For typical freshmen entering college it’s probably difficult to remember a time when the U.S. was not considered the world’s only superpower. But this dynamic seems to be shifting and was probably always a bit of an anomaly.
The U.S. cold war competitor, the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991, and Russia and the other former Soviet Republics spent decades picking up the pieces.
China, though it has grown rapidly for many years, has only reached its current status as the world’s second-largest economy within the last decade.
Two decades ago, the U.S. conducted the Gulf War successfully after Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990. The U.S. economy and the global economy were relatively healthy.
For a while after the “War on Terror” began, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. still seemed relatively strong, able to sustain two wars while maintaining economic growth.
Things look a lot different now.
With the global “Great Recession,” it became clear that the U.S. could not afford to keep funding two wars that had started to look a lot like the quagmire of the Vietnam War, or the Soviet war in Afghanistan, not the quick “shock and awe” campaigns that were originally intended.
Since the end of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, the dynamics in the region have changed dramatically.
Instead of a stable Iraq held together by a democratic government, the instability in the region has spread.
The so-called “Islamic State” now controls large parts of Iraq and Syria, causing terror and the displacement of more than 11 million people in Syria alone.
Millions of refugees have fled the country. Hundreds of thousands are flowing into Europe. The U.S. has done little more than call in a handful of air strikes to improve the situation.
The most striking thing is the way Russia and Iran, countries that often oppose the U.S., have been able to influence the situation. Both countries have moved troops into Syria to prop up the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad and Russian planes are now bombing Syrian rebels supported by the U.S.
This is not the only example of countries pushing back against U.S. influence. China is building man-made islands in the South China Sea and building up its navy to lay claim to the area, and beginning to contest U.S. dominance in international waters.
Russia’s involvement in the recent Ukrainian conflict follows a similar pattern. Russia avoided a direct conflict with the U.S. and NATO by denying involvement in Ukraine even as it annexed parts of the country, and flew military jets over Sweden, a NATO member, in an obviously threatening gesture.
The point here is not that the U.S. is weak. With fewer troops in the field, it may actually be in a stronger position to deal with future conflicts. The point is that Russia, China, and other countries are in a position to increase their influence on world events. This may seem like a new trend, but it is really a return to a more normal state of international affairs.
Events like these probably seem distant from the lives of ordinary students in the U.S., but they can have global ramifications.