The World Around Us
January 14, 2020
Assessing America’s Place in the World

The threat of a full-scale war between the United States (US) and Iran appears to have dwindled, at least for now. Without a doubt, the world must have breathed a collective sigh of relief after both countries communicated their intention to dial back the aggression and de-escalate in the aftermath of recent provocations on both sides. Notwithstanding this apparent detente, the entire debacle has clarified for me a number of things about America’s place in the world.

For starters, the US is today more isolated than at any time in living memory. One of the interesting developments in the immediate aftermath of the recent crisis with Iran was that America’s traditional allies such as the United Kingdom (UK) and other members of the European Union went to great lengths to call for de-escalation on both sides. Leaders of the UK, France and Germany issued a joint statement calling for “utmost restraint” and “responsibility” on both sides of the conflict. The measured approach on the part of the Europeans then prompted Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, to accuse European allies of not being “helpful enough” on Iran.

The recent impasse with Iran is not the only issue on which the US is isolated. The US is isolated on trade more generally, with many observers being jittery about its trade tensions with China and its crippling of the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body (AB) by blocking the appointment of new AB members, thereby effectively undermining the crown jewel of the multilateral trading system. The US is isolated on climate change, with many around the world pouring scorn on its decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and the apparent de-prioritisation of the fight against climate change. The US is also isolated diplomatically in several other areas on account of the Trump administration’s seeming preference for unilateral action instead of global cooperation and consensus building.

The second thing that has been clarified for me regarding America’s role in the world is that there are limits to US “exceptionalism” – the notion that America is uniquely virtuous and therefore is destined and entitled to play a leading role in the world. It is undeniable that in many ways and for many years, the US has been a force for good in the world. Institutions of global governance such as the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and many others, were heavily engineered by the US and there have been sufficient political and economic crises to suggest that if these global bodies did not exist, they would have needed to be created. The US has also been a promoter of human rights and a stabilising force in the world’s economy due to its ability to protect maritime commerce in a way that no other country can.

However, due to what appears to be the lack of a coherent foreign policy, military misadventures in the Middle East and elsewhere, and an administration and a president that come across as unhinged, global confidence in America’s leadership is unsurprisingly on the wane. While the US has been important in a wider global context, it has also been important in a Caribbean context.

Thousands of Caribbean people have migrated there for financial gain and notwithstanding the lack of priority accorded to the region in recent years, the US for several decades was a vital development, security and economic partner for the Caribbean. As the US increasingly turns inwards, it is logical to assume that the Caribbean will slide further down the totem pole of US interest.

The US still has a very important role to play on the global stage and it would be unfortunate if it vacates this role entirely. In essence, the US still has a role to play in underwriting geopolitical stability, global economic stability, respect for human rights, democracy and freedom around the world. However, it has to play this role on the basis of consensus and cooperation.