Is the United States still the world’s sole superpower in the 21st century?

Posted on April 1, 2011 von


By Henry Both

Since the beginning of this year, “the Arab awakening” has shaken global politics and turned preconceived notions about the Arab world on their head.  What we are witnessing is something few analysts would have dared to predict at the end of last year. The ongoing developments in the Middle East and North Africa raise serious questions about the United States’ role as the sole remaining superpower and its influence on world politics. The uprisings taking place in various Arab countries will most likely alter the preexisting relationships between the U.S. government and most states in the Arab world.

Difficult questions ahead for the United States‘ foreign policy

In the United States many politicians, primarily Republicans, are frightened by the prospect that the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist movements could soon come to power.

As events continue to develop in various countries, the U.S. is faced with an evolving set of important questions. First, should the United States support all possible outcomes of free and fair elections in all Arab countries? And second, what should the U.S. government do if movements that are hostile towards its main ally in the region, Israel, gain major political power in these new democracies?

It would not be the first time that the U.S. had to answer such questions: After the 2006 legislative elections in the Gaza Strip (considered free and fair by the international observer mission), the U.S. reacted with cutting short all official contacts to Hamas. The Islamist group, considered a terrorist group by most Western governments, pushed out the more moderate Fatah party and has since controlled the Gaza Strip in an autocratic manner. But even Tony Blair, now envoy of the Middle East Quartet, said after the Gaza War in 2009 that if the West continues to exclude Hamas from negotiations, a real resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be achieved.

The fundamental question at stake for the U.S. is whether to favor emerging and unpredictable democracies with strong people power or continue to support repressive regimes that appear to guarantee a certain degree of stability in the region. To gain more (or not further lose) credibility in the Arab world, the U.S. has no choice other than to fundamentally change its foreign policy from protecting repressive regimes to supporting efforts for real democracies throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

President Obama speaks to the Muslim world in Cairo, June 4, 2009: "A New Beginning" (source:

The Obama administration’s handling of the current crisis in the Middle East

Many American analysts think that President Obama handled the crises is Tunisia and Egypt quite well. On the other hand, one could view the initially rather slow and resistant reaction of the U.S. government concerning the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Libya as another indication that the Americans no longer have the same power to influence other world leaders. In the current intervention by the international coalition in Libya, based on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, the U.S. government repeated that it is not willing to lead the military intervention for a prolonged period of time. The U.S. preferred to hand over the mission to NATO, but will of course still play a major role. From an American perspective, it is understandable that the U.S. does not want to be involved in yet another expensive military endeavor.

On Monday, 28 March 2011, President Obama defended the so far quite successful mission as having saved thousands of Libyan lives. Besides the support from the Arab League and the African Union, the concept of “The Responsibility to Protect” has provided President Obama with the necessary intellectual and normative tool to act. Nevertheless, a controversial debate over the goals, interests, costs, and legitimacy of U.S. military action in Libya is evolving in America with many key figures, also from the Pentagon, asking President Obama critical questions.

Another discussion inflaming the media is whether President Obama set out in his speech an “Obama doctrine” – defining generally the circumstances in which the U.S. would intervene militarily – together with an international coalition – to save the interests and moral values of the U.S., and to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

During the crisis in Egypt, the U.S. efficiently influenced the leaders of the Egyptian army to prevent a bloodbath and President Obama had direct contact with his counterpart, Hosni Mubarak. This influence can be traced back to the U.S.’s huge financial support of Egypt: 1.3 billion military assistance per year (the second largest support after Israel who receives at least 3 billion annually). Meanwhile, the Obama administration has a vital interest in Bahrain because the U.S. Navy’s Firth Fleet is based there. And in Yemen, the U.S. has (at least so far) refrained from calling for President Saleh to leave because of his cooperation in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

But in Libya, the U.S. influence is rather limited because there are only a few relationships, mainly through oil companies and not through the military. Furthermore, Libya does not constitute a main geopolitical interest for the U.S. So, compared to the other burning states, in Libya, it was easier for President Obama to say that Colonel Qadafi has lost all legitimacy and must “step down from power and leave now.

According to Pat Buchanan (a conservative former presidential adviser and candidate in 2000), the U.S. often finds itself in a deep dilemma of conflict between securing pure U.S. interests and promoting American values and ideas in the Middle East.

There is also the question about the decreasing influence of American media, because new media (such as Al Jazeera English) play a crucial role with their live reporting of the Arab unrests. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, recently warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “America is facing an information war … and we are losing that war.”

President Obama’s effort to restart the U.S. Middle East policy in 2009

Looking back to President Obama’s initial policy on the Middle East, we should not forget that he made a huge effort to reach out to all Muslims, telling them that his administration wants to break with the resistance against Islam of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In his speech “A New Beginning”, held in June 2009 at the University of Cairo, President Obama promised to establish friendly relations with all Muslims and to work for a peaceful solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict that has kept the Middle East unstable since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

In his ambitious speech, President Obama specifically said that “[t]he United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.“ With his speech, he raised huge expectations in the Muslim world, but many Muslims remained skeptical that President Obama would fulfill all his promises, especially his pledge to put real pressure on Israel.

Strongly influenced by its main ally Israel

Although President Obama set the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict high on his agenda, the many attempts by his administration have so far all been unsuccessful. On the contrary, the Obama administration has suffered several embarrassments by Israeli officials, giving the appearance that the small state of Israel is revealing the limits of the American superpower’s influence on the political process in the Middle East.

The most recent demonstration of the huge impact of the strong Jewish lobby on the U.S. policy towards Israel is the decreased American pressure on Israeli settlement construction. Even when President Obama offered Israel huge additional support (most of all the major concession not to ask for any further settlement freeze), Israel still refused to accept a very limited settlement halt of only three months and after that the U.S. eased their pressuring completely. An even more obvious demonstration of Israeli influence on the Obama administration is the recent U.S. veto in the UN Security Council against a resolution (co-sponsored by 120 states), which demanded that “Israel, as the occupying power, immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem and that it fully respect its legal obligations in this regard.” The U.S. veto was notably President Obama’s first use of a UN veto and all other 14 Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution. With this move, the U.S. is in fact now the only major power that does not explicitly demand Israel to stop its settlement construction immediately.

In the days after the U.S. veto, the reports and debate in the American media about the effects of this UN veto for the U.S. foreign policy was very limited. The Americans obviously struggle here with a conflict of interests and were again embarrassed and further isolated internationally by one of its closest allies.

Emerging nations are increasing their influence in world politics

If the U.S. is still be a major world power, it could have shown Israel who is more powerful and to what limits Americans will stand for. The use of a U.S. veto in the Security Council to protect Israel during such dramatic changes in the Arab world does not help the U.S. restore its credibility in the Arab region and around the world.

In my opinion, the United States cannot be considered a significant leading world power anymore. Some small influential states, such as Israel, and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are gaining more and more – not only economic but also political – influence, mostly being accomplished behind the scenes. The diminishing influence of the U.S. and other Western powers is an invitation for the increasing influence of other nations in world politics.


Henry Both, 23, is a law student at the University of Zurich and is currently studying at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. In the next two months he will write more articles for about political developments in the United States.