Even when Charles Krauthammer coined the phrase about America’s “unipolar moment” in the 1990s, it was clear to him that Washington’s hegemony would not last indefinitely.
After all, the operative term was “moment.” Thanks to the extraordinarily clumsy foreign policies of President Joe Biden’s administration, however, the inevitable decline of U.S. global hegemony has arrived sooner than expected, and the pace of that decline has been more rapid.
The flagship of the administration’s blunders has been its handling of the war between Russia and Ukraine. Washington and its NATO allies immediately sought to isolate Russia with an array of new economic sanctions, and Biden’s foreign policy team believed that it had worldwide support for that effort.
Instead, U.S. officials discovered that outside of NATO and the traditional bloc of U.S. security dependents in East Asia, virtually no other governments were willing to impose sanctions on Russia, much less provide military aid to Ukraine.
The Joe Biden administration has tried to conceal that epic policy failure by pointing to the passage of purely symbolic votes in the UN General Assembly condemning the Kremlin’s aggression. It is a weak, unconvincing argument.
Joe Biden: Undermining the Dollar
In addition to imposing sanctions, Washington seized the Russian government’s dollar-denominated assets held in the United States. That move has triggered unpleasant blowback for the United States, including the potential for disastrous long-term effects. The administration’s primary goal was to undermine the Russian ruble, and the policy seemed to work in the short term. A few weeks into the Russia-Ukraine war, Biden personally boasted that the ruble had become “the rubble.” That claim rings hollow today. The ruble regained its value in a matter of weeks and is now one of the stronger currencies in the international arena.
Not only was the seizure of Russia’s dollar assets a failure in terms of its objective, it has alarmed countries around the world. Weaponizing the dollar understandably worries any other government that might find itself on bad terms with Washington in the future. Indeed, even countries that are not U.S. adversaries have reason to be alarmed. During the final months of the Trump administration, the United States threatened to seize the assets of Iraq’s government held in the United States, merely because Iraqi leaders were considering asking the United States to withdraw the forces stationed in their country. U.S. officials did not carry out the threat, but the Biden administration has done exactly that to Russia.
Washington’s bullying behavior has caused multiple countries to conclude trade agreements in other currencies and stop relying so heavily on the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. U.S. leaders are discovering that it is not possible to preserve the dollar’s role as a safe, reliable store of value for governments and private entities around the world, and at the same time use the dollar as a nationalistic policy weapon against other countries.
Joe Biden and his aides have reacted petulantly to the world’s unwillingness to follow Washington’s lead on the Russia-Ukraine war. In the past few weeks, U.S. policymakers have hinted about imposing economic penalties on South Africa for continuing to trade with Moscow. In mid-May, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa specifically accused that country of covertly providing arms to Russia. In October 2022, Biden personally threatened Saudi Arabia with “consequences” because Riyadh made a cut in oil production, thereby keeping global prices high and indirectly aiding Russia. Administration officials have sent strong signals that they do not welcome Beijing’s efforts to play the role of mediator with respect to the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Earlier, Washington had made it clear to India that the country was running severe risks if it continued its close ties to Russia while the war in Ukraine continued. Such attempts at intimidation simply have not worked.
Administration leaders seem to sense that U.S. hegemony is slipping, even with respect to issues other than Ukraine. Despite Washington’s emphatic objections, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are seeking a rapprochement with both Damascus and Tehran. Important signals of the new political environment were Saudi Arabia’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran and Syria’s re-entry to the Arab League.
U.S. hegemony is fading even in the Western Hemisphere. Washington’s attempt to oust Venezuela’s Marxist regime, headed by Nicolas Maduro, shows unmistakable signs of unraveling. On May 29, Maduro visited Brazil for a very cordial summit meeting with President Silvio Inacio Lula da Silva. A Bloomberg account of the meeting accurately assessed its importance. Maduro’s visit “is the latest evidence of an ongoing thaw toward the Venezuelan government after leftists won elections in Brazil and Colombia last year.” Mexico has openly defied Washington on issues ranging from Ukraine to the war on drugs.
America’s unipolar moment was destined to fade. Even during the final decade of the Cold War, the world was becoming multipolar economically. Some of Washington’s key allies, especially France and West Germany, were showing maverick tendencies on economic and security issues. The demise of the Soviet Union as America’s only serious strategic rival gave U.S. political and military hegemony a new lease on life.
That lease is now expiring. Even generally friendly nations are no longer willing to follow Washington’s policy as though they were lemmings. Washington’s growing roster of adversaries, especially Russia, China, and Iran, are engaging in unprecedented cooperation to undermine U.S. dominance in world affairs. Some of this would have occurred gradually in any case, but the Biden administration’s ham-handed behavior on multiple fronts has both accelerated and intensified the process.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a contributing editor to 19FortyFive, a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also served in various policy positions for 37 years at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).