The current economic crisis has not only undermined America’s financial credibility but also put her moral leadership in a serious doubt. With the growing potential of Russia and China, the enervated United States may lose its dominant position that it has exercised since the end of the Cold War.
In the 1990s life was easier. The Soviet Union had dissolved and what was left of it could hardly pose any danger. Unsurprisingly, it was the period of the greatest cooperation between Moscow and Washington as the former desperately needed a powerful partner in the turbulent times. In his rare periods of sobriety, President Yeltsin easily gave in to the demands of the United States to let Poland, Hungary and other former communist countries join NATO. Never before or after in her history had Russia enjoyed as much freedom and democracy as in the 1990s decade. These values were still alien to China where the Communist Party had recently cracked down on student protests. But even with a strong central leadership, the red giant played only a minor role in international relations, with tens of millions of people still living for less than a dollar a day.
Meanwhile, the United States had reached the apex of her world domination. Reforms started in the 1980s and continued by the Clinton administration in the following decade had stimulated steady economic growth. Americans earned enough to enjoy overseas travels and visit the places their parents could only dream of. Militarily, the country reigned supreme. Although the US Army left Somalia in disgrace, being kicked out by a handful of warlords; it reinforced its pre-eminent position by successfully stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. While the United Nations remained impotent as ever, Washington did not fear to act unilaterally in the region traditionally regarded as peripheral to her interests. This altruism was noticed by former communist countries that found in the United States the guardian of their fledgling independence. President Clinton easily won popularity polls all over Europe.
But these golden times seem gone. Sensing the imminent demise of American leadership, Russia and China have decided to rewrite the rules of international relations. The first has used her vast resources of crude oil and gas to rebuild her empire in Eastern and Central Europe. At present, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia and the Baltic Republics are completely dependent on Russian gas with Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic importing around half of their energetic needs from Russia. America’s setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan have also played a role in diminishing US influence on the old continent. In other parts of the world like Africa and Asia, China has strengthened her position. Untroubled by human rights sentiments and financial restraints, Beijing has been dolling out money to local regimes, replacing former colonial powers as the regions’ main trading partner.
Paradoxically, the current crisis may be beneficial for the United States. It is true that many American companies have either closed down or are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. For those hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their jobs, no words could bring solace. But in comparison with the situation in Russia and China, America can still regard herself as lucky. Since September, the Russian stock exchange has had to be closed down more than ten times as billions of dollars evaporated every hour. With the plummeting prices of crude oil in world markets, Russia has lost its greatest card in this international gamble. The crisis has also hurt China whose economic growth relies heavily on export. Beijing fears that the projected growth for 2009 is too slow to maintain the stability of the national budget. Soon it may turn out that instead of investing in foreign lands, China will have to deal with domestic uproars if the number of unemployed exceeds the current rate.
It depends on the United States alone whether it will sustain its world position. President Obama has a good chance to rebuild the US’s undermined credibility in Europe and elsewhere. The financial crisis will sooner or later end and the country that would emerge from it harmed the least will dominate world politics for the next several decades. The upcoming administration should do all in its might to make sure it will be the United States.