Future historians will struggle to explain the recent dramatic rise of America’s global power. Faced with a long list of irreconcilable differences at home, and two consecutive presidents whose distinguishing characteristic is the intensity of the opposition they provoke, this century is so often painted as one of US decline.
But the blatant contradiction between disarray at home and increased power abroad has a simple explanation: the greater part of American power does not derive from what the US itself, let alone individual presidents, are able to do, but from the cooperation and support it receives from friendly countries around the world. US power depends on the magnitude and the cohesion of its alliances — and the latter can change very quickly.
This, of course, is key. Years of talk in Europe of replacing the “increasingly outdated” US-directed Nato alliance with an alternative centred in the European Union ended abruptly last February when the Russians attempted to seize Kyiv in a day and Ukraine in a week. Had they succeeded, as both Russian and US intelligence had predicted (it was the always-wrong CIA that prompted Biden’s offer to evacuate Zelenskyy), Nato would have collapsed.
Yet because the Ukrainian guards fought off elite Russian paratroopers at the Antonov airfield, inaugurating fierce resistance across the entire front, and because the US and UK immediately reacted by promising military aid, a seemingly moribund Nato was suddenly resurrected.
Without waiting for discussions or agreements, some countries simply acted: Norway airlifted 2,000 LAW anti-tank weapons, which are point-and-shoot rockets, neither new nor advanced — but just the thing to fire at Russian armour flooding into the country. And its example was followed by Denmark, Canada and then others, while far more advanced missiles arrived very quickly from the US and the UK, inaugurating a flow of weapons from most Nato countries that still continues.
Seeing all this, Sweden’s government abandoned its long-cherished stance of neutrality to apply for Nato membership, while Finland, which shares a very long border with Russia, felt confident enough to sign up as well. Russian threats were met with ridicule: “We already have 50,000 Russians buried in our country from the last war… but we have room for many more.”
The United States thus suddenly found itself leading a thoroughly revived and expanded Western alliance the power of which has reach into North Africa and the Middle East. All of which greatly added to the sum total of American power, even if Biden sometimes stumbles and his Vice President sometimes laughs at the wrong time.
But the war in Ukraine is far from the only boost. In fact, now that Russia is declining in several ways, what has added to global American power is the emergence of a vast, if informal, Indo-Pacific de facto alliance to contain China.
Today, there is no equivalent of the “multilateral” North Atlantic Treaty that formally links the US and Canada to European states; nor is there a second Nato-style structure of multinational commands staffed by thousands of officers. Instead, in response to the threat from China, there are “joint activities”, ranging from constant diplomatic coordination and intelligence exchanges to an entire panoply of air, land and naval exercises that bring together American, Australian, Indian and Japanese forces, with lesser participations by Canada, Chile, France, the Philippines, South Korea, the UK and Vietnam.
Vietnam’s involvement is particularly revealing — and not only because it regularly hosts US and Japanese naval vessels and submarines where it most hurts Beijing: very close to the major Chinese submarine base on the island of Hainan. On paper, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has warm, indeed “fraternal”, relations with the Chinese Communist Party. In practice, however, the Chinese are constantly trying to dislodge the Vietnamese from their islands in the Gulf of Tonkin, and neither side forgets for a minute their bloody wars, both ancient and modern, including the 1979 conflict in which some 30,000 Chinese soldiers died. As a result, Vietnam, which started sharing intelligence with Australia many years ago, and has received much help from the Indian navy with its submarines, is now cooperating at sea with the US and Japan, receiving retired naval vessels from both.
As for India, whose armed forces have been steadily advancing in competence, it was not American diplomacy that overcame its long-standing “non-alignment” — but a very long series of Chinese territorial seizures, from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal in the east, some of which resulted in armed confrontations. For decades, whenever the two countries’ leaders met, Beijing only wanted to discuss the splendid opportunities for profitable economic cooperation and for vast joint infrastructure projects, brushing aside the border disputes as very minor matters that could be resolved by low-ranking officials. Then, in the subsequent months and years, while the grand economic projects were never actually implemented, Chinese border troops would creep forward to seize more territory.
This Chinese gambit worked beautifully until June 2020, when skirmishes at the high-altitude Himalayan border in Ladakh resulted in a number of casualties. When the Chinese stuck to its playbook again this year, India’s Foreign Minister rebuffed them decisively.
Why did the Chinese keep pushing India until it was forced into an informal but powerful alliance with the United States? The only possible explanation is that China’s rulers are too absorbed in invisible but constant intra-party intrigues and too distracted by everyday matters to acquire any serious understanding of the outside world. The result is that foreign nations are reduced to caricatures, with the Indians written off as dirty and weak.
China’s behaviour with India is certainly consistent with its equally irrational territorial claims elsewhere. Japan, for instance, has long been a very close US ally, but for a brief interval in 2010 when a new party came to power that gave in to neutralist temptations. Yet that ended abruptly on 7 September, 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler with a reportedly drunk skipper collided with two Japanese patrol boats off the coast of the disputed Senkaku islands.
Instead of apologising, or at least ignoring what happened, China’s foreign ministry issued imperious demands for the immediate return of the captain and furious denunciations that incited mob attacks against Japanese offices and even visiting Japanese tourists — culminating in a series of incidents that seemed perfectly designed to rekindle Tokyo’s loyalty to Washington. Since then, Japan has built up its armed forces and, starting with prime minister Abe from 2012, it has re-emerged as an active ally of the US. Meanwhile, with Australia both now more pro-American and more interested in rebuilding its neglected armed forces, the US has capable allies across the Indo-Pacific that magnify its power — a principle reason why Xi’s threats to invade Taiwan have simmered down.
Neither Biden’s gaffes nor Trump’s tantrums can change the realities created by Putin and Xi’s bellicosity; America’s European and Asian alliances have rarely been so empowered. Indeed, the only consequence of America’s disarray at home is that the US cannot start wars to pursue fanciful aims, such as bringing democracy to Iraq or progress to Afghanistan. And that is just as well.