The U.S. is losing its status as ‘indispensable’

Americans weary of leading the world are about to find out that there are worse burdens than leadership, and one of them is the global anarchy that lurks around the corner.



February 21, 2024 - 3:03 PM

Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, 1997-2001, was an outsized voice for democracy at a time when the United States was the sole superpower in the world. The country now seems to be willing to yield that position. RICK STEELE/TNS

Back in 1998, Madeleine Albright, then the secretary of state, called the United States the “indispensable nation.” She meant that this country, armed with unmatchable force and influence, stood at the helm of a web of alliances and global organizations that guided world events. More than 50 years after the invention of nuclear weapons, the U.S. had presided over a Pax Americana that had kept the peace among the nuclear powers.

Today, more than a quarter century later, are we still the indispensable nation? The answer is yes — but probably not for much longer. The era of Pax Americana is ending. It is ending not because any rival nation can or will replace us, but because we are abdicating.

Americans weary of leading the world are about to find out that there are worse burdens than leadership, and one of them is the global anarchy that lurks around the corner.

Albright spoke at a unique moment in history, just after the Cold War ended, when America was the sole superpower, the only pole in a unipolar world. Russia was thoroughly whipped, China was just beginning its amazing transformation into a modern nation, the European Union was focused on its own expansion, and regional powers like India and Iran sought little power outside their own frontiers. Even the French agreed: They called us the hyperpuissance — the hyperpower.

All this was based on a combination of hard power — sheer military might and economic clout — and soft power, or the attractiveness of American civil society — its culture, its jazz and pop music, its universities, its openness to innovation, its status as the world’s leading democracy.

A lot of murky water has flowed under the bridge since then. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were failures, if not crimes. The subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession soiled the reputation for economic acumen. Even our ability to run our own country has been shaken by racism and rampant gun violence, our shameful economic inequality and, not least, Donald Trump’s attack on our democracy.

Russia can cause a lot of trouble, but it is still an incompetent giant, a gas station with nukes.

And yet, amazingly, we’re still numero uno. We’re the only military power with a global reach. Our military budget outspends those of all our foes combined. 

Our economy is still the world’s biggest. The dollar is still the dominant world currency, and English is the global language. Students from around the world flock to our universities. We remain the maternity ward for innovations waiting to be born. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Taylor Swift wow audiences worldwide. Those thousands of migrants fighting to get into the United States may be a political problem, but they’re also a compliment: It’s a problem that China and Russia certainly don’t have.

All this rests on trust and always has. To a degree that few Americans realize, the world trusts us to do the right thing and defend the right values. It sees us as the defender of the institutions — NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations — that, though flawed themselves, oversee the world order. It believes that America keeps its promises. It expects us to play fair. If we haven’t always lived up to this reputation, it’s the reputation we’ve got, and it’s key to our world leadership, to that Pax Americana that, for nearly 80 years now, has kept nuclear war at bay.

When Albright spoke, we had no real rivals or challengers. Now we do, but none is ready to take over as the world leader. Iran and India are regional powers. Russia can cause a lot of trouble, but it is still an incompetent giant, a gas station with nukes. China is the only other plausible world power, but it is friendless, with neighbors but no allies and an authoritarian government that seems determined to stifle growth and innovation for the sake of its one-party control. The EU has soft power aplenty but no foreign or defense policy to exert its influence on the world.

But if we are not about to be dethroned, we could abdicate. This is what the battle in Congress over aid to Ukraine is all about. We have made Ukraine an ally and the protection of its democracy our national interest. Other NATO nations have fallen in line behind our leadership. They did so because they trusted us to keep our promise. Trump and Congress — or, rather, the Republican leadership in Congress — now want us to break that promise and forfeit that trust.

For the first time since World War II, one of the major American political parties has become isolationist — not just in its leadership but in its constituency. A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that 53% of Republicans think the U.S. should stay out of world affairs — the first time in the poll’s 50-year history that any major party has turned its back on the world.

As noted, if we pull back from leadership, no other nations are ready and able to take over. But they will try, and that way lies global anarchy, a power vacuum drawing in any number of nations, many of them nuclear-armed.

Goodbye, Pax Americana. Goodbye, pax.

About the author: Richard C. Longworth, a former Tribune foreign correspondent, is a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.