The United States is the only superpower

2020 US election: Descent of a superpower

How much is left of the USA as you knew it? From the hoard of democracy and human rights that wanted to make "the world save for democracy", spread democracy in the world? About that extra-European power that decided two world wars in Europe, about the protective power of the Free World that kept the Soviet Union in check during the Cold War until freedom triumphed over coercion?

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The superpower's reputation has suffered over the past four years. Republican President Donald Trump is said to have broken with the United States' role as the leading power of the Free World. According to complaints in Europe, the US president has offended his allies with his "America first" policy. The billionaire in the White House instigated trade wars not only with main rival China, but also with the EU, which he perceived as a competitor rather than an ally. Even the security guarantee that the USA has given Europe for decades is suddenly called into question: French President Emmanuel Macron has already described NATO as "brain dead".


Panic in Europe

The western defense alliance was a reliable constant in international politics for decades, an organization that seemed very healthy and which was also expanding to the east. But Trump's unsentimental policy towards the old continent, which primarily had its own interests in view, caused panic among many European NATO partners. The main concern of the billionaire in the presidential office seemed to be that the European NATO partners, while making use of the security guarantees of the US, do not want to spend enough money for their own security.

It is a lawsuit that Trump was certainly not the first to utter: For decades, especially in neoconservative circles in the USA, the Europeans' unwillingness to defend themselves has been turned up their noses, while Europeans have been angry about the unilateral approach of the US. Europe has established itself in a "post-historical paradise" of peace and prosperity, in a Kantian utopia of eternal peace, judged the neoconservative US political scientist Robert Kagan in his 2003 book "Macht und Ohnmacht".


Hobbes versus Kant

The USA, on the other hand, would rather have a worldview that corresponds to that of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes - a cool, realistic one that assumes a kind of "war of all against all". Accordingly, they are not afraid to use the economic and military power that they have at their disposal to assert their own interests. Donald Trump has impressively demonstrated the former over the past four years with his trade wars and economic sanctions. In military terms, however, Trump has not been active to this day - apart from two brief military strikes in Syria that resembled a kind of warning shot. On the contrary, he seemed to be implementing the announcements he made during his election campaign: a policy of withdrawing from crisis areas such as Syria or Afghanistan. An increased focus on yourself in a kind of neo-isolationism. This freed up space for rival powers such as Russia in Syria.

On the threshold of war

Heinz Gärtner, US expert at the Vienna International Institute for Peace, puts this finding into perspective: "The US withdrawal was more of an announcement policy to satisfy the isolationist wing of the Republicans," says the political scientist from the University of Vienna of the "Wiener Zeitung". US troops are still in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the special forces in Syria have remained.

Only the role of protecting the Kurds has been given up - which has probably not increased America's credibility in the Middle East. With Iran and North Korea, the US under Trump was even on the verge of war - as it was under his predecessor Barack Obama in Syria. Obama also intervened in Libya and thus plunged the country into chaos.


No longer the "only world power"

Not much has remained of the status of the "only world power", as US geopolitician Zbigniew Brzezinski described the USA in the 1990s. China is challenging the USA for its position as the world's leading economic power, Russia is modernizing its military and reacting irritably to the expansion policy of the West on its border. In addition, there are emerging powers such as India and Iran, for which the USA under ex-President George W. Bush bombed the way in Iraq and created new opportunities for influence. A rather disorderly, fermenting, multipolar world is emerging, and Trump has had his part in it through his undiplomatic approach.

This world is not limited to Europe, more specifically: the EU states of Western and Central Europe around Germany and France, which are at odds with Trump. Great Britain already maintains the traditionally good relationship with the USA, and the states of East Central Europe, above all Poland, which should be very concerned about Trump's occasional flirting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, rely on the real estate mogul as their best friend. Not without good reason, because Trump has always clearly stood behind Poland and sent troops there. "In any case, nothing of the alleged friendship between Trump and Putin can be found in the strategic concepts of the US security services," says Gärtner.

For Israel, Trump is a friend

China is described there as the main opponent, both economically and militarily. "Then comes Russia, the main nuclear threat. And then the rest of the rogue states‘ like North Korea and Iran. " The flirtation between Kim and Trump didn't change that. In this respect, NATO still seems to be functional - despite warnings from some that another Trump presidency would mean its collapse.

Outside Europe it seems doubtful anyway whether the US has really lost so much of its reputation under Trump. For Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump is a friend, and the authoritarian Arab states have more respect than despise him for Trump's gruff manner.


Peace deals with Arab states

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have reached agreements with Israel through Trump's mediation, and most recently Sudan was added, which was therefore removed from the US terrorist list. Asian countries such as South Korea or Japan don't have a big problem with Trump either, just like Australia. The indignation is largely limited to Western Europe and Canada, that is, the closest allies - who would certainly hear more friendly tones under President Biden. But that does not mean that everything is back to normal in relation to the USA. Probably every US president would urge Europeans to become more involved within NATO. Biden, too, is harsh on China, and the conflict with Russia would worsen under his presidency anyway.

The "villain superpower"

America's problems go deeper than that. "The USA is no longer the 'shining city upon the hill' that ex-President Ronald Reagan referred to in reference to a sermon by the Puritan John Winthrop," says Gärtner. "As the Corona crisis has shown, the US infrastructure does not meet Western standards. The health system and the educational system are ailing," analyzes the political scientist.

American exceptionalism, the deeply rooted notion of being the globally envied role model, the state that shows the whole world the direction - a notion in which originally puritanical, later democratic moralism and imperial ambitions overlap - it is still alive and well , but nowadays there is hardly any real equivalent It is true that the USA still has the most powerful military and leadership in the high-tech sector, if you think of global corporations like Google or Apple - assets that also declining Europe does not have. Nevertheless, the trend is pointing downwards. And the aggressive tones that are being used in some Washington political circles do not suggest that the US will simply come to terms with its decline. The US political scientist Michael Beckley even speaks of the USA as a "rogue superpower", a "rogue superpower" - regardless of the president. "Multilateralism," Gärtner sums up, "is dead."