Rivals in the scramble to be the world’s 21st-century superpower



The US troop withdrawal from Syria, the betrayal of the west’s Kurdish allies, and subsequent advances by Russian, Iranian and Syrian regime forces have been widely interpreted as a dramatic “watershed moment” both for the Middle East and for American global influence.

Excited analysts claimed that last week’s Syrian upheaval foreshadowed an end to US regional leadership, even to Washington’s international dominance. A commentator for The Hill, a website reporting on American politics, compared the withdrawal to another famous turning point – Britain’s “east of Suez” retreat in 1968.

Syrian developments were also taken by some observers as proof that an increasingly isolationist America is turning in on itself and giving way – as failing empires inevitably do – to a successor world order shaped by emerging global powers, principally China.

But is the Syrian crisis really a watershed moment? And if it is, who are the contenders for America’s crown as no 1 global superpower – and what are their own strengths and weaknesses?

The perception of gradual, broad US international disengagement is widely held. But as historians know, it is hard to tell exactly when a specific, definitive turning point is reached. Contemporary observers, caught up in fast-moving events, are often the least qualified to do so.

The Syrian upheaval provides evidence that the global balance of power is shifting in ways that are not yet understood.

Identifying such transformative tipping points can still be problematic hundreds of years later. Asked about the significance of the 1789 French revolution, Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese Communist party leader, reportedly quipped: “It’s too soon to say.” Permanent changes in the strategic and geopolitical balance of power rarely come out of the blue. With hindsight, such shifts are frequently seen as the long-signalled culmination of preceding policy decisions, unconnected political and military moves, mishaps and miscalculations.

By general agreement, 1945 was a watershed year, marking the final defeat of fascism and the creation, through the UN, of what is known as the “rules-based international order”. In much the same way, 1989 is seen, in the US at least, as the year when the west “won” the cold war with the Soviet Union.

Yet it can be argued (as Russians do) that the battle of Stalingrad, which concluded in 1943 with a decisive Red Army victory over the invading Nazis, was the true turning point of the second world war. Likewise, some say the cold war merely paused in 1989, only to resume a decade later in a different guise.

Looking back in time, the true significance of other big moments, trumpeted as critical turning points when they occurred, appears similarly open to question. For example, Britain’s post-imperial “east of Suez” retreat was initially triggered by India’s independence in 1947. By 1968, it was already long under way.

In 1992, the Maastricht treaty creating the European Union was cheered, and condemned, as opening the door to a federal Europe – an aspiration unfulfilled more than a quarter of a century later. Tony Blair’s New Labour landslide in 1997 was hailed as a bright new dawn, but quickly clouded over. In the Middle East, the “historic” 2011 Arab spring pro-democracy revolts, source of much instantaneous hope and joy, proved to be a cruelly deceptive mirage – precursors of a new epoch of intensifying, region-wide conflict and repression, typified by Syria.

The early rebel failure to topple Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, when combined with Donald Trump’s 2016 pledge to end US involvement in “endless” foreign wars” and age-old Turkish-Kurdish enmity, arguably predetermined events that led predictably, if not inevitably, to last week’s ultimate strategic crunch.

Nor do the Syrian regime’s advances represent a sudden, unexpected twist. Assad has been steadily re-establishing control over the main populated areas in recent years. Neighbouring Arab leaders have been mending fences in the belief that Assad has won the war. European governments mostly share this view, though they do not say so publicly.

The bigger claim – that the latest developments amount to a pivotal moment for expanding Russian influence in the Middle East – is also contentious. Since intervening in Syria in 2015, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has ably exploited ambivalent and confused US policies. While Trump has recklessly stoked confrontation with Iran, Putin has cautiously cultivated cordial working relationships with the main regional actors and adversaries, including Israel, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, based on shared interests in counter-terrorism, arms sales, and oil and gas production.

In other words, Russia’s influence across the Middle East has been growing for some time. That is partly the result of US strategic incoherence, partly of Putin’s diplomatic acuity. Russia’s latest success in Syria follows this trend. While it’s significant, it probably does not amount, by itself, to a “watershed moment”. What the Syrian upheaval does do, however, is provide additional, confirmatory evidence that the global balance of power is slowly and incrementally shifting in ways that are not yet fully understood and with consequences not yet glimpsed.

This process resembles not so much a sudden earthquake as a long-drawn-out series of tremors and shocks. And while it’s clear that the grip of the old, post-1945 US-dominated international order is weakening, it is unclear what will replace it – and who will come out on top. The main global contenders – the US, China, Russia and Europe and their respective allies, dependents and satraps – remain the same. But the relative ability, and desire, of each power bloc to shape and lead the 21st century by outmanoeuvring and outperforming rivals may be fundamentally changing.

Whether last week was a watershed moment or not, it’s plain that the new world order is coming up for grabs.

Although the US remains, by most measures, the world’s most influential and powerful country, the advent of Donald Trump has encouraged talk of an end to its global dominance. Yet if this is indeed happening, the change began not with Trump but as far back as the 1989-93 presidency of George HW Bush.

By declaring victory in the cold war and promising a domestic peace dividend paid through reduced military spending, Bush helped nurture a delusional mindset that believed US global hegemony and the newly found status of the US as sole superpower were forever set in stone. The idea gained ground that America could, and should, do exactly as it pleased. Such complacent thinking was given superficial intellectual weight by Francis Fukuyama’s much-mangled thesis, The End of History?, first published as an essay in 1989. Part of its attraction lay in its connections to the original isolationist, unilateralist “America First” era that died a sudden death at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The illusion that the US could stand apart, and stand above, the world was shattered for a second time on 11 September 2001. But since then, unlike in the post-1945 period, US foreign policy and war-making have been essentially defensive, self-interested and reactive in nature. The proactive, exemplary global vision of democracy, prosperity and freedom, delivered to the world from a “shining city upon a hill”, as Ronald Reagan put it in 1989, has been obscured. With its perspectives and instincts fatally distorted by the “war on terror”, America has lost its sense of mission. Swingeing cuts to foreign aid budgets, hostility to the UN and multilateralism in general, and an ideologically driven, post-Iraq aversion to “nation-building”, symbolise this change.

In this respect, Trump is but the crude, know-nothing legatee of a regressive process long in the making. Relative US economic decline arising from globalisation, deindustrialisation and increased competition for resources and markets have helped narrow US horizons. Trump’s dislike of costly “foreign entanglements” such as Syria oddly echoes the Founding Fathers and White House predecessors such as James Monroe. All the same, he is a modern aberration whose vow to “make America great again” is having the opposite effect.

The US still leads, mostly, in key areas such as digital, cyber, AI, medical science, tech innovation and space exploration. Its wealth is unmatched. It recently became the top global producer of oil and gas. And it remains the foremost military power. It is said that Trumpism has permanently changed America’s outlook. That may be true but it’s a fair bet that his successors, whoever they are, will try to halt America’s retreat. Future presidents will not cede global leadership to others, as he has done, and may move aggressively to restore America’s reputation and leading role in the 21st century world.

The European Union is good at values: it stands for individual human and civil rights, inclusive democratic governance, equality of opportunity and multilateralism – meaning a collective, collaborative approach to global problems such as the climate crisis and migration.

Many of these values, promulgated by 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers, were enshrined in the US constitution, and bind the Old World to the New. Europe and the US appear natural partners. Yet the story of recent years is one of growing division and rivalry.

There have been damaging splits and rows over issues such as the Iraq war, trade protectionism, the importance of international institutions such as the United Nations, the future of Nato, transnational justice, health and food standards, and environmental policy.

The EU is divided from within, too, over the way the eurozone operates, budget fairness and French-led plans for a more integrated, federal Europe. There are also east-west and north-south splits, dramatised by the rise of hard-right populists in Italy and by Poland’s and Hungary’s governance disputes with Brussels.

Recent polling suggests most people in most member countries support the EU, but there are wide divergences over what it is for and what it should do. Voters believe that Europe carries more clout in the world if it acts in unison. But that often proves difficult. Last week saw the EU split over a proposed arms embargo on Turkey. Meanwhile, Britain’s defection prospectively weakens its ability to influence events.

EU enthusiasts argue that the bloc should do more to boost Europe’s standing as a key player on the world stage. But even if all its divisions were somehow magically healed, the idea that the EU may one day be in a position to challenge American or Chinese global leadership still seems far-fetched.

Given the chaotic post-communist legacy bequeathed by Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has made the best of a bad job. The former KGB spy once bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet empire as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century. In contrast, Russia in the 21st century punches above its weight.

Yet Putin’s diplomatic, military and strategic successes, notably in the Middle East, cannot disguise fundamental domestic weaknesses: chronic underinvestment, overreliance on energy export revenues, poor infrastructure and social provision, endemic corruption, rising political discontent, and a pervasive, fearful sense of state lawlessness. Putin has largely defined his foreign policy in disruptive opposition to the US and the EU – by slavishly befriending China, courting Eurosceptic east Europeans, meddling in the Balkans, backing outlier regimes such as Iran, selling arms to anybody who asks, manipulating other people’s elections (and his own), and generally subverting democratic states.

But as a plausible alternative to either the US or China in terms of global leadership, Russia is outmatched and outclassed. Putin lacks a positive, constructive vision for his own country, let alone the world – and, opposition leader Alexei Navalny apart, there is no sign yet of a Russian leader who has one.

Xi Jinping, China’s president, makes no secret of his ambition to restore the Middle Kingdom to its once unchallenged leadership position at the centre of international events.

His oddly named Belt & Road Initiative, involving infrastructure development and capital investment in more than 150 countries, is probably the most rapidly expansionist global strategy ever devised by a single state.

In previous eras, Britain and other imperial powers used superior military might, physical control of territory, and divide-and-rule tactics to project their national interests around the globe. Xi’s empire-building is less adversarial, primarily economic and financial in nature. China calls it a win-win strategy. Critics call it ruthless debt diplomacy. Under Xi’s leadership, China has grown increasingly assertive and competitive in its relations with other powers, principally the US. Large Chinese companies such as Huawei, ultimately subject to state control, are successfully challenging equivalent American and European businesses in growth areas such as telecoms and nuclear power.

China’s military capabilities are growing rapidly, too, notably its “blue water” naval surface and submarine fleet whose evident aim is to challenge American control in the western Pacific.

This looks certain to increase tensions with western powers around flashpoints such as Taiwan and disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Xi’s China also offers the world an alternative governance model – an authoritarian, paternalistic system, reinforced by mass surveillance, that ostensibly guarantees the wellbeing and safety of citizens in return for their political acquiescence and public silence.

This model is plainly not working in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. As China’s middle class grows, it may not work much longer in mainland cities, either.

China’s dramatic economic growth has slowed. While this may be temporary, the Communist party’s lack of democratic legitimacy and the absence of consent pose the biggest long-term threat to China’s 21st-century global ambitions.

If Xi can overcome that obstacle, there may be no stopping him.