U.S. faces slip in global influence

December 26, 2008|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON - As President George W. Bush's term comes to a close, the United States has the world's dominant economy and its most powerful military. Yet its global influence is in decline.

The United States emerged from the Cold War a solitary superpower whose political and economic leverage often enabled it to impose its will on others. Now, America usually needs to build coalitions - and often finds other powers are not willing to go along.

In the 1990s, America exerted leadership in all the remote corners of the globe. Now, the United States has largely left the field in many regions, leaving others to show the way.

Bush has been widely blamed for the erosion of American prestige. And the decline in U.S. influence is partly the result of the reaction to his invasion of Iraq, his campaign against Islamic militants, and his early disdain for treaties and international bodies.

But the shift is also a result of independent forces. These include the steady ascent of China, India and other developing countries that throughout the past decade have amassed wealth and quietly extended their reach.

"There is no return to the time when the United States was the 'indispensable power,' " said Stewart Patrick, a former State Department official at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The world has moved on."

Now there are multiple power centers. The international institutions that buttressed Western power - such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - are under pressure to allow rising powers more influence.

A vivid illustration of the power shift came Nov. 15, when Bush convened world leaders in Washington to lay plans for dealing with the global economic crisis. In the old days, experts said, he would have limited the meeting to a handful of major industrial powers. But Bush realized that the world economy now has a larger cast of influential players, and invited all members of the so-called Group of 20, which includes countries such as Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey.

A decade ago, the United States might have been able to bring enough economic pressure on its own to force an end to Iran's disputed nuclear program, said Nikolas K. Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

But Iran by now has built economic ties to China and India, among others, so the United States has to assemble a much larger group if it hopes to force Tehran's hand.

"Ten years ago, the U.S. was generally the only game in town, and it had the power to close or crack open the door to Iran," said Gvosdev. "Now other countries have more options. ... This doesn't mean the United States is weak, but it can't unilaterally impose what it wants."

A report this year by the U.S. National Intelligence Council cites a shift of economic power from the West to the East that is "without precedent." In 2025, the United States will "remain the single most powerful country, but will be less dominant," it said.

The United States has led since World War II in part by its power of persuasion, as well as its economic might. But other countries' unhappiness with the Iraq war and American conduct of the Bush administration's "war on terror" means that the "American brand is less legitimate, and its persuasive powers are compromised," said Charles Kupchan, of Georgetown University and the Council on Foreign Relations.

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