ANALYSIS - The falling trend of US’s global leadership role

The US continues to lose credibility in the eyes of the international community as the deadline for its withdrawal from Iraq approaches

Dr. Ali Aslan  | 31.08.2021 - Update : 31.08.2021
ANALYSIS - The falling trend of US’s global leadership role

The writer is a Faculty Member at the Political Science and International Relations Department of Ibn Haldun University.


The US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks on its own soil on September 11, 2001. The goal was to destroy the terrorist groups targeting the US, which is more popularly known as the “free world”, and bring democracy to these two countries by rebuilding them. Over the next two decades, the US failed not only to completely eliminate the actors it deemed terrorists, but also to build a democratic state structure in these countries. A large number of civilians were displaced from their homes, subjected to all forms of violence, and killed in clashes. The two countries have since gone backwards in every way. The revelation that a significant number of the claims made to prepare the ground for these invasions -such as the Saddam regime’s possession of nuclear weapons in Iraq- were fabricated by the neoconservative foreign policy makers of the period dealt a serious blow to the credibility of the US and resulted in a loss of prestige. The arbitrariness and incompetence of the US government have undermined its claim to be the leader of the world. And, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the traumatic events that followed were the most recent developments of this process.

In the fall of 2014, the relatively limited invasion of Syria was added to these two countries, starting with the air support provided to the so-called People’s Protection Units (YPG) as part of the fight against Daesh (or, ISIS). The US was not really able to get what it wanted in Syria, either. Daesh was defeated but not entirely eradicated from the map. With the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, there is no guarantee that such organizations will not resurface elsewhere in the region, including in Syria. The Assad regime, which is the country's biggest impediment to democracy and has committed grave war crimes, remains in power. The Assad regime owes its existence to Russia and Iran. Unfortunately, the US superpower was not able to suppress these two regional powers and achieve its objectives in Syria. Worse, Iran, which the US considers an enemy state, has taken control of a large area as a result of the occupations in Iraq and Syria. The historical enemy, Russia, has started to make more appearances in the region. The fact that Turkey has extended its line of conflict with the PKK into Iraq and Syria should also be interpreted as a failure on the part of the US as well. Most importantly, the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist organization, has not been fully transformed into a legitimate actor. There is still uncertainty about the fate of this terrorist organization and whether or not it will be able to achieve its goal of becoming a state. The concerns caused by this uncertainty were compounded when the US abruptly left Afghanistan to the Taliban and the country to its own devices.

The Biden administration has recently begun implementing its decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by August 31. With shocking speed, The Taliban regained control of the country they lost two decades ago. This decision was based on an agreement signed in February 2020, during Donald Trump’s presidency. With this agreement, Trump had decided to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by the end of May 2021. Although the Biden administration could have suspended the deal, it chose to proceed along Trump’s foreign policy, only with a short delay, due to mounting domestic political pressure in the US.

In Iraq, however, the military withdrawal has not yet been completed. Following their decision to withdraw in 2011, the United States recognized some risks and later returned to Iraq. As of now, the US military presence in Iraq has decreased significantly, and there is no active participation in operations. The US has largely delegated control to local authorities. According to the predetermined calendar, the US must leave Iraq by the end of this year. However, given what has happened in Afghanistan, we can predict that the implementation of this decision will be quite challenging. The opposition has put significant pressure on the Biden administration, and the argument that the Biden administration is incompetent is being widely spread.

In Syria, however, there is no anticipation of a military withdrawal. Although the US has delegated responsibility to the YPG terrorist organization, or, in its own words, the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, it maintains its military presence in Syria through policies that involve coordinating the military, sending reinforcements, and transferring military ammunition. Unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq, the strategic clarity of the US in Syria, specifically its determination to establish a YPG-state (at least for now), suggests that the US military presence in Syria will be maintained for some time.

The US’s Middle East adventure

It’s not so easy to understand what the US has done in this region in the last 20 years. Policies full of contradictions caused experts to put forward different theories. Some related the US’s policies towards the region to their need to create a new enemy (the Islamic world) after communism. The “Clash of Civilizations” thesis written by an influential academic in political circles, Samuel P. Huntington, finding buyers in Washington supported these claims.

However, others argued that the increasing demand for social change in the region was attempted to be suppressed using military force while paving the way for violence, without having consequences against the US. We must note that this policy, called “sociocultural desertification”, has largely been successful. The people whose countries were occupied sought to escape from their destroyed homelands, putting themselves at risk of death. This migration wave, which is one of the biggest in history, continues at full tilt.

Some experts, who base their arguments on neoconservative theo-political ideas, said that the US was trying to “force God into bringing the apocalypse” by starting a large conflict. The occasional nonsense that echoes in the region due to Israel and Iran playing the dozens can be evaluated in this context. Although their reciprocal threats of annihilating each other are all talk, they continue to destabilize the region and open doors to foreign intervention.

Another theory was that the US was trying to exhaust these countries with these conflicts by increasing the tensions between the countries of the region through occupations or following [what’s called] offshore balancing strategies [in international relations literature]. The countries of the region continue to irrationally support these strategies; fueling regional tensions and conflicts instead of moving towards regional integration.

In addition, confusion continued as to why the US withdrew from Afghanistan. A group of experts stated that the US has actually put into effect a different plan. According to them, the US knowingly allowed the Taliban into the political equation. It was argued that the US was trying to hold back regional powers such as Iran, Russia, and Turkey, which caused it trouble in the region, by destabilizing the region further. It was claimed that the US was making efforts to punish and bring to their knees its allies who have the tendency to deviate from their own paths, or challenge the US itself, in a wide geography reaching European borders with the increasing security problems and chaos in the region, as well as the immigration wave to come, including the European Union (EU).

However, judging by what’s happening, it seems that the US has, indeed, truly lost control. Because, paving the way for the Taliban could’ve been accomplished without causing the US trouble. The resulting images of turmoil and desperation must be considered a great misfortune for a superpower like the US. The US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was perceived by the international community as the US abandoning the Afghan people. This may cause the US to lose credibility in the eyes of various other states and societies. Claiming that the US wouldn’t abandon its allies in more critical situations, such as in the case where China were to attack Taiwan, may not change this perception. The promises of a state that puts its own interests before its allies’ to such a degree wouldn’t be so convincing, and especially in situations where the political principles of this state - liberal democracy and secularism - are on the table.

One other theory was that the US was collapsing and therefore left the region. According to this theory, the US having to terminate or reduce its military presence in these countries in order to use its resources more efficiently after 20 years of occupation was a sure sign that the US was in a process of decline or collapse. In fact, the sharpening of the sociopolitical polarization in the country, the economic problems that hit the middle class, the insufficient infrastructure that undermined the country’s competitiveness in the international arena, and the open challenges from rivals and allies abroad, as well as the beginnings of different ventures, with the country’s weakening was already signaling that the US’s superpower-position was shaken. The policy of reducing defense expenditures, which was introduced during the Trump era, and putting pressure on US allies to take more responsibility were considered to be moves to slow down the decline.

Without a doubt, the international material capacity superiority of the US is weakening by the day. Although the US is still at the top, the speed at which those who’re following it are progressing threatens this position. It’s been hotly debated for some time in traditional and social media, think tanks, and academic circles that China would end US dominance by continuing its trend of rapid economic growth. According to forecasts from experts, China is expected to surpass the US economically in the following 15-20 years, and India in the middle of the second half of the 21st century. We must note that a power transition in the economy would deeply affect military and diplomatic balances, and this would create a new international order.

There is broad agreement among experts that the US is a declining superpower. The biggest evidence for this decline is that the country’s power projection is getting increasingly far away from producing the desired international results. This is the decline of the US’s structural power, that is, its decisive power over international politics. Of course, even at the height of its power, the US didn’t have complete control over international politics. For instance, it suffered a heavy defeat in Vietnam in the 1960s-70s. However, the national indicators of the US in many fields, and especially in its economy and military, were far from supporting a decline thesis back then. The US was by far the most dominant power in the international system with a huge lead in material capacity, while also having an upward trend of development to back it up. For this reason, the failures of the period were explained by arrogance and tactical errors rather than weaknesses. Therefore, despite accidents like those in Vietnam, the US had the ability and capacity to have a significantly greater degree of influence on international politics compared to today. In particular, it could, to a significant degree, determine the foreign (and even domestic) policy decisions of the countries that are within its sphere of influence. The US was able to get what it wanted in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, to a large extent. However, this control it had started to diminish and many countries started to act more autonomously in the last decade. The main reason for this dynamic is the steady decline in the material capacity of the US, and this decline being observed by other countries and these countries starting to make new plans for the future. We hear more and more every day that many US allies, including European countries, are saying that they “must fend for themselves” or “must develop security strategies that don’t rely on the US”.

Quo vadis?

We have no way of knowing what the true intentions of the US are exactly. Different theories could be put forward in this regard. We’ve mentioned some of these theories earlier. After all, there’s a large amount of literature that offers competing explanations for how actors behave in international politics using structural/actor-based models on a materialist-idealist axis. At this point, it would be useful for us to engage in a forward-looking discussion and elaborate on the consequences of the decisions taken and the policies followed by the US. There’s broad agreement among the US (and the international) public that the US is the one who’s responsible for the defeat, and more clearly that this is a defeat of the US, despite the US and its Western allies putting the blame on the local powers that they’ve trained and equipped. So, what will be the consequences of the US (more specifically) withdrawing from Afghanistan with a defeat and (more broadly) failing in Iraq and Syria?

Firstly, developments at the regional level may become more impactful compared to those at the global level in determining international outcomes, as a result of the US’s decline. This process has been in place for some time already. Regional dynamics have become more decisive in international politics as a result of the dominance of unipolarity and, thus, the global power struggle falling off the agenda. Conditions that would compel secondary states or regional powers to sit on the US’s tail in the context of global campaigns no longer exist. Despite all its efforts, the US has failed to unite countries against a common enemy. It wasn’t able to create a common enemy. Global politics was more effective in determining regional politics in the bipolar world of the Cold War and the unipolar, US-led world of the following 10-15 years. However, starting in the mid-2000s, regional dynamics began to be more decisive in the foreign policy of countries. The influence of global dynamics on international politics has decreased. For instance, the conflicts and institutionalization in regions such as the Far East, South Asia, Latin America, South Africa, and the Middle East have started becoming determined by the dynamics of the regions themselves, rather than by global dynamics. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this process reach the point where the regional level is determining the global level. In the not-too-distant future, the international order determined by US unipolarity may be replaced by a multipolar international order in which regional balances form the poles.

Second of all, the significance of the regional level is embodied in the rise of China. China has gradually evolved into a regional hegemon in the last 50 years. The next step for China is to transform from a regional power to a global one. The US-centered unipolar and liberal international order is the biggest obstacle to China’s growth initiative. Today, we see that this struggle is continued through the diplomatic tensions between the two countries. The prolongation of the downward trend of the US and its withdrawal from certain regions will cause China to increase its sphere of influence. We see that China is approaching Afghanistan without wasting any time. Moreover, we also see that it’s intimidating the Asian countries that are trying to surround it, led by the US. Any bit of space withdrawn from by the US is a potential area of expansion for China. This process of expansion will gradually transform China from a regional power to a global one. It’s becoming more and more clear that the US can’t stop China. However, it’s also not so easy to say that China’s path is clear of obstacles. Bigger obstacles await China, other than the US. In the long run, other regional powers are more likely to be the biggest obstacle to China’s claim to global power. The future superpower candidate China may have to share the current superpower’s bitter fate as well.

Thirdly, the global leadership role of the US will become more and more questionable. It’s natural for states to prioritize their own interests and act accordingly. In addition, it’s also a fact of international politics that states establish alliance relations with each other. Therefore, states must strike a healthy balance between protecting their own interests and coming together with other states. And, this becomes even more important in the hierarchical relations between a strong state and a secondary or weak state (or actors). When it comes to trust, secondary and small states are more sensitive, due to the power asymmetry. The great power losing its credibility causes brute-force calculations to form the basis of the relations. Therefore, the authority of the great power is undermined and its superiority is not seen as legitimate. This leads to the leadership of the great power being questioned further by the secondary and small states. Perhaps the US’s loss of soft power in international politics in the last 20 years and the gradual erosion of trust in its leadership is more important than the decline in its material capacities in recent years. The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan may be a breaking point in this process. In fact, the thesis that Trump’s US, which turned its back on its allies, was an anomaly and that the US, with Joe Biden, is now standing by its allies once again has suffered a great wound with the events in Afghanistan. The idea that the US will easily leave an ally to its fate, regardless of who becomes president, is gaining ground.

Fourthly, the Taliban’s victory may encourage violent groups in other regions. The Taliban quickly lost power following the 2001 invasion. It was out of the question for them to make a stand against an enormous power like the US. However, the material power of the US was not enough to establish an alternative power structure to the Taliban in the country. Obtaining military victory over small states or organizations is easy, but political victory difficult. Because, the institutional structure forms naturally in the historical process and gains legitimacy gradually. It’s nearly impossible to build an institutional structure while accelerating the process with outside interventions. The structure can't be seen as legitimate or comprehensive. The alternative to establishing an institutional structure is centralizing the power around individuals. In this case, corruption and instability would be inevitable. This is what happened in Afghanistan; initially with the government of Hamid Karzai and then with that of Ashraf Ghani. When the US understood that the first option was impossible, it went with the second one. The difficulty of obtaining political victories clearly demonstrates that time runs in favor of organizations like the Taliban. It reveals that there is opportunity for terrorist and violent organizations in societies damaged by outside interventions. This situation whets the appetite of such organizations. The clear application and validation of the theory in Afghanistan will encourage violent groups elsewhere. This, in turn, could lead to the US’s control over international politics to diminish further.

Finally, leaving Afghanistan to the mercy of the Taliban will result in the credibility of the US’s democracy transfer policy hitting rock bottom and realism gaining strength against liberalism. We mustn’t forget that liberalism played an important role in the long-term survival of the US’s global supremacy. Liberalism has served many functions, from legitimizing intervening in the internal affairs of countries, to establishing an international institutional structure (or order) that would maintain the superior position of the US at minimum cost. The US withdrawing and abandoning countries to their own fates would lead to a more deeply ingrained realist world. As one would remember, during the presidency of Trump, the US had built its grand strategy on the acceptance of the realist world and acting in accordance with this new reality. It had given up on the carrying out of military interventions in other countries for regime changes or humanitarian purposes and the managing of international politics through multilateral institutional structures. And, this indicates the emergence of a world where states are left on their own, uncertainty increases, and the use of force is legitimized and widespread. The leadership of a single country in such a world is beyond consideration. And, the acceptance of a realist world would mean that the US has given up on leading the world.

Even before he took office, Biden had stated that the US would be “back in the game”, that is, he would follow a foreign policy in which the US would once more assume the leadership role. He also carried on with his statements and actions in this regard after taking office. However, he must have realized that this liberal foreign policy perspective couldn’t be sustained that he recently started to follow a more realistic foreign policy, which also shows that Trump’s foreign policy decisions were not due to his own personal quirks but the structural imperatives and conditions faced. His decision to withdraw from Afghanistan should also be considered in this context.

In conclusion, many indicators show that the US is in an unstoppable decline. This decline is, naturally, limited to the US losing its current global leadership role. With its huge resources, geographical advantage, and solid institutional structure, the US will continue to be an important force in international politics. The biggest challenge of the US in the medium and long term will be how quickly and how well it adapts to its new position. Adapting to international politics without the US will also be a significant challenge for other countries.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay

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