By most reasonable measures, reports of America’s declining power relative to the rest of the world have consistently proved premature. The American economy increasingly seems to be on an upswing. The United States remains among the world’s safest and most attractive investments. The shale gas revolution is transforming the country into an energy giant of the future. The dollar, once slated for oblivion, seems destined to remain the world’s reserve currency for some time to come. American military power, even amidst current budget cuts, remains unmatched both in quantity and quality.

Meanwhile, the anticipated “rise of the rest,” which other declinists celebrated a few years ago, has failed to materialize as expected. For all America’s problems at home – the fiscal crisis, political gridlock, intense partisanship, and weak presidential leadership – other great powers, from China to India to Russia to the EU, quite clearly have debilitating problems of their own, which in some cases promise to grow more severe in the years to come. Overall, the much-heralded return of a multipolar world of roughly equal great powers, as existed before World War II, has been delayed for at least a few more decades. In the absence of some unexpected dramatic change, for the foreseeable future, the international system will continue to be that of one superpower and several great powers, or as the late Samuel P. Huntington once called it, “uni-multipolarity.”

If things have not changed as much as people once imagined, however, we have certainly entered a period of uncertainty and flux in the international order. In the United States, a great many Americans are raising questions about the nature and extent of their nation’s involvement in the world. It is not just the recent Great Recession, or even bitterness at American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, that are driving this disenchantment with what Americans liked to call their global “leadership.” The old rationale for that deep global involvement, which took hold in the wake of World War II and persisted through the Cold War, is increasingly being forgotten or actively rejected by younger generations who wonder why the United States needs to play such an outsized role on the world stage. The Obama administration’s foreign policies have reflected this desire for retrenchment.

At the same time, other peoples around the world are wrestling with questions of their own. How should international affairs be governed and regulated? What should be the roles of international institutions like the UN? How should the great powers relate to one another, and what special role, if any, should the United States play? These questions have no easy answers, for whatever one thinks about the world order that had been shaped by and around the American superpower, it is arguably more unclear than ever what other kind of system might take its place.

Around the world there is great ambivalence about the United States, with some wishing to see American influence fade, others wanting to see the United States more engaged, and still others seemingly expressing both desires simultaneously. And if not the United States, what? For many, the UN does not hold the promise it once did. Saudi Arabia’s recent refusal to accept a seat on the Security Council is only one of many signs of disappointment in that body, which many see as grid-locked and unreflective – at least in terms of its veto-wielding members – of today’s world. Institutions like the EU, which even a decade ago seemed to offer a path to a new and different kind of world order, now struggle to maintain themselves, while newer efforts to build similar kinds of institutions in Asia founder on competitions and jealousies. Any hope of a great power condominium, a global 21st-century version of the Concert of Europe, seems more distant today than a decade ago – even if the majority of the world’s peoples thought it desirable.

Like the heralding of “American decline,” warnings about “the coming global disorder” have also often proved premature. But with Americans and others rethinking the US role in the world, and with no other nation, group of nations or international institutions willing or able to take its place, global disorder does seem a more distinct possibility today than it has since the 1930s. The challenge before us perhaps is to fashion an international order that can reflect the continuing reality of “uni-multipolarity,” but which somehow accommodates both global wariness of American power and Americans’ weariness of their global role. History does not offer much reason for optimism. The world order rarely changes by means of smooth transitions but usually as a result of catalytic upheaval.

Author: Robert Kagan is Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda, taking place in Abu Dhabi. “Trust and leadership” is one of the thematic pillars of the meeting.

This article was first published in the Washington Post.

Image: A woman is seen holding American flags REUTERS/Robert Galbraith.

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