectual challenge that the U.S. political establishment has ever faced.

With the relative decline of the United States, the world is entering a new era of international disorder. Just like the fog of war that exists when an army faces uncertainty in its situational awareness in a military operation, the fog of international relations leaves the United States uncertain and ambiguous about the capabilities and intent of its adversaries and allies. 

But one should not be forgotten that what is seen as disorder and international relations fog in the United States is not necessarily seen the by others, who perceive a new order and winning situation.  

The problem for U.S. foreign-policy professionals lies partly in the fact that they are not academically trained to manage their nation in decline and they are not ready theoretically and mentally to meet the new realities that are perceived by them as disorder. 

Another way to put this is as follows:

the chaotic period ahead is one in which various national and non-state actors will seek advantage in chaos and to try to maximize their advantages.

What kind of strategy can the U.S. and/or Europe shape to operate in such an environment?