Declining US Influence in International Affairs

In this paper US involvement/influence or lack of it in international organizations will be examined not necessarily in any particular sequence viz timeline or event based.

Declining US Influence in International Affairs

US withdrawal from Afghanistan will go down as one of the most important military operations anywhere in the world, which has been condemned by all and sundry including the US Military.

NATO and Non-NATO allies too have expressed shock and disbelief. The USA's credibility, capability and decision making has been openly challenged and questioned. The UK Foreign Secretary blasted the USA without naming and stated words to the effect that the USA was no longer a Superpower.

Volumes have already been written on the US withdrawal fiasco from Afghanistan. Adding anything more would be irrelevant. Core issue which merits a look into is ‘Could the USA have executed it any differently or extended US Military stay in Afghanistan?’

In fact, the time is ripe to redefine the word superpower. Can a nation which merely has the most modern weapons and technology be called a superpower? Or should a nation with a clearly defined capability/intent continuum be called a superpower? There will be many more versions of a superpower.

Uninvited/unwelcome US intervention in Afghanistan post 9/11 has brought out one aspect clearly. Military muscle alone will not (r) not be a guarantee for victory. China has learnt the lesson at the expense of the USA and has adopted the precept of ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’ by flexing its financial muscle.

Moving away from Afghanistan imbroglio; Examination of diminishing US influence in international affairs in geo-strategic scenario prevailing during last two decades merits a look into. A barometer for measuring a country’s influence in international affairs can be arrived at by evaluating a country’s standing in international organizations (IO).

It is a highly complex issue, which would involve threadbare assessment of issues viz US economy, technology status, shape of governing apparatus, location on the globe, participation/involvement/influence in international organizations, membership of international military/economic institutions, policies regarding arms control and non-proliferation, cyber and energy security, human rights and demonstrated adherence to international law etc.

In this paper US involvement/influence or lack of it in international organizations will be examined not necessarily in any particular sequence viz timeline or event based. At commencement of Trump presidency National Security Strategy (NSS) document had clearly and unambiguously concluded that in order to protect American interests, values, and ability to

influence/control/guide international affairs, it must participate and maintain its presence in IOs. However, the record of US disdain in dealing with IOs has been dismal as illustrated below.

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Withdrawal from WHO: One of the most publicized events during COVID times has been US withdrawal from WHO. US administrators showed scant respect for international obligations as well as legally binding commitments as a member of WHO by withdrawing from WHO at the most critical juncture. Election for the post of Director General of WHO in 2017 was a hotly contested event. Instead of being an international event it became, by default, a direct contest between Chinaand the USA.

Beijing lobbied for Dr Tedros from Ethiopia against Dr David Nabarro of the UK. Dr Tedros won the election in spite of being accused of trying to hide Cholera epidemic in Ethiopia during his tenure as health minister. President Trump did not hesitate to call Dr Tedros as Beijing’s stooge. The pro-Beijing stance of Dr Tedros was evident when he supported China’s attempts to conceal the outbreak of COVID 19 and challenge the US stand of evidence of human-to-human transmission.

Unfortunately, the US opted to pull out of WHO and stop its funding, which was condemned by US allies as well. The Trump administration decided to pull out of WHO wef July 2021. The US stopped paying WHO in 2019. US contribution to WHO was around USD 400 million annually. However, the Biden administration has rejoined WHO, which has been appreciated.

Withdrawal from Paris Climate Accord: The Trump administration withdrew from being part of the Paris Climate Accord. US membership has been restored by the Biden administration on day one of his presidency.

Withdrawal from UNIDO: The USA voluntarily decided to stop participating in UNIDO activities in 1996. US absence resulted in Chinese candidates winning re-election to UNIDO.

UNHRC and UNRWA Debacle: Ms Nikki Haley, US ambassador to UN proposed two reforms in 2017. Firstly, in order to prevent human rights abusers getting elected to UNHRC, existing rules were to be changed/altered. And secondly, to stop continued criticism of Israel. UNGA rejected both proposals. USA withdrew from UNHRC in 2018. Travesty of fate brought in China, Cuba, Pakistan and Russia, nations with possibly worst human rights record, to UNHRC council for three years in 2020.

In case of UNRWA, Ms Haley’s proposal to rationalize procedure of identifying Palestinian refugees was also rejected by UNGA. US retaliated by stopping all funding to UNRWA. Irony is that in both cases US demands were rational as well as reasonable but US administration did not take necessary steps to garner support of like-minded nations as well as link funding by the USA as a prerequisite to introduce the reforms.

FAO: China currently is at the helm of FAO by winning the 2019 election.

UN Board of Auditors: China is currently a serving member on the UN board of auditors, to which it was elected in 2020 for a six-year term.

Withdrawal from INF and Open Skies Treaty: USA unilaterally withdrew from Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Treaty as well as Open Skies Treaty with Russia on the grounds that Russia has breached terms of Treaty.

Withdrawal from JCPOA: The US decision to walk out of JCPOA, an agreement between Iran and P5 PLUS ONE to contain Iran’s nuclear program has pushed Iran much closer to acquiring Nukes in the very near future.

Withdrawal from UNESCO: The US withdrew from UNESCO due to continued anti-Israel bias.

Challenging the International Criminal Court. The Obama administration termed ICC investigations as illegitimate. The Trump administration followed the same track and imposed sanctions on two senior ICC officials. Seventy-two ICC member states, which included some of the closest allies of the USA, openly condemned US actions and supported the ICC.

By stopping funding and moving out of IOs, USA has lowered its status and credibility over the years. The US administration must alter its stand of quitting from IOs and seek support of like-minded nations to ensure that US/friendly nation candidates win the elections to various IOs. The US and its allies must select suitable candidates for election to posts in various IOs.

Increasing Chinese influence in various UN agencies is a reality. It can and must be countered by US and its allies’ candidates to win elections to higher echelon posts. US policy of strategic ambivalence wrt Taiwan needs urgent review, keeping in view increasing Chinese belligerence. Absence of the USA from UN entities viz UNHRC, WHO will only weaken/diminish US influence.

The US, at times, has shown scant respect to decisions of IOs, which were unfavourable to the USA.  For instance, judgement (read status) of the Permanent Court of Arbitration was openly challenged by the USA when it set the precedent of ignoring PCA ruling in respect of Nicaragua case in early 80’s. Permanent US ally UK did the same in case of dispute with Mauritius.

The US and UK rejected PCA ruling of seeking third party mediation to resolve the dispute. US and UK actions of disregarding PCA ruling emboldened China to do likewise nearly 35 years later by rejecting PCA ruling in respect of island ownership dispute with Philippines in South China Sea. I had made following predictions regarding Chinese actions in SCS in my article published in October 2017 after PCA ruling.

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Chinese national aims and military objectives in as far as South China Sea is concerned can be listed as:

  • China considers the South China Seas as its sovereign territory.
  • China considers the NINE Dash Line drawn by themselves as the sole deciding factor with regard to demarcating China owned waters in South China Seas.
  • China will not allow/may not allow any military activity by any other nation in close proximity of its territory, which includes artificially created islands.
  • Sooner than later China will establish an ADIZ in SCS covering artificially created islands.
  • China may consider placing long range surveillance radar and SAM units.
  • Thereafter China will invoke existing provisions contained in UNCLOS and claim the 200 nm boundary as its sovereign territory around the waters surrounding artificial islands to be its EEZ.”

Ironic it might appear, but the USA was largely responsible for introducing the precept of rule based international order in the post 2nd World War era. Knee jerk reaction of successive US administrations has eroded US influence in international affairs. Beijing, on the other hand, has managed to take control of key UN organs in spite of an extremely poor track record on issues such as flagrant violation of human rights, freedom of speech etc.

About the Author

Gp Capt. Tej Prakash Srivastava has served in Iraq and is a graduate of both DSSC and AWC. He was Directing Staff at DSSC and Chief Instructor at College of Air Warfare. He Served at Air HQ, commanded a MiG-21 Sqn and headed the IAF establishment of Strike Corps during 'Operation Parakram'. He has authored a book titled 'Profligate Governance – Implications for National Security'. He has written extensively on international and strategic affairs and Defence Procurement Procedures. The IAF officer graduated from the NDA in June 1970 and trained at AFA with 107th Pilots Course. He can be reached at Email: [email protected]


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