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Power and Great Powers

By Tim Potier

It should be a matter of concern to Washington that, during the recent missile crisis with North Korea, the world appeared to be as worried by how America would react as Pyongyang. There is no need to apportion blame, but the mood has changed.

This is not something that has happened overnight and it would be wrong to point the finger only at President Trump. He responded to Pyongyang’s threat to fire missiles towards Guam. Any US President would have done the same. No, the increasingly negative attitude that many now have towards Washington has been two decades in the making.

President Clinton lost some during the Monica Lewinsky scandal; President George W. Bush upset many with a response to 9/11 which smacked of adventurism; and, President Obama disappointed millions during a tenure which had promised so much, but appeared to reduce Washington to a power lacking both direction and energy.

So pay no heed to those in the commentariat who are determined to blame President Trump for the world’s ills, because they existed prior to January.

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If the world would but pause, it might realise that it has so much to thank America for. Throughout so much of the past two and a half centuries it has been perhaps the moral compass on earth.

This is not to suggest that its motivations have always been noble ones, because much that it has designed has also been for its own singular advantage.

Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that in parts of the globe which until recently experienced totalitarianism, it is admired and respected by countless millions for standing up for at least the image of freedom, even if, back in the US, it had similar challenges of its own.

US officials must be frustrated that others, having been out of favour for so long, appear now to command too much of everyone’s attention. It is not that the values that the United States has propounded no longer have any meaning, but that other nations have adopted and refined them.

Today, almost everywhere claims to hold such values dear. This is why the events of recent days in the Korean Peninsula have carried a certain anachronistic aroma about them.

Those who have never admired the United States will be hoping that America’s star dims. Yet, this would be in no one’s interest.

Instead, opinion formers in Washington need to spend the next couple of decades re-examining what the country stands for, how it wishes to project itself and determine what power might look like and entail in the second half of the twenty-first century, and beyond.

President Obama had to remind his citizens that the USA is a nation of immigrants. Yet, for whatever reason, not always the fault of those in authority (no doubt), America has yet to come to terms with some of its past.

Some communities still feel marginalised and others second-class in a land where it is perceived that those of a European heritage possess an advantage. Last year’s Presidential election was a contest between one of the country’s ruling families and another which aspired to become one.

The US cannot criticise the dynasties of distant nations when the choice it gives to its talented people is such a familiar one. In large parts of the world democracy needs further encouragement. It is not enough to hold elections which are not competitive, vulnerable to influence and the result known before polling day.

A society needs to be participatory and to be reflected in much more than its head of state and/or government. Civil society at the most local and lowest of levels needs to be developed further.

However, this is stymied if big business, including from the “First World”, turns a blind eye (and sometimes much worse) to malpractice, and thus those emerging societies are left with little option but to erect a fortress mentality when their leaderships fear outside intervention from without more than from within.

The United States has much work to do here, but its power, despite some recent pronouncements by President Trump, will have to become much softer. For in a world exhausted and traumatised by a historical record of war, a tolerance toward conflict appears to have disappeared.

Voices for peace have never enjoyed a more commanding platform and had such influence. Soft power is the future and it will be the nations and groupings that practise it the most which will thrive in the generations to come. Of this Washington must take heed.

 

*Dr Tim Potier is Principal Lecturer in Law at Coventry University

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