America in a Multipolar World

The consequences of the US government shutdown have not only had an impact on the wellbeing of the American people but the nation's commitments abroad, harming the country's image.

Thus far, President Barack Obama has been forced to cancel an important trip to Asia with stops in Malaysia, the Philippines and Bali for the APEC Summit, leaving the door open for China to fill the void - which Chinese President Xi Jinping is working on assiduously with his current trip to Indonesia.

Moreover, if this shutdown should continue, at risk will be America's pivot to the Asia-Pacific and its participation in shaping the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, to say nothing of its recent attempts to strengthen relations with regional countries.

However, although the US is preoccupied with its domestic affairs, this should not be taken by its allies and partners abroad as willful neglect. Honoring obligations and executing foreign policy is difficult when one's house is on fire, and the first order of business for President Obama must be getting Congress in order and the federal government back to work.

If anything, the crisis in Washington will fuel talk of an America in decline. Much is made about this being the twilight years of the US. The government shutdown has contributed handily to this narrative in depicting a nation so politically fractured that it has been forced to stop working.

Yet, one could argue that this crisis, however terrible, is simply democracy at work. Far from an America in decline, the world may simply be reverting back to its previous state as a multipolar world, with China projected to assume the vacated spot of the former Soviet Union.

A return to times past

Although the end of the British Empire was said to coincide with the return of Hong Kong to China, the Empire was already on its last legs following the First World War. The US emerged from the war as a naval power, but its rise to world power began soon after the conclusion of its bloody civil war with the second Industrial Revolution, giving birth to the Gilded Age in America and influential figures - industrialists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan.

Only after the Second World War did the US assume the role of global superpower (despite US participation in numerous imperialist conflicts prior, including but not limited to the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, and Boxer Rebellion) but even then the status as superpower was shared with the Soviet Union.

Thus, since long before WWII, the US has remained an active participant on the world stage, though it might not have carried the banner of sole superpower. Then, as now, the US has at times scaled back its commitments abroad, but it has not abandoned its global aspirations.

The rise of China is not the downfall of America. The US is not the British Empire or the Soviet Union. Although the US has had few reservations about intervening in the affairs of others, it no longer possesses an appetite for colonization. Its Imperial period ended with the return of Cuba and the Philippines to their rightful owners. Empires come and go, but the US is not an empire. That the US has enjoyed a period of hegemony after the Cold War was born not from empire building but the collapse of the Soviet Union.

If the US is given to appear as growing weak, it is not because of one singular political episode in Washington, nor will it be because the US has temporarily turned inward.

However, the return to a multipolar world should impress upon President Obama and Congress to resolve this government shutdown as quickly as possible. With China's ambitions clear4 in the South China Sea and Asia-Pacific, the US cannot afford to waste its time squabbling over petty politics, important though it might seem at the moment.

The global order is indeed changing, and the US must react accordingly. Washington, DC cannot assume to live in the glory days of post-Cold War. The US has obligations abroad that it cannot continue to neglect. This responsibility, whether sought after or not, is America's to shoulder, if only because few others are willing to assume the burden.

The government shutdown will end, sooner or later. The damage caused will be determined by its duration; however, what can be assured is that America's standing on the world stage, although hampered to a yet unknown degree, will not be permanently diminished.

Nevertheless, it would behoove the White House and Congress to get back to governing as soon as possible. Only then can the US return its sights back onto the international stage with renewed focus and clear eyes.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a part-time professor at the University of Ottawa's Civil Law Section; and researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)