In 2005, Karen Hughes became George W. Bush’s undersecretary of public diplomacy. Her charge, both poorly defined and ill-timed, was to improve America’s international image in the years after the country had launched two wars. Other countries will side with us and do what we want if only we better explain our point of view, the thinking went, and make them see us as we see ourselves. By the time Hughes left office in 2007, international opinion of the U.S. was no higher than it was when she arrived, according to polls.
When I write about our new G-Zero world, I am describing an international phenomenon: a global environment in which no power or group of powers can sustainably set an international agenda. The global community, used to orienting itself around a collection of U.S.-led powers, has fallen victim to a widening leadership vacuum, what with the United States disengaging from foreign affairs and Europe too busy with its own crisis. Emerging powers like China have grown large enough to undermine a Western-led global agenda — but not yet developed enough to prioritize their own international role over their domestic concerns.
Through two years of Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has cautiously dragged its feet as the United States is further enmeshed in the conflict. That’s a sensible platform at home, with opinion polls showing that Americans don’t think the country has a responsibility to intervene. It has strategic merit, too, given that intervention against Bashar al-Assad is an implicit endorsement of a largely unknown opposition force with radical, sectarian factions.
This month, a curious thing happened in the annals of diplomacy. A country offered up a peace plan to put an end to a seemingly endless civil war in Syria. This country was not one of the usual foreign policy suspects — it was not the United States, it was not in Europe, and it wasn’t Syria’s neighbor. It was a country that has no real experience in playing the world’s policeman. But, seeing a world filled with retired officers, it decided to try on the uniform for itself. China has taken another step into the spotlight of the world stage.
“Syria: Towards the Endgame” was the headline the Economist splashed across one of its most recent covers. But as we’ve seen with this week’s assault on Aleppo, the end of the Assad regime is, in all likelihood, not even close. Let’s unpack why and enumerate the ways:
Who says America is in decline?
Not me. But, if you listened to a recent Rush Limbaugh show, you might’ve heard him dismiss my new book, Every Nation for Itself, as a “declinist” tract that says America’s time as leader of the world is “over.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s an inordinate amount of concern out there that writers who are trying to understand the seismic shifts the world has undergone in recent years are in fact doomsayers – wonks who are convinced the U.S. is no longer a superpower and has lost its swagger. On the other side of this false dichotomy is the camp that tries to pretend all the upheaval of recent years has changed absolutely nothing about America’s objective standing on the world stage.
A generation ago, the United States, Europe and Japan were the world’s powerhouses. Now, according to Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer, we’re living in a world where everyone – and anyone – can set the agenda. So, what does G-Zero mean for the world?