But the global instruments Trump deserted haven’t crumbled, nor is the world crashing and burning with its long-time leader in the back seat. Strongman leaders may be emboldened, but they aren’t going entirely unchallenged. And old US allies have not fallen straight into the arms of China, as many analysts fear.
Instead, the world is adapting these agreements, it’s reshaping its institutions and, as for China, most countries are finding ways to balance their relations with Beijing as both a friend and foe.
This shift has been a long time coming. While US grand strategists who believe American world leadership is exceptional argue it could go on in its role indefinitely, most international relations experts agree that all unipolar models must come to an eventual end, as other powers rise and challenge its primacy.
After assuming the role of leader following World War II, the US proved its dominance with its victory in the Cold War, a consolidation of power that experts described as a “unipolar moment.” That moment has lasted 30 years.
“Itself a project between individual states, the European Union is inherently a supporter of rules‑based multilateral cooperation. This is truer than ever in the crisis,” Merkel said.
While EU leaders’ will to replace American leadership is strong, the lack of progress in the areas Macron has tried to address are a sobering reminder of the limited power the world has to uphold democratic values without the United States at the helm.
Putin had his wrist slapped, but the abuse of gay Russians continues, and Russia and its firepower has all but won the war for Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. Bin Salman has been forced to keep a lower profile, but Macron’s confrontation has done little to threaten his position of power.
The European Union is also losing its battle with the rise of autocracy in some of its eastern states, like Hungary and Poland, or countering Russian influence in that part of their bloc.
A long time coming
There may be no easy replacement for US leadership, but Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, points out that Washington hasn’t achieved many of its recent international security objectives, either. “Asia, the Middle East, Africa, in many parts, disorder continues to a great extent,” he said.
The list of US failures in international security is long. The US hasn’t been able to build legitimate states in Iraq and Afghanistan, as it sought to. Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to peace deal. Both Iran and North Korea have developed nuclear weapons. The US hasn’t prevented Russia from exerting influence in Eastern Europe. It hasn’t convinced China to end its military aggressions in Asia. These were all true before Trump’s rise.
Lucas said that the Trump presidency hasn’t really been the turning point in this shift. President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was the “critical moment.”
“A lot of countries were discomforted, to say the least. They felt the war wasn’t justified — countries like France, Germany, Australia — that a unipolar America with the UK tagging along wasn’t working, especially when Iraq turned so horribly wrong, with so many people dying, and the instability that continues. So, the notion that the US leads and everyone follows was shot,” Lucas said.
Some experts say China is the only real contender here, and that a bipolar world in which the US and China compete is inevitable. Like in the Cold War, other countries will be forced to choose sides.
But Beijing is looking at ways to make these development endeavors more sustainable, and Xi’s announcement at least shows that China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, is willing to lead and engage with the world on this crucial issue, where the US, the second-largest emitter, is not.
Shaun Breslin, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, disagrees that the long-term future is necessarily a bipolar one where countries must choose sides between a competing China and US. Instead, he thinks the transition from a unipolar world will be “messy” and more likely give way to clusters of power.
“My problem with poles is we’re trying to use language from a different era and wedge the current era on that linguistic basis. What I think we’ll see is looser constellations of power and interests dependent on specific issue areas,” he said.
The world will see countries continuing to engage China in areas like trade and technology, but not necessarily replacing Washington with Beijing on issues like security or moral leadership. In many ways, that shift has already happened.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden is among those who believe the US should continue to lead. Though he has promised to rejoin institutions like the WHO and the Paris climate accord should he win on Tuesday, he won’t be able to reverse every foreign policy decision Trump has made.
For instance, it will be difficult for Biden to invest the troops and weapons needed to regain the influence the US once had in Syria. He may also find the US’ former Kurdish allies unwilling to work with him, having for years fought alongside the US to defeat ISIS, only to be abandoned last year as Trump gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light to invade their territory in a quick phone call.
Regardless of who wins the vote, the US’ role in the world has changed profoundly. Returning to where it was four years ago won’t be easy. Returning to its post-Cold War primacy is near impossible.