Decline or Not: America’s Continued Primacy in the Persian Gulf

In January 2001, when George W. Bush took the oath of office, the United States was the undisputed global leader. Madeleine Albright nicely summed up the state of global affairs in 1998 when she noted that, “We [the United States] are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”1 Her assessment accurately described the Clinton era and also seemed true at the start of George W. Bush’s presidency. The Clinton years saw the post-Cold War dividend, the digitization of the economy, and a growth in U.S. influence. The lack of economic, military, and political rival combined with robust economic growth cemented the postCold War order as a Pax Americana. While some states, e.g., the Islamic Republic of Iran, objected to American hegemony, most members of the international community, at least tacitly, accepted American leadership because it provided global public goods and a measure of stability.

The revisionist powers that did object, e.g., Iran and North Korea, were largely unable to challenge American leadership. This lack of a credible option created a novel situation in international relations—a unipolar system. This concentration of power in the hands of a single state, even one that favored the status quo and was sometimes benevolent, alarmed some, reassured others, and sparked debates over American Empire. George W. Bush’s feckless foreign policy and structural changes in global affairs undermined Washington’s position, and debates of U.S. decline have largely replaced talk of American empire.

While Washington has grappled with contentious problems— including economic malaise, the burdens of counterterrorism, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, political gridlock, and the rise of potential competitors (e.g., Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the so-called BRIC countries)—the actual extent of American decline is ambiguous. While many contemporary analyses spotlight U.S. weaknesses, few give equal attention to Washington’s strengths.2 Despite cloaking their predictions in the language of realism, many of these appraisals ignore or minimize the concept of relative power and downplay the political, economic, demographic, and social challenges that would-be competitors, including the BRIC countries, face. Because of these kinds of omissions, declinist predictions have, thus far, been incorrect. This chapter argues that while many states object to specific American policies, most do not desire a wholesale reordering of global politics. To illustrate these claims about the United States and the rest of the world, this chapter relies on a case study of the U.S. in the Persian Gulf—a critically important region in international relations.

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