Pacific Dialogue
America can lead again, but in a different way
By Liang Xiao  ·  2021-02-09  ·   Source: NO.7 FEBRUARY 18, 2021


Photo taken on October 2, 2020 shows the White House in Washington, D.C., the United States (XINHUA) 

On his first day in office, Antony Blinken, newly appointed U.S. secretary of state, could not wait to claim the return of U.S. leadership on the international stage. "America's leadership is needed around the world, and we will provide it," he said. 

Over the past four years, Democrats have repeatedly emphasized the word "leadership" as a counterattack against the policy of the Donald Trump administration. President Joe Biden has also said the United States is back and prepared to lead the world.

However, can America still lead the world? Americans, or at least the American elite, tend to take U.S. leadership for granted. The United States has served as a world leader for more than 70 years since the end of World War II. The role has brought tangible benefits. Notably, through the "petrodollar" system, under which most international oil transactions are priced in U.S. dollars, the U.S. has obtained financial hegemony. Other countries had to bear the brunt of the U.S. domestic economic crisis when the latter sought to inflate the dollar by capitalizing on the dollar supremacy.

Also, by using "long-arm jurisdiction" and so-called legal means, it has suppressed foreign competitors, such as French trainmaker Alstom and telecom company Huawei of China, to shelter domestic enterprises.

But this hegemony may be difficult to maintain. First of all, the United States is no longer the only super economy. Its GDP, once more than 56 percent of the world, currently accounts for around 24 percent. The ratio is estimated to decline further given its 3.5-percent contraction in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Furthermore, the United States has many urgent internal problems to resolve. Political divergence, a widening wealth gap and racial tensions have become ingrained, tearing the U.S. society apart. The former "lighthouse of democracy" is becoming a petering-out flashlight, as it has been spending much time looking outward rather than inward.

Last but not least, it remains unclear whether other countries are still willing to accept U.S. leadership. During the Cold War, the world was divided into two camps, and the United States set itself up as the guardian of the Western world. The others accepted it one after another to seek U.S. economic assistance, but what is the state of the so-called protection?

As the Trump administration pursued an isolationist policy, went back on its word on international issues and evaded its leadership responsibilities, the country's international credibility has already been exhausted. Many developing countries are unhappy about U.S. global presence and hope to see it dethroned.

After standing on top of the world for nearly a century, the U.S. should take the lead in following the international rules it had led to create rather than giving commands. In this era, international issues can no longer be addressed by a single country or a group of them; they call for global efforts. To put it simply, America can still lead the world, but it has to first cast aside its fantasies about unilateralism or hegemony and accept other countries joining in global governance and playing more important roles in global issues like combating the pandemic, ensuring economic recovery, coping with climate change and preventing nuclear arms proliferation.

What the U.S. needs to realize is that it can no longer override other countries. It should also realize that China has no intention to replace it. The goal of China has always been to improve the living standard of its people, equitable distribution of public goods and fairness and justice in global governance. The two largest economies need to shoulder their respective responsibilities as well as work together, especially at this difficult time.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar 

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